Category Archives: Opinion

Boring Photos

Sunset over ShieldaigA recent forum post asked how to turn beautiful scenery into good photographs. The complaint was that even though the views were lovely, the resultant photos were boring. My advice on this goes roughly like this:

As an exercise, analyse why the photos are boring and then seek to do the opposite. Is it because the light is flat an uninteresting? Then find times when the light is dramatic. Is it because the scene is too flat? Then try taking photos from different perspectives, down low, up high. Maybe your post-processing is too conservative. Take artistic licence and play with levels, contrast, dodging/burning, saturation or cropping.

Some views are best enjoyed live and don’t translate well into a photo, at least not with a straight interpretation. You could try portraying it not simply in a representational manner but the impression you want to convey. Digital photography and post-processing gives you a lot of power to explore the artistic possibilities of a photo.

Rising Tides…

Another photokina is upon us and it is a good time to reflect upon the state of photography. It has never been a better time to be a photographer with the range and quality of imaging potential available. Advances in sensor technology, memory, processing, miniaturization, and connectivity has led to marvels of engineering only dreamt about 20 years ago. Yet the constant background whine continues, such and such manufacturer hasn’t given me my perfect camera and lenses and an unrealistically inexpensive price, yesterday.

The trends are towards better image quality, we’ve seen a new crop of larger sensor cameras (1″ and up) entering the compact digicam arena. I find a mobile phone great for documenting various things like receipts but useless for taking proper photos so having near DSLR quality in a compact camera is a boon.

The 4K video drive is also leading to some knock-on benefits for still imaging. Fast sensor readout and data handling gives more flexible shooting modes including exposure without mechanical shutters, albeit with rolling shutter. Global shutter for consumer still cameras will eliminate all mechanical vibration and simplify camera construction.

Advanced pixel architectures incorporating phase detect AF, wide dynamic range, backside illumination, improved microlenses, etc. will lead to better performing cameras. The first APS-C BSI camera has arrived in the form of the NX-1. Canon’s dual pixel AF is in its second generation. There are many wide dynamic range technologies in the development pipeline from many imager manufacturers.

The increasing penetration of 4K displays expands the possibilities for viewing photos in all their glory. It’s not just video that benefits. It also will emphasise the important of good image quality. In the end, it still boils down to the photographer to create compelling images. But with the tools available, there are fewer excuses for not being able to.

Lincoln Cathedral and Tripods

Taken handheld, NEX-7 with 35mm/1.8 ISO100 F3.5 1/20th. This was a grab shot. If I had not been on my way somewhere, I’d have taken the time to set up my tripod and use a smaller aperture and perhaps bracketed exposures. I was fortunate that the image stabilisation kept the image sharp, and that the NEX-7 sensor has excellent dynamic range so is able to capture the highlights in the stain glass as well as the shadow detail.

I had the pleasure of visiting Lincoln Cathedral over the weekend and was very pleasantly surprised by their very photographer friendly attitude towards tripods. When I asked the guide whether they were allowed the response was, “of course”. There were no restrictions and I spent quite some time taking panoramas of various parts of the building.

However, I was the only person to be using a tripod. There were many taking handheld shots with a myriad of cameras ranging from phones, compact cameras, a few mirrorless and quite a few DSLRs. The lighting could be best described as subdued so I cannot image their photos were able to do justice to the magnificent architecture. Unfortunately the weather outside was overcast so I did not bother to gather external shots, that will have to wait for a return visit when the weather is better.

There are so many beautiful places and buildings with photography restrictions, tripod bans being a particularly significant one. Whether it is due to a perceived commercial threat  from professional photographers, or overly paranoid health and safety grounds, such bans are counterproductive by discouraging the very enthusiasts who will promote the sights with quality imagery around the web. The experience from Lincoln is that there were absolutely no issues with tripods getting in the way. Commonsense is really all that is needed to prevent them being a problem. Much as I espouse tripod use for getting better photographs, the majority of photographers will not use them.

