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.

(more…)

Big Day Out in the City

Today I decided to keep things simple. Looking forward to a day out in the city taking photos with Ken, I wondered what to take, not wanting it to be a kitchen sink-type operation, where I’d take things just in case I’d want them. I don’t really like using zoom lenses, as despite the convenience and in some cases their great quality, there are just too many options. So I left my trusty Tamron at home. I’m not even sure, when it’s uncalled for, if I really need colour. Getting the colours to match just introduces too much complexity and distracts me from the essence of the scene. Since it would be a day of photography, I wanted to capture people’s expressions, the meaning of their lives in the vast city and experience the phenomena of life myself. I didn’t want to water the experience down with gimmicky lenses or digital trickery. Back to basics, photo-style.

After starting out being (severely) disappointed with the camera on my 3G iPhone, which had about the resolution of a melted blob and a similar inability to autofocus, I ended up loving it despite the limitations, or even because of them. The haziness gave the photos a toy camera effect and being freed from the tension of ‘perfect capture’ helped me to focus on the essence of the scene rather than on the camera capturing it. I loved the ability to take a photo and upload it straight to Facebook and often get a response from my friends within minutes. I liked the angle of view.

Fast forward to the iPhone 4 and now I have the same connectivity, but a sharp, 5mp image, that you can keep for editing later, print, or blog knowing it will look good, or even play around with it on various apps, but still with the delicious limitation of no zoom. Who needs zoom when you have legs? I also found that the angle it offers me, at 35mm in full frame terms, suits me just fine. So, I stepped out into the world with it’s DX equivalent, a little gem known as Nikon’s 24mm f/2.8 prime (see the article for how I hit on that strange length) and boy did I love it!

We decided that Ueno would be a good spot, not too far, not too near. So we headed out into the park, for some park life and the shade of trees. Seeing as Ken was shooting some B&W film, I decided to switch over to monochrome digital, with a simulated yellow filter for a bit more contrast. But I’m a cheat, as it was all going on in RAW, so I could also view the photos in colour if I so desired. Still, just composing in B&W is refreshing and relaxing, freeing me from the complexity of an unnecessarily complex world.

Now for the photos…

It’s a Cat’s Life- We found this incredible, tiger-like cat there, along with his host of admirers.
Buskers

Morning Jazz- Buskers, getting into their thing under the shade of some trees.

Next stop, Ameyayokocho Street.

I ate my sashimi, but I saved some wasabi for you!

Ameyayokocho Street's timeless market sellers.

Fish without supermarkets and imported goodies like tea or nuts without inflated prices.

Some alternative culture. Tokyo now as well as then, (notice the subtle pun on a particular photoblog?)

I was sweltering, it was probably one of the hottest days of the year and even with hat and thermos was glad to make it to the camera shop we were looking for.

Back to the future with this stereoscopic model from the early days of film, something they are still trying to get going in these early days of digital.

A very cute girl who comes from Tohoku and volunteers there. We gave a donation after seeing her photos of helping out there. She is also a musician and it was a delight to meet such a sweet, pure person.

Having had our camera fix for the day, we chilled in Starbucks.

Luckily for us, there was a festival in Ueno that same day! One of the market sellers was good enough to tell us about it. It featured various groups and troupes from Tohoku. I was impressed and moved to see them celebrate the summer months and the wonder of life despite all the hardships up there. I hope things get better there and was happy to support even in this small way.

A Summer Festival

Taiko drums kept the summer rhythm going.

Many generations come out for the festival.

Something more interesting here.

A huge float approaching...

Into the dream…

It wouldn't be much of a summer festival without cheerleaders!

Then dinner- yakitori, salads and drinks out in the open. We met a nice guy and his friend, who is a Leica enthusiast. One day I have to get a lens for mine, hopefully without taking out a small mortgage first! It was good to connect and it all reminded me of my main theme for the day- keep it human, keep it simple and the beauty will reveal itself every day.

 Thanks for viewing!

Prime Lenses on DX- Finding the Right Match

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 me very satisfied with what I have and enjoy casual digital photography in a new way. It’s also a lesson that a wistful desire for something better can sometimes best be satisfied with something that’s been around for a long time.

After enjoying primes on film, the first one I tried on digital was the 50mm f/1.4, Yet I was disappointed to find out with my first DSLR, the D70, it was just a bit too long for walkabout. I soon realised that from being a normal, it had became a nice short portrait lens, though one with good but not amazing bokeh. Liking the function, I then upgraded to Sigma’s massive version,which has been called the ’85mm f/1.4 for DX’. But I still wanted something with a ‘normal’ point of view, so I tried out my 28mm f/2.8. Of course, it was no longer as wide as I’d remembered it, but with the change it became a good, slightly wide ‘normal’ lens for me. In fact, I found myself taking some of my best photos with it, thinking in a way that zooms discouraged, walking up to things and seeing them from their own perspective, which brought out the photographer in me.

