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

Remembering the Margaret Thatcher Years

Anyone following British news, or even beyond, can’t help but have noticed that former Prime Minister Thatcher passed away and the polarised reactions she still inspires. So closely associated with her free-market and unabashedly right-wing ideology she was that her death has surprisingly reignited old passions there, in a way even a serious lapse in the free-market system such as the banking crisis failed to do. It is easier to feel strongly about a person than an ideological position. But who was she really and what were the defining issues of the ‘Thatcher years’, that she responded to?

Thatcher was a product of her times and someone who led at the very edge of what can be considered democratic norms. In Europe, as (even today) in South America, there was still an ideological conflict between the right, favouring privatisation and market forces and the left, putting it’s faith in a better managed state, increasingly centralised, using the finest minds to solve problems rather than free market forces to ‘naturally’ stablise society. Her style and the degree of power she wielded approached that of a dictator more than the more usual balanced, careful, almost bureaucratic norms of democratic leaders. This makes for a very divisive figure, a hero for the neo-liberal right, but a villain for the left. All of which doesn’t mean we anymore need to define ourselves in such tribal ways, but does explain the extreme reactions to her passing. It may sound dull, but I am personally against such extremes in public life. A lack of unity just makes co-operation and efficient running of society just that much harder to achieve and I think there is a certain consensus about this now. Yet it is also somewhat attractive to be thrown back to the seeming moral certainties and passions of the ‘80’s, when the current victory of neo-liberal policies had not yet been settled and in a sense, anything was possible.

For me, there are two Margaret Thatchers; the international statesman (or woman) who, together with both Ronald Regan and Mikhail Gorbachev, managed to end the cold war, heading off the very real possibility of it becoming a ‘hot war’ and at the same time opening up the former Soviet Block countries to economic liberalisation and political freedoms inconceivable before that time. In this, she was truly a remarkable historic figure, an icon of freedom standing up, unafraid to tyranny and a woman who defied all barriers. That the promised ‘freedom’ there has been accompanied by intense economic insecurity and, as the country broke up, patches of ethnic strife for many; though economic prosperity for others; shows this step forward wasn’t necessarily handled as well as it could have been. Still, this shouldn’t take away from the achievement here, which perhaps could only have been made by right of centre leaders, who would be so clearly opposed to the Soviet system that their accommodation of it’s transition would be seen as all the more sincere. Essentially, a nearly bankrupt Soviet Union couldn’t but change, but at least this made the event peaceful and somewhat manageable. As a side note here, Gorbachev never actually intended to break up or end the USSR, just to radically reform it, perhaps somewhat along the lines of recent leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.

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Photographing South-East Asia, 2011

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As some of you may know, I’ve been fortunate enough to go on a few longish trips to SE Asia in the past few years. I love this part of the world and it is a great place for photography. My biggest and most travel-oriented trip was Summer 2011, when I practically brought the kitchen sink along. Tired of being stuck with the perspective of one lens (generally my Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8), I brought a variety of cameras and primes. I actually got good use out of a lot of them, but the heat and weight made it at times very tiring. So for the next trip I had a rethink.

So to save my back and increase my sanity, less came with me in the second trip. I was partly helped by having a new and smaller DSLR (the D5100) that had a better sensor than my D300 and also decent features. So here is what I took and, more importantly why I took it. The fact you want to use something you own is a poor excuse for bringing it ‘on the road’ and bringing something ‘just in case’ may make sense for a band-aid, but not in the world of camera gear. I’ll also add, with the benefit of hindsight whether I found it all that useful.

(I actually wrote this two years ago and have been slow to get it polished for publishing, but never mind, here it is!) For the gear in Summer 2012, please see here. I’ll make a post about 2013’s trip, too, but want to get this out the proverbial door first.

The Summer 2011 Trip

Cameras

D300

To have a weather-sealed body, as sometimes out in the rainy season. on beaches or boats. Also, to have autofocus with my new ‘street-shooter’, Nikon’s venerable 24mm f/2.8 AFD. Right, that’s AFD, no autofocus motor and pretty much useless in any kind of hurry on a smaller body, which I generally prefer to have in my backpack. I also hadn’t always been happy with my D3100 in Europe, not being sure exactly why, but perhaps it’s relatively flimsy feeling, tendency to overexpose and the smaller viewfinder ended up with me wondering if it alone would do this trip justice, though I definitely prefer it’s weight.

* In hindsight… now I have it, I prefer to use the D5100, as it reduces a lot of weight and I can make do with its small viewfinder.

Nikon D3100

Originally intended as my backup, it got used most days and especially when doing a lot. It is light, reasonably fast and good at focusing. It is for me a world away from a compact and can mount some serious glass, like the Tamron 17-50mm I brought along for it. Probably I should have gotten the better D5100 for this trip, but it had just come out and was really expensive, plus I’d only just gotten the D3100 in February.