So I heartily recommend Lincoln Cathedral as a wonderful place to visit, even if you are not a photographer. They deserve your support for their enlightened policy towards photography. You should also try to catch Evensong to sample the wonderful acoustic.

A7(r) Musings

A7R_img1bb-1200“Fullframe”, “Mirrorless”, Interchangeable Lenses, AF. Put these ingredients together and you get the just announced FE mount Sony A7 and A7r cameras. The NEX-VG900 camcorder technically also fulfilled these 4 criteria but it is not very practical as a stills camera. So the A7 and A7r represent a new category of camera, one that many have been hoping would be populated sooner rather than later. Rumours rose over the last few weeks to a crescendo until this morning (16/10/2013) at 7am GMT when the new cameras and accompanying lenses were officially unveiled. The rumours were pretty much spot on, a RX1 styled E mount camera with inbuilt EVF. The reaction from the photographic community has been substantial. Here are just a few thoughts about what these new cameras and lenses mean.

The name of the new cameras have caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth. The A mount crowd despair that A mount is dead now that an E mount camera is called A-something. The APS-C NEX crowd despair that with the demise of the NEX brand, there will be no more APS-C NEX cameras. At the moment, I think there is little evidence to suggest either possibilities. From various statements coming from Sony spokespeople, the Alpha brand will consolidate the A mount and NEX E mount cameras all under a single A designation. Note: The NEX cameras were launched in 2010 under the Alpha umbrella, so it’s not a case of E mount hijacking the Alpha brand. The A mount will continue to be supported (the 70-200mm/2.8 G MkII such an indication) and I won’t be surprised if the next A mount camera will not be an SLT or SLR but will have on-sensor phase-detect AF. The current lull in A mount camera releases may be due to Sony developing this next phase of the A mount.

The APS-C mirrorless segment is still going to be the bread and butter of Sony’s interchangeable lens camera business so it won’t be disappearing soon. The A3000 has led some to worry that NEX-6/7 styles cameras are a thing of the past but I think again that we have too little evidence to be confident that will be the case. The recent release of the 16-70mm/4 Zeiss and 18-105mm/4 G lenses would indicate that higher end APS-C E mount cameras are still a priority. Sony’s E mount strategy incorporates their professional video business as well, e.g. FS-100 and FS-700, so there should be continuing development on that front.

A7_LifeStyle 4Meanwhile, the Sony has done the expected in taking the design cues of the RX1(r) and developed a compact “full frame” interchangeable mirrorless AF camera system. With the aggressive pricing at launch, Sony has been able to leverage the advantages of being fully vertically integrated. From producing the sensors, lenses (with some help from Zeiss), EVF and supporting electronics, Sony has come up with a compelling package at an extremely attractive price. The dimensions of the camera are very compact considering the size of the sensor, shutter assembly and A99-derived EVF incorporated into the body. The control set seems to be robust and the grip reportedly very comfortable.

The choice of “7” in the name is a nice reference to the Minolta heritage. The 7-level cameras were often the ground breaking model. The Dynax 7D was the first DSLR from Konica Minolta. The Dynax 7 was one of the best film SLRs in terms of features, it introduced a large rear LCD for information and settings and the some aspects of the interface of current A mount cameras can be traced back to this. Going further back, the Minolta AF 7000 arguably heralded the first practical AF SLR system and introduced the A mount. But the use of “7” also implies that we may see cameras at the “3”, “5” and “9” levels. Whether or not under the new naming system these will be full frame as well is yet to be seen but it seems likely that a flagship A9(r) will follow to cement the FE mount as a high-end, professional choice.

A7R_Lifestyle 2

We’re going through a process of the digital imaging revolution maturing. The SLR was a technical solution to the fact that you had to develop film to see what the image was going to be like. Since one has near instantaneously readout the scene composition from a electronic sensor, we no longer require the mirror to divert light to the viewfinder. SLRs, especially their focussing system, have been developed for many decades and have reached quite a sophisticated level. The system of semi-transparent reflex mirror, relay optics and specialised phase-detect AF modules have some performance advantages (mainly due to this intensive development) but many inherent disadvantages such as being much more prone to misalignment and miscalibration.

