Laurels and Rhododendrons

Laurels and Oak ( Fujifilm S3 Pro, Nikkor 35mm f2.0)

Here in the Pennsylvania highlands, June offers a unique opportunity for photographers. It is in the 6th month of the year, that
the two signature shrubs in Penn’s Woods, cast open thousands of pink and white flowers in displays that can literally encompass one’s entire field of view. I am alluding of course to the Pennsylvania state flower the Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), and its later blooming cousin, the rhododendron (Rhododendron groenlandicum).

Both shrubs occur throughout the state, and elsewhere in the eastern US (the rhododendron) occurs throughout much of the northern latitudes globally). Both species are evergreen, they add color to the brown/grey forest of November through April.  Two months later, they are among the last of the spring blooms, before the forest settles in to the dark green monotony of summer.

Laurels in the Forest (Fujifilm S3 Pro, Tokina 12-24mm f4)

I have members of both species in my yard at home. While the rhododendrons on some of my neighbor’s yards bloom in late May, mine conveniently are timed more to those that bloom in nearby wild-lands, in late June.  So in early June, then my laurels are awash in flowers, I know it’s time to pack the car with photo gear, and head to the deep forest.

Early Rhododendron (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 50mm f 1.8G)

 

There are many places in the state where there are spectacular displays of Mountain Laurels, which in some sites will crowd out most of the competing underbrush. I have memories of hiking the magnificent West Rim Trail at the Pine Creek Gorge (Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon). We had a miserable 2 day slog through the rain, the magnificent scenery not entirely making up for the challenging terrain, and miserable weather. Cold and tired, we were approaching the trail’s end at Ansonia, when the skies began to clear.

Emerging from deep forest, the trail began to skirt the rim of the canyon which was carpeted in laurel blossoms under a canopy of tall hardwoods and conifers. Wispy clouds hugged the steep canyon slopes. I remember being slightly overwhelmed by the spectacular setting, and the vista beyond. In those days, I was more focused on hiking than photography but I did think to grab a shot or two, with my little Olympus film camera.

Laurels on the West Rim (Little Olympus film camera)

These days, my “go-to” place for laurels and “rhody’s” is nearby Hickory Run State Park. It is a magnificent place, bordering the Lehigh River gorge, with steep Appalachian terrain along the river to the west, and highlands to the east which are part of the glaciated terrain of the Pocono Plateau.  It is the latter area in the park that I patrol when my yard laurels bloom.

Laurels at Boulder Field (Fujifilm S3 Pro, Tokina 12-12mm

During the 1700’s, travelers here beheld the deep virgin forest with dread, imagining the dangers they would face during their passage. They called these woodlands the “shades of death”.

Rhododendrons on the Old Stage Road (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 50mm f1,8G)

The forest that I visit now are a mix of fairly mature northern hardwoods, with frequent white pine and hemlock stands. Here and there, one sees very large old conifers that one suspects were missed during the timbering that occurred in the mid to late 19th century. On a cloudy days, which I favor, these woods are quite dark. I usually bring a DSLR, with a tripod to cope with the slowish shutter speeds.

Rhododendron and an Old Pine (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 50mm f1.8 G)

The laurels bloom tends to be prolific; flowers are everywhere in some spots. The later rhododendron event is much more localized and subtle but in its own way equally beautiful. Very occasionally, you will find the two plant blooming together, but in my experience each seem to occupy their own niche.

Late June Blossoms (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 5omm f1.8G)

Standing in a Hemlock stand, surrounded by blooming rhododendrons, is at least for me the most archetypal experience one can have in the Pennsylvania outdoors. In such a place, one can imagine the fears of the earliest settlers who certainly imagined this wilderness filled with large carnivores, and hostile Indians (they were right).

Now it is just a place of great beauty and peace.

 

As usual these images and more can be viewed on my Smugmug site.

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Living with a Pocket Camera: The Sony RX 100 Mark III

 

Wildflowers at Tannery (Sony RX 100 Mark III)

For years, so-called “pocket cameras” have gotten a bad rap  from so-called “serious photographers”. Admittedly useful in a pinch, their image quality has been impugned relative to larger-sensored devices, such as DSLRs and “mirrorless” cameras. In fact, they have been largely replaced, for better or worse, by camera phones, which as a class; have seen considerable improvement in their imaging capabilities.

