On The Future of Photography

This was a letter written to a friend of mine who almost exclusively uses slide film, despite the seemingly unstoppable rise of digital. Recently (as you can see on my blog), I have started again myself, though for reasons of convenience have not completely ‘gone back to film’. Being able to compare has already convinced me that there despite all the advances of digital so far, there are ways in which film is a much better medium for the creative photographer. In this, even some of its limitations (such as rolls of 24-36 exposures) can be an advantage, as it’s unpredictability. Yet there is another area of contention, surrounding which is actually technically superior. The marketers will quickly say digital, but then again they have hardly any film cameras left to sell… though meanwhile film use has recently surged up again, despite digital making it’s usual constant progress. In fact I think film and especially slide film does have certain advantages, though there are ways I can see digital evolving to overcome these.

I suppose my position here is that whilst digital has so many advantages to film you need to be a bit of a nonconformist to stay with film, film still has some very significant advantages to commonplace digital now. Especially when we are comparing cropped digital with 35mm (or even larger) slide film. For digital to truly displace film in terms of all qualities, if indeed it ever does, it will need to morph into something quite different to what we have now, necessitating a lot more data and processing to have a full, rich photo rather than the shallow approximations we are making do with today. Which isn’t to say at all that great photos aren’t being created. Just that there is far further to go on this route than most merchandising would have you believe.

As I write this note, I note with some regret that certain Fuji films have just been taken out of production (including the intriguing Provia 400X chrome film) and Kodak has stopped their acetate base production, the plastic layer which is treated to then be used for film. Now I am still a fan of film and, more so, of what people can and do produce with film, but these timely reminders go to show that the writing on the wall is probably speaking of something all the more imminent. As photographers, whether enthusiasts or pros, we really should articulate what it is we want digital to be and not simply passively accept mass-market developments such as increased mega-pixels or be seduced by incremental improvements. Digital should strive to achieve what analogue so long ago attained to- warmth, naturalness and intimacy. As you’ll see below, the answer to my mind is partly increased data capture, but also processing methods that abolish brick wall limits. We need a digital SACD (Super Audio CD) that can at least feel limitless simply because the data is so freely optimised to the reality.

So here it is- a letter to a film user, on where photography will head from here…

The Beauty of Slides

To the extent I understand the factors involved, not having used film (or any cameras for that matter) nearly as long as you, I really know what you mean regarding film cameras and positive film. Seeing slide film again was a revelation and one which digital has never given me. I do get the sense that, despite it’s limitations in dynamic range and relative inflexibility, with a slide I am getting a snapshot of the reality itself. Not a processed and digitally estimated version, nor the relatively inconsequential feeling I get from my negative film, though they also seem to have much more depth than digital has (so far, at least). There is a satisfaction in using it.

The colours feel real, the contrast much like I see things, or at least how I ‘feelingly see things’, as a human interpreting the importance of things around me. So, despite the price and unless I find a negative film that can substitute, (Kodak’s recent Ektar 100 is supposed to be a candidate for this, but many say it still isn’t the same), it is worth shooting some slides, just to have a convincing record of what I saw.

It’s not just the specifications, or utility of a camera. It is the sense I get from it as being a copy of the reality I experience. The sense I get from the medium of slide film is of something complete, more or less finished, which is very satisfying. I know what you mean regarding the endless possibilities of digital making the photo itself hard to estimate and of course, this could well extend to a film scan if you let it., but probably not a scanned slide so much I generally keep my editing to a minimum for that reason, depending on the occasion (sharing on the internet vs. printing large).  In some ways, with digital you make many decisions after taking the photos, like editing a film, whereas with film, it all takes place before you shoot.

So with digital, you can take as many photos as you like, but it’s hard to know which is the definitive one. The flexibility of digital is here in some ways it’s downfall. It is easy to sloppily take photos and know you can touch them up later. This sense can also intrudes on the excitement of a trip, I feel. I sense a magic in exposing slides, of truly capturing the moment, a moment that will never, ever, so far as we know, return. I always felt that with slide film and the very act of using it makes my travels feel more magical, too. Sure, some of this is psychological, but isn’t everything? Whereas with digital, the amount of significant moment stretches out into ‘possible opportunities’ and the temptation is to try to capture everything and then choose later.

Also, I’d agree that slides are tangible in a way digital just isn’t. Just like a final print, the slide is a hard copy. Now this is partly a cultural thing, in which data, or anything with a virtual, or computer-based existence is increasingly significant culturally, economically, socially, but it’s only recently that this ‘digital layer’ has gotten so prominent. For a lot of kids, playing on iPads instead of with toys, it is already second-nature. Even if we don’t feel that mere data is tangible, yet it is increasingly omnipresent, from the terabytes flowing around the Internet, to the very sequencing of the human genome. Reducing, or should we say expressing things through a data substrate is spreading everywhere as the digital world grows. What we seem to lack are the tools to access it, to feel it as part of our daily world. In the world of computing, it seems touch-screens and gesture commands are a step forwards. It all still remains to be humanised.

I am pretty sure that with metadata and histories kept of file changes, people will sense the same ‘tangible existence’ with a digital file, even if it is the existence of something still malleable. Though I have to admit that for me too, it is hard with digital to distinguish whether I am dealing with clay or the final sculpture. Much as I love and cherish this malleability (which is wonderful for saving images exposed badly, or taken in difficult circumstances), it is hard to find a closure to the image-making process. With a slide- there it is, success or failure.

(more…)

Nikon ‘D400′ Dream Specs

It’s that time of year again, folks! There is a bit of a lull in new camera announcements, which gives us the chance to focus on what it is we’d really like to have. In my case, here are my ‘Dream specs’ for a D400. I think it is all very feasible and desirable for those interested in such a camera, though I do admit that many serious users and probably most pros have already moved to FX. One day, I may too, but for the moment, I think DX can offer some unique advantages and be a lot more portable to boot. Also, with pro spec lenses like the new Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 being released, there is no reason why the ‘crop formats’ shouldn’t have an equally serious future.