It is only a matter of time before sensor-based AF will effectively match or surpass DSLR AF performance. With improvements in sensor sensitivity, readout and dynamic range, it will also only be a matter of time for an EVF to be able to let the photographer see better than they could with an OVF, e.g. with intrinsically high dynamic range sensors you could display a contrast range that would be painful to look at directly. Already, the better EVF implementations allow you to frame in dark conditions where you wouldn’t be able to see much in an optical viewfinder.

A7R_wSEL55f18Z_right-1200One should keep the current A7(r) introductions in perspective. These are not the last word in photography but herald the beginnings of a new chapter in digital imaging. I look forward to the inevitable improvements in models to come. From what is happening in research labs around the world (including those in Sony), we can hope for global electronic shutters, wide/high dynamic range sensors, more post-Bayer colour filter array architectures (improvements over Sigma Foveon), lower read noise and higher sensitivities, higher pixel densities (whilst retaining image quality), and faster readout. The future of imaging looks bright.

Images courtesy of Sony

RX10 Speculation

The next week looks to be an exciting time for Sony digital imaging. With rumours flying about “full frame” E-mount cameras (the existing NEX-VG900 notwithstanding), another curious rumour has popped up regarding an RX10. This presumably slots in between the RX100/M2 (13mm x 8.9mm sensor) and the RX1/r (36mm x24mm sensor) fixed lens cameras. The assumption had been that the RX10 would be an APS-C (24mm x 16mm sensor) camera but recently it has been reported that it has in fact also a 1″ sensor (like the RX100/M2) coupled with a 9-74mm/2.8 zoom lens (equivalent to the field of view of a 24-200mm zoom on a 35mm film camera) but at a price of $1300 (presumably USD).

A common reaction to the rumour is that the price is too high and they can’t see a market. Just because you can’t see a market for it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Lots of people said there wasn’t a market for a fixed single focal length lens camera at $2,800/€3,100/£2,600 (RX1). The general impression is the the RX1 has done well enough so that Sony saw fit to release a second model (RX1r) to capitalize on its success. Sony seem to be aiming for niches where there are no comparable products. As for the rumours RX10, there’s nothing available that matches a 1″ sensor to a high ratio large aperture zoom.

RX100M2The RX100/M2 showed that people are prepared to pay for image quality in a convenient compact package. The premium price is backed by premium images and features. No other manufacturer has anything to match it yet. If the rumoured RX10 can bring near DSLR-level quality to the bridge camera category, then I can see it attracting both travel photographers wanting to ditch not just DSLRs but even CSCs, and the discerning bridge camera buyer wanting the convenience of an all-in-one camera but looking for better image quality.

Look at the Nikon 1 system for the closest (though not close) comparison. From the Nikon USA website, the Nikon 1 V2 2 lens kit is $1150 and the All-In-One lens kit is $1350 (SRP). They’re not strictly comparable as the zoom ranges and max apertures do not exactly match up with the rumoured RX10. A $1300 SRP for a 1″ sensor with a good high zoom lens could be an attractive proposition to the right demographic.

The RX10 doesn’t need to be a blockbuster for it be a success. If it can cover itself and earn back its development costs, it would help Sony consolidate the premium compact camera market as exemplified by the RX100/M2 and RX1/r. We saw hints of Sony’s strategy in previous financial reports, e.g “…Sony has shifted its product lineup to high value-added models…adding new models to the `DSC-RX’ series, which created a market for high-end compact digital cameras with large sensors developed by Sony last year.”

It is widely acknowledged that smartphones are destroying the low-end compact camera market. Camera companies have been scrambling to develop other markets to cover this vanishing source of income. There will be interesting times ahead but if the camera manufacturers are forced to think outside of the box and deliver innovative imaging solutions, then perhaps we the consumer will benefit. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t become a race to the bottom and that quality trumps price in the minds of the buyer.