I however, tend to keep a pocket camera as part of my arsenal. An actual camera of any size is generally far more versatile than a fixed, wide-angle lens smartphone camera. My current pocket device is the Sony RX 100 Mark III. I tend to use it for casual situations where I want snapshots, or circumstances where I am not anticipating much in the way of photographic opportunities, but feel naked without having something with me.

I have written about this device in past articles, and praised its image qualities, many of which can be attributed to it fine Zeiss branded lens, and its larger-than-average Sony  1″Exmor imager. I took it on a recent trip to London with a Fujifilm X 100s and obtained some interesting images. Still it’s at best a third string player in my camera collection.

International Festival (Sony RX 100 Mark III)

 

I think back to 2001, the year I acquired my first serious digital camera the Olympus E-10, a large built- like-a-rock fixed lens DSLR with a 2/3” sensor and almost 4 mp of resolution good out to maybe ISO 160. I shot a lot of landscape images with it and was generally very satisfied with the quality of the files. Move ahead 14 years and we now have a pocket camera that is a fraction of that camera’s size and weight,  but with a bright Zeiss zoom, and a 1” 20mp sensor good out to iso 1600-3200. Why not mainstream it into the first team? I decided to use it exclusively over the course of 2 weeks of photography to further understand its capabilities and limitations.

Spring is well on its way to summer here in the Moosic Mountains of Pennsylvania. Photography during the warm months tends to happen for me while engaging in several activities namely: hiking, kayaking (flat water) and mountain biking. Then sometimes in the morning and evening, I will just drive around exploring with a camera and tripod at the ready. Then there’s also street/ event photography to consider.

My RX 100 has the accessory grip, and a Lens Mate Quick change adapter which allows me to quickly mount and dismount filters. I keep a Hoya circular polarizer mounted to this, with a 52mm pinch cap to protect it.

The Sony RX 100 Mark III(Panasonic GH1,  Lumix 14-45mm f3.5)

The Sony RX 100 Mark III(Panasonic GH1, Lumix 14-45mm f3.5)

There is definitely something to be said for smaller cameras.The lens is a 24-70mm equivalent f1.8-2.8. Even though the 1” sensor is big for a compact camera, it’s still small enough that the depth of field tends to be fairly expansive.  This can be used to an advantage. Still the F1.8 aperture at 24mm equivalent  can be useful to blur backgrounds.

Because of the danger of a dunking, while kayaking, I have always tended to use my lowest value camera that has image stabilization which in my case currently would be my Panasonic GH1 and its kit lens. I did however take the Sony out on the water. Several issues popped up. to prepare the camera for use, I would have to turn it on, pop up the viewfinder and pull the rear objective out, and then take of the lens cap (filter was in place). This made a little fussy compared to other cameras where you just turn it on and take off the cap. All that moving around in a skinny touring kayak is a recipe for a wetting.

Geese and Goslings ( Sony RX 100 Mark III)

Also, I got the impression that the cameras built-in stabilization did not cope well with the motions of a kayak on the water as images tended to be blurred in situations where I’m pretty sure I have operated more successfully with other equipment. Still, with patience, I was able to obtain some pleasing images. Plus, the cameras diminutive sized body slipped  much more easily in and out of the waterproof deck bag on my cowl than the bigger Panasonic would have.

I attended the first of our regions summer “bazaars” at a local parish. I arrived right at dusk. Much like the  Fuji X100 series cameras I utilize for this work, the little Sony is very discrete and quiet: with its fast lens,  and good sensor, it handled this assignment quite well.

Festival in the Grove (Sony RX 100 Mark III)

 

Walking and hiking with the Rx 100 series has not been something I have generally done. In that situation is a minimal hardship to bring a larger camera bag with more capable equipment. Nonetheless I have taken to using the camera in situations where do not anticipate major photographic wonders. An example might be an evening walk around my neighborhood, where I feel like I have photographed pretty much every square inch already. However, the right combination of light and atmospherics can transform a familiar place into something much more interesting. It is thus a no-brainer to stuff the little camera into a jacket pocket just in case.

On My Evening Walk (Sony RX 100 Mark III)

I did carry the camera with me however on more photographically focused rambles. I tried to use the camera much as I would, for instance my Nikon bodies, I felt kind of self- conscious  mounting the little Sony on one of my large Gitzo tripods (the tripod head probably weighs more than the camera). Actually though in this setting the Sony has some noteworthy features.

