Tuesday, December 31, 2013

It's All About Storage

EOS Rebel XT, EF 55-200
I've just realized that I haven't added a new Post here for two weeks. Snow removal has been one of the biggest distractions lately, but not the only one. There's also been the madness of our Christmas season, which gives way to my favourite holiday of all - the New Year.

I bet you thought I'm going to talk about how best to store your pictures, weren't you? Nope - I'm going off topic today. Personally, I'm anticipating something very ominous in 2014. Not wanting to sound like a dooms-day prophet, I'm feeling more than ever that the smart move in 2014 will be to "get prepared". This has occupied a lot of my thinking lately too - at least as much as snow removal!

It would be a very wise thing this coming year to get stocked up. Most of us are of modest means, and it's always difficult to build a nest egg - mainly because whether you know it or not, our modest wealth is being systematically stolen form us. The means by which this theft is being carried out is actually hiding in plain sight, within the world financial system. I'm not going to elaborate at all on this, except to say that massive debt ultimately cannot be paid off by printing more money - I remember being taught this way back in High School, and it's still true almost 40 years later. There must ultimately come a reckoning, and it could be this year.

How NOT to be getting prepared for this is illustrated in my photo above. If what you're doing is shovelling your wealth into a bank, or any other financial institution, you may wake up to find that it has all been trucked away - then what will you do???

Money and securities are deteriorating in real value steadily, which ought to be well known to everybody, so in order to stay ahead of this, the "smart money" should be going toward your own personal necessities you will be using in the near future. My own personal take on this is - first, to get your assets all paid for - your real estate, vehicles, or anything else that the system could foreclose on when the crunch comes - make them all 100% yours, if you possibly are able. Even if it's just one thing - focus on that at least, so that you can own something outright, and eliminate a monthly payment.

The next thing is, store up things you'll need to survive through a rough stretch - most experts advise three months worth. I'm not talking about digging an underground bunker and filling it with food.. it doesn't have to be that complicated. Just look for good deals on non-perishable food, paper products, trash bags, soaps, and buy some extra to tuck away.

Simply doing the two things mentioned above is better than doing nothing. But there are some other things that will help you immensely, although maybe a little more difficult to accomplish. In terms of emergencies, it is wise to store up some fuel.

My preference is electricity. It is the easiest of all fuel's to store, as well as being the most versatile. It is very easy and inexpensive to store your own; also easy to create your own, although not cheap. For storage, start by purchasing a couple of very high capacity batteries, a suitable battery charger, and a DC to AC Inverter, along with several extension cords. If used carefully, depending especially on the batteries you buy, you could store enough electricity to last you a week. This is the heart of your basic system, to which you can add solar panels and / or a small wind turbine. Many people put an equivalent amount of money into gasoline powered generators, and do their best to store up some gasoline. This is not my preferred solution, because gasoline goes bad after a few months - or if you add stabilizer to it, it might last for a year, maximum. Keep in mind, if you're undergoing a long term power outage, chances are, all local gasoline pumps will be without power too. I once thought I had this licked, when several years ago, I bought a Diesel powered generator. Diesel has many advantages, the most important being that it remains usable for years instead of months, and if you happen to use an oil fired furnace for home heating, your home fuel oil can also be used in the generator. A big disadvantage, however, is that a Diesel generator costs twice as much as a gasoline model, and almost nobody sells them in local hardware stores - they're kind of a specialized Industrial Supply item.

Another problem with any generator, Diesel or gas, is that no matter if you're using just a little bit of power, or a lot, the generator must be running at full-speed, in which case, you'll be going through one tank of fuel a day, regardless of how much, or how little actual power you're using from it. This is a very bad, built-in efficiency problem. It could be overcome by using a combined generator - battery - inverter solution. This would work very well in terms of efficiency, but  you must ask yourself, is it better to spend the extra money on the petrol powered generator, and still run the risk of not being able to buy fuel for it, or should you spend it on solar - wind? Only you can best determine what will best suit your needs.

Finally, it might be wise to have some "real cash" stashed away in your house, in the event of a bank failure. A probable scenario would be a short period of hyper-inflation, followed by a long and severe Recession. Having some real currency (pure silver) would help get you through both scenarios. During the former, prices will increase madly, but so will the value of your precious metals. Then with what follows - a Depression, prices will fall to 1930's levels, with bread being perhaps ten cents a loaf, but if paper money and common coinage become worthless, will you even have that ten cents on hand? Precious metal coins, although their values will fall along with everything else, will more likely be worth at least their face value, so if you have some stored away, you'll at least stand a chance of buying some groceries.

Just to get a little bit back on topic, it would also be a good idea to have some "barter-able" items in your storage - like, some real prints of your photos. If you need to go to a Doctor or Dentist, let's say, they love having nice pictures hanging on their waiting room walls.

Monday, December 16, 2013

OK, So What About That Christmas Party?

EOS 5D, Sigma 50mm f1.4, ISO 1600, -0.5 EV, 1/60 sec., f2.8
Yesterday, I wrote about how I'd snapped perhaps one of my best pictures ever at a Christmas party, without even looking through the viewfinder (or rear LCD live view, because my camera doesn't have that.) Aside from this, I was moaning about how so many of the other party pictures came out so wrong, because I was trying to get enough light to not use a flash by opening my Aperture real wide... after all, my Sigma f1.4 lens is designed for this, isn't it?