One of my most favourite photos. I doubt I'd have composed the same way with a zoom.

When I switched to the D300, I was startled by the increased image quality I was seeing from it’s revolutionary 12MP sensor.I started looking at online lens reviews and saw that reaction to the 28mm I was using was decidedly lukewarm, so I wanted a taste of what I was missing out on. After seeing a lot of positive responses, I tried out the 35mm f/2D. The photo quality was nice, though not quite as exciting as I had hoped for and the bokeh wasn’t so great. I found the images quite soft wide-open and never really all that contrasty, yet there is something about the rendering I like, a sense of quality to it. Also, it’s bigger than the 28 and though not huge, this did eat away at the ‘compact package’ argument and made me think twice about bringing it along.

Looking back on it now, I realise that those extra mm meant it just wasn’t quite the same as the 28. Going out on my walks with it, I found myself painting details, not telling the whole story. Funnily enough, it’s angle of view, 57mm equivalent, is closer to my old 60mm macro than a normal angle, which is actually around 45mm (a classic lens length still occasionally made now, aimed at in Sigma’s 30mm f/1.4 DX). Still, I liked the angle enough to replace it with a smaller, faster 35mm f/1.8DX when it came out. This, especially for it’s price, is a real gem of a lens, very sharp, even wide open and with vivid colours. The bokeh leaves something to be desired, being probably worse than it’s cousin, being quite busy at times, but if you try not to challenge it with complex backgrounds, you can get some great images with it.

I find the 35mm DX good for close portraits, or details.

The Sigma 50mm f/1.4's incredibly creamy bokeh.

So after trying two 35mm I can affirm that both are good, they do differ. The newer DX model is a lot sharper, but with so-so bokeh and the other having better build but producing a slightly dull image, that may be good on low-contrast negative film but looks a bit dated on digital. It’s fine if that’s what you want, but I’m not so sure that’s what I always want. Digital is crisp and detailed, you can always tame that with filters if you want to soften that and I think an optimal digital lens should make use of this, unless you are looking for a special effect, of course. So, basically, I’d give a shout out to the DX version for digital shooters, as it’s not such a big investment, even if you do need to sell it on if you change to full-frame and you have the convenience of AF-S. It’d say the f/2 suits film more, or nostalgic shooters in search of a softer, more analogue look. As far as an affordable f/1.8 G full-frame version goes, Nikon is probably thinking if people can afford FX, they can pony up the dough for their new 35mm f/1.4G, but I think this is more for uber-pros and the super rich than us mere mortals, though I can dream. At that price level, it might be worth it to try out MF with the Carl Zeiss version, which apparently has sublime rendering, giving the feeling of an lens devised more for artists than computer testing.

In Search of Wider Angles (but not wide-angle)

I really wanted a wider angle to shoot with, without necessarily getting that unnatural ‘wide angle look’ that you get at 17 or 18mm on DX. Having lost my confidence in the 28mm, I decided to chose what length I like best. Having shot a lot with Tamron’s 24-135mm lens, I found I was getting some of my best photos at it’s 24mm setting. The same thing was happening with my 12-24mm Tokina. I even found my iPhone 4′, also 35mm equivalent, was giving me great shots and a classic, naturally expressive angle. I found people responded immediately to it’s shots, getting the sense of where i was through them. Had I found a ‘magic length’? Asking around, I found out that 35mm had been a classic for journalists and others for many years, offering a near perfectly balanced viewpoint. A friend had told me he could do 90% of a wedding with one, just moving around to recompose. It wasn’t just me. So I decided that it was time to treat myself. Seeing one sitting around the local Softmap at half the new price, I decided to get Nikon’s f/2.8 24mm.

The iPhone has a great angle of view for street-level photography.

I'm finding the same thing with my 24mm Nikkor

I had some teething difficulties with this, The first held me up for some time, being the relatively poor reviews. Unlike newer lenses, including Nikon’s 24mm or 35mm f/1.4D, or their DX 35mm f/1.8, it isn’t optimized for digital, resulting in relatively poor sharpness wide open, vignetting and people generally people saying their newer zooms do better. Was it really worth spending a lot on a decades-old lens? This had me hung up for months and in fact a couple of times I passed over copies I saw in camera shops, but in the end my question ‘when will Nikon make a cheaper 24mm for DX, like their 35mm f/1.8?’ was answered with a silent ‘perhaps never’ and I realised that a great, lens on the camera now is worth two on the roadmap! Once I did have it i hit another snag, as it back-focused really badly on my D300, so much so that  I took it into Nikon’s service center to have fixed. They did a great job, just by dialing in the right autofocus compensation on the fine-tuning option. The third is the fact that, being an older lens with no built in motor, it can’t autofocus with my smaller D3000 or D3100. This is an annoying problem, as their tiny viewfinders make focusing too hard and despite the D3100 live-view, it is too slow and the screen too low-resolution to use that way. Having the 35mm f/1.8 on that thing is a fantastic little package, fun and light and flexible, so it would be great to have some wider options. Are you listening, Nikon? As far as I know, Nikon has millions of shooters using those models, which brings me too…

A slice of life in the park.

