Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Some Instant Digital Gratification in B&W

Muddy Road to the Shooting Range

February in Canada can be tiresome. We start to get a longing for Spring weather, and on very rare occasions, in February  we get an occasional "soft" day, where the air is moist, the temperature sneaks above freezing, and the great outdoors is kind. Yesterday was one of those days. There was just a hint of cold on the wind to remind that it is still winter, but a very warm sun was making it's appearance from behind some beautiful clouds. This is just the kind of day that I like to take a camera for a long walk.

I was in no mood for film... I needed cheering up, so it had to be the instant gratification of digital. I also thought it to be a good time to do what I do best - an old manual focus lens on my DSLR. Furthermore, it would have to be one of my favourites - the diminutive Industar 50-2. This is truly an amazing little lens. Not only does it turn my Digital Rebel into one of my smallest and lightest cameras, it's also one of the sharpest knives in the drawer. Let me re-introduce you to it here, a year ago exactly with this lens on the Rebel Xti I owned at the time. I've cycled through a few digital cameras since then, and this time, the little lens found itself on my Rebel T3i (or EOS 600D). It looks almost exactly the same from the front, so I saw no need to photograph my newest rig.

I also felt that for whatever reason, the 18 MP Rebel T3i gives me better looking JPEGs straight from the camera than my previous "professional" EOS 7D. Both cameras use the same 18 MP sensor, but that's where the similarity ends. I really wanted to test this out, and it seemed like a perfect day to do that in Black and White. I set up for Monochrome with a yellow filter and sharpness set at +5 and contrast at +2.

The results exceeded my expectations. Each shot came out a little dark, because of the way
I had to set my chipped lens adapter at -1.5 Exposure Compensation - for some reason, it appears that this is unnecessary on the T3i - I could have gone ahead with "0" EV. All I had to do was a one-click Auto-Fix in GIMP to get the correct exposure. In some cases, I also lifted the highlights using the "Curves" dialogue, to add a bit of extra sparkle.

Here are a few of the best ones, with emphasis on the dramatic clouds:

Community Garden At Rest

Rail-road Signal Box

Main Street Baptist Church

Field of Ice Crystals (Created by Snow Thrower)

Union Jack

Ice In The Vines

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Where I Grew Up

Corner of West and South St., Moncton NB

This post is very simple and short today - no comparisons, no technical stuff about cameras - just some pictures around the part of the City of Moncton where I spent my childhood. They're all shot with the FED-5B with Industar-61 Lens. The old 2 Flat house I grew up in is shown above, and it's been changed over quite a bit. It used to have a full width front veranda, with doors for the upper and lower flats on the front - now it appears to have either been converted to a single dwelling, or the door to the lower flat was added to the side, which I think more likely, because the remaining front door is definitely in the place where the stairs were to the upper flat - unless the staircase was re-oriented with a turn at the bottom.

The rest of the photos can be found here. There are some pics of the streets I walked or biked, ad the Elementary School I attended.

Life seemed so much simpler then.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Chocolate Ice Re-Visited

Pentax Zoom-90, Kodak Ultramax-400

FED-5, Industar-61, Kodak Ultramax-400

EOS 600D, EF40mm f2.8, RAW Photivo Enhanced

I had mentioned previously that I had shot the "Chocolate Ice Study" with the FED-5 camera, as well as the 600D (Rebel T3i). By the force of Providence (or perhaps from living in a small town with limited subject matter) I also have a recent picture of the same stuff taken with my Pentax Zoom-90 albeit from another time and place. Still, we can observe the vastly different photo quality provided by the same subject matter, between these three cameras. Although it would have been nice to have exactly the same view in the three shots at exactly the same place / same time, I don't feel that to be necessary  as the differences are far from subtle.