 

Here they are-

  1. New 24mp sensor with faster readout, better dynamic range and no AA filter. A step up from the D7100, in other words, to justify getting a better camera. Too many cameras these days seem to outperform their sensors, or occasionally visa-versa. A balance would get this right, though I’ll add I’d be pretty happy just with the advances of the D7100, though I’d consider it a bit short-sighted to release it like that. This should be a camera that lasts and impresses, like the D800 big brother.
  2. Better video (1080p at 60fps and higher bit-rates), and video AF, perhaps with on-sensor phase-detect. This would improve live-view, even if it falls short of that on the mirrorless cameras. With focus-peaking, we’d finally have an accessible way to MF on a DX DSLR. We’d have it now, not when Nikon’s mirrorless APS-C range finally comes out and scales to this type of body, which in mirrorless terms I’d compare to the Panasonic GH3.
  3. I’d also like a tilting screen, which would be especially good if the live view is improved. I use the one on my D5100 a lot and in my view the ‘serious’ DSLRs suffer for its omission. It’s great not only for video, but especially for tripod work, or unusual, creative angles. Plus AF is not always so reliable at smaller apertures on high-density sensors. Why not help us MF like in the good old days, with a wonderful big screen?
  4. A new processor might be needed for all this, especially since we are dealing with 24mp of data, so perhaps Expeed 4?
  5. Since this is a generational camera, it may be time to really move on from the D300 AF and even that in the D800/D7100. Why not move to the next generation, perhaps in a manner linked with on-sensor PDAF? More focus points means better tracking and also, hopefully, more sophisticated face-detection, which comes in very handy on the smaller formats.
  6. Of course, this camera should have a large buffer, whatever a reasonable price can bear, but certainly offering at least D300S performance.
  7. Along with this, we should have around 8-9fps shooting speed. This should be a sports/wildlife compatible camera like the D4, an amateurs’ D4, if you will, but a semi-pro camera in it’s own right, just as the D300 was a poor man’s D3. Perhaps a grip will push it up a notch. The fear for FX sales may be unfounded now that so may pro sports photographers have already gone that route. They can be offered a D4S/X.
  8. The body should be like the D300S/D800, with a choice of CF or SD cards (or perhaps even the new XQD cards). As long as one slot caters for CF many pros will be happy, even if SD has moved very far, it’s all about legacy support for something that is incidentally still very much alive and with great room to grow. It should have all the pro controls and ergonomics, there isn’t much that really needs changing there. If they can find a way to make it a little lighter too, the way the D800 is vs. the D700, that would be nice progress, but I realise I can’t really hold my cake and eat it (or something like that)
  9. There should be an option for film and a built-in scanner for the ultimate in image versatility and backwards compatibility. (Just kidding!!)
  10. Do we really need a ‘10’? Well, hopefully with the new processor, there will be even better in-camera lens correction, with the option to have this effect the Raw file. I’m talking even compensating for lens sharpness issues, which will of course be more of an issue on the new sensors than ever before. It will be interesting to see what can be done on the software side, even on-camera, which could help the project of giving us lighter lenses with better abilities, their aberrations corrected digitally as well as optically where possible.
  11. I know I’m dreaming, but I’d love in-camera shake-reduction, which would bring such benefits to primes and even video use. Now I know many will chime in and say on-lens is better and I’m not denying that, when it exits. Or they’ll say it’s no substitute for cleaner high ISO to freeze the action, which is also true, though to my mind they can compliment each other. But in many cases a lens has no VR and you want to conserve dynamic range by shooting at native ISO, which will always be best, even if it takes a few years to look back and realise the noise reduction wasn’t do good after all. *1
  12. I’d ideally like more processing to be available on the camera. The current presets are either boring (landscape/vivid, etc), or too extreme (‘colour painting’ etc), giving a toy-like quality. Why not have some film simulation modes onboard, to reduce the need to process off-camera, after the event? Also, far better and configurable HDR, even giving a 32bit HDR file (or a I’d settle for a raw file, or 16bit Tiff). I love HDR but am getting pretty tired of bracketing, filling my hard drive with the files and then sitting down to do it later. I’d like some way to ‘compress’ the unnecessary data and the camera is a great place to start.
  13. While we are in the realm of exotic possibilities, why not have in-camera panorama and even multi-capture modes that shift the sensor slightly for extreme resolutions? Or in-camera focus-stacking, for macros? Something like that found on medium format backs. Again, you can do that after the event, but it means more time, more data and less fun. Such features, which suit today’s fast digital cameras to a tee (especially in good light, where we are talking of small fractions of a second for each shot). It may be exotic, but if it is the next level of processing, why not?
  14. It’s taken a while to come to DSLRs and arguably is only really covered by the 6D and a few other Canon cameras, but how about built-in Wi-fi, GPS and a capacitive touch screen to do your editing, AF points and get to all those settings? Doesn’t sound pro? Neither did colour film or autofocus at one point, but now no pro can live without them!
  15. Finally, how about a silent, electronic shutter, preferably with super-fast flash synch? Perhaps it might only work at lower frame-rates, or with reduced AF features, but it would be a very neat feature to have and I’m sure invaluable for many pros.

I could go on, but I think all this is more than enough to justify an upgrade, the ‘d400’ 8, or D9000 designation and to make a keeper camera for the next 5 years. It goes without saying that new lenses would be nice, but if Nikon doesn’t step up to the plate, we can already see Sigma, Tamron and Tokina making efforts, though of course I’d like Nikon to do so. I’m just not sure they will get around to it, what with their FX and 1-Series commitments. One thing they should definitely do is offer a fixed f/4 update to the 16-85mm VR and one, or some new wide DX primes, even if they’re big but light (due to the registration distance). Relying on other companies to make your lenses for you doesn’t sound like a particularly good strategy.

Having a removable IR blocking filter like the Sigma SD1 has would be wonderful, but I concede it’s a feature only a minority of people would even understand the use for. If you could have a removable Bayer filter to convert it to a black and white camera at will, that really would be amazing, but that would perhaps even be impossible with today’s technologies. Beyond that, multilayered sensors like Sigma’s Foveon-Merril would be a great advance, but here we are talking many years, perhaps even a decade.