* This camera is inadequate as a main tool for me, mostly because of the poor dynamic range, but also the lack of bracketing for HDR and poor video abilities. Yet it does score highly for lowish weight and low light abilities. Newer models are a lot more satisfactory.

Panasonic Lumix LX5

Sometimes you are just heading out for dinner, going for a stroll. you don’t necessarily want a backpack even and this will fit in the pouch around my neck. Also, it’s no slouch, with its 1.1/7″ sensor, it has pretty good dynamic range and low-light ability, for a compact at least.

* A handy little camera, rendered somewhat obsolete by my m43 bodies, which have much better sensors and are still pretty small.

Panasonic Lumix TZ7

This was my pocket superzoom. At 25-300mm, it could compliment whatever else I brought along, especially the LX5 or a D300 restricted to a prime lens, as well as taking decent 720p video. The image quality is way below what I would really want, especially as you zoom in, but it can be nice as a memory-catcher. Having such a range is a lot of fun to have, especially compared to the fast-and-wides I started off with. It really does need good light, even with its VR, due to the dark lens and poor high ISO (more than 200 is pushing it, but I did use it up to 400, just to get the shot).

* Another handy camera, yet the low IQ means I got few keepers, especially above ISO 100. I find the P510 does much better here and without adding too much weight.

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Prime Lenses for DX- Finding the Right Match Part II

A while ago, I made an article about finding the best prime for DX and in the process lamenting the lack of choices here, at least in comparison with FX. I still think it’s true that they are sorely lacking, but decided to take a step back and look at what choices there are and be a bit more positive about them; which means, not so much denying their flaws, so much as appreciating their good points. Even with the progress made in mirrorless formats and the advances in full-frame cameras, I am still on the opinion that a cropped DSLR is the most convenient compromise for picture-taking around now, at least for most people. Full frame and medium format digital both offer far better image quality, yet in a larger, more expensive package. Even people who have such systems may still want a cropped one for travel or convenient back-up.

So here, I’ll take a look at various lenses I’ve used on DX and say what I think of them, though your mileage may vary. I’ll go into them one by one, in order of focal length. Note, this is all on a budget, so there is no mention of the 24mm f/1.4G or 35mm f/1.4G, which are large lenses, essentially designed for working pros.You’ll also notice I opted for the 50mm f/1.8G rather than f/1.4, partly because I already have so many 50mm I can’t justify the cost, but also many reports said the f.1,8 is better. All I know for sure is it’s probably better value. I’ve put a couple of samples after each description, as there’s not much point in a lens that isn’t used, but try to see for yourself not just the subjects, but if you like the way the lens renders them.

Nikon 24mm f/2.8D

Here we have my current fave, giving me a very comfortable 35mm equivalent. Just right. It’s a nice, sharp lens, giving me a pleasingly 3D appearance to the photos. No, I haven’t pixel-peeped, but it seems fine wide open and it’s nice and small, to boot. People see you with this and they think, “here’s a photographer, he loves taking photos, I want to be a part of it”. Well, I hope they think something like that, anyway. This is one lens that could really do with an AF-S update, as it is such a wonderful focal length, it’s a real shame there is no AF on the smaller bodies, though you can use the rangefinder focus-assist, for what it’s worth. I did say this wouldn’t be a complaining post, so I’ll try my best and just add that on a camera with a focusing motor, like the D300/D7000 or soon to emerge D7100, this is no problem at all. Remember, though that as the mega-pixels go up, made-for-film lenses like this will probably look increasingly soft and need more stopping-down to compensate, another reason for an update, methinks.

Ueno Town-8931Ueno Town-8935

Nikon 28mm f/2.8D

The lens above renders this a little redundant right now, but it has produced some very nice images for me. On the lower megapixel bodies, like the D70, to a lesser extent D90/D300, it’s pretty sharp, especially stopped down and has a pleasing bokeh. It also has pretty nice construction, in fact, looking at them side by side I can’t see much difference between this and the 28mm. Only in a crazy world like the one we live in would anyone get both, but that’s how it works with primes- they are collectible. These are my jewels, I don’t really care if there’s some plastic in the construction, as this keeps it light and portable, which is the whole point of a lens you are going to use a lot. A caveman would be much more impressed by our achievements in plastics than metals anyway (probably!)

This lens gets a bad rep because it isn’t really up to the standard of todays 16mp/24mp sensors and there are apparently better MF versions lying around and especially the earlier ‘s’ version (not AF-S, but before the ‘D’) left out a lot of elements, which made for a cheaper, but much worse lens. Since they were mostly reinstalled in the ‘D’ version, it’s a pretty good lens. A bit like the 24mm, it gives a nicely ‘wide normal’ view on DX. Plus, being an FX lens, you can use it on full-frame, too, though probably the image suffers even more.

