A Walk in Spring

Spring Ice, Farmstead Trail (Sony RX100)

Yesterday, perhaps for the first time this spring, the sun was bright, the temperatures mild to a degree where a midday walk would not become an exercise in moving, just to stay warm.

I elected to walk in my local state park. Given the relative preciousness of the spring sunshine, I chose a trail that involved mainly old farmland, there I could bask in the warmth.

Saplings (Sony RX 100)

I assumed the scenery would be bleak, so I carried with me only a pocket camera, my Sony RX 100, in case I did come upon a photographic opportunity.

On the way, in the truck, I resolved to challenge myself to “reach” a bit and see whether I could come up with enough reasonable images, even given the slim photo “pick in’s” in late March in eastern Pennsylvania, perhaps to feature in a an article. You can be the judge of whether I have succeeded.

Early spring images it seems to me, are often less about colors, and more about patterns. In some captures, moving to black and white is helpful in subtracting the monotonous browns and greys, allowing the eye to focus on what is visually interesting.

Wind Blown ( Sony RX100)

The weather (mid 50′sF) was on my side allowing me to by more contemplative than I am when it is 40 degrees colder.

The temps have been cold here, but the March sun is fairly strong, and our robust snowpack has been reduced to a few  patches  where there is shade, or where the winter winds formed deep drifts.

Snow by the Field’s Edge (Sony RX 100)

As I begin my walks, I note that robins are calling; I catch a glimpse of a fleeing plover who is is alarmed at my approach.

Small vernal streams and ponds are thawing, soon, there will be clusters of frog and salamander eggs at the edges, hoping to hatch before the water disappears.

Melting ( Sony RX 100)

The fields give evidence of the harshness of the previous season, with the grass matted down from the heavy winter snows.

Spring Grass (Sony RX 100)

Some remnants of the late summer remain: these spent milkweed pods were swaying to-and-fro in the gentle March breezes.

Milkweeds in Spring (Sony RX 100)

Sadly as I write this, a front has passed; it is 32 degrees and intermittently snowing. There is talk of a snowstorm later in the week. Such is March and April in the Pennsylvania mountains. Patience is a virtue.

Now, did I succeed in my challenge?

 

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The Gear that I Use: The Fujifilm XF 55-200 f3.5-4.8

 

Almost to the top (Fujifilm X Pro 1, XF 55-200mm f 3.5)

Photographically speaking, I’m not generally a “telephoto” sort of guy. I own several long lenses, but as I don’t do a lot of wildlife or sports photography, they tend to sit in my in my cabinet unused.

This is because, that for the most part, good telephoto lenses tend to be large and somewhat unwieldy to use. I think of my Nikkor 70 200mm f2.8 VR as the prototype for this, an absolutely lovely lens, with which I have obtained very pleasing images, but one that is so large and intimidating, that it tends to inhibit the kind of surreptitious street shooting that I have come to enjoy. It is also a pain to haul it into the wilderness. So, it tends to sit on a shelf, zipped into its case. I pull it out occasionally, mainly if I wish to cover a sporting event, or will be shooting landscape from my car where it will be sitting on the front seat, as one of the collection of lenses mounted to a camera bodies that I wish to have on hand.

Kids on the Stage(Fujifilm X Pro 1, XF 55-200mm f 3.5)

There is no disputing the joy of longer focal lengths, particularly for landscape shooting, for they can create novel, fascinating images. Their ability to compress space, and bring distant objects, closer to the foreground can be extremely valuable.

The classic teaching example for this, is a mountain range that looks to be far in the distance through a shorter focal length, but appears much closer to the foreground object in when a telephoto lens is utilized (this works only if the photographer moves further away with the tele, to keep the foreground image roughly the same size in both images). Thus, a long focal length lens when used correctly, can often frame a scene in a much more dramatic way than one shot with a shorter focal length (though “wide” lenses certainly have their uses).

Gracedale Tracks (Fujifilm X Pro 1, XF 55-200mm f 3.5)

Most smaller, and as more manageable telephoto zooms tend to be of “kit lens” level of quality, and thus uninteresting to more demanding photographers. Higher quality, faster telephoto lenses, by the nature are larger, heavier, “glassier” and thus, considerably more expensive, than kit lenses. The closest I have come to an acceptable small telephoto lens has been the Panasonic Lumix 45-200 f3.5-5 lens that originally came with the Lumix G1. I shoot it on my GH1 occasionally, but the quality of the GH1 sensor does not match the current state-of-the-art, and I use that system less and less. Someday, I may pick up a cheap G5 but for now those lenses are packed away.