So then, is there a "best -worst" thing to discuss here, or perhaps yet another "analogue versus digital" shoot-out? Yes- I think it's pretty obvious. Technically speaking the "worst" of the lot by far is the FED-5. There's lots to pick on here - the greenish colour caste, the lens distortion seen on the horizon, and the fuzzy focus in spite of using a f-11 aperture are the main problems. Because the camera works perfectly, and the exposure appears to be well calculated (I had used the values provided by the digital camera at the time as a guide), I would have to say the problem is my particular Industar-61 lens. This is a bad, bad... bad lens. Bad lens! It was really being pushed here by the glare from the low sun which was setting just above the picture, (and picked up in the digital sample). Yes, it is the worst, but hey - the camera with lens was only $10, and even though it is the worst shot here in this context, I love what this lens does in some other settings. I should add, there are some good Industar-61's and some bad ones - typical of Russian quality control, which makes these optics (and cameras) a "Lomographer's delight". Lomography loves the unexpected and the unpredictable. I do too, sometimes.

Now then, it becomes a contest between the Pentax Zoom-90 and the Canon Rebel T3i, and so between analogue and digital. From what can be seen on a computer screen, I would say that both are superb results. With the Pentax, I simply scanned the negative, with no further enhancements; with the Canon digital, I did a lot with the RAW file to get this result. This in itself shouldn't enter into a judgment of image quality - in both cases, the picture is "processed" - it's simply done in vastly different ways, and actually, the scanning of film takes a lot more of my time than working up a RAW file does. I know that in the past, I've used the "straight from film" comparison to make it sound like film is so much better because it takes less work - what I meant was, it takes a lot less digital manipulation to get an acceptable result, but, as most would agree who have done it, scanning film negatives is very time consuming, and labour intensive, to get the negatives put into the scanning frames correctly, and to get rid of as much dust as possible, and as you can see, dust still remains a big problem.

So what are we comparing here? Apples and Oranges of course. In both cases, although the Pentax film camera appears to have added a bluish caste, this was not the case - the colours are accurate, as I remember them - it was at sunrise, and the blue of the sky was reflected in the ice. In the case of the Canon digital, the colours are also accurate - it was late afternoon, and the brownishness of the "chocolate ice" prevailed, due to the slight overcast in the sky - there was no blue.

What it comes down to is - I favour the Pentax-90 film capture to be the best. I just get a sense , as I've said before, that film simply captures the light that goes through the lens and registers it direct to the medium - the camera itself is not involved. With digital on the other hand, it doesn't stop with the capture. In fact, the word "capture" should not be used in digital photography, (as in when someone says "nice capture"). Once the light registers on the sensor, the camera's internal computer springs into action and does with the "capture" what it deems best, and the result is, as that computer tries to build a perfect image from the bits and bytes that come from the sensor, it's as if everything gets somehow "squished" into an output that's less than optimal. When two results are compared side by side, I can see this, and that's the way my mind puts it into words. If we were comparing Nikon to Canon here, instead of film to digital, we would see subtle differences in the way in which the two brands have chosen to program their camera's internal computers, and the way the two actually "squish - scrunch" their data.

Okay, so you might agree that film "captures" things and digital "squishes" things, or you may not agree. But, wouldn't the same thing be observed using two brands of film? Of course! That is so well known that DxO Labs, with their "FilmPack" software have created digital modelling of dozens of film types. Not only that, but simply look at the above pictures to see the huge quality difference between two different camera-lens combos using the same film! The lens in the Pentax Zoom-90 is absolutely wonderful, whereas the Industar-61 Russian lens is "delightfully crap", judging from these results.

And one could also ask - what about when I'm scanning film with my Epson v500 scanner - it's converting analogue to digital, so is it not also "squishing" like a digital camera? My answer is, yes it's squishing, but not like a digital camera.  Using a film scanner is painfully slow - that's why I made the comment above that scanning is more time consuming than working up a RAW file. A camera is built for speed, so it uses a 14-bit computer and operating system with a file output of 72 dpi (that's Canon, I think Nikon is different, but I'm not sure). A scanner on the other hand, uses a 64 bit computer and OS, and gives the ability to use insanely high resolutions - as high as 6400 dpi. Personally I use 300 dpi, as I believe higher than this gives diminishing returns - specifically, more wasted time and huge, unusable file sizes. In short - a decent film scanner provides way more than enough resolution to be absolutely faithful to the film negative; another way to say it is that a scanner doesn't "squish" data near as much as a camera. If your camera worked like a scanner, you'd have to wait 10 minutes between shots!