Please Nikon, more Dx Primes, DX primes, DX PRIMES!

The switch from DX from film has in many ways been a great thing for a lot of people, bringing unheard of sharpness, versatility and of course the convenience of unlimited shooting ability, yet the blessing has brought it’s own curse, namely resolution-based shooting that challenges older lenses and a sheer dearth of wide angle prime. There has been great progress in the zooms, with lots of choice of lenses starting at 16-18mm, but for some bizarre reason I can’t fathom, no similar progress with primes. Part of this may well be the difficulty of making a quality wide angle cheaply, even just for DX. To have the quality good enough to rival the zooms it would have to be very good indeed- so perhaps they are avoiding poor reviews by not even trying. Also, many users have already stepped up to FX, especially the pros. In the past, this wasn’t a problem for users, as everyone could use the same lenses in the same way, be it on an F70 or an F5, but with cropped sensors we have a more complex situation, which is still in need of resolution. Will there ever be a full selection of usable lenses for DX, or should those wanting it either get a D700 or leave for another brand, perhaps to use alongside it? Or are the 16mm, 20mm, 24mm AF-S DX lenses ‘on their way’?

With more such primes, the DX format could really be a complete set, even with the smaller bodies like the D3100 or D5100, which despite their limitations, show how convenient this format can get, whilst keeping the same excellent photo quality. Sure, users can mount the older ‘D’ lenses in manual focus, but their viewfinders are too small and dark to do this well, especially on bright lenses with a short depth of field. Live view could help, the same way the LCDs on M 4/3 cameras are a enough for many people, but they are kind of hard to use this way. Now I know they aren’t designed to be pro cameras, but they are enthusiast cameras and Nikon could sell a tonne of wider DX primes to such enthusiasts if they made them. I should note in this context that there is a popular Sigma 30mm f/1.4 HSM DX avaliable, which I avoided because of their infamous quality control problems, but it does show there’s a market for it, only partially satisfied by the 35 f/1.8 DX.  If nothing else, people want a compact walk-around with quality, which makes this a golden opportunity. Nikon really need to do something about this, or else lose people to M 4/3, who are making much more of an effort to supply affordable high quality primes. People buying the camera might get zooms, but it’s the primes that make them attractive, keeping them so small. I understand that they need to focus on their essential lineup first, the D3100 and D5100 being great advances and the 35mm being a great DX lens, but we really do need more primes, as unless a cheap way to get into full-frame comes along soon, which it probably won’t, there is a very valuable segment for Nikon who aren’t satisfied with beer-bottle 18mm-xxx zooms and want the quality without breaking the bank. It may not be the biggest market, but it is a large and growing one that I think Nikon would be foolish to ignore (which in fact I think they are coming to realise).

What does little ‘ol me know about the market? Well, I do know that M 4/3 is making some of the most attractive, progressive and even best-selling cameras in some regions, being the fastest growing segment in Japan and Europe. What started out as a novelty has become a force to contend with. As I speak their third generation of cameras are coming out, boasting better than DSLR autofocus, which many thought impossible, and a new range of beautiful, exciting primes. this is all with their easy use of legacy lenses through adaptors. For now, their small sensor and lack of built-in viewfinders or EVFs still put me off, but who knows, if we can come to some sort of arrangement, could it be that M 4/3 is shaping itself into my second system, one more suitable for walkabout, with the size and features I desire for that? As I prepare to pack for another long trip, I think again of how I’d like to both travel light and have supreme photo quality. Time will tell, but they certainly need a built in EVF like that in the miraculous Fuji X100 before I jump on board their ship. Nikon, are you listening? It can’t just be me feeling this way.