Nikon does make some high-quality mid-level telephoto zooms, which are slightly lighter than their more expensive brethren are still bulky. When mounted on a digital SLR, they are hardly discrete. I have not invested in them.

So for the most part, I keep plugging along between 35 and 85 mm (equivalent) focal lengths and have been reasonably happy.

However, I did want to have a longer lens for street shooting, and wildlife “plinking”. About a month ago, I took advantage of the discounts available and purchased the Fuji XF 55-200 mm f3.5-4.8 lens.  It has spent the intervening time mounted to my X Pro 1.

This is a typical Fuji XF lens, made in the style of the previous 18-55 mm lens released earlier.

The Lens ( Fujifilm X100s)

It is made of metal, and perhaps very high quality plastic. He has 3 control rings for focus, zoom, and aperture selection. There is an on-off switch for the image stabilizer function. There is also a switch to allow manual vs.. automatic aperture control.

Unfortunately, the lenses extends rather far while zooming, which to me seems inelegant, if not obscene.

There is also a rather large plastic lens shade, which is undoubtedly effective, but adds significant length. It can be a struggle to get it off and on. Even so, the lens with shade mounted  still fits vertically in my Think Tank bag (Retrospective 7), even with the cover closed and velcro’d. Sweet.

In the Bag (Fujifilm X 100s)

In use, the lens is smooth, and refined, and fits well with the “X.” camera gestalt. Its long focal length though, is poorly served by the optical view finder, and use of EVF is essentially mandatory. To me this is not a hardship, as I use the EVF 70-80% of the time anyway.

I began to use the lens in late winter at home, then on a trip to the Adirondacks, and then on my return, to shoot one of my favorite events, our local St. Patrick’s Day parade.  In the little town of Wilkes Barre, St. Patrick’s Day has become an event of great enthusiasm and offers wonderful photographic opportunities. This lens allowed me to take great advantage of the circumstances.

Squirrel (Fujifilm X Pro 1, XF 55-200mm f 3.5)

I carried my gear in the aforementioned Think Tank Bag. For that trip, I brought the X Pro one with the long zoom along with my X100s for wide-angle and indoor shooting. Just in case, I had a 23 mm, and 35 mm f1.4 lenses available for the X Pro 1. Unlike the past, I brought no flash equipment, and did not miss it, even when shooting in dark pubs, so good are the  Fuji’s at high iso shooting. This turns out to be a great combination of gear for such an event and I had a great deal of fun.

Smoke Machine at Rodano’s ( Fujifilm X 100s)

The XF55-200mm is clearly another high quality Fuji lens. It is easily as crisp (but not as fast) as my big Nikkor 70-200mm. The image stabilization allows me to easily shoot freehand, without a monopod, and still obtain critical sharpness.

It focuses quickly with the X Pro 1, again, probably not as quickly as the Nikons. Still it is more than adequate for landscape and “street” use (sports might be another matter). Manual focusing is also reasonably easy, especially given the new focus aids added to the X Pro 1 with the more recent firmware upgrades.

Lifts at the Ski Jumps (Fujifilm X Pro 1, XF 55-200mm f 3.5)

For a “slow” telephoto, I found the bokeh to be fairly smooth and pleasing. Given the apertures involved, it is always helpful to keep the “in focus” elements a distance from the out of focus portion of the image to enhance the effect.

I really enjoyed the ability to be very discrete, attracting little attention as I shot among the crowds even if fairly long focal lengths with the lens extended. I’m sure I looked like another hobbyist (perhaps I am).

Henry’s Woods (Fujifilm X Pro 1, XF 55-200mm f 3.5)

If I have a complaint with this lens, other than the extending lens barrel, and big-ass shade, it would be the lack of availability of the lens collar with a tripod mount, which would help to better balance the lens/camera body combination on a monopod or tripod. I suspect however that in settings that I will tend to use this lens, a monopod or tripod would be an encumbrance. I’ll shoot the Nikkors when a monopod is required.

At $499 US, this lenses a steal. Its build quality, handling, and sharpness, allowing it to stand proudly among lenses that cost 2-3 times as much (the equivalent Nikkor f4 zoom costs $1399 US.)

So at least for the time being, I’m going to leave this lens mounted to the X Pro 1.

It’s time to start seeing life in a telephoto way.

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Yet another Trans-X raw development article.

Hemlock in Ice (Fujifilm X Pro 1, XF 35mm f1.4)

There seems to be definite momentum for the burgeoning Fujifilm X series.