I was initially excited about the WiFi connectivity of the Sony, in part for operating remotely on a tripod. Unfortunately, in my hands, connecting to my Galaxy S4 has been at best, unreliable.  In my Fujifilm cameras with this feature, connecting and operating the camera through my cell phone has been fairly easy. Despite watching videos on YouTube and reading the instructions for the Sony, this function still eludes me. Too bad.

Broken (Sony RX 100 Mark III)

Fortunately the camera has convenient access to a 2 second timer for the shutter. This allows me to avoid camera shake, when taking long exposures. Using the timer  along with the built-in neutral density filter and a polarizer, it is fairly easy to get nicely blurred water flow, even in fairly good light.

Flow ( Sony RX 100 Mark III)

The view screen is reasonably visible in outdoor light, and the tilting feature is extremely convenient for low angle shots like this one of a lovelorn snapping turtle I encountered while out and about.

Snapper (Sony RX 100 Mark III)

The third issue in the summer for me is mountain biking. Here I am generally limited to the space within my modest size Camelback, so a small camera has been a must. The RX100 is extremely well suited for this. I even purchased a tiny inexpensive tripod that fits alongside in the Camelback to handle any contingency. Carrying larger and more valuable gear on a mountain bike, is neither convenient nor particularly safe (I do occasionally fall… hard). In this situation, a high quality pocket camera is exactly the solution I have been searching for.

Jimmy Kane Swamp 2015 (Sony RX 100 Mark III)

 

There is not much question my mind, that I own any number of body/lens combinations that can give higher quality results than the small Sony. However as is often observed, good photography favors the prepared; and the ability to keep a high quality lens/imager combination close at hand is extraordinarily valuable to the dedicated photographer. Have no doubt, the images I obtain from this camera, particularly when exposed and shot properly, are sharp, with  very acceptable noise levels.

I would have been ecstatic with them in 2001. Hell, I’m pretty happy in 2015.

If you own one, do not sell it short

 

As always these images can be viewed at:henrysmithscottage.smugmug.com

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The Empty Bedroom, five years on.

 

 

 

Graduates ( Fujifilm XE-2 XF 55-200 f3.5-4.5)

 I am re-posting this article I wrote almost 5 years ago, about the life event of having your first child leave the nest, and attend college.
Now my daughter Brigid has been graduated from Penn State University with a Master’s degree in Computer Engineering.
In a week or so she will head to Seattle for her new career with Amazon.
Two summers ago, she was an intern there, and loved the company, and the city. She already has an apartment, and three friends for roommates. 
Cathy and I could  not be more proud and happy for her.
Seattle though, is a long way from home.
Never been there.
You know what… it looks pretty photogenic. 
From  5 years ago

 

Brigid’s Room (Nikon D-700, Nikkor 50mm f 1.8)

I have been remiss in posting for a little while.

A lot has been going on.

For one thing, a week ago, my wife Cathy and I dropped my daughter off at college for her freshman year.

This went well; the unloading day was very well run, she has a big dorm room and a lovely roommate. They seem to be getting along well, which I am told can be problematic for first year students picked to be “roomies” by the school.

I’m proud of her. She’s quickly landed a job at the school’s computer help desk and seems to be adapting well to college life. I think she is savoring her independence, an attitude which can be slightly nerve racking for college newbie parents. She doesn’t call as much as I would like. Much of what we know comes from texts to her brother.

My wife and I, like innumerable couples before us, are adjusting slowly to the change. It’s a little sad to go into her bedroom at home. Before she left it was an unorganizable mess, jammed with an accumulation of mementoes of her childhood, and more recent artifacts reflecting the “garbage brain” approach to life that I think she inherited from me. My wife always pushed for her to keep it neat, but never recently was that truly accomplished.

Like most teen bedrooms, it was usually a complete mess.

Posters covered the walls, and the carcasses of old computers she had cannibalized for parts, or salvaged when abandoned, were everywhere.  Along with computer gear,  there were piles of CDs and DVDs without sleeves(that drove me nuts) on her desk along  with generations of IPods which she had collected and filled with music. The bed was rarely made. The floor was covered in clothes. Parents, does this sound familiar?

The bookshelves overflowed with diverse reading, some from school, some of her own choosing.  She had a penchant for changing the room layout including the furniture, about every three weeks, an obsession which I never really understood.

Now, with most of the debris gone, her mother’s organizational skills are winning the day. The bed is made and the room is becoming a tidy space. Eventually, it would make a very a nice guest bedroom.