Koshikawa Korakoen 11-05 - 070 Local Life

Nikon 35mm f/1.8DX

One of a mere handful of Nikon DX lenses, this one is of very modern construction and feather-light. I actually like this light build, as it makes for such a compact package, and I love the AF-S silent focussing. Impressively, it is sharp wide-open, a testament to the technological advances lenses have made (which you’ll find on a lot of new lenses these days). The colours are vivid and pleasing, it is a great ‘digital’ lens. What’s not to like? The rendering lacks some of the quality of its more expensive f/2 sibling. Bokeh can be rough if you aren’t careful, which impedes it as a portrait lens. Also, as with an 35mm on DX, it is a little long, certainly over normal, so your usage will end up reflecting this. Still, a great companion to the smaller DX models that can AF with this and it suits their diminutive size. It is the first sign of Nikon competing with the rise of m4/3. It will be interesting to see how upcoming DX primes (like the upcoming 40mm macro) shape up. If they can have a better bokeh, a more stylish render, they may well knock this off its perch… for the discerning customer, that is, as most will prefer this for its brightness.

Overall, this is my most-used DX prime, I bring it along on trips and take it out when the light drops, or if I have another camera with a zoom handy. Although I’d like something a bit wider, I do get used to it and just zoom with my feet. It is pretty good for close portraits, child photos, food, details, festivals or markets at night. Combined with the high-ISO capabilities of a modern DSLR you have a great combination. Certainly, it’s very sharp and on the whole the bokeh is pleasing. I’m not crazy about it’s overtly ‘made of digital’ rendering, but it certainly does the job and make for some memorable images.

Suwa Jinja Shibuya-8834

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Thoughts on The Syrian Situation

I don’t very often comment on politics or, more properly, world events on my blog, but on this issue I feel inspired to do so, so please bear me out. I actually can’t stand politics, it even seems to me such a thing really shouldn’t even exist, as rather than being an honest search for the best solution to our problems, it quickly degenerates into a battle of wits, or even worse a test of who is stronger. Why so many people blindly confuse strength, confidence or heavy financial backing with truth I’ll never know, but the most optimistic side of me says that this comes from some basic faith that whoever gets to be strongest is also rightest (at the time), but it still seems to me that politics is an ugly game, whilst world events are very real and pressing concerns, like it or not.

Anyway, with that out of the way, it’s time for me to get into my views on the thorniest of subjects- the state of the Middle East. Now I’ll come straight out now and say that I am not even attempting to speak in terms of strict acceptance of all views prevailing there. Some are to my mind true and others, however widespread they may be are actually false. I have no time for fanatical Islamism, which seems to me just fascism in a loosely ‘Islamic’ guise. Just as no-one believe these days we should tolerate, let alone support fascism, I’d say the same goes for radical Islamism, however convenient in the short-term such movements might seem (I talk here of the so-called ‘Mujahedeen’ brought into Afghanistan to end Soviet mis-rule, a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for a country like no other analogy I can imagine).

I wish for and will only ever accept, a multicultural and religiously tolerant Middle East, so the fact that members of a religious majority in certain places might want to extend their prejudices by supporting a government discriminating on their behalf is not real democracy at all. At best it could be called populism, but it is destined to fail, as sooner or later the rest of the world will realise that they identify just as much, if not more, with the Christians, Jews, Kurds and other minorities of the region and will find ways of guaranteeing equal rights for them all. So whenever we talk of the need for more democracy in that region, the ‘elephant in the room’, so to speak is the danger of Islamism. What if, in such destabilised circumstances, populations rather than supporting liberal democratic ‘good guys’ turn in their evident frustration with the status quo to Islamic-clothes wearing fanatical ‘bad guys’, as they do in many cases seem to be doing. If they accept the voting principal, but use it in a bigoted way, or the only truly popular and organised opposition is in Islamic-themed (notice my use of ‘themed’ and ‘clothed’, as I don’t want to think or claim that this is the very nature of that creed, as then we really are in trouble), What then? I admit, this is a question I have no real answer for, though my faith tells me that time will bury such people if they refuse to recognise universal rights just as it buried the dictators that came before them.

All we can do, I suppose, is avoid legitimising or condoning their prejudices and without fail stand up for the minorities’ rights, even make respecting those rights a prerequisite for our support. The fact is, business will go on unabated. Seeing as Saudi Arabia, long considered a key Western ‘ally’ outrageously discriminates against Christians with the flimsy excuse that their fellow religionists have done so for generations shows us how bad things actually are there. Europe in the past did such things, in Medieval times minorities were widely persecuted and after the financial upheavals of the great depression fascist parties came to the fore, often with the blessing (perhaps under duress, we don’t yet know for sure) of the majority Catholic Church and others, who saved their property but arguably lost their souls in the process, leaving Europe as the most agnostic continent the world has ever seen in their wake. Not that I see that as a bad thing, on the contrary, a broadly secular state is the only guarantee of religious freedom, in the end the most precious of freedoms, as a lack of an imposed religion allows those of conscience to flourish.