Increasingly, the system is being recognized as a genuine alternative to conventional DSLRs as a professional solution to still photography. The tactile goodness of the “X” cameras and their controls,  the image quality, the increasing catalogue of beautifully built, optically superb lenses, and the reasonable price structure, has drawn a lot of attention from pros and amateur photographers alike.

Lenses like the new zoom offerings, and the new XT-1 are taking the system in a new, more mainstream direction.  People are paying attention, including, it seems, even the good people at Adobe. For they have issued a Camera Raw release candidate with special attention paid to the X Trans-sensored cameras in the Fuji lineup.

For the first time, Adobe Camera Raw comes with profiles to mimic Provia, Astia, and Velvia Fuji film stock, profiles that have been available only on jpgs in camera, or through the bundled Silkypix software (which few people use). This suggests that Adobe is acknowledging the systems success, and now deems it worthy to devote the “geek-time” needed to improve its compatibility with this unique sensor. I wonder too, if Fuji has been more forthcoming with Adobe.

Now I don’t use color profiles very often, so this development doesn’t affect me much. But there is a rumor on the web, that quietly, Adobe has improved its conversion algorithm to reduce the smearing that many of us have complained about, a problem that have led some of us to obtain alternative software for “X” camera raw conversions. Armed with images I have converted with earlier iterations of ACR, I will attempt to investigate.

I downloaded the newest ACR release and performed conversions on some images we previously used to test raw converters. As always, I made adjustments to get the best image possible ( not identical to the original settings). I then opened Lightroom, which now comes with my Photoshop CC subscription, and opened the image. Lightroom does not yet have the newest ACR update so its development module would be identical to the previous version just prior to the new release candidate. Here are the images:

Late Winter at Burger’s Farm (Fujifilm X Pro 1, XF 18-55mm f2.8)

First, the version developed with an early ACR version:

Next the one developed in Lightroom:

Third, the one developed with the newest release:

For the record, Lightroom opened the file and duplicated the raw conversion settings from ACR 8.4. I then opened the file in Photoshop and sharpened with unsharpen mask at the same strength.

Now here’s the Capture One version:

I do think that there is an improvement in the detail seen in the file when developed with the newest release of ACR vs. Lightroom. Capture One as always, does really well.

I duplicated this with multiple files, though, and have had conflicting results. In some, the ACR 8.4 version  is better, in others… not so much.

ACR 8.4

Lightroom

Capture One

Thus, I am only sure of two things vis-a-vis Fuji raw conversion:

#1. Later versions of ACR are much better than the early versions. I’m not sure if there is much improvement in detail with the newest release. I’ll use it though.

#2. Capture One to me, still looks  to be slightly superior in terms of the detail it can yield from an X Trans sensor. To me in this last image, like many others I have seen, Capture One gives a more lifelike rendering, with ACR trying to, but not realistically reproducing the very fine detail.

Still and all, I’m not really sure whether the extra detail is worth the additional workflow steps required to incorporate C1.

I do use C1 if I need to print large.

I do love that with the continual firmware upgrades, and improvements to Adobe Camera Raw,  the quality of my images can continue to improve without the need for further investment.

Though that XT-1 looks mighty tempting…

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Odds and Ends

Rabbit Tracks (Sony RX 100)

A few assorted musings from my photographic life.

A midwinter snowpack blankets the northeastern Pennsylvania landscape, which enables me to indulge in some skiing and snowshoeing. It also revives photographic prospects, which have been slim, given the bitter cold and the spotty snow cover of earlier weeks.

First, on the RX 100

I have been using this camera a lot recently, and have a few more observations:

I have noticed that the auto focus can struggle with low contrast objects. I tried taking some pictures of a black bodied camera for E bay but couldn’t get focus lock. My X100s on the other hand was successful at this. For most subjects however, this is not an issue. In good light focus lock comes quickly.

I have been impressed with this camera’s capability as a low-light shooter. The wide end of the zoom has a field of view equal to 28mm on a full frame camera, which is pretty useful for street and social shooting, particularly as it seems pretty sharp at f1.8. I’ve set mine on auto ISO with a max ISO of 1600, which can yield useable images (think 8”x 10” prints).

Elliot (RX 100)

This image was rather underexposed when shot. I was able to push up the exposure without an unreasonable amount of noise resulting, which is amazing for such a small  (but relatively large for a compact camera) imager.

This is the first truly pocketable camera that I’ve encountered that can deal with tavern/restaurant-type lighting without a flash.

Neat.

Michelle at the Register (Sony RX 100)

Out of curiosity, I shot some landscape images while also shooting the X Pro 1 and the 23mm f1.4. Did I mention what a wonderful body/lens combination that is? It is amazing, with great handling and lovely 3 dimensional imaging. Close down the aperture blades a bit and it is sharp edge to edge For the little RX 100, this is very tough competition.