Some will still say, well, with the full frame for pros and the already excellently specced D7100, isn’t it a bit unrealistic to want more from DX? Well, maybe so, but there are still pro DX lenses being made, of especial interest being the newer Sigmas- the 18-35mm f/1.8 zoom, which is unprecedented and also their 30mm f/1.4, which if it is anything like their incredible full-frame 35mm edition, could be an absolutely stellar lens.

Don’t forget also the potential offered by the ‘speed-booster’ technology, which promises to make full-frame lenses brighter, sharper and wider on a smaller sensor. Without AF, I’m not sure it will be all that useful for a lot of people, but if they can get that together, it will solve a lot of the problems that brought people ‘back’ to full-frame In the first place. I say ‘back’, as it’s still the heavier, less convenient and most expensive format. This may be something pros may be more willing to deal with than others not being paid to carry the gear around. Call me a light-weight, but I’m not sure it’s something I really miss!

*1 I really believe we should be free to shoot handheld and an intelligent on-sensor VR could help make the micro-adjustments possible to make these new high-density sensors more usable. Being stuck on a tripod for good results just isn’t a future that makes any sense. On-lens VR can also compromise lens design. People can always switch it off and use VR on the longer lenses where it works so well. Financially speaking, I’m pretty sure such lenses will still sell, if that’s the real concern holding up development.

Upgradeitis

It is now a pretty tough time to be upgrading cameras. Of course, I really want the benefits of a better body and especially a more advanced sensor, even if (as I say in my last article on Clarity), I’m starting to think the newer sensors give up some definition in search of more flexibility. Perhaps removing the AA filter and using newer software designed for them will help, certainly I would like the lower-light abilities for street shooting and anything handheld, not to mention that wonderful dynamic range boost.

In Nikon-land, as many rue, things are pretty tough. I am still a D300 user and remember when that first came out and I pretty much rushed out to buy it, it being a no-brainer to upgrade from my trusty, but 6mp D70. I ended up loving the image quality and colours, but not so much the increased weight and (my choice entirely) new tendency it gave me to machine-gun shoot on my larger CF card. The incredible and even now hardly surpassed AF meant it got just about every shot and the larger viewfinder and dramatically improved LCD helped here. In short, it gave me a much greater tool, but as with so many things, I’m not so sure it made me a better photographer in the slightest!

At the time, it was released alongside the massive but wonderful D3, which I obviously couldn’t afford. If the later-announced D700 had come sooner, perhaps I would have been tempted by that, even with the higher price-tag, it would allow me to do something I have long missed- shooting with my lens collection at native lengths, rather than cobbling together a collection of almost-right primes (28/35mm being the range I’m talking of, in the search for normal, which in fact 35mm is a little long for, truth be told). I also found myself needing to invest in DX zooms to get back wide-angles, though never liking them as much as a prime. In this, I’ve gone through, (and in fact still have, hoarder that I am), the Tamron 17-50mm, Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8, 18-55mm VR, 18-105mm VR and Tokina 12-24mm, though of course that’s also an ultra-wide.

Of all these, the 17-55mm f/2.8 is undoubtedly the best and I bought it for wedding photography. It has much lower distortion, excellent image quality and extremely fast autofocus in decent light. Yet as it’s massively heavy and doesn’t really offer much control over DOF on my DX camera, which is what you’d really want for such a struggle of man and machine, it doesn’t come out so much and certainly not on a longer trips where weight is a concern. It also has the problem of not being so good at landscape photography, optimised more for events, meaning other lenses actually are sharper for this.

Generally, though a little short, I find the image quality from my affordable Tamron is excellent, very sharp closed down and even good wide-open, where it does pretty well for portraits on the long end if need be. With lens profiles in Lightroom I can fix that distortion at the press of a button and as the colours and sharpness are pretty much excellent for this range, I’m a happy camper- but one without much to compare it to. With the 18mm… range, the kit lens is excellent for IR or travelling light, and is a very good performer. The 18-105mm is good when I can only take one lens, but I do find it a bit soft and not really all that exciting. Still, as a replacement of sorts for my FX Tamron 24-135mm lens I used a lot on film and even on my D70 as an all-in-one (putting up with 36mm as a wide-angle equivalent), it does the job.

Anyway, I digress, though I expect my story is familiar to many users caught in the ‘upgrade loop’ Nikon has created with its current line-up. My only pro camera is a 5-year old D300, with none of the sensor advances I see around me made since. Yet Nikon’s current releases, at anything less than the D800 level (forgetting completely about the mythical and not for me D4), are massive downgrades. The D7100 offers the sensor advances I’d like, though to be honest, I wouldn’t mind an even better one as it seems to be getting a little long in the tooth now and is pretty much the same as the budget D5200 model’s one. Yet I have to sacrifice the pro build, AF On button and the massive D300 buffer. But I do get a much more advanced sensor and even better AF, without breaking the bank too much, especially if I wait a bit for the inevitable reductions and deals.

If I do wish to step up to FX, then I get totally confused. Nikon is essentially pushing me to invest in the D800, or even the superior D800E, just to get rid of the by now pretty much redundant AA filter, moiré not being much of an issue at such stratospheric (for our times, not for the near future) resolutions. Invest! Yet in a couple of years there will be a better one and then, in not too long a future one so much better the D800 will lose at least half it’s value. So really, it is only an investment for successful pros, who will easily make up the difference on their day job, them and serious amateurs who can afford it. Not only that, but I need to get new lenses to make use of the sensor, plus a new computer that hasn’t even been made yet to have easy access to the files. And in all this, I am put off by the snail-like frame-rate, even my D5100 can manage more than 4 frames a second, what is this, 1995? I realise it would need a better processor, but surely they could make one.. oh what’s that… it’ll be in the soon to be released D800S?