Sure it's a superb lens that opens way up to f1.4 with very little distortion or vignetting, at a very reasonable price (many say it's too expensive). But I was putting way too much faith in the lens, and the EOS 5D (original 2006 version) camera, as great as it is, has a very crappy 2006 era rear screen, so I wasn't seeing how slightly out of focus so many of these shots were. I've learned my lesson - all lenses go soft when opened up, and older cameras don't have quite as good Auto-Focus performance as you'd get today, with the highly tweaked newest cameras.

Let's talk about the above picture first - this one I'm happy with, but as you see right away, it's just not quite right. I'd say this is a bad shot of a great picture. Blurred, but so happy and spontaneous. This girl wasn't posing at all - we were just talking about her dog, Phoebe:

EOS 5D, Sigma 50mm f1.4, ISO 1600,  -0.5 EV, 1/15 sec., f2.8
I said - "you're the owner, right?", and raised the camera and snapped her picture at exactly the same time I was saying those words. She struck up the pose and the smile extremely fast, as soon as she saw me about to take her picture, so, with the combination of her quick movement, and my very quick movement with the camera, perhaps it's motion blur we're actually seeing here. Same as for the dog - notice my shutter speed had dropped way down to 1/15 - and my camera doesn't have image stabilization either.

But I could've prevented this very easily - by under-exposing by -1.5 EV or even -2.0 EV, instead of -0.5, I could have reduced my Aperture to f4 to give me greater focus depth, or increased my shutter speed enough to stop the motion blur. I already have proven time and time again that the "secret sauce" of the EOS 5D is it's remarkable noise immunity, made possible NOT by aggressive in-camera noise reduction, but because with only 12.8 Mega-Pixels on a 35mm (full-frame) sensor, it has very large picture elements ("pixels") that capture lot's of light without introducing noise. Stated another way, it has an extremely good signal to noise ratio, allowing me to under-expose like crazy, and recover the shadow detail on my computer when working with the Raw Data file. I knew this, but for some reason, this time I didn't make use of it. This is a truly rare camera with which you can easily break the "expose to the right rule" (read: slightly over-expose), and instead when necessary, you can "under-expose like crazy, push it back up when processing, and don't worry about it" much like film.

The golden rule of digital photography - "Really get to know your camera, and use it accordingly". I was shooting this party as if I were using a Canon Digital Rebel instead of the far more capable EOS 5D.

But some of the photos worked, in spite of my big mistake. I really like these -

Here's the whole set.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Art... From the Hip

EOS 5D, ISO 800, -0.5 EV, Sigma 50mm f1.4, 1/90 f6.7, DxO Optics Pro Ilford Delta-400 Emulation
I can't say much more about this picture than I already wrote about it in the Caption... except for one thing.... I wasn't looking through the viewfinder! And, oh yes - my ancient EOS 5D Mk-1 doesn't have Live View. But, it's certainly one of the best photos I've ever taken. This was at a community Christmas paty, I was sitting down in a chair with my camera switched on and hanging from my neck at waist level, so I simply took blind aim and clicked the shutter.

I took quite a few other shots at this party, and most of them really are not very good... I had the lens aperture open too wide. I thought I had to be at around f2.8, because everything was indoors, with no flash, so for all of the other shots, I was jogging about at between f2 and f3.5. People write reviews about these fantastic, and expensive lenses that'll open up to f1.4, but of course everyone knows that getting something in focus at such a huge aperture is next to impossible. So, how did it come about that I happened to have it set to f6.7, the lighting was ample, although indoors, and these two attractive girls would be right in front of me? And furthermore, my best guess at shooting blind from this low angle would be just about as good compositionally, as anyone could ever do???

But it's not the good providence of my aim that is so remarkable here. Instead, the question is, how is it that my Aperture got set to f6.7 when all afternoon I had been shooting at f2.8, and hoping the "quality" of the big Sigma lens would come through? How indeed? This shot would never have worked at f2.8. At least one of the girls would've been badly out of focus.

I really learned a lot with this party. First and foremost, no matter how good somebody says your lens is, f2.8 or bigger is still going to leave stuff out of focus - that's the whole idea - and if you're shooting into a group of people that requires some depth of focus, even f3.5 might not be enough. Second, I was forgetting how great the old original 5D is at suppressing noise, meaning I can safely push into under-exposure to get a decent shutter speed, because of it's low pixel density. I had written much about this, but for some reason, forgot all about it at this party, and ended up with a lot of badly focussed shots as a result - except for this one.

LIVE AND LEARN - and also, sometimes, a great photo is nothing more than dumb-ass luck!

Oh. By the way... I have no idea who the girls were, and they have no idea that I took their picture!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Color Film Emulation Added to GIMP!