I may add that secular injustice is also to be condemned. The so-called Baath parties of former Iraq and present-day Syria lack any kind of legitimacy, yet it is still questionable if violently overthrowing them is the right answer. In Iraq, it clearly wasn’t and in Syria a combination of delegitimising the existing government there and its own terrible, repressive behaviour, far from new though it may, though with terrifying barbarity, has led to widespread chaos. What kind of order can emerge from such chaos, could it be humane governments, or will more rough beasts slouch forth from Babylon to be born?

So, to bring the conversation right to the point of current events, we have a certain dilemma here, presented in its starkest terms in Syria. By toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein, we helped expose just how transitory such governments in fact are. We also revealed the sectarian chaos that can emerge from beheading a government in a country that was from the very beginning a post-colonial construction of convenience, cutting blindly across ethnic lines that would presumably has delineated ‘natural’ entities rather than forced ones that seem to require near-constant armed intervention to maintain. Not my use of the word ethnic rather than religious, though the two of course combine in identities. Even if you could strip away the religious identities of Sunni, Shiite, Jew, Kurd, Christian, Christians often being the most badly treated with shocking indifference from the West, ethnic conflict would still be possible in lands with unnatural borders, so rather than try to reduce identities it might be better to expand them with a sense of universal humanity and enlightened, shared custodianship of the Earth.

In Syria we have a protest movement that was so brutally suppressed that it turned into a fully fledged armed uprising, which has gathered such pace it can almost be called a civil war. I say almost as the sides are so unequal and, at least in the side of the opposition, ill-defined. A pressing question is what kind of opposition is it really? Assad claims it is al-Qaeda linked terrorists and it can’t be denied that members of such groups have made their way into the country, though hopefully the West isn’t and won’t ever dream of arming them. I would have thought after the experience of Afghanistan, finding themselves at war with some of the same groups they had helped supply previously, the West would realise that such entities are like a wild tiger. You might train it, but can never tame it and here we are talking of horrendously barbaric groups, which are in essence no different from the Attila the Huns and Genghis Khans of history.

Yet apparently, they are being heavily equipped by Saudi ‘charities’ and are in a position to do much of the fighting. How to help the legitimate, democratic opposition whilst avoiding arming them, who sooner or later will find some way of turning such arms on us anyway, whether it be by Maliesque hostage-taking, terrorist plots, or simply wishing to destabilise nearby countries and attempt to infiltrate them. Knowingly arming them would not only be downright cynical (which is why I wouldn’t put it past some our so-called intelligence services), but ultimately self-destructive as we are the ‘great Satan’ of freedom, enlightenment and prosperity they fear so much, whilst Assad and his Russian backers are just a little Satan. Yet do nothing and we will be resented as silent accomplices of the regime, which is fighting not so much a terrorist insurgency, though this forms part of the problem, as an internal uprising by a people thoroughly tired of his mis-rule. Here we have a crystallisation of the uprisings there in the 1980’s, which at the time we merely ignored, though now affecting the entire country.

It seems to me though that there has to be a clear decision by the rebel groups that they will commit to a democratic and egalitarian program, that recognises the rights of all groups there, if they want to see Western support. Without that, I’m not sure it makes any sense to give any armed assistance, for the reasons outlined above and the charge of moral blackmail isn’t very persuasive. However odious Assad’s government might be and however tempting the idea of winning over a country in Russia’s pockets, the end does not justify the means for the simple reason that the end is something that comes after the first act. How nominally Christian countries can even think of arming people whose stated, not perceived, but stated intention is to commit genocide against all non-Muslims in the area and also different types of Muslim, simply beggars belief. I can understand the desire to have some influence on the resulting government and to be remembered as allies rather than strangers, which surely helped lead to the Libyan involvement. Yet we have to be pretty clear we won’t support just another form of bigotry, however it is dressed up. I have seen news reports that the liberal groups are receiving specialist (non-lethal’ arming and training. though it has to be made very clear that this is conditional on it staying in their hands… something no doubt hard to guarantee, which makes any kind of involvement questionable.

Of course, in this context two things should be remembered, however unpleasant they may be. One being that these militants are reportedly being armed with the help of the Saudis. Seeing as Saudi Arabia is very much in the American ‘pocket’, even extending to formally secret drone bases, it is hard to believe the West would know nothing of this, especially as such a tactic was used in Afghanistan in the 1980s, with similarly blinkered objectives.