Then we have the most tempting, but most sacrificing D600. I can use the same lenses and computer without too much problem. Well, I can use computers that currently exist, anyway. Sure, I may want some more FX glass, but the decent film-stuff will suffice alongside some modern primes. But I don’t get much resolution if I use a DX lens, though it’s better than the 6mp with the D700, and I won’t be able to zoom in as much as I can now either (which I can by cropping the D800). So birding is out. Plus you get a crappy (sorry for my French) AF unit that went out with the dinosaurs, not even designed for FX use. Also, crappy build and controls, considering the $2000 cost of the camera before you get the kit lens. Stick in a proper AF unit, some more buffer and you have a decent camera, but, From Nikon’s point of view, less reason to buy a D7100.

So here you have it. Nikon’s own models fighting with one another for ascendance, with the not so obvious message to either make do, buy a D4, or get more than one of them to make up for their foibles. I know Nikon is a business and needs to make money, though at the same time they can’t afford to annoy their customers too much. I, like many others have moved to other brands for compacts and mirrorless solutions as, to my mind, Nikon gives us no choice, their sensors being too small (other than the new and more interesting Nikon A). At the same time I don’t really believe camera designers are such a cynical bunch. If they could, I am sure they would love to design a perfect, balanced camera like the D300/D200 was for their time, or; earlier, the F90 and F100. I am sure once the processors and so on are ready, the successors to the D600/D800 will be a lot better and more efficient. Yet how long am I expected to wait? This brings me to the obvious short-term solution, if FX is just too hard to manage for many of us; a D400, (or perhaps D9000, in Nikon’s new numbering system).

In my next post, I’ll go into what I’d hope to see in it, as I think it would be the right camera for me. Indeed, I believe Nikon should announce it sooner, rather than later for anyone serious about DX. Otherwise I might just pour my funds into m4/3 equipment that will be lighter to carry around and give me much better manual focus options on the fly. As Nikon have neither kept developing DX the way I’d hoped or offered a balanced full-frame alternative for the semi-pro user.

Some Hopes for the OM-D EM-7

I was personally very impressed by the specs of Olympus’s new Pen camera- the Pen EP-5. I personally love the form factor, which as a ‘digital rangefinder’ builds on and definitely enhances the capabilities of my aging EPL-2. Having something similar, yet with a much more versatile sensor, not to mention such robust, retro-styled controls looks like a dream come true. Still, digital cameras are basically computers, there is always a more capable one around the horizon. (Which definitely is not a call to endless updating of the camera you have, so long as it works well for you). It looks like the real updates this year from Olympus will come in the successor to the incredibly well-received EM-5, the camera which seems to be having even full-frame users convinced the time for mirrorless has arrived.

In my typical greedy fashion, not to mention being loath to upgrade before the ‘best’ upgrade is released, I here go into the goodies I’d like to see on the EM-7, or whatever it ends up being called. With the recent partnership between Sony and Olympus, it seems we will have a good chance of seeing some technology boosts in the Olympus line, meanwhile Sony can benefit from Olympus’s long experience with lens design, not to mention their own unique and powerful image stablisation and gorgeous jpeg engine, to name but two.So, here are some wishes for the EM-7. The fact there are so few is a testament to the forward-looking nature of the current EM-5.

  1. A new sensor, with perhaps 18-20MP.
  2. On-sensor phase-detect as in the Nikon 1
  3. 14-bit raw. (Currently it’s only 12-bit)
  4. Better handling of video at 1080p, with 60fps and higher bitrates
  5. A streamlined shape without the hump, but not necessarily any smaller.
  6. All the enhancements of the EP-5, like the newer iteration of antishake, Wi-Fi.
  7. Higher resolution EVF, like the latest VF-4.

Some Clarity on the Issue of Sensors

Note- all this is far from scientific, but based on my observations and those of others I have spoken to or read of on this. In fact, I’d argue that such observations and gut feelings are all the more reliable in a time when statistics or technical specs used to promote new models are making capabilities sound more revolutionary than they may actually be.

Probably you have heard enough from me on this issue, but this is time to say more! The freedom from the incremental changes in digital photography is a great motivation for going ‘back’ to film. Film is still being sold and used. Its existence is contemporary with digital, even though it is getting harder to find and process. This is a key point and one, which the marketers of ‘the latest and greatest’ digital cameras would prefer you ignored. Any camera working now is potentially in use, whether it be film or digital. The very fact that film cameras are rendered redundant by their successor’s superior sensors is one that should make you pause to think. A film camera, loading film, is as current as the latest digital model. The fact that its features, such as AF, are good enough for its genre can make it a complete and hopefully lasting tool; a ‘keeper’.

Then there is the other issue with digital cameras that is rarely discussed- the variable performance at base ISO. We all know the newest CMOS sensors, generally made by Sony, but with some good ones by other makers, too, have terrific dynamic range and high ISO properties and ever-greater numbers of mega-pixels. Yet what about use at base ISO, by someone who is happy with a low megapixel count, so long as the image quality is up there? Well, it is far from certain that in this case they are any better than the CCDs they are replacing. In fact, in terms of acuity, clarity and general sharpness, the CCDs, despite their relatively harsh rendering, are actually often superior.

For many years, Leica stuck with Kodak CCDs in it’s M9 (and now Monochrom MM) and all medium format digital bodies seem to be using CCD. Where still image quality is paramount CCD is still widely used. Now this may be partly due to a lack of investment in replacement sensors (which the new Leica M240 has), but it at least shows they can have exemplary performance.

In my own case, the kind of photos I got with my D70 may have lacked some finesse, but they were immediate, clear and sharp in a way my newer cameras seem to lack. Newer CMOS files are open and bland, suitable for all kinds of complex manipulation. They are, in a sense, the negatives to the CCD slides. So lets’ make it clear- from a certain point of view an older sensor can get better pictures. In one case in particular- a shot of a temple hallway seen from outside, in fading autumn light that illuminates just a tiny portion perfectly with the falling rays- my attempts to reproduce the same effect with newer cameras have failed. Part of it is no doubt timing and mood, but that special clarity- a sensor-level clarity like I saw so often on slide film (clarity, not necessarily the same thing as contrast), seems to be a CCD attribute. More recently I’ve seen this in D3000 and D200 files, which both used the same 10MP CCD sensor. Terrible low-light performance (poor ISO boosting ability even in native settings), yet a crystal-clear clarity and in short a different image rendering than we see with the newer CMOS sensors.