So, for me, film wins again. And so does the Pentax Zoom-90.. a truly remarkable camera that somebody literally threw away to a goodwill store, and I recovered for $6.99.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Winter's Wonders

Wentworth Valley, NS. Pentax Zoom-90, Kodak Ultramax-400

Winter is not my favourite time of year, and that gets more true with every year that passes. However, for the Photographer, winter offers up visual treasures that you simply don't see at any other time. Ice and snow can provide very interesting photo opportunities, combined with the fact that you don't need to get up as early, or go to bed as late in order to get the best lighting, or to see the most spectacular sunrise / sunsets. I just got a roll of film out of my "lowly" Pentax Zoom-90 yesterday, and was treated to many nice wintry delights.

Winter At The Big House

This is the Dorchester Penitentiary in a snowstorm. Normally, if you are caught taking pictures on the prison grounds, the outdoor patrol will zoom over quickly and take away your camera. However, I took my chances, with the flash turned on to really light up the fat snowflakes. I'm really surprised that my flash wasn't noticed from the Guard Tower. I really love the eerie green from the Sodium Vapour lights as captured on daylight film.

West Sackville Sunset

Here is a perfect example of the importance of having a camera with you at all times. On your person, a Smartphone camera, by all means, is good enough. But in the car, be absolutely prepared with a real camera - one with film in it. And if you're worried about theft, a plastic compact from the '80's or '90's is the way to go, as there are always plenty to be found for under $10 at any Goodwill store, or yard  sales. Right now, I've got five of 'em - the Pentax Zoom-90 happens to be my best one. This awesome sunset was happening right before my eyes while driving, and you know it's at it's peak when the light from it is reflected in the windows of a house. This is what photography is really about!

Snow and Sand (Pentax Zoom-90 Un-altered Scan)

Also taken in West Sackville (on another day), this is an interesting shot of how a pile of sand and blowing snow can mix together to form what looks like a nice pudding. This time, I happened to have my "new" Rebel T3i in the car, along with the Zoom 90. I can never resist comparing film and digital, so see for yourself:

Straight from T3i JPEG

T3i RAW File Worked With Photivo, Added Orton Effect

Beginner's Tip - There's really not much use in shooting JPEG with a camera that will also shoot RAW files. I always have the camera set on RAW+JPG for the sake of giving me something to talk about, but generally, I wouldn't recommend it, based on image quality alone. As you can see, compared to the film shot with my Goodwill Store camera, the digital JPEG is flat, dark, fuzzy and lifeless, even though everything in the camera, including the Histogram, was showing correct half-stop over-exposure. The processed RAW file, on the other hand, is almost as good as the film version.

T3i JPEG With GIMP One-Click Auto-Correction

Finally, don't despair if your camera doesn't shoot RAW files. All bad JPEGs can be easily fixed with a single mouse click. This is even true of the most basic software - the "Windows photo Editor" that comes for free as part of all Windows systems - simply click on "Edit Photo" and then "Auto-Fix" and all of a sudden, your picture comes to life! Not quite as good as a well processed RAW, and certainly not as good as a film-scan, but at least it's presentable. Just keep in mind that when you shot Digital, even with the very best cameras, your digital files will always need some post-processing - always. And with more good news, most if not all of the very newest cameras provide for JPEG processing, or RAW to JPG conversion within the camera itself.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Chocolate Ice Study

EOS 600D, EF 40 Lens, RAW File Processed with Photivo

Same, JPEG Straight from Camera

Panorama by "Hugin", based on JPEGS Straight from Camera, One Click Auto-Fix in GIMP

Yesterday I had a chance to do a study of a phenomena that we see here every winter, that being the "Chocolate Ice" that forms in a little inlet from the Bay of Fundy called Chester Basin. Being right at the exit ramp onto the TCH from Sackville's second junction with the highway, it's something we see almost daily, and something I've always wanted to photograph.  Fortunately, there is a very well maintained service road that goes to the prime viewing spot, which I took advantage of. I made several shots with two cameras - my newly acquired "trade-down" EOS 600D, and my FED 5 Russian Rangefinder. Also, with the low late afternoon sun burning through a pre-storm light overcast, the lighting couldn't have been more perfect.