The second is perhaps darker and I hope it’s not the case, but I think it’s worth pointing out the possibility. In the time of the original crusades, the Orthodox Christians of Slavic and Middle-Eastern lands were seen as just (or even more) heretical than the Jews and Muslims, who at least had the excuse of not knowing who Christ was, rather than going against his wishes of Apostolic successorship by being folded into the Roman Church and following the Pope directly. So Orthodox Christians were not just abandoned to regional rulers, but actively targeted, based around a fanatical belief that their way of worshipping with icons offended God, though persecuting them would somehow please him.

Nowadays, of course, there is much more fellow-feeling amongst Christians, though it seems to me possible that one reason there is such shocking silence amongst Western Christians in the face of such appalling oppression of their brothers and sisters in the Eastern Churches has it’s roots in this. Christianity may have evolved to be much more peaceful and enlightened, but I wonder if the same silence and even Western aid would greet groups persecuting Protestants or Catholics. This shouldn’t be the case and I don’t accept it at all, but other than the possibility of a New World Order organisation that essentially sees Christians as a threat due to their overt morality, this explains in part the widespread silence. Another possibility is that they themselves don’t want to be any more identified with an ‘alien’ west than they already are and beg to be allowed to resolve things on their own terms. Reports of a Christian exodus from Iraq and ‘liberated’ parts of Syria and persecution in ‘Arab Spring’ countries like Egypt suggest otherwise. To an extent, the so-called freedom of the Arab Spring is a death-sentence for minorities and more has to be done if their rights aren’t respected.

In all of this we have the existence of modern-day Israel, who I will be clear I recognise, see as a good thing ultimately for the region and the world and support their right to exist. With this comes of course the right to self-defense, self-defense in one of the roughest neighborhoods on Earth I might add, though I hope they use that right wisely. I don’t have any time for radicals or religious fundamentalists there, either, though think it pretty much absurd to try to pin the blame for all the region’s troubles on such a small entity, which after all is just trying to survive and prosper and doing a lot better than any of her neighbours at doing that. Why do people try to blame Israel for things so obviously beyond their control? Part of this is no doubt the historical prejudice of ‘blaming the Jews’, an almost superstitious tendency to escape from the complexities of a situation by blaming an at least mostly innocent party, a ‘scapegoat’. This works very well for the regimes of the region and keeps the people they are ruling and oppressing off their backs (None of this is to exempt them from their own wrong actions and often oppressive policies, by the way).

Yet even if there are Zionist conspiracies, and I have no doubt in such an unstable region, some wheeling and dealing is going on to protect Israel from the insanity so common around her (economically unproductive insanity I might add), it is beyond stupid to think that everything that goes on there is a result of such conspiracies. Yet intellectual laziness has seemingly endless appeal, particularly amongst the disenfranchised (which is not to say that Israel does no wrong, but to emphatically say they don’t do all, or even most of the wrong). The only thing I can see ending this, or any other prejudice for that matter, is universal suffrage and free education. What we are seeing in the Middle East now is that without education, democracy means very little. People are more likely to vote in their own new oppressors, representing their own particular bigotry, rather than governments that have a real likelihood of solving their various problems. The cultural divide between the West and traditionally Islamic majority states, which I still maintain are in reality multicultural countries as well, is very vast. That doesn’t mean we should forget about human rights and pluralism. We are lucky to come from countries where human rights are almost taken for granted. The overthrowing of corrupt dictators is only the first stage of bringing those universal rights to the rest of the world. Only governments that respect the rights of all their citizens, whatever their background, should expect to be seen as legitimate.

Local Walks

I wrote quite a post here, but accidentally wrote over it. Well, I saved it, then began another one with a different title as I didn’t think it ready for publishing and it looks like that was interpreted by the WordPress software as ‘overwriting’ it. Not too sure I am good at using that quick post tool after all! One of the reasons I started this blog, even more than  various other, often half-hearted web projects, was to find my own voice. I assume everyone has their own, unique voice as after all, whilst it may be convenient to see people statistically, we are individuals. I am actually from a family with not 3.25 people, living in an apartment with 2.5 rooms. Well, I’m not the 0.25 if that’s what you’re thinking, sleeping in 0.5 of a room, anyway (though some might beg to differ)!

Anyone who knows me will know that as well as loving to take photos, I take many of them (probably too many) and in fact do so almost every day. Digital has allowed me to be prolific in a way film would never have permitted and as cameras get faster and easier to use and get good results from, the temptation is to take even more! Of course, what’s more important is quality over quantity, so such a machine-gunning approach has severe limitations, which might only be apparent after the fact, when you see a friend’s collection from the day and envy their 15 good ones as opposed to your 800 mediocre ones, but that’s the way it goes. In some cases, it does help, for example getting the composition or focus just right, or being free to experiment with angles. I’m not sure it’s really better than a slow and meditative style, with less shutter-clicks and more looking, though. Large, ‘endless’ memory cards are as much curse as blessing in this sense.