The now very famous Open Source (free!) GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) has just received a major boost with the addition of color film emulation! It has had B&W film emulation for a number of years, but thanks to GIMP's spin-off project called G'MIC, which appears as a hugely functional plug-in within GIMP, it now performs Color Film Emulation in much the same way as DxO Lab's "FilmPack" product range - that is, it'll take any 8-bit JPEG image file and make it look like specific brands / types of film.

DxO Labs is one step ahead of GIMP, in theory at least, because it has built the very same Film Emulation product into it's super fantastic Raw Data file converter - Optics Pro Ver.9. This means that you can select your film emulation within the Raw File conversion process, which should be much better than either of FilmPack or GIMP's new capabilities, which relies on having a JPEG file already converted, as it will not work with Raw Data. But is it really better? I'll let you decide as best as you can from several conversions I made of this one rather bad picture (I want you to look at the image quality over and above my own so-called artistry). The very first one is or reference - it is a DxO Raw File conversion based solely on my camera body, not FilmPack. As such, it may be the best looking one of the bunch. But the real idea here is to compare how well GIMP's execution of Film Emulation works on an already converted 8-bit JPEG, up against DxO Lab's more direct application of Film Emulation to the Raw File itself.

RAW, Direct Conversion With DxO Optics Pro, Generic - this is the Reference JPEG
RAW, Direct Conversion With DxO Optics Pro, Agfa Vista 200
Reference JPEG, GMIC-GIMP Agfa Vista 200
RAW, Direct Conversion With DxO Optics Pro, Fuji Superia 200
Reference JPEG, GMIC-GIMP Fuji Superia 200
RAW, Direct Conversion With DxO Optics Pro, Kodachrome-64
Reference JPEG, GMIC GIMP Kodachrome 64
RAW, Direct Conversion With DxO Optics Pro, Kodak Ektachrome 100
Reference JPEG, GMIC-GIMP Kodak Ektachrome 100
RAW, Direct Conversion With DxO Optics Pro, Kodak T-Max 100
Reference JPEG, GMIC-GIMP Kodak T-Max 100
RAW, Direct Conversion With DxO Optics Pro, Rollei Ortho 25
Reference JPEG, GMIC-GIMP, Rollei Ortho 25


To my eyes, the similarities are remarkable. The same challenge of Film Emulation is executed here within two totally different products - one you pay a lot for, the other one is free, yet, the overall look of the simulated film types is remarkably similar. This means that both teams really did their homework. I was actually skeptical enough about film emulation that I was expecting to see highly visible differences between the two.

As for which does the job better, I would have to say, as expected, the DxO optics Pro with FilmPack Plug-in has better contrast, texture, and color vibrancy, but not by much. In the B&W examples, I can see almost no difference, and for Agfa Vista 200, I think GIMP actually looks more appealing. There are many other films to choose from in both products, as well as the ability to tweak the end result with both.

One thing to really keep in mind - GIMP is free, and DxO Optics Pro will set you back the price of a new compact digital camera! Also, of you're not into shooting Raw Files - like, if your camera won't do it, or if you're like Ken Rockwell and don't see the point, it's a no-brainer - this wonderful new G'MIC-GIMP Plug-in is free, and it works in Linux (also Windows and Mac). DxO Labs does not sell products that work with Linux.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Take a Walk on the Wide Side

EOS 5D with Quantaray 19-35mm Zoom.
I must admit - I do very little wide-angle shooting. When I bought my pre-owned EOS 5D Mk-1, it came with a Quantaray 19-35mm f3.5-f4.5 wide angle zoom, and I've done very little with it. It turns out to be a fairly decent lens for what was always considered a "bottom drawer" lens brand.

There are a lot of "enthusiast compact" cameras now on the market that are equipped with a fixed-focal-length 35mm (equivalent) lens, which implies that "enthusiasts" prefer to shoot wide. My personal preference is anywhere from 40mm to 60mm, with occasional reaching toward 85-100mm, but anything below a 40mm equivalent lens spends a lot of time in the camera bag.

The reason for this of course is that with a wide angle lens, it's difficult to get a subject. Also, contrary to conventional wisdom, wide angle shooting is rarely your best choice for shooting landscapes, with the rare exceptions of being at the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon. When using a wide angle lens, you have to pick a subject for your picture, and then get extremely close to it - for example, if you're shooting a landscape with a covered bridge in it, you'd best get very close to the covered bridge, and have fun with various perspectives with the bridge in it's surroundings. With a wide angle, you can't be standing 50 feet from the bridge, aim at it as if it's your subject, and hope to get a good shot. But at ten feet, especially with so called "super wides", you can probably get the entire bridge and some of the scenery around it too.

In the above photo, with the lens set at a very wide 19mm I was less than three feet from the truck. Same with the photo below - at 20mm, the plow had almost taken my toes off when it went past me!

But as difficult as wide-angle lenses are to use, I can see why "enthusiasts" like them. If you do manage to get your subject close enough, the drama that is captured using a wide angle lens, or a fixed wide angle camera, is tremendous.

After getting some good shots, I started playing around a bit, like so:

Above is a perfect example of perspective distortion, especially as seen in the background. Love it or hate it!