It was an excellent opportunity to test my trade-down digital camera, just to see if my peculiar observations about the EOS 7D performance were in fact warranted. You will recall that I found the 7D to be a serious under-performer when it came to it's JPG output, although I was always able with a lot of work to get the RAW files converted to spectacular looking photos. I am still at a loss to explain why this particular camera produced such dull, fuzzy looking straight from the camera photos. Part of the problem I found to be related to the Focus Micro-adjustment feature, and after I had dealt with that, things did improve a lot - my pictures came out much less fuzzy, but I didn't see any improvement in the exposures, which, in spite of healthy "exposed to the right" histograms as seen on the camera's LCD, still remained dark and dull looking. So, I'm glad to report, the consumer grade "Canon Rebel" 600D is a totally different creature when it comes to the JPEG picture quality, in spite of sharing the same Image Sensor with it's big brother, the professional model 7D, which I gave up on trade.

As you can see from the above pictures, the JPEG output is not shabby at all. Keep in mind that the first sample is heavily worked up from the RAW file with several light and gamma adjustments, as well as dynamic range compression and local contrast enhancements, using the open-source Photivo application, so it looks spectacular, as it should. The second sample is the JPEG file, straight from the camera, with no alterations whatsoever. This is a very usable image, naturally not as good as the processed version, but certainly far better than the output from the 7D - too bad I didn't still have that camera so I could make a definitive comparison. The panorama was made from two JPEGs, stitched with the "Hugin" program, and then cropped and brightened in GIMP.

With the 600D, I get the return of Canon's "A-DEP" mode - a feature that I found very useful when shooting landscapes with my previous "Rebel" series cameras, but for whatever reason, this mode was not equipped on the EOS 7D. I used it exclusively while shooting this study, and so glad to have it back. The A-DEP mode simply ensures that the maximum depth-of-field is achieved by using all of the camera's auto-focus points. It should in theory give the deepest DOF possible with any given lens, and also make the best use of the Evaluative Auto Exposure stetting. In earlier times, this was done with manual lens settings to achieve the lens' hyper-focal distance; A-DEP simply provides an Auto Focus way of doing the same thing, which can't otherwise be accomplished on new electronically controlled lenses that do not have an aperture ring adjacent to the distance scale. So, it's a mystery to me why Canon chose to leave this feature out of their professional grade cameras. Unless I'm actually using an old manual focus lens on the camera with hyper-focal distance easily achieved by setting the Infinity mark directly over the aperture setting being used, I don't understand how this can be done without A-DEP when using automatic lenses. Anyway, I am very glad to have the A-DEP setting back - you don't know how much you miss something after it's gone, and then you get it back again. It's so nice to not have to be trying to unlock the EOS 7D mysteries any more!

Now it will be even more interesting to get the film developed from my  FED-5, just to compare the similar pictures made on film, using a classic rangefinder camera. Can't wait to use up that roll of film and share the results with you!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

You Probably Saw This Coming

Self Portrait With EOS 600D, In-Camera "Grainy B/W"

Yeah I did it. I traded my EOS 7D... for a EOS 600D, also known as the Rebel T3i. I found a person who wanted to upgrade, and we did the swap at real market value, which is, as I said before, the real world bidding on Ebay, which is a reflection of what people are willing to pay at any given time. The going top bids for the 7D are now $850 plus shipping, and the 600D is going for $400. This shows that the 7D has lost almost half it's value, based on original price, but the 600D has only lost about a third. This is typical of luxury goods I suppose - the high end tends to depreciate in the real market a lot faster. 

So, please note - this does not mean I bought a new camera, for those who are holding me to my New Years resolution. Instead, I downgraded and ended up with some cash!

So, why would anybody want to downgrade? Well, as you can see from my picture, I'm a kind of "independent", and I do whatever I want. In comparing the two cameras, it's too soon to see if the 600D is really going to work out better for me in terms of picture quality. In theory, it should be the same, as both cameras use the same 18 MegaPixel sensor. In practice, with the few shots I've made, including a few of our new kitten "Larry", I think I'm going to be much more pleased at least with the way the 600D creates JPEG's in-camera.