I often head out for a walk in my local area, a ‘walkabout’ in the hours of best sunlight. Best sunlight for photography, that is, which means the early morning, though this can be as late as 7:30 in winter, or around and including the ‘golden hour’ before sunset, when that luminous golden aura surrounds everything from the setting sun. I truly enjoy these walks and the bonus is that not going to far means I can get back and do other things at home more easily. Once I start messing with trains, a necessity for a lot of interesting places to be sure, the whole thing takes up much of the day. So what do I photograph? There is a beautiful shrine near me, called ‘Suwa Jinja’ that is a favourite place. The shadows and streams of light between trees are evocative. The only thing is, it’s pretty small and being a shrine has hardly any flowers and the trees don’t change much outside of Autumn. Another favourite is a small stretch of water, connected to a larger river, where reeds have been planted and small fish and turtles swim. Yet what I go there for, despite it’s (hideously) concreted-over banks, a seeming favourite reducer of unemployment figures here in Japan, are the migrating wild birds that cluster there. Alongside ducks are cormorants, blue or white herons and egrets. I try to catch them in beautiful take-off, which necessitates a fast camera, either that or zoom in very far on their faces with my ultrazoom.

Then there is the area I jokingly call ‘beautiful countryside’. It has some nice paths, rice fields, old farmhouses and some small half-forgotten shrines here and there. Some of the local farmers are very friendly, offering me a drink and none has really been hostile, though I don’t like hearing the yappy, barking dogs much. Wild birds are to be found here and there and depending on the month, autumn leaves, cherry blossoms, various insects and at times even snow, though that is only once or twice a year. These local walks are something I truly enjoy, getting lost in the mystery of my surroundings. Each time I can find some new minutiae of detail to obsess over and sometimes whole new places. It’s a kind of adventure for me, a smaller scale camera trip with the advantage of no time limit and knowledge that I can always come back and photograph later.

So what gear do I use? Currently, pretty much all of my collection. These expeditions are also a good way to find out more about them and realise which ones I enjoy using most and why. I suppose ultimately, I’m learning more about myself this way.

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Walking in Ueno Park

One of my favourite subjects is actually people. No, not just pretty girls (who make good subjects, too!), but also older folk whose faces tell stories, couples loving their children, artists painting and so on. Ueno Park, I have found is actually a pretty good place for this and the nearby city streets give a nice taste of new/old Tokyo, though the people are a bit less relaxed once they are back in the busy smoke of the city.

Ueno park has also been refurbished a lot, to make way for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics bid. Of course, I have no idea whether that’ll be successful or not, but I wish the city luck.. Anything which makes the place nicer and more livable is fine in my book and if it costs money, well, that’s the way it is. It’s a fantastic and fascinating place and it would be great to give more people the excuse to discover it.

So anyway, here are some of my park life shots. I actually really enjoy watching people, especially when they are relaxed and having a good time. I’d say it’s quite therapeutic. Whilst nature offers its own glorious, beautiful and inspiring displays, closer to home fellow humans are easier to relate to and have just as much grandeur and beauty in their admittedly smaller lives. I go here pretty regularly. often with different camera and lens combinations, so expect to see more of this!

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A D400 Soon to Come?

Some more thoughts on DX. Seeing the rumour and then soon after, news of the D7100 got me thinking, positioned as it is above the ‘mid-level’ D5200 and below true semi-pro cameras like the D800. I’m not too sure whether or not I can expect, right now at least, a D400 with such a build. The problem for Nikon would be selling it. Not only is the market for higher-end DX dwindling, it would also mean supporting such a venture, meant originally surely as a stop-gap until FX became affordable. To an extent, with the advent of the D600, this has come to pass. I say to an extent, as that is a mid-range camera with a pretty-much high-end sensor. By having a smaller sensor, you can still make all the por-level features a lot more affordable, due to cost savings. Hence all the mirrorless crop cameras, some of them quite serious machines in their own right.

In the DX world, there have been new lenses periodically released, most of them very good and here I speak of the 40mm f/2.8 macro, 35mm f/1.8 and more recent 10-24mm zoom., but no pro-level models. Even if most people are happy with DX consumer models and a potential D400 with updated sensor, AF etc would be a fantastic camera, the benefits of affordable FX are too much to ignore by enthusiasts. I’m still a DX user but can see why Nikon can only realistically offer FX pro glass right now, which of course works fine on DX despite the huge size of it. To make new pro-level DX glass would divert precious resources and they would certainly like pros to go the FX route after all.