Thoughts on the A3000

Sony A3000

I’ll think this will do well. Capability-wise, it is probably not more than a NEX-3 level body with the addition of a viewfinder and hotshoe with a new 20MP sensor. The lack of controls and eye switch, the low resolution LCD, and the build screams entry-level. However at the price point at which it sits (introductory price is lower than that of the NEX-3N in the UK), I don’t think it will be a problem. Seen through the lens of the prospective market, the specifications and design are appropriate.

Considering that I see lots of people using liveview and the dirty diaper stance with conventional SLRs for taking everyday photos (defeats the whole purpose of having an SLR with its phase-detect AF), I doubt that most people will actually be using the EVF on the A3000. The Canon 70D will be perfect for these people.

The market demographic to which the A3000 will appeal are people who like the whole DSLR look, but will use the camera just like any other point and shoot. If I hand my DSLR to a non-photographer, often they look confused when the back LCD is blank. I have to point to the viewfinder and encourage them to put it to their eye.

But my interpretation of the continued strength of the DLSR market, especially the low end against the onslaught of mirrorless cameras, is that they are about image, not image quality. Having a Canon or Nikon DSLR, even if it a100D or D3200, is a statement about the photographic pretensions of the user irrespective of whether they know how to use it or not. A NEX, NX, or even micro 4/3rd camera would be eminently more practical for the majority of low end DSLR users but having a DSLR-shaped lump around their neck is preferable because it looks more professional.

In this context, I think the A3000 will be reasonably successful. It looks like little more than a rehoused NEX-3N with updated sensor so hopefully the manufacturing costs will be low. The 18-55mm kit lens is actually quite reasonable as a kit lens and balances the rest of the body better than would the 16-50mm PZ lens. The simplified and contextual interface will be natural to someone coming up from a P&S camera. And the size is small enough to be a noticeable improvement on a DSLR but still has the shape and enough bulk to project the right impression.

I am curious about the new 20MP sensor, rumour has that it is not the same as on the A58. Tests may reveal any signficant differences (SLT notwithstanding). Hopefully there will be sensitivity and dynamics range improvements that will bode well for upcoming higher range models.

E-Mount and “Full Frame”

From sonyapharumors.comThere’s been much speculation about Sony introducing a NEX camera with a 36mm x 24mm “fullframe” sensor. This has been accompanied by angst and naysaying, much of it technically unfounded. One of the objections to the possibility is the perceived geometric impossibility to cover the whole frame since it looks like the mount is too narrow. Even though the NEX-VG900 camcorder has a 36mm x 24mm sensor and E mount, and people have successfully reported to have use all sorts of “fullframe” lenses on it, some people still seem to suffer from cognitive dissonance when looking at a photo of the sensor/mount as shown on the left. People seem to by hung up on the fact that the corners seem to be occluded.

The concern may stem from a mistaken belief about the path that light takes to get to the sensor. One must realise that the light passes through the lens and ultimately through the rear element before being projected onto the sensor. The light which exits the rear element will diverge to reach the extremities of the sensor. The rear element is usually smaller than the throat, even on a large aperture optics like the Minolta 100mm/2 or 85mm/1.4 G the rear element is only ~34mm in diameter. The throat of the E mount is 46.1mm in diameter, the fully clear diameter is 43.5mm, the maximum width of the rear element is 41.5mm (taking into account the barrel housing), and the fully circular region (excluding the contacts) is 35.5mm.

One may object that the 18mm flange distance of E mount is much greater than the 44.5mm of A mount, hence comparisons are moot. One just needs to look at the Leica M mount to see that it should not pose too much of a problem. The M mount has a diameter nominal diameter of 44mm (c.f. 46.1mm) and a flange distance of 27.8mm, considerably smaller than SLR mounts. Leica Thread Mount (LTM) has a nominal diameter of 39mm.