Below is an example of not being close enough - even at 35mm, which is the furthest reach for this lens, this man walking his two dogs wasn't really very far away from me - he was probably able to hear my shutter:

Sometimes you can get closer to your subject using a crop, as follows:

Original JPEG
Cropped RAW File, Converted With DxO
Wide angle photography takes a lot of practice - there's no way around it, you have to get close, and that's what makes it so challenging.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Digital Black and White

EOS 5D, Sigma 50mm f1.4, DxO Optics Pro
Does Digital Black and White photography have to be treated as second class any more? It's a good question that can be asked several different ways. Is there merit in having a dedicated black and white digital camera, of which there is only one in existence - the Leica Monochrom. No other manufacturer has seen fit to offer a dedicated digital B&W camera, and you would need a serious dedication to black and white to own one of these. Does "old school" home darkroom (film) B&W actually look better than digital black and white? Probably, as long as the practitioner in each case knows what they're doing, and one could only know for certain by looking at the actual prints in a side by side comparison, but how would this ever happen? In the case of a public exhibit, you would be looking at either a darkroom chemical print, or a digital inkjet print, and it is most likely true that the darkroom prints, if done correctly, would convey a lot more emotion and "sense of wonder" than what would come out of a digital printer - and that's a big maybe.

First off, consider black and white photography in general, with no regard to what type of camera was used. A great B&W photo would be a piece of art produced by a photographer who has learned to really see the world in black and white, and know all the ins and outs of creating an image based on this way of seeing. But otherwise, we digital photographers have so many options available to us from the single device, including B&W among the many, we tend to do things in reverse - we always take a colour picture, and later, during a review of the pictures we've taken, might have an inkling that "hey, this one would look great in B&W" - and with a single mouse-click, or tap of the touch-screen, we can turn it into B&W and then back again.

A case in point from my own files - let's make comparisons between the photo above and this one:

Yes, these are from exactly the same Raw file, and I simply processed one in colour and one in black and white - on a hunch. But now that I look at them, I can see they almost are conveying two different stories. In the colour version, I notice the rich brightness of the colours, and especially am grabbed by the reflected colours - so it becomes more of a "compositional piece". The colours make for a very busy picture, and my eyes want to wander all over the place, to try and figure out what this photo is all about, and am left with the conclusion - "this portrays an intersection at night, with a nice looking old church building, and the traffic lights are caught in that rare moment when they're red in all directions, including the walk-lights".

The B&W version is quite different - first it is far more serene, and I more readily notice the complete absence of traffic, suggesting this might be very late at night. Then the second thing I notice is there are two people walking with grocery bags, in opposite directions - a fact that is almost lost in the colour version. Finally, because the colour of the traffic lights is not seen, it must be imagined, but it is readily seen that the walk lights are both "red-hand" in all directions, and yet, the pedestrians are still walking anyway, which further re-enforces the feel of a very late city night, because they're walking / had walked against the traffic lights, so obviously they felt no danger from any nearby traffic.

My conclusion - the B&W picture succeeds at every level, stimulates the imagination about what is actually going on in the photo, and puts the mind in a calmer state. With the colour version, I'm more inclined to merely admire the bright neon colours and reflections, but little else.

Does digital black and white have to take a back seat to anything at all? Not really. Perhaps if I were using B&W film with real darkroom processing, I might have had more impact in my picture, but I don't know that for certain. Not long ago, we tended to view digital B&W photography as "simulated" or "emulated", because of the fact that the "true" picture exists only in colour, and to make it B&W, we were somehow faking it. But technically, although true, does it really matter? Our better cameras - the ones that provide Raw data output, can be made to look like anything now, and the same holds true even for film put through a digital workflow via scanning. If we scan B&W or colour film (it doesn't matter!) to a TIF file output (or in the case of the very best scanners, a DNG output), there is enormous flexibility available to produce a great B&W shot from the original negative. It's not cheating, or faking, simulating or emulating anything, and in my mind, this kind of eliminates the need for a dedicated digital black and white camera, like the Leica Monochrom.

It helps tremendously to have the low pixel density of an older "full frame" 35mm DSLR, such as the Nikon D700 or the Canon EOS-5D Mk.-1. Cameras like this, which are no longer produced, have such a great signal to noise ratio, B&W conversion can be so much more successful, with very little risk of noise sneaking in during the process. It might also be economically viable for some to have these older cameras modified far better B&W by having the IR filter removed from the sensor. Although this is usually done with Infrared photography in mind, it's also great for B&W because it will let more light into the sensor, and for B&W, the nasty colour artefacts which the IR filter is supposed to eliminate, won't matter.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Night Shooting Convinced Me

Processed with DxO Optics Pro ver. 9

Processed with Photivo, "Best Effort"
It took some after dark shooting with my EOS 5D Classic and the Sigma 50mm f1.4 lens to convince me - I absolutely have to bite the bullet and purchase the DxO Labs Optics Pro software. In previous posts, I was feeling that it wasn't making a big enough difference to be worth it, that I could use opensource (free) software like Photivo and Raw Therapee and do my RAW conversions just as well, and I even reasoned - what if you want all the characteristics of your lenses "sweet spot", instead of the perfect uniformity that Optics Pro delivers? I found the answer to that last objection, by the way - the Software has a Preset called "No Correction", which leaves the lens correction out, but still allows you to manually do everything else in terms of making adjustments to your RAW file.