The only problem with this line of thought is the idea that the D600 is equivalent to a D400, as in AF, build and ergonomics it is nowhere close. If I wanted to have those, I’d have to go to the D800, with its slow shooting speed, just as the D700 was the only other option earlier. I’d admit, the D800 is a much more comprehensive camera for our time, with competitive resolution and video with what Canon has been producing all these years. Still, I can’t really afford a D800 right now and I’m not taken with the build of the D600 (or either camera’s prevalent bugs!), Nikon’s taking a huge gamble in effectively raising the price of its semi-pro line to the $3000 mark, plus lenses. Alongside the D7100, with more capability than the D600, I wonder if we may still see a D400 as well. There may even be a new kit lens for it, with constant f/4 aperture. Why? Because even if DX is dying, there is still some life in it, especially for event or sports shooters who don’t need so much resolution. Enthusiast-aimed, f/4 or f/1.8 lenses are aimed at the mass market, whilst f/2.8 zooms and f/1.4 primes are targeted at uncompromising pros.

I’ve always thought the D800’s Achilles heel is its slow speed and I don’t think that would be tolerable in a leading DX camera. Whilst a lot of pros are moving to FX, many enthusiasts can’t afford to, so the gap between D7100 and D800 is massive, only partially filled by the D600, which of course has poor AF for sports or events, not even covering much of the sensor! There is lots of room for a D400, even though the distinct lack of any pro DX lenses speaks against that. People with lots of DX glass may well want a better body to use it on and from Nikon’s point of view, they may also be buyers of expensive FX gear in the future.

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Preview of the D7100

Well, the wait is (almost) over for the D7100. As someone who skipped the D7000, but went for the D5100 for the more advanced sensor, which I can say now I’m very happy with, it is intriguing to see what is available. I have been watching Nikon’s models keenly ever since I originally got my D300, around 5 years ago. Aside from a slight update in the form of the D300S, which certainly modernised the camera for newcomers, all Nikon’s subsequent pro models have been FX and with the semi-pro D600 it seems to many that there may never be a pro DX again. For reasons I’ll go into below, I disagree, but first of all lets see what makes the D7100 such a great upgrade, which I believe it is.

New Features-

  • 24mp sensor, with AA filter removed. This in itself, used with the right lenses, offers a far more detailed and potentially subtly sharper photo. Whilst we are quite used to getting slightly soft photos from DSLRs due to this filter and then digitally sharpening them, it seems to me much more natural to capture the native sharpness being offered. Removing one more item from the imaging chain gets closer to the native performance and for me, despite the risk of moire (which presumably can be fixed digitally when it occurs, if not so well now, more so in the future.) we have a step in the right direction. 24mp also offers similar detail to the D600 and if not nearly the same high-ISO or dynamic range, apparently more than the 16mp sensors gave.
  • D4/D800 level autofocus, using an ‘advanced multi-cam DX3500 module’. I have a similar 51-point DX module being used in my D300, where it is excellent and apparently way better than the unreliable one in the D7000/D600. With the D4 algorithms, this should now have the best AF in any DX camera. Not only that, but the central AF point is usable up to f/8, making teleconverters with lenses like the 70-200mm f/4 useable with a 2X teleconveter and perhaps even the 70-300mm or upcoming 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 with a 1.4x. As someone looking for a lot more reach, this combination is very attractive!
  • The fact that the AF is better than the D600’s should raise eyebrows. AF is more important than you might think, especially with higher MP sensors and bright lenses. It will still suffer from the DSLR problems of back/front focus meaning each lens should be optimised, but at least it will make for an effective action camera, (though see below for the proviso with this.)
  • There’s a new crop mode, bringing a 1.3x crop (making for a 2x crop from the 35mm perspective), facilitating faster shooting and even better use of all those autofocus points. This will make for more reach, whilst retaining about a 16mp capture. Even with shorter lenses, it does make for varied crops as you take the photo and interestingly enough, these will offer the same crop as m4/3 cameras do. Now a 24mm lens will give you 36mm and a 47mm in one. The effect, combined with the usable teleconverter, may be most dramatic with the 80-400mm VR, assuming it is as good as the price suggests. Out of the camera, you’ll have a 120-600mm lens. Use the 1.3 crop and you get a 156-780mm at 5.6. Ramp it up with a 1.4x teleconverter, which we hope works as advertised and you have a massive 220-1090mm lens. If the AF and VR are effective enough, you now have something quite special for birding or safaris. Or even zoos!
  • Better weatherproofing also brings it up to the D300 level. Only the ergonomics are not nearly as good, which means it is still seen as an enthusiast, but not a professional body, something that the relatively low price reflects.
  • It brings better video options, with 1080P at 30fps, at a much increased bitrate, also offering stereo mikes, headphone out and uncompressed HDMI out. For anyone into video, this is a step up to the D5200 level and good news indeed.