There are issues which may complicate matters but they do not prevent the E mount from using a “fullframe” sensor. The most serious one is making sure that the light rays, as they leave the rear element, are not at too great an angle compared to the normal of the sensor surface. This is because the pixels have an angular dependence on the sensitivity. This means that it is optimal to have a telecentric lens where exit pupil is as far from the sensor plane as practical. A fully telecentric lens would have the exit pupil at infinity and hence the rear element would have to be at least as large as the sensor, but it is more practical to accept some small deviations. We can calculate the minimum angle of incidence onto the sensor given the dimensions of the E mount. If we use the fully clear circle of 35.5mm, the diagonal of 43.3mm for a “fullframe” sensor, and the flange distance of 18mm – 4.7mm = 13.3mm (taking into account the projection of the lens into the body, we have a minimum angle of incidence at the corner of 16.3 degrees. It should be easy enough to design the pixel to accommodate this and even greater angles. Leica use offset microlenses at the corners to compensate for this effect.

In summary, there is nothing preventing Sony releasing an E mount NEX camera with a “fullframe” sensor along with accompanying lenses. The NEX-VG900 demonstrates that there is not only possible, but has been achieved for all practical purposes. To get good corner performance, care must be taken to achieve adequate telecentricity, but this is true of all digital sensors. The pixel architecture and microlens layout will have to be optimised to ensure good angular response to off-axis rays. Lens design may need to compromise on compactness to achieve the requisite telecentricity. Adapted lenses on the VG900 have shown that there are no corner shading problems. Now all we have to do is wait and see if all the rumours are correct.

PS David Kilpatrick at Photclubalpha posted about the possibility of E mount “fullframe” some time ago.

Letting go

One of the hardest things when evaluating your own work is letting go any personal attachments you have with the image. In particular, you have to try to forget the feelings you had the moment you pressed the shutter, the excitement, tension or fear surrounding the shot. To see whether a shot “works” and a photograph, you have to put that all aside and try to evaluate the image as would someone who wasn’t there when you pulled the trigger.

This is the reason why many photography teachers and writers advise you to put aside critical editing decisions till some time after you took the photo. Feelings will have faded and what is left is hopefully a more considered look at what is actually there in the image rather than what you can remember having felt at the time. If the subject matter is personal, then you may have to try to put aside as much of that as you can.

It sometimes helps to go back to the basics, composition, exposure, and focus. Concentrate on whether these elements help or hinder the image. It’s not a matter of “good vs bad”, rather a matter of whether they are appropriate for the subject. As Ansel Adams is often quoted, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” Most importantly, does the image say something and if it does, to whom is it speaking? It doesn’t matter how hard it was to get the shot if the shot itself is not interesting.

It is useful to find out what other people think, not as a replacement for your own judgement but as a complement. People respond differently, they necessarily come to a photo with their own background and experiences so what they see may not be what you see. But there are also common points of contact, universal resonances that should be apparent in the best photos. But it is important to not take any criticism too personally, take what constructive suggestions you can and file away the rest as a learning experience.

Why Street Photography

There are two major strands of my photography, landscape/panoramic and street/candid photography. The wedding/social and portrait photography could be seen as an extension of my interests in street/candid photography in general. I’d like to reflect on what makes street photography attractive to me, and possibly to lots of other photographers. It’s a genre diametrically opposite to studio/fashion photography and I think it’s these differences which are behind its appeal.

Street photography is relatively cheap. Well, it may not be if you decide to get a Lecia M9 and Noctilux, but a minimum kit with which to start off consists of a manual film SLR and cheap 50mm “standard” lens. Even with film costs, it’s something a student could afford to try out. You can try street photography with your camera phone, LOMO, disposable cam, or point&shoot. No need for a fancy DSLR, in fact the smaller the camera the better in many cases. One doesn’t need fancy lenses, huge zooms, or complex kit. A single lens and simple camera is enough.

Street photography is exciting. The process of going out and taking street photos can be exhilarating. It can also be frustrating, tense, anxiety provoking, and sometimes dangerous. Street photography, as a personal endeavour, is as much about the process and struggle one goes through to get the shot than it is about simply the final product. It’s not to say that results don’t matter, but one can derive personal satisfaction from the activity. For me, it can be a form of therapy, a way to focus the mind on the immediate reality of the now and banish other worries. Getting a few good shots is an added bonus.