But last night I had an opportunity to shoot some city lights, and I tried processing them in a few different ways. I also had my straight from camera JPEGs available, but these were all too dark to bother with for comparison. So here today, I will mainly show you a few examples, comparing what DxO pulls off, literally with two or three mouse clicks, compared to my best efforts using Photivo on the same RAW file, which requires over 20 mouse clicks Yes, I like Photivo a lot, but I've never revealed how much work is involved to actually get the results you're looking for. The DxO product could involve just as many mouse-clicks if you want to do everything manually, but the beauty is, you don't have to - it has plenty of Presets available right out of the box, and also, all of the film emulation types from their other famous product called "Film Pack" are built into optics Pro ver.9 at no extra cost. Although it's true that with Photivo, you can build and store your own Presets, for future "one-click" work, I've never tried this. But that's beside the point - DxO offers the same build your own capabilities, but out of box, it offers enough Presets to suit most any picture, and save you a mountain of work.

The issue is, the ultimate image quality I was able to achieve with DxO Optics Pro. I'm not sure why it took night photography to convince me that the difference is like night and day (pun intended!), but my best efforts with Photivo, in every case, could not match the amazing clarity and beauty of the Optics Pro software.

Here are some more:

DxO Optics Pro
DxO Optics Pro
Photivo (note - I rotated the DxO sample, but neglected to do so here)

I also used another opensource RAW Converter called Raw Therapee, which works more like Optics Pro, in that it is a RAW Browser / Previewer, and also has a lot of good presets "out of box". However, I do believe that all Opensource Converters are based on the same software "engine", or core application called "DC-RAW", and so the final look would be quite similar. I don't think I'm too far off in this opinion, because I was getting similar results:

DxO Optics Pro
Raw Therapee

DxO Optics Pro
Raw Therapee

DxO Optics Pro
Raw Therapee
JPEG From Camera, Un-altered

For this last one, I also included the JPEG, for comparison purposes, and also to demonstrate why you really need a RAW capable camera, so let's talk about that.

In extreme conditions, like night shooting, if you don't have a camera which puts out a Raw Data File, and only gives you a JPEG output, the camera is making a lot of compromises that aren't good. For instance, why did all my JPEGs come out dark? It's because I had 1 stop of under-exposure dialed in for these shots, to make the night look like it's really night. If you use normal, or even worse, the "expose to the right" method, your pictures will come out bright enough that you'd not think it's really night time. I always "expose to the left" when shooting at night, so that the dark really looks the way it's supposed to at night. But if you don't have RAW capabilities (the Raw Data file - might as well start stating it correctly here), you're camera, in it's own attempt to give you a seemingly noise-free image, will darken the JPEG output too much. On the other hand, if you do have a camera with Raw Data output, you can use a Raw Conversion software program to actually "re-expose" the picture, making it much brighter, more vibrant, -in essence, the way you want it to look, and not what the camera thinks will look best. Further, as digital noise is often the biggest culprit in night shooting, a good Raw Software will always have noise reduction capabilities, so that when you're "brightening" the picture (as opposed to raising the Exposure Value - there is a difference I won't get into here), some noise is bound to show up in the shadows. You can use the software to greatly reduce the noise, which it usually does by "smoothing" the picture details. You can have total control over de-noising, so as to not loose too much detail. So now you know how that works.

I must add, that DxO Labs Optics Pro version 9 has absolutely phenomenal noise reduction - advertised as best in business, it does more than just smooth out detail to get rid of noise. Just what that is must be their "secret sauce" - all I can say is that it works as good as they say it does, although it takes a lot longer to run, and will really rev up the cooling fans in your computer!

I'd better get back to explaining why you should have Raw Data file output (usually simply called "RAW"). I'll state it very simply - without it, you only get what the camera thinks it's best to give you, but with it, you can make your picture look far better, IN EVERY CASE - even using no-cost Opensource Raw Software. Sometimes you can make a JPEG look a little better using software like Photoshop Elements, or it's Opensource equal - GIMP, but in comparison, there's not really much you can do with a JPEG and still have it come out looking good. Of course you can use lot's of "fun filters" to transform your JPEG's into a totally different look, but to truly make your photo's look as good as possible, you need the Raw Data file, as well as a good Raw Conversion Software product.

I'm convinced now, that DxO Lab's Optics Pro 9 is absolutely best in class, although to be fair, I've never tried the most popular product on the market - Adobe's Lightroom. For a well informed comparison, read here.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

DxO Optics Pro-9 (Part 2)

Processed With DxO Optics Pro-9

Processed With Photivo
There are now only 4 days left for me to make a decision to purchase DxO Optics Pro ver. 9 at the discount price of $199. For me that's a significant amount of money, although not impossible. I'm honestly trying to convince myself not to buy it, so I've done a lot of RAW file work-ups using it against Photivo. Unfortunately, this Blog makes both samples look bad - I'm not sure why that is, but trust me, in both cases, the above pictures look far better when displayed on-screen with a standard Image Viewer, but there's still enough here to demonstrate the huge difference between the two.