On the Downside

Almost everything is an improvement, except for the disappointingly smaller, or at least less effective buffer. Presumably, they simply kept the buffer the same size, but raised the file size, but it all means that it can only shoot constantly at it’s full 7fps for 1 second with raw files. 1 second! Anyone getting this for sports or much wildlife shooting suddenly finds themselves with a handicapped camera in their hands. This little ‘gotcha’ is a dealbreaker for many D300(S) users, which presumably is intentional, so we pony up the cash for a ‘true’ D400 in the summer, or whenever. I find it pretty frustrating in itself and it means that, for now at least, the only other Nikon DSLR suitable for fast sports/wildlife shooting is the monstrously-sized and priced D4.

I’m personally on the fence about this being a true dealbreaker (for me). Of course, it is a massive limitation and I can’t stand it when my D300 freezes up from this, though it takes a lot longer to get there. There are some workarounds, though. First of all a fast SDHC card combined with the presumably faster throughput will help clear it a bit faster, though those seconds of pausing even with the fastest cards will seem like an eternity. Then you could always shoot in jpeg and with the crop mode, neither of which is always desirable, but it would raise the available buffer quite a lot, jumping (in fine jpeg) to 33 or 73, respectively, which is a big advance from the paltry 7 or 12 for Raws. This is one of the benefits of the crop mode itself and something we may see more of in high megapixel cameras to come.

Another potential issue is the lack of total modernisation. It seems the sensor is the same as in the D5200, so if the only issue is IQ, people may well just settle for that model. The LCD, though refined with white pixels for brightness, won’t swing down or out, a great convenience I use a lot on my own D5100, especially on a tripod. There is no touchscreen and the reliance on CDAF in live view means it won’t be able to AF very well in that mode, or be used as an LCD-based camera. Something we are used to in DSLRs, perhaps, but a weakness compared to mirrorless systems.

There is the persistent lack of in-body stablisation and of course this is also absent from almost all of Nikon’s prime lenses. This doesn’t just limit the usable shutter-speed, it also necessitates a tripod for video. Having used VR lenses for video hand-held, I know how well they work. It’s true though that sensor-based VR is seldom active for video, but at a time when video is becoming central, it is a bit of a handicap.

Other potential modernisations are buit-in Wi-Fi and GPS, both requiring bulky adaptors which I can’t see too many people buying into and reduce the camer’s vaunted weatherproofing when used, though more carefully designed, smaller door-flaps help a bit here.

Aside from this, there just isn’t all that much that’s new here. It’s a D300 in a smaller body with a better sensor. The sensor, weathrproofing and AF have simply migrated from other models. Yet in a sense, this is always what the D90/D7000 level of camera is all about. A price-sensitive, comprehensive and upper-mid level camera that can be used for a wide variety of photographic tasks. Aside from the crippled buffer, there isn’t much missing from this and it creates an exciting impression. It just doesn’t scream ‘future proof’ the way some of Nikon’s former DSLRs did. Most users will be more than happy with this model, yet I hope the ‘D400’ innovates more, showing us what the future is made of, with features that have us full on anticipation to try them out for the very first time.

Overall

This camera shows that DX is not only far from dead, but capable of being very exciting. Even without having any new lenses announced with it, the vast collection of on and off brand ones and the use of FX lenses make for a compelling system. The handicap of a small buffer and cramped ergonomics point to a potential D400 (D9000?) to come in the near future, hopefully with an even better sensor and video capabilities. The D7100 is so comprehensive that it is hard to imagine how the two could be differentiated, but the addition of typically pro features could make the difference.

The elephant in the room is of course the rise of mirrorless. So far Nikon has done little to take it seriously. The 1 series has too small a sensor for many users and this interferes with backwards compatibility. I think in the new Nikon A, with it’s 16mp DX sensor and 28mm equivalent lens, we have Nikon’s first foray in that direction, yet it seems to offer nothing unique other than size. It seems that any serious mirrorless camera from Nikon is years off and that even the early generations of a DX sensor-based mirrorless system will be simplistic. Still, as these will mature into primary systems, Nikon has continued it’s policy of making no new serious lenses for DX. It would be nice if the seemingly inevitable D400 brings any new kit lenses with it, but it seems Nikon still wants such users to invest in an FX system, despite the relatively huge sizes involved.

If this is music to the ears of Sony, Olympus and Panasonic, it should be tempered with the realisation that they still have some way to go to satisfy the needs of the typical pro user, especially when it comes to bright (in terms of bokeh abilities) zooms and also longer lenses. The mirrorless systems strength is still to be found in bright primes and good, convenient zooms.  Only when consumers are more willing to consider larger mirrorless lenses that forgo that size advantage, will that change. Which means that DSLRs, love them or loath them, are still the most flexible system cameras around.

Straight, No Chaser.

A Traditional Photography Blog - dehk © 2016

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