Unless they are going to make their own version of mirror-less, with DX not going away any time soon, Nikon really needs to get their finger out and make those DX wide primes. Their D3100 and D5100 are capable of such great image quality, that they are really crying out for them. Maybe they are looking at a M4/3 or Sony NEX-like player of their own to indulge these on? I really don’t know, but I do know one thing- if you want to play with primes on Nikon in a serious way, you are going to be very limited by their entry-level models and need to step up to a D90 or D7000 at least. It will be a case of legacy lenses. I really like the DX quality image quality compared to compacts or M4/3, so I hope they can do more to make the most of them, so I don’t have to keep sticking on a zoom I shouldn’t really need. I should add, there is some progress in Nikon-Land. They recently released a new 50mm f/1.8, which despite it’s poor bokeh, at least offers an entry level 50mm, for portraits and candids. Then there is the announced 40mm f/2.8 macro, which looks like having some really nice image quality, especially in terms of both sharpness and bokeh and offers a ‘normal’ a little longer than the 35mm, but at the expense of a stop and a bit, offers you much better bokeh, which seems to be a major flaw of the f/1.8, despite it being an otherwise tremendous lens. I love macro and a beautiful bokeh, but my 90mm Tamron is too long on DX for walkabout use (though great for flowers or bugs), so this may well be my next lens purchase. It may even replace my 35mm f/1.8, which funnily enough I was just starting to feel dissatisfied with, primarily due to it’s poor bokeh with complex backgrounds, but also due to it doing close-up but not Macro. Despite being twice as dark, problems I was only starting to notice have suddenly been solved.

Even this cat wants more DX primes!

Buying Advice, for the Prime-lover

So my advice to Nikon buyers? The most obvious route is full-frame, where of course all primes work as advertised, but like many I am still waiting for the D700 to be updated with more resolution and video before I go that route, to get something like the Canon 5D MkII. Even so, it’s a chunky monkey and I would still prefer something smaller for everyday use. People I know with a D700 often leave it at home due to the bulk; a casual camera it ain’t. Some say full-frame is the medium format of our day and it does seem to hold true for the moment in Nikon-Land, though I expect sooner or later they’ll release a smaller alternative; the new 28-300mm ‘kit lens’ suggests one may come.Whatever camera you use (it really isn’t that important), if you want to know which focal length suits you best and would be worth getting a prime in, take a look at the shots you’ve been taking and see which ones you are happiest with.

I find with my 24, 28, or 35mm, I have great lenses to wander around with, all close to ‘normal’. They focus fast and efficiently, their small size makes me unimposing for street photos and I can portray the same simple world I see it through my eyes. A good prime, blurring the background, can give your photo a 3D effect that you’d rarely get from a zoom. Sure, I’d like AF-S motors and more critical sharpness, which I could get from a lens redesign, but I find it isn’t essential for what I do. The reason I use these lenses is not so much for better image quality, as for their simple, efficient approach, which is something you notice more when taking a photo in the real world than in theory (hence the popularity of rangefinders, which leave out gadgets and get straight to the photo). As far as lengths go, that 24mm is all I need. I might sometimes like to go wider, but for now 24mm does it for me. It may well in many cases be all I need, just moving around to capture different angles. It is my ‘starting point’, a chance to get really great photos rather than just good ones, whether or not the world understands them. You, dear reader, may have another favourite length- if you are lucky, it will be 35 or 50mm, which will give you a world of choices, whatever the format, but I personally like my world a little wider. And you know what, after talking to other photographers, including some pros, I’ve found others saying the dame thing. Which all means, after sitting inside whilst I took out my D3xxx series, my D300 will be coming out to play a bit more.

Note– Edited on 24/07 to improve readability and correct some small mistakes.

Lenses in the slideshow-

1) The first prime lens I enjoyed on DX- Nikkon’s AF 28mm f/2.8D. It gets generally poor reviews for various issues, like CA but I find it can produce magical images for me anyway, just for being so usable. I may well have a good copy. Reputedly, it’s a lot better stopped down.

2) My current favourite, the 24mm AF f/2.8D Nikkor, a classic lens, that really makes the images ‘pop’.

3) The handy AF-S 35mm f/1.8DX Nikkor, one of the best deals in Nikon’s current lineup, in many ways a DX version of their famous AF 50mm f1.8D

4) An oldie but quite goodie, the AF 35mm f/2D Nikkor, a bit soft on digital, unless you stop it down a bit

5) The aging AF 50mm f/1.4 AFD Nikkor, replaced by a slower-focusing G version, which apparently has better bokeh. For this reason, I prefer to use my cream-machine Sigma 50mm, though it is heavy as can be.

Then a few lenses I don’t have…

6) The Sigma AF 28mm f/1.8, an older version as bought by Ken in Ueno, the newer one being a lot larger but having HSM focussing

7) Nikon’s expensive and out of production AF 18mmD, which in it’s poor internet reviews illustrates just why I think Nikon needs to make some new wide, affordable primes to keep up and

8) Nikon’s soon to be released 40mm f/2.8 DX Macro, which I predict will be a more useful lens than many people currently realise. It is apparently very sharp with a creamy bokeh, making it potentially a great and handy lens for portraits.

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