But let me talk about what I'm seeing. Optics Pro gives far better detail, and it's colour rendering is great - not only that, with the built-in DxO Film Pack, you can pick any "film-like" colour rendering you want - and by the way, this Film Emulation product works far better when using it within a RAW file than the stand-alone, much less expensive Film Pack product, which cannot work on a RAW file.

DxO Optics Pro is far easier to use than Photivo, the latter offering almost like a bottomless pit of possibilities, and although I'm comfortable with Photivo, I've certainly not mastered it. I especially have trouble with Photivo when it comes to colour - it's colour recovery settings seem way too "hair trigger" to me, unless I'm missing something. Optics Pro, on the other hand, doesn't seem nearly sensitive enough if you want to do a colour boost, albeit it is much easier to keep it natural looking. The above samples really tell this whole story in comparing the two products.

Other photo work-ups I've done seem to give the edge to Photivo - it seems to depend a lot on conditions. DxO Optics Pro always does it's lens correction thing in the background - there's no way to shut it off (at least that I know of - I've never read the manual). But in some cases, this isn't a good thing. Using my Sigma 50mm f1.4 lens, I've had some cases where the uncorrected version is preferred, at least to my eyes. This lens, like most all lenses, gives a very strong presentation in a center circle, with some falling away of detail and light toward the edges and corners. DxO Optics pro tends to flatten the center, while it restores the edges, making it seem less "lens-like" somehow. For me, this is sometimes undesirable, but other times OK. I prefer a photo to look like a photo, and this software really takes away the characteristics of the lens / camera body combination you're using, in a bid to make things "perfect". That's what it's supposed to do. That's what it wants to do, and that's what it does by default. If you have a favourite lens - if there's something about the look that you get from that lens which makes it your "go-to" lens, there's a very good chance that Optics Pro will take that away from you. This isn't the case in the above comparison, because this is a fairly heavy crop from the center anyway. But I've seen a lot of other examples where I would prefer to "see my glass", and leave the lens correction disabled (if that's possible).

One thing I do know for sure - I need to quickly boost my learning of both Applications before I make my final decision.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

DxO Optics Revisited (Ver. 9)

EOS Rebel-XT, EF 40mm, De-Noised and Lens Corrected with DxO Optics Pro 9, Added DxO Film Pack Plug-in for Agfa Vista 200

I've installed DxO Optics Pro 9 for it's 30 Day Trial, after which it can be purchased at a special offer price of $199 for full frame cameras, or $99 if you have an APS-C camera. I did the same thing last year for version 8, and at the time, determined it wasn't worth the price for me, but if you're reluctant to use open Source software, as i do, this may be a very good deal.

Version 9 adds a couple of great features - 1) an amazing new noise reduction algorithm which they call "Prime", and because it takes a long time to run, they've retained standard noise reduction called "High". Also 2) you get DxO Film Pack ver. 4 built right into the software as a Plug-In.

But you have to keep in mind that DxO Lab's main feature for Optics pro is that it does RAW Conversion with your specified Lens -Camera combination built-in; it does this seamlessly, and it does it well. Software lens correction is the company's main line of research, and this product, although it is a full-blown RAW converter with all the usual parameters available for adjustment, and it is also a RAW file previewer / organizer complete with Picture Rating, is probably your best bet if you're looking for the ultimate out-of-camera lens corrector too. Now, if you happen to own a camera with built-in lens correction, I would suppose you would not need what DxO Optics Pro has to offer. Also, if you don't even know what I'm talking about here, or you don't own a DSLR or Interchangeable Lens Camera, you most certainly don't need DxO Pro. If that's the case, then maybe the question should be - if you don't own such a camera, would the availability of DxO Pro for as little as $99 entice you to go out and buy one?

You need to understand that the effect of Lens Correction Software (for your PC) and Firmware (built into your DSLR) is desirable, but very subtle - exactly the same conclusion I arrived at last year. It is right now, the last frontier for "picture perfection" so to speak. The thing about it is, you don't know that your pictures might not be "perfect" until you try Lens Correction Software, and observe the difference. Then you need to decide if the difference is enough to make you really want it. The software is available for a 31 day free trial, to let you determine if it's worth buying. So here's a good case in point - consider the above "corrected" picture against this one-

Same As Above, but Converted with Photivo, and no Film-Pack Enhancement
You can see the lens correction in terms of enhanced clarity, and slightly different cropping taking place at the edges. This is a very early camera (the Rebel XT) with a much newer lens (Canon's EF 40mm f2.8), which might be the kind of combinations for which DxO works best. The "Prime" Noise Reduction is also noticeable, but barely - I also used Photivo's NR which works very well. Finally, it's neat to be able to make use of DxO's other claim to fame, Film Emulation, right in the same software window - so for a real dramatic rendering, I chose the Agfa Vista 200 Film in the top picture.

So, how do I think DxO stacks up against my reference standard, Photivo?