(JPG Straight From Camera, cropped square)

For now, I'll just mention a few things that I've lost and gained with this swap (aside from gaining the cash). In giving up the 7D, I've lost:

  • Professional, weather sealed build quality
  • Best Viewfinder on any APS-C type DSLR
  • Ability to mix combo's of small, medium and large RAW + JPEG files
  • Faster Autofocus in Live Mode
  • Compact Flash cards (I love these big old things!)
  • In-Camera RAW to JPEG conversion
  • Top panel Info-LCD
  • Dual control dials

With the 600D, I've actually gained a few things:

  • Very small and lightweight - actually pocket-able with the EF40mm "pancake" lens
  • Fully articulating LCD screen - that's how I was able to take my self-portrait
  • A few in-camera "creative filters", including the "Grainy B/W" you see above - this is quite film-like.
  • Initial results - possible better JPEGs

Things that are the same:

  • 18 MP resolution
  • Same ISO 100 to 12800
  • Same LCD resolution
  • Same in-camera Lighting Optimization and High Tone Priority
  • Live View

Especially because I prefer small and light over big and professional, I think the 600D is more the right camera for me, and it'll give me the very same High ISO / low light performance that I need for shooting the cat shows and summer festivals - the excellent specs of the 7D are exactly the same as in the 600D. If I had replaced my broken 40D for one of these in the first place last summer, I wouldn't have taken that big hit on the depreciation.

This is definitely the camera I should have bought.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

First Year for This Blog!

Pentax Spotmatic, Takumar 35, f3.5

Welcome to the celebration of the first anniversary of this website! Although officially my first Post was on Feb. 21 of 2012, I had been doing some photography related blogging on somebody else's site just before that. Anyway, I figure today is a good day to celebrate, because I've also just broken through 12,000 Page Views today! On average then, I'm tracking at 1000 Views per Month. That's probably not a whole lot of hits in the grand scheme of things, but honestly, it is a lot more than I was expecting. It means that I have a growing reading audience; now I'd like to see more interaction from my readers. I've gotten very few comments from people over the past year, and only a handful of actual followers. I would love to see this "ramp up" through 2013, but this depends on you. If you haven't already done so, please click on the "Join This Site" button just to the right. The only impact this will have on you is an extra email or two each day I create a new Post.

Now, how about spicing things up a bit with some lively discussion too? I really welcome your comments, positive or negative. Much more, I value anything that adds to the knowledge contained on this site, and that cannot all come from me.. I still know next to nothing. Case in point - almost a year ago, I made this statement:

"I now hate film, in spite of the tremendous successes I had with it. I'm on my sixth Digital Camera now, actually my third DSLR - a Canon EOS 40D which I just bought used at an amazingly low price. I truly believe that digital is the way to go - there are so many advantages, I cannot fathom that I would ever shoot a roll of film again."

Now, I can't believe I actually said that! Surely this alone should create some lively debate? I now embrace film photography as my preferred medium, and have talked a lot about it here in the later months of last year. Even what I said about "tremendous successes"... hmmm.. no gallery exhibits, no books, no real fame, even within my own small town... not exactly a success story. I think I was on a high at that time, knowing that I was soon going to retire and enter a life of leisure. I can see now that what I meant was that in the past, I achieved results with film that I was proud of - that may be the beginning of my success, I suppose, to be happy with some of my own work. I am also happy with a lot of my digital photos too.

I think I talk about equipment here more than I really want to, or originally intended. Strange, how all of the biggest names in photo blogging all say "the equipment doesn't matter", and yet, what do they talk about most of the time? Equipment! So then, I suppose that I'm "on-trend". Equipment has certainly become a big part of it, and I'm resolved that it needs to be talked about, and the picture making public wants to read discussion about equipment - there's no getting away from it.

I'm always about "photography on the cheap", so while the big boys get to review the $10,000 cameras, because the manufacturers loan the latest and greatest to them to use for a few weeks, to get their "unbiased opinions", I obviously can't do that. But what I can do is buy film cameras for less than $10 each in some cases, try them out, show you the results and write about it. And I do know that every time I look at film pictures taken with cheap cameras on Flickr, I smile a lot; and I smile less so when looking at digital pictures.