Except I already have one of those.

Happily, Brigid will return for a summer or three, and the room will temporarily devolve once again.

We obviously understand that ultimately, for her as well as her brother to succeed, they will have to leave us permanently… except of course for holidays, and hopefully, visits someday with their spouses and our grandchildren.

I’m cool with this.

I just wasn’t quite ready for it to start happening so soon.

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the Gear that I Use: the Fujifilm WCL-X100.

 

Fishing in April (Fujifilm X100t,WCL-X100)

As I have previously explained, I am not intuitively a wide lens shooter.

I do own a variety of short focal length lenses for the various camera formats in my collection, but I admit they are among the least utilized. These days I tend to prefer the so-called “normal” focal lengths (35 to 50mm equivalent).

I used to shoot more with zoom lenses. When I would put my eye to the viewfinder I would generally first view the scene first through the widest angle setting, prior to twisting the zoom ring. If I liked what I saw at say, at the wide end of my 17-35mm Nikkor, I might just acquire the image. Now that I tend to shoot primes, I never see that image,  because, for me, the middle range primes are more versatile, and thus more likely mounted to the camera.

Along with my Fujifilm X 100t, I have been playing with what will probably be the final accessory I purchase for the X100 line, the WCL-X100 wide converter lens. This was the first converter lens designed for the X100 line. It converts the 35mm field of view of the X 100 lens to 28mm, a modest widening at best. At US $399 it always seemed too pricey, and as I like shooting the native lens, I avoided it.

Spring Barn in Black Creek(Fujifilm X100t,WCL-X100)

Then I bought the TCL-X100 and loved using it. It was pretty easy to take on and off, and particularly if you could remember to change the camera to the teleconverter setting in the menus, it provided wonderful image quality. I had a great time with my X100s, now at times sporting a 50mm field of view in London last winter. On returning home from that trip, I saw its wide-angle counterpart was now offered for US$200-250 on Amazon. I snapped one up.

Fujifilm X100t with the WCL-X100 (Sony RX100 Mark III)

 

 

Like the TCL -X100 teleconverter it is a beautifully finished product, which comes with a soft pouch, a lens and a back cap. It was cleverly designed with the same filter threads, as the native 23 mm fixed lens of the X100’s allowing it to utilize the same filters and lens shade. It is significantly smaller than the tele-converter and it alters the balance of the X100 type cameras far less. As with the TCL, it offers its field of view alteration with the same f2.0 maximum aperture of the native lens. Together with the X100t and the TCL, it provides a very compact street shooting kit covering all of the classic focal length equivalents.

Bail Bonds (Fujifilm X100t,WCL-X100)

 

The additional field of view offered by the converter  is to me , noticeably wider than the native lens as you can see here (The distortion that you see is in part because I was shooting uphill).

Scene with Native Lens

 

Scene with WCL-X100

It does allow for more of the surroundings  to be seen in portrait work.

Amber at Work (Fujifilm X100t,WCL-X100)

You can get more of that “Yellow Brick Road” look with the far objects looking more distant than they appear to the eye.

Scene at Baltimore County Courthouse (Fujifilm X100t,WCL-X100)

 

This can be useful for separating foreground objects from a lackluster background.

 

Tulips in Towson (Fujifilm X100t,WCL-X100)

Truth be told, I could easily use the X100t with the converter lenses for 85-90% of my shooting. The camera focuses well with both converters ( slightly better I think with the WCL as opposed to the TCL). I like very much that I can change focal lengths on the X100t without exposing the sensor to dust. And like the TCL it retains the sharpness for which the native X100(s, t) lens is renowned

I knew that at its original  $400 price, the WCL-X100 was for me an extravagance. But at the prices at which it is currently offered, it  becomes a reasonable purchase, offering a 28mm field of view to the ever evolving X100 line of cameras.

I just have to learn to think “wide”.

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The Gear that I Use: The Fujifilm X100t Review

 

 

 

Beaver Display, Nescopeck State Park (Fujifilm X100t)

I was taken by surprise by the introduction of the Fujifilm X100t.  The previous model, the X100s was a mature product, without glaring deficits . It didn’t cry out for upgrading, especially before the replacement of the venerable X Pro 1 was accomplished.

When the X100t was announced I remember reviewing the new features:

Better autofocus: They always say that.