If true, this is a kind of revelation, which again, manufacturers and marketers would perhaps like to obscure, unless of course they return to CCD technology for any reason other than lower price. It opens the way to reuse or feel comfortable continuing to use older, seemingly redundant bodies, even if they are a lot less flexible in lower light. In any case, it is more evidence that the current obsession with CMOS Bayer-patterned sensors is likely to be superseded at some point. Not so much by CCDs, as by something like the Foveon sensor, which also has remarkable clarity and also incredible colour, if handled right on the software side.  The problem tight now is the terribly underperforming bodies Sigma offers, most of them with fixed lenses and slow AF.

Once the multi-layer sensors take over, CMOS will be just as much in the dustbin of history. Which makes it sensible to be wary of over-investing in a technology that won’t just be improved over the next few years, but possibly superseded in a dramatic fashion- dramatic at least for those who notice such things and as many professional camera and sensor designers are amongst such people, I think it’s impossible for them to ignore such destined improvements, once, at least the immense challenges of timely readout of huge megapixel counts (on a small APS-C variant Sigma is already working with 46MP!), video capability and higher ISO boosts (400 ISO is already pushing it), such sensors will be mainstream. For now we can be thankful for the amazing flexibility of current sensors, with their massive dynamic range. Tremendous changes are possible, even if the ‘best final image’ can be elusive.

Well, some may counter this by saying it is very speculative and even entering the realm of science fiction. When would such sensors come, being as the market demands flexible low-light sensors and not absolute image quality, specialised, medium-format related uses aside. I’d partly agree, though I think it is important to resist the urge to always upgrade even to a reasonable improvement by staying aware that these are still technologies in flux and will only get better. Also, at base ISO, which good light shooting and especially tripod-based work allows, you may be losing something very special in return for this flexibility, which I really do think is under-reported, much the same way as poor gradients of digital are tolerated when more could be done (increasing bit-depth to 16bit as an option, maybe?) to fix this. The latest may be the greatest, but it’s not necessarily the best.

As a side note, there is a digital fix of sorts for this issue- the Lightroom Clarity slider, something I never felt I needed before my D5100 (the D300 has less dynamic range, so perhaps more native ‘definition’). It may be digital, but you pretty much can’t live without it. I even invested in an even better, more customisable tool, namely the new Topaz ‘Clarity’ plug-in. It was just released at precipitous timing for me, coinciding with my return from Mt. Fuji with a collection of beautiful, but seemingly quite hazy photos. I just don’t think digital handles haze very well, as it reads it as lack of definition rather than as a part of the atmosphere. I’ve already found it invaluable, if a little easy to overdo.

My personal workflow here is to apply it and then look at the results on my iPad- which with it’s glossy, IPS screen offers it’s own free clarity boost and to see if things still look good there. Seeing as I expect most of my photos to be viewed on tablets and other mobile devices, it makes sense to optimise their publishing for that. After all, I still have the original RAW and TIFF files to edit again if I’d like to, or to change settings to optimise for printing, for example. In fact, I’d personally advise anyone to optimise for iPad (or Android/Windows/Linux tablets) in this day and age. One wonderful thing about them is their consistency, as opposed to computer monitors, which vary tremendously depending on type (IPS or not) and coating (glossy or matt). Thankfully most tablets and smart phones are glossy, with special anodizing processes recently used to reduce glare, often by bonding the LCD to the actual glass, making replacement much more of a pain, but reducing their horrible reflectivity outdoors.

Digital Vs Film

It may surprise you to learn of someone ‘reverting’ from digital to film, but I assure you there is life in the old dog yet. One reason is that the supposed image quality benefits of digital have been largely overstated, at least as far as anything less than full-frame 35mm sensors go. The step up in image quality from cropped to this comes however at a heavy price, necessitating heavy, over-engineered bodies and lenses that cost far more than their film equivalents… and even then you have a relatively flat and adjustment-demanding file unlike the direct transfer that film offers.

For me a major motivation to pursue this, alongside my majority digital shooting, was the surprising (for me) announcement by Adobe that they are ending their perpetual licenses and necessitating an expensive subscription service. Adobe, the holders of the Photoshop image format and supposedly open DMG raw file going ‘private’ with their software (except Lightroom, for the conceivable future at least). This is a pinch shook the very foundations of the seemingly stable nature of digital, 1’s and 0’s storage. What if it is hard to access my images, and if not so much the images, my chosen edits, which are integral to their presentation? Such a shock may never come to fruition, as they can be stored as Tiffs, but only by taking more space. Probably some way of seeing them with the edits will remain, but how about making new ones? Even if I switch to Lightroom 4 or 5 from my current 3, I need to adapt to a new (if better) process. What next?

I feel that something fundamental has been broken here, a new paradigm has emerged. Which means that a retreat to a more stable and quality-assured medium is suddenly very attractive. A good scanner can resolve lots of detail and rich colour information from a 35mm piece of film, allowing at least as much alteration as a RAW file, I find. Plus offering the superior attributes of film- depth, mode, smooth gradients and something digital would find hard to replace. That something being the focus on the ‘moment of capture’, as to save film you carefully shoot, patiently waiting for the right moment, building creative tension as you do so. I’ve never quite felt the same way with digital, especially as memory cards got cheaper, shooting speeds faster and I tended to machine-gun my shots more. Sure, I captured higher quality… but at what cost? So, for now at least, shooting film alongside digital makes a lot of sense for me and presumably also for many others, too. In short, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is more of a film revival, albeit more based around scanning the end result than wet printing methods.

One of the problems for digital photography remains the lack of historiography. This has had the knock-on effect of making the bizarre situation that whilst more photographs are being taken than ever before, there are hardly any that spring to mind as deserving of fame and posterity. that’s not to say there aren’t many incredible images being captures, or even to discount that ever-better ones are being created, just that they come across more as remarkable images than photos as such, if that makes any sense. The amount of potential changes and especially improvements makes some wonder if, artistic credentials aside, anything that is actually real is being created. If it was, in this time of excessive post-processing, would it really stand out anyway?