DxO Optics Pro 9 "Pros":

  • Probably the best researched lens correction ever done - this is their specialty
  • Intuitive, easy to learn interface
  • The Lens Correction takes place in the background, automatically, based on EXIF data in your RAW file
  • "Prime" Noise Reduction offers a full stop more signal to noise ratio
  • Built-in DxO Film Pack 4 is very cool
  • Exports "DNG" file format, as well as JPG and TIF

DxO Optics Pro 9 "Cons":

  • I still don't see a whole lot of value in Lens Correction, in spite of being able to see it clearly in my above sample, it doesn't exactly "wow" me. Other SW products also offer Lens Correction
  • Even Photivo and GIMP have a form of Lens Correction, called "Lens Fun". It's not intended to make your lens/camera combo "perfect"; rather, it's meant to allow you to customize your own "look"
  • It's not free of charge; also it costs more if you have a full frame camera
  • Not available for Linux

Photivo "Pros":

  • Extremely thorough user interface that allows for RAW conversion / editing at the deepest level possible - this is a true "do-it-all" product, except it doesn't do organizing / rating; it is a stand-alone RAW converter
  • Processing "moves" are very obvious in the Preview, although you can also be subtle with the "sliders"
  • Exceptionally good control of Texture (Micro-Contrast)
  • Exceptionally good control of Dynamic Range
  • Very good at everything, really, EXCEPT Lens Correction - "Lens Fun" is more of a "play around" feature
  • Once you learn how to use it, Photivo ought to be able to match any other RAW Processor that you pay money for, except Lens Correction.
  • Exceptional B&W conversion options
  • It's free of charge for Windows, Mac and Linux

Photivo "Cons":

  • Really steep learning curve - terminology is generic, cryptic, almost scientific
  • Actions are cumulative - this means that a "move" you made earlier will have an effect on what you do later. This isn't so bad once you get used to it.
  • Stand-alone nature means you have to be really good at organizing your photos on your own (you ought to be anyway)
  • In some cases, it's difficult to be subtle, especially when it comes to colour enhancement.

So, because I'm very much at ease with Photivo, once again I probably won't pay the price for DxO optics pro. It is a product for a "perfectionist" niche, I suppose - people who need the ultimate assurance that their camera / lens combinations are performing to the highest standard possible. I personally don't see the value in that, even after trying it out.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Film At It's Worst

You may recall how a couple of months back I was quite involved in showing off some benefits of shooting with film. I was trying to home in on some "non-measurable" properties that film has to offer, particularly in the area of spatial detail - which to me means the ability that film has in portraying separation between overlapping elements, and also in displaying a certain "roundness" or "body" that seems lacking with even some of the best digital equipment.

But I'm also aware of how bad film can be - remember my Post called "worst film ever"? I was amazed at how evil Kodak Color Plus 200 can be - so amazed in fact, I wanted to try it again a few times, with particularly bad lenses, like my Industar-61. In that case, it seems that two wrongs cancelled each other and made it all right!

But now, I have a real stinker to show you. I tried using the Color Plus 200 in a beat up old EOS 500n (Rebel G) equipped with a plastic EF 28-90 Zoom. Ken Rockwell once said that "Canon don't make junk" - well, I'm about to prove him wrong. This time, Bad + Bad = Worst Ever! I've tested this nasty film from Kodak with 1) the really good EF 28-105 USM, 2) Russia's least expensive "system lens", the Industar-61, and finally, 3) this EF 28-90. With #1, the film was giving so much warm-shift, it could barely distinguish between red and orange if you'll recall. With #2, it seemed to be an almost magical combination - don't ask why - it just seemed to be the right film to use in a FED-5 with Industar-61 on a bright sunny day.

Now to #3 - it was bad to the point of shameful. This is the only decent shot I got - and therefore the only one I'm going to display -

EOS 500n, EF 28-90 Canon Plastic Zoom, Kodak Color Plus 200
But there's something else at work here. I've been shooting with film off and on for over thirty years, and most of what I did was to provide subject matter for my Acrylic Paintings. The camera was my sketchbook so to speak. It was only after I got my first digital camera around ten year ago (a Pentax Optio 230) that I began to see photography as an art form in and of itself. In my older days with film, if I weren't going to use a picture as a basis for a painting, then I saw no use for it. That was mostly in the 70's and 80's, as through the 1990's I was neither photographing nor painting. So, yes I am now admitting that it was the emergence of digital photography that once again got me back into visual art. This fact came to my mind last week when I was perusing this website. Moncton, NB is the city I grew up in, and being a very nostalgic person, I totally enjoyed looking at these old photographs.

But I also noticed something else - most of these photos are really terrible, aren't they? I especially mean, technically terrible, by today's standards, no matter if you're talking digital or film. Yes I realize that a lot of thee were amateur photos, probably taken with Kodak Instamatics, but that too goes beyond the point I'm struggling to find here. I think what I might have re-discovered is that before Digital Photography, taking pictures was a particularly unrewarding pass time for most people. It would have only been really serious amateurs, or journalistic professionals that found photography with film to be gratifying - for the rest of us, it was "shoot a roll, then leave it in a sock drawer for six months", because for the most part, I remember having to mail my films away, only to get my prints back two weeks later, and they were almost always disappointing somehow. And not only that, the prints cost 50 cents each, or $1.00 for border-less - that was a lot of money back then.