Path to Home (Fujifilm X Pro 1, XF 23mm f 1.4)

Anyway, comparing the same scene shot with roughly analogous settings on the cameras, the differences are real, and obviously favor the Fuji. The  center image resolution for instance, is roughly the same at base ISO.  It is in the periphery of the image where the Sony shows its limitations, but this is in a comparison with camera body/ lens combination worth many multiples of the the RX.  Nonetheless, the differences are also surprisingly small. One old problem that I’ve not had to deal with recently is chromatic aberration or  “fringing”. In the image below , you can see some magenta fringing not usually seen with higher end Fuji or Nikon gear. I was able to easily remove it using both Capture 1 and Adobe Camera Raw.

Along Frog Pond Way (Sony RX 100)

For serious landscape shooting, I would still want to use the Fuji, but on an 11”x 14” print you really can’t tell much difference between their images (at least at a normal viewing distance). In some ways, it is the awkward  handling of a viewfinder-less camera that is the RX 100′s biggest liability in the comparison (the RX 100 II has an available but expensive accessory electronic viewfinder available).

BTW, I developed all of the images on Capture One. I think it has advantages when compared to Photoshop ACR for both the raw files of the Sony, and even more for those of the Fuji. I still see a lot of noise-like artifact on the Fuji/ACR files that I don’t see on C1.

The Stream is Frozen (Fujifilm X Pro 1, XF 23mm f1.4)

I have opined about the new Photoshop subscription policy in previous articles. I did ultimately purchase Photoshop CC (which is bundled with Lightroom) when the price dropped to roughly $10 per month. I do hear that a future version of  Photoshop’s Raw development software Adobe Camera Raw will enable the Velvia and Provia film simulations that are  available in the  clunky Fuji Silkypix software that comes with the  X series cameras. Please Fuji and Adobe, put your heads together and work harder on the development algorithms. This would greatly simplify my current workflow.

So there should be wonderful shooting in my corner of the world, hopefully till mid March, when the spring melt begins, and the landscape returns to brown. Until then, I plan to get a lot of use out of my skis, snowshoes – oh and of course and my camera gear.

Life is good.

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The Gear that I Use: The Sony RX 100

Ice Castle under construction (Sony RX 100)

I have finally found a pocket camera to love really like again.

Back in the 1980s I had in my bag an Olympus XA-2 a classic little 35 mm film camera with a fixed 35 mm lens. It was easily pocketable. Its small size and discrete shutter sound enabled me to shoot thousands of images (some perhaps incriminating) during my college and med school years.

RX 100, XA2 (Fujifilm X 100s)

It was my first “pocket camera” and I loved it. I have boxes of Ektachomes shot with it. It had very sharp optics and could produce excellent image quality.

In the early to mid 2000’s, in the digital era, I used a number of  cameras, such as Nikon and Fuji DSLRs, and compacts again  made by Olympus such as the still beguiling C-5050.

Affordable DSLR imagers were around 6-8 MP in those days, and were much noisier than there modern high-resolution replacements. The gap between the raw file quality of say, my Nikon D70, and the Olympus C-5050 was not that great.  I never felt cheated if a photo opportunity presented itself, and all that I had on hand was the Olympus. I have written more about this in the past.

The Woodpile (Sony RX 100)

In 2005, Fujifilm introduced what became a line of pocket cameras, all sporting a unique “super CCD imager” which endowed them with high resolution than there 6mp would suggest, and for compact cameras, very tolerable high ISO capability. The F 10 was the first of these; I still own one of these along with a later version, the F31 fd. They were fun to shoot and under ideal circumstances could produce gallery quality 11×14 prints. Compared to contemporary DSLRs the gap between qualities of the files was tolerable.

Panasonic LX-5, Sony RX 100, Fujifilm F 31fd Fujifilm X 100s)

Skip forward 9 years. Compact camera sales are down due to the popularity of smart phone imaging. Generally, people who take casual images don’t bother to print them, but share by viewing on their devices, or posting online. Compact camera producers have responded to this threat in part by offering impossibly long zooms (which most smartphones lack) and by stuffing too many megapixels onto tiny imagers which is bad for image quality.

Meanwhile the gap in capability between modern serious cameras, and “sweet spot” compacts like the Fuji has widened to a point that the latter have become to me, obsolete, at least for anything but casual photography).

I have tried to incorporate several more modern compacts into my workflow before, but with mixed results.

The final blow to the concept for me was the Fuji X100/s which had DSLR image quality in a compact form, but was honestly, hardly pocketable. For the last several years this was the smallest camera that I felt was worth carrying.