Street photography is unplanned. You never know what you will come back with when going on a street photo outing. Life is unscripted, people are random, you have to be lucky as well as good. You can improve your chances by choosing your stalking ground, the time of day, observing and noting people, groups, and situations as they develop. But there are no guarantees with street photography.

Street photography is not rigid. The “rules of photography” one may learn as a beginner (“rule of thirds” etc.) can be tossed out of the window when doing street photography. What “works” as a street photo is so open to interpretation. Often, framing can be haphazard but the photo is still interesting. Exposure can be “off” but the effect can work with the subject. Even photos which are not perfectly sharp can show interesting scenes, blur can be used creatively to enhance a mood. It is up to a street shooter to work with circumstances, creatively apply their technique to capturing interesting shots.

Street photography is democratic. Anyone can pick up a camera and start doing street photography. The low barrier to equipment, you don’t have to travel anywhere in particular, there’s no special technical know-how involved (setting you camera on automatic or P-mode works well enough in most cases), and post-processing is comparatively simple (no need for endless touching-up on photoshop, merging HDR brackets, stitching panoramas etc.)

Street photography is a solitary activity. You don’t need models, make-up artists, stylists, or assistants. All you need is yourself, a camera, and the street (loosely defined). When starting out, it can pay to go shooting with a more experienced streetshooter  to get hints about camera settings and handling, spotting scenes, good spots, and general demeanour but that’s not even strictly necessary. One can easily be self-taught in street photography, more so than for more technically and equipment laden genres.

So, if you haven’t already tried street photography, you have no excuse. Remember the words of Robert Capa, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

Sony photokina announcements

Alpha A99: A fitting companion tot eh A77. I’m in two minds about the switch back to the old ISO shoe. Mechanically, it’s inferior to the iISO shoe but I understand the need to update the electronic contacts so I guess the switch will also counteract the criticism of a non-standard shoe. The revised 24MP sensor is intriguing. I hope that its performance will be a significant improvement over the A900, not that the old camera was bad. Having that extra low0light performance can’t hurt. I’m intrigued by the new multi-segment low-pass optical filter. I wonder how they are going to deal with the problem of both stills and video capture requiring much different low-pass characteristics.

NEX-6: I could have had one of these instead of the NEX-7. It’s what lots of people have wanted, a NEX-7 style camera with a 16MP sensor. The new on-sensor phase-detect AF will be interesting to watch. I think I’ll actually get a NEX-5R since I can use the NEX-7 for the times I require a hotshoe and EVF (studio), and the NEX-5R would be fine as a general travel and panoramic camera (should the sensor play nice with the Samyang 8mm/2.8 fisheye). I can use difference in price between the 5R and 6 to go towards the new lenses, especially the 16-50mm pancake zoom and the 35mm/1.8 OSS prime. The 10-18mm/4 OSS will be a nice option should I need conventional rectilinear wide-angle shots.

RX1: I think this product is at once exciting but personally irrelevant. It’s one of those YMMV products which has already polarised the general photographic enthusiast market. There’s been so much projection of personal needs and desires onto this niche product. The fact of the matter is that it is not for the masses, any more so than a Lotus Elise. For what it offers, it is quite reasonably priced. A 35mm/2 Zeiss lens mated with a full format 24MP sensor all wrapped up in a very compact package will be a marvellous tool in the right hands. I can see photojournalists, street and candid photographers clamouring to get one as their personal go-everywhere camera.

VG900: It will be intriguing to see where this fits in. Does it aim for indie movie makers wanting to get the “full-frame” DSLR look but in a much more traditional camcorder package? If it offers clean and full HDMI out, could it act as a B camera on large productions? Without native full-format E-mount lenses, it doesn’t seem to be geared towards the wedding or field reporting crowd which would appreciate AF or a power zoom. The fact that they can stuff a full-format sensor into an E-mount body bodes well for even higher end NEX still cameras.