So yes, I can see how film photography, in it's day, got a bum-rap for amateurs and snap-shooters. Between having poor equipment, and no 1-hour photo places, there was no way to convince most beginners to go out and spend money on good equipment and set up their own darkrooms, "because photography is a really fun pass-time". It has only become fun for everybody since digital cameras came along, and you could work up a photo immediately into real art using a home computer.

Now, film is making a comeback, because digital shooters are rediscovering it, and it can now be put into the very same computerized workflow that you use with your digital camera. No more waiting two weeks - in fact, any 1-Hour Photo places that remain had dispensed with their darkroom approach to printing long ago, and use a ruggedized professional version of the scanning and printing you can do in your own home. I won't say "film is fun again", because really, it was never fun, unless you were of the few who were truly inclined to it; those of you for whom film was your work, and your work was your play. What I will say is that "film is now fun thanks to digital technology". Before that, beginning photographers were given bad service, bad equipment and bad film for relatively large sums of money by today's standards. Maybe Ken Rockwell is right in that Canon doesn't make junk today - in fact all of their bottom-line plastic barrelled optics are quite good when it comes to digital picture quality. But in the 1990's, they certainly did make junk, and this EF 28-90 lens is a prime example, given that using the same lousy film I can get delightful results using the least expensive old lens that Russia has to offer.

In today's world, unlike digital cameras, the old film equipment allows you to experiment. Digital photographs, even with a $100 point-n-shoot camera, are consistently of good technical quality if used within their limits. With digital, you can have a good - better - best scenario, which is limited only by the money you have to spend, and usually, spending more money means that you extend the limits in which your camera can be used in. Film, on the other hand, is all over the map, and it is now "hip" to experiment with bad gear and bad film. But back in it's day, with film, "bad" meant "disappointing", especially for those who spent tidy sums of money on bad gear. The Moncton website is a case in point - a whole lot of technically bad old photos here - the joy lies in the memories of Monctonians, not much in the quality of the photography.

Monday, November 4, 2013


EOS Digital Rebel XT, EF 40mm f2.8 STM
I suppose most people with a camera have tried photographing fireworks, and most towns and cities offer plenty of opportunities to do so throughout the year. I've seen so many amazingly beautiful shots of fire in the sky, I just thought that I could never do anything to compete... and I'm certainly not trying to compete here. But every so often, some neighbour's kids up the street have plenty of fun by shooting off about 15 minutes of their own backyard show. It strikes me as a rather expensive hobby, (although not nearly as expensive as photography I suppose). Anyway, a few nights ago, I heard the first pop, and I had a camera at the ready, (thanks again Mike!) so I ran downstairs and out-doors with no jacket and no shoes, in the hope that some of their efforts would at least make it over the roof!

Happily, quite a few of them did. Far.. far from being a professional fire show, in fact about as far as I am from being a professional photographer, at least half of their whistles and bangs went high enough for me to photograph. I had to make a few hasty on the fly adjustments, and if you're curious, I settled on 0.7 seconds (hand-held) at f3.5, ISO 1600, ending up with a metered EV of -2.25 in Manual Mode.

It sure didn't look like July 4 at the Golden Gate Bridge, but I probably had almost as much fun as the kid's who were setting these off did.

Just to make an observation relevant to the camera, this is a Rebel XT after all- Canon's most affordable DSLR, announced way back in 2005. What really impresses me is the almost total absence of noise. As it is with my EOS 5D Classic, these older cameras have a much lower Pixel Density, which means a much larger per-pixel surface area on the sensor, making these to be tremendously good at low-light shooting. You may want a modern "high resolution" camera, with a minimum of 18 Megapixels for a lot of your photography, but when it comes to low light situations, even with an EV of -2.25 with this old camera, 8 Megapixels on the 24mm sensor, or in the case of the 5D Classic, 12 Megapixels on the 35mm sensor behaves much better when it comes to high signal with low noise. Keep in mind how the very earliest professional DSLR models back around 2001 only had 4 Megapixels on a large sensor - those were pioneering days, but not long after that, some truly great consumer grade DSLR's like the Nikon D70 came along, with only 6 Megapixels - these cameras are still highly regarded, but for totally different reasons, that being superb image quality with low noise.

Coming ahead to late 2013, we find a perceived obsolescence factor in the camera market, all based on the race for more Megapixels. You don't need to fall for that. Sure, there are many other good reasons to buy a brand new camera, but I am daring to say that noise immunity and image quality for still photography are not among them. "High resolution", sometimes as great as 36 Megapixels, now available, is designed for true HD Video capabilities, not for still photographs. I know this all to well, having recently owned (and re-sold) two High Definition DSLR's (the hapless EOS 7D, and the much better behaved Digital Rebel T3i, both with 18 MP), and aside from not focussing properly in the case of the 7D, I was fighting high noise levels that would pop up in post-processing a lot more often than I am now with these older cameras, which gives me a lot more freedom to under-expose when needed.

It all comes down to what you need, really. If you want to make spectacular videos, yo'll need a newer DSLR, but for still photography, don't fear the old - have a search through the local Classifieds, and spend the bulk of your money on better lenses.