Last year at this time, I had just bought a second hand EOS 40D, and was genuinely happy with it. Then it broke, and I opted for a brand new EOS 7D to replace it. I've been frustrated with that decision ever since and am quite close to concluding that it's not the camera for me. Add to that, I'm enjoying my film experiences a lot more, and am truly blown away by the results I can get by scanning my own film negatives. Not that I'd give up on owning a DSLR - they're perfect for low light situations especially, and I much prefer the immediacy of digital when shooting at summer fairs, music festivals, cat shows, etc. But I found the 40D to be much better for me than the 7D is proving to be, in giving immediate good results with much less work. Not sure yet why that is... it just is.

So, help me celebrate - click "Join", and please feel very free to voice your opinions below. And thanks to all of you who helped make my first year a good start!

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Struggle

1) RAW Processed Heavily with Photivo

2) JPG Straight from Camera

3) RAW to JPG Processed Within Camera

I must admit - I'm growing more and more frustrated with my Canon EOS 7D. I cannot for the life of me figure out why I can't get a decent looking JPEG straight out of it, but with my previous much less expensive Canon DSLR's, a reasonable JPEG output was, as should be expected, easy to get. I just took the above picture this morning, with Large RAW + Medium JPEG turned on. I looked at the JPEG first (Pic #2 above), and found it to be very dark and lifeless - and this was with +1/2 stop of exposure compensation dialled in when I took it. The accompanying Histogram reading on the back of the camera showed plenty of exposure on the right of the curve, with a gradual taper to the left - in other words, a good healthy borderline overexposure was shown on the graph, but in reality, the shot came out very underexposed.

Now, I know from experience I can get fantastic looking results from this camera by processing the RAW files on my computer, so I wasn't too worried. I opened the RAW file in Photivo, and at first noticed the histogram in the software was not biased to overexposure as it was on the back of my camera - it was pretty much flat in the middle of the graph, rolling off at both ends, without the healthy bump on the right... in other words, Photivo was showing me a much more "honest" graph than the camera was.

So I went to work, and added 2 full stops of brightness, two steps of Gamma compensation to maintain contrast, and plenty of Reinholdt brightness tweaking too. Then I went on with my usual formula of Dynamic Range Compression, Local Contrast Enhancement, a bit of Sigmoidal Contrast, and addition of film grain. Finally I made a square crop, and voilĂ  .. the very good looking exposure of Pic #1 above, with plenty of brightness, and eye-popping colour... and you can even see the man's face!

Picture #3 above is a result of a RAW to JPEG conversion done within the camera without the computer. This capability was added to the EOS 7D with Firmware Upgrade 2.0. It is an extremely limited conversion in which you can adjust basic sharpness, contrast and colour saturation - that's it. There is no provision to increase brightness using this method. This is the upper limit of what can be done in-camera. The results are obviously improved, but it is still too dark.

My point is this - why do I have to work so hard in Post Processing to get my digital photos to look reasonable with this camera? It can be done, and I even enjoy doing it, but still, with my film photo's, I don't have to do anything to the scans from my Epson v500 - film always gives me eye-popping pictures that require little or no digital processing, even from cameras that cost me less than $10.00!

I'm thinking now that I probably should have used "spot exposure" mode on the man's face, instead of evaluative, because my camera's meter was picking up a lot of brightness from the snow. And therein lies the problem - digital cameras have so many different options for focus and exposure, and if you forget to set one of them right - well, you've lost your shot, unless you are shooting RAW. With film, on the other hand, most of the cameras I use have no light meter at all. I take light readings from my Smartphone (the beeCam App), and because this is also evaluative metering, I'm in the habit of using the results this App gives me, but then set my aperture and shutter to provide one or two more stops of overexposure. Using this method, I haven't missed a shot yet with film, due to bad exposure. Occasional bad focus, yes, but never bad exposure. With the digital camera however, I needed to switch the actual exposure mode (of which there are five choices I think) to have gotten a good shot straight out of camera with this one. The problem is next time, I'll probably forget to change the exposure mode.

I'm finding more and more that old style photography is so much easier and rewarding than trying to make sense of the shit-load of settings brought on by the digital revolution.