But now I think that the pocket camera is back…maybe.

Gears (Sony RX 100)

I, know that I’m a little late. I’m writing a review of a camera that is “old news”. The Sony RX 100 was introduced in 2012. It was designed to be a very small “serious compact” to compete with the Canon S series, the Fuji X 10, and the Panasonic LX series, and the Olympus XZ1. The Sony sported a major advantage over those cameras, a 20 MP 1”Exmor imager, much larger than those of its competition though much smaller than APS-C or even “4/3rds” sensors.  20 MP still represents a lot of photo sites on a small chip, but certainly the physics should be better than for the tiny chips typical of “pocket cams”.

The camera has received glowing reviews from multiple websites. But at US$650 when it was introduced, it seemed an extravagance.  As is my habit, I lurked around eBay and Amazon waiting for the price to fall. Recently I found an “open box” unit with a US$420 and clicked “purchase”. It arrived just in time for a trip to the Adirondacks.

The RX 100 is small. But it is very well-built, with a stout metal body, and feels very dense, which it must be, given the large sensor and tiny body. It is a “pants pocket” camera in size, though it’s a bit heavy for this duty. It slipped perfectly into my ski coat pocket where it remained for most of the trip.

Paul’s New Helmet (Sony RX 100@ ISO 320 f1.8)

The RX 100 has an image-stabilized Zeiss-branded 28-100mm (equivalent) f1.8 to 4.9 lens which retracts into the body when not in use. It has a small pop up flash which I have yet to try (I hate that it’s controlled through the cameras menus, rather than a switch).

It has a logical user interface which is easy to figure out, particularly if you’re a camera person. It better be easy… there’s no printed manual for this camera.

In fact it became the only camera I shot for the week. Here were several reasons for this:

First and foremost, it has pretty solid image quality.

Number two, it’s intuitive to shoot.

Three, it was so bloody cold last week, I couldn’t get enthusiastic about standing out in the elements with camera and tripod doing so-called “serious” imaging. In fact, where I was in Lake Placid, it didn’t get much above 2 degrees(f) the entire week, with lows around -25 to-30.

When I first arrived in town I went for some exercise to a favorite destination: The Cascade Cross Country Ski Center. This is a gorgeous place with a variety of diverse biomes and beautiful vistas. As a test, I shot a number of favorite scenes which by experience I know are complex enough to test the lens/ imager interaction of this tiny camera.

Empty Ski Rack (Sony RX 100)

The camera has a good user interface, and happily for my circumstances, could be operated with gloved fingers. The rear LCD was fairly bright, still I will always prefer a viewfinder which is not available for this model (an updated version, the RX 100 II, has a hotshoe and port for an add-on EVF). The autofocus is snappy. And, in a move some have criticized, but I rather like, the camera has no battery charger, but charges internally with a USB cable and power adapter. In other words, it charges like your smart-phone, and likely from the same chargers. Though I would not want this charging method for more heavy use equipment, for a casual camera with good battery life, it’s fine.

Back at the lodge, I reviewed the resulting raw files:

Artie’s Hut (Sony RX 100)

I was initially thrilled with the image quality. Viewed at the lodge on my laptop, the files seemed quite detailed. Dynamic range, highlight and shadow recovery were excellent for a small camera.

I shot for the rest of the week with it. It is nice to again have a camera in one’s pocket that you can feel good about.

Upon arriving home, and viewing the files on my home monitor, and particularly as prints, it became evident that there was no miracle here.  First, there is sensor noise, even at the base ISO, which can be muted in Photoshop, but with a loss of apparent resolution. Second, fine detail is depicted, but in a “barely there” way, without the 3-dimensional appearance seen with better sensor-lens combinations.

It is what it is.

This is another imager that seems to benefit from converting its RAW files with Capture One, rather than Photoshop (CC).Though detail in the conversions was the same, I believe I can achieve a better “signal-to-noise ratio” with Capture One.

100% image, Photoshop CC Camera RAW

100% View, Capture One

High ISO work is doable, but there will be both luminance and color noise to clean up (think black and white).  Still and all, this is a huge leap in capability from my previous compacts.

My Car at 15 below zero ( Sony RX 100@ ISO 400 F1.8)

I think I will keep this camera. It won’t replace my Fuji/ Nikon gear for my typical work. It will be a nice camera to slip in a pocket for a walk after work or in my Camelback for a mountain bike ride. It’ll be wonderful for snaps and candids, particularly outdoors.

You can even produce art with RX 100. You just have to know its limitations.

Time to start incriminating again.

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