Face detection: Hell, my RX100 pocket cam has that.

Better manual focusing aids: I rarely use the manual focus

Wi Fi: Big deal. Gimmicky.

Closer aperture and and shutter stop increments on dials: Maybe helpful.

Ultra high speed shutter without flash functionality: teats on a boar.

Oh, and it has the same sensor and processor as the X100s? So at the time, I decided to pass.

Then I upgraded my XE1 to the XE2 which came with similar technology. Using that camera, I realized that he autofocus really was better, that face detection was useful, and that Wi Fi functionality had its uses. Then Fuji announced that there would be no further upgrades to the X100s, which given the same hardware, might well have benefitted from upgraded firmware.

I felt manipulated, but I placed my order.

The X100t is another evolutionary step in the X100 line. The body is of course very much the same, but different. The LCD is larger, the buttons are smaller, and the scroll wheel is better. They changes some button positions (the “Q” button) for what seems like no good reason.

The Last Catkin (Fujifilm X100t)

What is useful is that almost all of the buttons are programmable. For instance, I can finally set things up so that the down button on the 4 way controller now controls the autofocus box, just like on all of my other “X” cameras. Unfortunately the buttons are programmable and thus they are left unlabeled. It can be hard to remember which ones which. Perhaps a pictograph could be created(to be summoned when necessary) to show current button assignments.

There has been a lot of talk about the little video screen available in the optical viewfinder that shows a close up of area covered by the focus point for manual focusing. Problem is that it’s little. I can’t really see detail very well in it. I still think that the so-called “jaggies” in the electronic viewfinder are the best focus aid, and they are now available in multiple colors.

Barn and Ladder (Fujifilm X 100t, TCL-X100)

When I first started to use the camera, I thought I noticed something odd about the“t” model’s autofocus behavior. When  using the electronic viewfinder, the viewfinder information (which you can select) along with the focus box, only appears with a half press of the shutter. My  previous X cameras showed the information, as well  location of the focus box without a shutter press.  This was annoying and meant a delay in shooting while you wait for the focus point to appear. Oddly enough, none of this was true for the optical finder and the LCD, which behaved as before.  Then I figured out that the “Back/display” button  will only program the display that is active at the time. If you press it while looking through the EVF, the issue is solved. Frankly, give all of the Fuji X series cameras I’ve owned, I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t know this.

Face detection is better than on the XE2, as, in the absence of faces, it defaults not to a central focus point like the XE2, but to a movable focus box. This is much better, and hopefully retro-programmable to the XE2. I find that face detection is useful for party and event shooting, mainly for posed images. It’s not so good for street shooting, especially with the lens wide open. In that situation it seems to detect the narrow depth of field, and  arbitrarily picks one face for attention. Often this is not the one you had in mind. Its function can be assigned to a button however, making it easy to switch off and on.

Lacy tree ( Fujifilm X100t)

Autofocus is otherwise clearly better. It is not only obviously faster, but significantly more reliable in low light and low contrast situations, again, like the XE2. It also now focuses pretty well through the TCL-X100 which was a problem on the X100s.

Wi Fi is fun. The phone app mirrors the view screen and allows you to frame and capture discrete images for instance, on the street. and also to frame in the outdoors with the camera at an inconvenient position, where using the LCD or viewfinder would be difficult. You can change a variety of settings by remote control, and select the focus point by touching the image on the phone’s LCD. I believe this will prove very useful.

As you might imagine given the same lens, sensor and processor, image quality is largely unchanged, which for me is OK. Perhaps jpg quality is better, but I shoot mainly in RAW. Then there’s the “Chrome”  (ie: Kodachrome) film simulation, available when shooting jpgs  as well as in the RAW file converter. It’s interesting… but I was always more of an Ektachrome kind of guy.

Bobcat Display (Fujifilm X100t)

 

So am I happy? Yes and no. The X100 series has tended to be the most heavily used equipment in my bag, and thus smaller improvements do mean more than in other gear upgrades. Autofocus performance is among the most important attributes in a camera, and it is significantly improved here. I also think the WiFi feature is worth having.

Also, I bought the “t” model at a discount, and received a good price for my X100s on eBay, so the cost of the upgrade was not outrageous. I do think however, that the autofocus upgrade could and should have been offered to X100s owners, which in my mind would have reduced my desire for the newer device. Thus, I feel a little “used”.

But just a little.  It’ll pass.

 

 

 

 

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