Take a classic photo like The Afghan Girl, or the raising of a flag on Iwo Jima (even if the latter was staged). Are there any such iconic images that have swept the global consciousness in such a way? I’d argue that what’s more likely is the ubiquitous appeal of video clips. Now that capturing a moment in time through a photo is no longer strictly necessary, with the advent of modern video, it is such clips that get shared. Yet a film photo, though retroactive in a sense, stands more of a chance of being seen as a record of the time- as it could only be made at that time, though of course time will tell on this point.

Certainly, the issue of creation won’t easily go away. Some things, like time-stamps and GPS tags can help solidify the image. Even though EXIF can be edited, ways of protecting this from chance can and will be devised. Of course, video or film can also be edited, but perhaps not usually so dramatically as is often the case with digital photography, where the editing is as much of the art as the capture.

For me this is a bit of a side issue and I’m just going to experiment with taking some film alongside digital, in search of renewing that sense of tangibility and meaning that I felt so much more with film than I have, even after years of shooting digital. This isn’t just for more authentic photos, it’s also for a richer travel experience. to carefully line up and patiently wait for the right moment for a shot can add to the magic and mystery of the journey, which is not only about going there. Waiting to see how the photos come out is an exciting, anticipation-filled thing.

I also want to return to using my collection of lenses in a full-frame setting, where all my primes function as expected. The crop/DX primes never materialized as ‘promised’ and the wait has been never-ending. One thing that has filled the gap to an extent is m4/3, but this is still in need of continuous AF and sensors with better dynamic range. The crippled control of DOF on that format has been helped to an extent with new releases, yet aside from some expensive, large MF primes, you need long lengths to even get close to what a full-frame or 35mm camera can do.

The full-frame world is also in flux. As I said before, I’m not really satisfied enough with any of Nikon’s full-frame cameras to splash out on them that much, rather waiting for a more complete iteration in the coming years. Innovations like live-view autofocus and tilting screens or super-high resolution EVFs are still just around the corner and would make for a better long-term purchase for me. Also, the sheer storage space and CPU capability needed for the most attractive model (the D800) would be crippling for my current set-up. No doubt future computers and larger hard-drives will be fine, but I’d rather wait for the rest of the chain to be ready than need to stretch my resources for something I currently don’t actually need. What should have happened is the D700’s price collapsing, but it has stayed pretty steady, making for a difficult choice between its pro body and the D600’s far better sensor and capabilities.

For now, I’m sitting out the ‘push’ to FX, even wondering if DX systems will be improved enough to stay with it as an end unto itself. With a few more super-bright lenses like the coming 18-35mm f/1.8 zoom from Sigma, we won’t really need the DOF advantages of FX so much. If the sensors increase their dynamic range and high-ISO abilities, they will be more than enough to satisfy most. I can’t see this not happening, if technological progress carries on, but the massive leap in size to full-frame may keep it the more attractive format for serious users for some time to come.

So I’ll take a break from the whole thing with film. Maybe the images I’ll get will be as good as full-frame digital, maybe better, maybe a little worse, though they will certainly have wonderful smooth gradients, rich colour, a strong artistic intention at their moment of capture and, most importantly, mean something to me. At the end, that’s all you can ask for and all the money I save can go to travel, a better future camera, or just be used however I’d like to use it, no longer a hostage to the technological rat-race that upgraditis brings with it!

Full Frame with an F… Film!

I’ve finally gone full frame… but to FILM! Yes, I decided to reassess where my creativity is going and bring some film into the mix. To do this, I acquired an excellent Nikon F100 for a very reasonable price, which, being one of the most modern Nikon SLR’s available, will allow me to use my newer ‘G’ and ‘VR’ lenses just fine, as well as featuring an advanced (for it’s time) AF and exposure metre. It has a wonderful viewfinder, so can be used in MF modes as well and whilst not quite as good as that in the F6 or the newer FX DSLR’s, is a world apart from even the reasonable one in my D300 which, being crop-sensor, at the end of the day it just isn’t good enough for manual focusing by a mere human like myself.

Now you may be wondering why someone like me, full of praise for the quality and convenience of digital, even happily using filters and HDR processing, might want to ‘go back’ to film? Well, let’s put it simply, they are at the very heart different mediums and whilst there are things that digital does a whole lot better than film, especially I might add the relatively small 35mm variety that I’ll be using for now, there are other things that are much better on film. I’ll go into the positives for film for now.

One is smoothness and a sense of depth. Film conveys feeling a lot better. It’s rich, subtle and natural looking. Sure, it isn’t as sharp or contrastier, but if you are looking at conveying an impression, a feeling, a sense of atmosphere, that really isn’t the top priority. Digital is sharp and exact and whatever you do, somewhat harsh, some might even say unnaturally so. Neither is fully what we ‘see with our eyes’, nor need they be. They are very different.

Another thing is the smooth transitions of colour that film offers. Digital compresses colour and even as they expand this from 8 to 10, 12 and 14 bits… even if they expand it to 16 bit (as medium format backs have had for some time), you still have the obscene limitation of the Bayer filters that try to average out colour. Sure, there are the Fuji ones that aren’t much better, just trying to randomise this and the truly superior Sigma Foveon Merrill attempts, but the last is restricted to a small subset of very inconvenient cameras which also cost a lot despite only having APS-C cropped sensors. Colour like that in film is still the province of the elite in digital, whatever the vast industry will have you believe.

Then there is the feeling of capture… as you pay for each frame; you have to make it count. This is generally more negative than positive, in terms of cost at least, but it is a fine, artistic and meaningful discipline, that whilst you could follow it with digital it makes little point. Just as a sketch is less convenient than a photograph, so is film less ‘convenient’ than digital… by far. Yet is one really worse overall for this?

Then we come to the main advantage, for me at least the heart of the matter. Film is very highly developed, as are the film cameras to take advantage of it. Even recently, although it may be way less popular, newer developments have made higher film speeds more usable (just as happens to a much more dramatic extent with digital), yet this is just fine-tuning to a more or less fully evolved medium. A great film camera is the end of it’s line. Yet with digital this is far from the case! Next year, or to be fair in terms of full-frame cameras, in 2-4 more years, a radically better iteration will emerge, also unbelievably highly-priced and even if you are happy with what you have, the resale value will have plummeted by perhaps half. Digital cameras are a poor investment and are basically computers, yet unlike computers they are something you use with your hands almost as if they were an extension of your body (with computers you can always get a nicer keyboard or mouse if you really need to).

The ergonomics of digital cameras are only really good with the higher-end ones, like (in terms of state of the art models), the D800, EP-5, or NEX-7. When you go to more reasonably priced ones like the D600, EPL-5 or NEX-6, they collapse, partly to keep costs down, partly, I think, to upsell you to the top-of the range models. The kicker is, unlike a good film camera you could use for a decade, probably not really needing anything else, in fact can even use now, a digital camera is unattractive as the sensors and features are radically better. The high price of progress, lessened massively by having the use of something where progress is more or less complete.

A few specific things happened recently that made realise that it might be good to diversify and explore film again, despite the cost of developing (though I will use it very sparingly, as if it was large-format film, alongside a lot of digital). One was the problem of oil in D600’s, forming splodges on multiple sensors. This put me off buying one, as well as the poor ergonomics and mediocre AF unit it has. A D800 is a better bet, but out of my reach, plus that camera has a very slow 4fps frame-rate, slow at least compared to my aging D300, which can go up to 8 with a battery grip. No doubt a D800 successor will improve this and I’d rather at least wait for that.

Another thing is that these newer FX cameras are very demanding for lenses. I’d probably need to get some new ones, despite my collection of old film-based lenses that work great on film or the D700. So why not get a D700? Well that is indeed an option, but it doesn’t match the dynamic range of film as well as the newer bodies do and if I’m going to upgrade, I may as well go for something newer. Also, I have lots of good DX lenses, it may be better for me to get a D400 and stay in DX… except one as yet doesn’t exist! So, in short, I feel my upgrade paths are uncertain right now.

Another thing is looking back at my old photos, some of my best have been taken with film and this even with all the advances that digital has made in terms of sharpness and perhaps colour accuracy. Also, with all my own technical advances, which were probably accelerated by the instant feedback of digital, along with the passage of time. Yet digital has not made me a better photographer, just a clumsier one! A digital capture lacks feeling for me, it seems to be more a search for absolute perfection than capture of a moment, though I know this may be at least partly sentimental as there are many wonderful photos around taken with digital. Yet they all, even with the latest models, lack a certain richness and feeling that my old film juvenilia exhibits. In fact it even seems to be going backwards, with complex post-processing and editing overtaking and the sheer clarity of the older CCD sensors dying out to these very elastic CMOS ones, that lend themselves to changes after the event and an open-ended interpretation of what the photo actually is.

With film, it is very clear what the photo is- it’s what’s embedded on the negative (or positive). Still, with scanning I can use software to optimise it further, still having that richness and immediacy of a moment captured in time.

Now for all this, I’m not entirely going back to film and certainly not returning to any stage in digital’s long development (though there may be movements to return to CCD cameras, which offer sharper capture, or cameras with simpler features just to keep things uncluttered). I’m using film alongside digital, partly to keep costs down and convenience up. I do intend to scan the film, which is positively laborious, though I may find better ways even to do this. Digital also has certain clear advantages.

It’s sharper and contrastier. It has much, much more resolution in a smaller size. If you want to crop or print (both necessities for photographers), it gives you much greater ability to do so than 35mm film. Having a digital file (whether from film or sensor) lets you change things to your heart’s content, including altering white balance for fluorescent lights, enhancing sunsets or foliage, or even making more radical changes, such as black and white conversions or toy camera emulation a la Instagram. Of course, all this tends to go against the purist ‘the photo I took is the photo’ sense of film. In fact, so much so that a lot of photographers would rather be freed from it and see in the very simplicity of film liberation. Fair enough.

I personally like the freedom to experiment after the fact and would never develop (pardon the pun) the skills to do so with film, regarding all the equipment and chemicals needed for that, but I do also see the necessity for a pure point of capture to start from. Let’s not forget on this context the disdain that medium/large format photographers often had for the more convenient 35mm ‘toy format’. Populism may well be the enemy of artists seeking to express themselves uniquely, often with professional equipment that at least when new, is so much state of the art that consumer prices are out of the question. Certainly, a full-frame camera like the D800, whilst a lot cheaper than its forbears, is also out of most hobbyists’ reach for the moment.

The cost of digital, leaving aside the tendency to upgrade cameras, lenses and even computers to process them on (again, the D800 raises it’s head as a fine example of this, with it’s huge, 36mp raw files straining even the fastest home computers today) can be brought into check in a way film can’t. Endless photos on a ‘roll of film’ known as a memory card, rechargeable Li-Ion batteries that last for hundreds, or even thousands of shots. The rising costs of increasingly ‘niche’ films and their development make prolific film use even more expensive than before and then there is also the waiting time in a world of near-instant Wi-Fi uploads.

Yet for all this, film has its place. It has its magic and richness. It is full of life and in a digital world, which breathes a ray of hope into an increasingly commercialised pursuit. Let humans be humans and nature be natural. At least until digital is perfected and perhaps still even then, there is a need for the already near-perfection of film.

 

Prime Lenses on DX- Finding the Right Match

Starfires:

There are still a lot of DX users out there, perhaps millions, many of whom are looking for a good prime for their camera.

I wrote this post about using prime lenses about 2 years ago and it seems to get searched for more than anything else here. There are still a lot of DX users out there, perhaps millions, many of whom are looking for a good prime for their camera.

I think just about everything on it still rings true, especially the advice to try using prime lenses more. When you take photos, you don’t really need to capture everything. The other approach is to see it more like painting, where you only really need a few representative and deeply intended images.

The only thing to add here is that Sigma has remade their 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM lens, which looks to be a slightly wide normal on DX. If it’s anything like as good as their much loved, recently released 35mm f/1.4 HSM, it may well make the grade. Whilst the poort quality control they used to have put me off in the past, especially in the case of this lens, which had many soft copies, I may well take one for a spin… and if it does make for that (nearly) perfect DX lens, all the better!

Originally posted on Perfect Futures:

Why Go Prime?

Like a lot of SLR users, after using zooms for a while I decided to go for better photo quality and try out some primes. Zooms make you lazy, they encourage you to let the camera take the picture by zooming in rather than walking over to take a closer look, as you would do normally. They are great for their convenience and indispensable for travel photography, much pro work and just for not needing to change lenses. Yet they aren’t always the best thing for your walkabout, or for focussing on the perfect composition a great photo can have. What follows below is one man’s odyssey in search of the perfect prime lens on DX. Have I found it? I’ll cut to the chase and say not yet, but in the shape of the 24mm on DX, I have found something close enough for me to make…

View original 3,135 more words

Cloud Porn

I’ve always been fascinated by clouds. Even if there’s nothing much else to look at, they are always there. They look more dramatic in extreme dawns or sunsets, but they have a certain lushness at any time of the day. In fact it could be said that clouds are very often interesting, but really stand out when they are dramatic. So here is some of my cloud porn. Often I just snap these with my iPhone or whatever comes to mind, as I can’t see myself printing them. But clouds are clouds and as some of the most ephemeral phenomena out there, it is good to have captured some forever- or at least until some massive EMP hits and digital storage is wiped out forever. Long live the record player!

Pattaya-0726_7_8Pattaya-0720_1_2Pattaya-0473_4_5 In the Air-1 In the Air-5132 In the Air-5119

Photographing Thailand, Spring 2013

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I just got back from a wonderful, fun, inventive and fantastic time in the sunny land of Thailand. What an amazing place! The food, the weather, the landscapes, the friendly people (some exceptions here, others really lovely) and simply being in a different, exotic place is so fulfilling. I’ll be honest, the cheap prices don’t hurt much either and it’s liberating to not need to worry about the price of things.

Yes, as per usual, I took oodles of photos, in fact over 70 gigs worth, including bracketed HDRs and the like. I was going to limit myself to jpeg, but whenever I do that, I end up getting some shots I’d really like to post-process properly, so it looks like it will soon be time to upgrade my HDD, either that or do some serious culling of excess images. Eek maybe just get the new HDD!

This trip was seen more as a holiday, without much sightseeing. Not so many early mornings and exhausting days, just nice times at our own pace. Yet that didn’t seem to stop the photography process, judging by that 72.5 gig figure! Interestingly, a lot of the photos were taken in transit, the journey counting for as much as the getting there.

So, tech talkers, what did I bring? What does it mean to me to travel light? Well, the iPad handily replaced my PC, though we brought a slim laptop for many things, including as it turns out photo backup and some light editing. Then came the cameras-

D5100

As usual, my travel favourite, especially with the convenient 18-105mm VR lens mounted. I was going to bring some m43 gear, but at the last minute decided to keep things simple. Maybe when I get a new m43 body that can handle low-light better and take good video it can be the main one. For now, though, this was my best choice.

Sunrise on the Beach

P510

For a few minutes I contemplated just bringing this. Then my sanity came back. The range is truly extraordinary, but the lack of dynamic range can be crippling when the light is less than perfect. Lack of Raw is a concern, too. What it does allow is some otherwise unreachable shots, as I have no long lenses other than the m43 40-150mm (80-300 equivalent) that are light enough for travel and this has the massive advantage of having all the wide angles and 1080p video as well. A very versatile tool indeed, yet not as essential as a travel zoom lens on a good sensor for my purposes.

Bangkok-5240

Lenses and Accessories

Nikon 35mm f/1.8G

My standard ‘bright prime’, which I tried to use as much as possible just for the IQ and discipline of using a fixed lens. I tried using it alongside the P510 at times, using the later to zoom and it is a nice lens to use, though ultimately, given the choice, I’d prefer something brighter. Assuming I stay with DX and don’t migrate up to FX or ‘down’ to m4/3, I may try out the re-made Sigma 30mm f/1.4, which if the quality control is good may just be the thing I need. That is, however, a very big ‘if’.

Ice-cream

Nikon 50mm f/1.8G

I got some nice portraits and detail shots with this. As usual, I’ll have to look through what I got, as the amount of actual shots I take with this is not so high.

Pattaya-1167

Nikon 18-105mm

I really like this lens, especially on the D5100 which gives me so much dynamic range and high-ISO goodness, to a great extent overcoming the dark aperture ratings. Oh, also the automatic lens correction, which I usually do in Lightroom anyway. All this makes a ‘lesser’ lens more usable, though I’m not so sure it will scale so well to the newer 24mp sensors.

Pattaya-3135_6_7

iPhone 4S

I got a bunch of shots with this, even experimenting with some random Hipstamatic. It’s a nice and reasonably fast little machine and I can’t say I got a shot from it I didn’t like, though the P510 stole some of its thunder simply by being so versatile  As of now though, it’s my only camera with apps.

Thailand Thailand

B&W Polariser filter

Sorry, rarely used. I really should have stuck it on my 18-105mm more, but I’m not a big fan of the colour-shift involved and the times when I could really have used it, on Koh Samet island, it was in my bag on the mainland. Basically, I avoided shooting too much in the middle of the day, so hopefully got away without using it. HDR work is a good workaround, too.

SB400 Speedlight

Unusually, I used this a lot. I did quite a lot of backlit and night photography and this came into its own. Unlike the polariser, I had it with me constantly and whipped it out all the time. I even experimented with rear-curtain sync and the like. A very nice and handy flash, especially used in slow sync mode to get that wonderful background light (I didn’t get many chances to bounce it, being outside so much).

Koh Samet-1865 Koh Samet-1848

Straight, No Chaser.

A Traditional Film Photography Blog - dehk © 2014

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