Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Gear I Still Use

 The M42 Crowd Covers the Range for Fixed MF Lenses: 
Back L-R -Takumar 200mm, Soligor 135mm, Takumar 55mm f1.8, Takumar 35mm
Middle - Jupiter-9 85mm f2
Front - Wide Angles: Rexagon 23mm, MIR-20 20mm, and Bushnell 28mm f2.8

I love shooting with manual lenses. In certain ways, it's easier than relying on Auto-Focus, and the now overly complex systems behind them. Auto Focus is supposed to mean that the camera will do the focus for you, and will do it quicker than if you focus manually. But that depends - if you have to take three or four shots in order to get the focus where you want it, AF is just getting in your way. And besides, what is quicker than not needing to focus at all? It's a breeze to simply pre-set your focus on a manual lens, and literally forget about it - and there are many situations in which you want to have the greatest depth of field possible - and it is with these situations that you can use a manual lens with a genuine old school DOF Scale to truly "set and forget" your focus, using the "hyperfocal distance" formula. In addition, when you're in a tricky night-time shooting situation, where the Canon AF system just rolls over and dies, unless you use the extremely annoying burst-flash AF-assist, believe me, you're much better off with an old school MF lens that gives you a real distance scale, and a great big aperture opening (f1.8 or better) to bring in lots of light. After dark, you're going to shoot wide open in Shutter Priority, simply to get a decent shutter speed, unless you're using a tri-pod - in any event, the thing that'll save your bacon is to measure your distance to whatever you want to be in focus (arms' length - about three feet, walking stick, about five feet, and beyond five feet in the dark, it matters less and less).

This is a very good way to get some of the greatest lenses that were ever made at extremely low prices too. I have nine M42 thread Mount MF lenses, most of which are truly remarkable in quality, and I got them all for just over $250!


Top- The EOS 5D Classic With 270 EX Flash and My Favourite Lens
Bottom - L-R Quantaray (Tokina) 19-35mm Wide Zoom, EF 28-105 USM Standard Zoom, 
EF 70-210 Macro Telephoto Zoom

One of the problems that has emerged in the new era of digital cameras is "fear of the old". Marketers have convinced us that we simply must keep on buying a new camera every 3-5 years, to keep up with performance, features, and supposedly image quality. This is only fortunate for those who do not buy into this argument, and is causing tremendous price drops in older high-end camera bodies. The full frame (35mm) Canon EOS 5D was launched eight years ago for over $3000.00, and now you can buy them second hand for under $700.00 - in some cases, well under! I've already covered a strong argument that when it comes to Megapixels, and features on a 35mm DSLR, "less is more" - really!

I like shooting with the 5D because it has a minimal feature set with (almost) everything in the right place. The viewfinder is big and clear, although not quite as good as found on the EOS film cameras. Image quality is spectacular, especially in low light. A lot of under-exposure can be dialled in to raise shutter speed, with little corresponding increase in noise - contrary to the APS-C (or 24mm) DSLR's. 

The downside? Not much of anything, except this is a very heavy camera, that's not quite as easy to hold as the lovely Elan-7 film cameras. If I could only have one camera instead of nine, it would be this one, considering everything together. What? A digital, and not film? Well, it's almost as good, and I'm still in a digital workflow whether I'm using a digital or a film camera, so yes, this one makes the most sense.

Oh yes - I should comment on why the very tiny Industar 50-2 lens shown here is "my favourite lens". Simply because it's truly amazing! How can a lens, made in the former USSR, and so small it looks silly on any camera - even the old Zenet-E it was intended for, be so good? I'm sure the magic is in it's simplicity. Everybody should own one of these if they have a Canon or Pentax DSLR, and want to "wake up" your camera to it's best potential for under $50.00, including the adapter!


 The Old School-
L-R Yashica Lynx 14, FED-5 with Industar-61, Olympus Trip-35

Want to get back to basics, deprive yourself of all modern automation, and really learn what photography is all about? Want to be able to shoot without batteries? Want to learn how to get reaally good at getting the correct exposure by intuition? Want to make photographs that truly have a touch of yesterday without having to fake it? Want a totally different shooting experience? Then try an old Rangefinder. (OK the Trip-35 isn't a Rangefinder, but it sure looks like one, and has an image quality that's top-notch and totally unique). A Russian Rangefinder like the FED-5 especially can give you a pretty good idea of what it's like to shoot a Leica camera, because they're copies of the essential old Leica design. You can even use a Leica lens on one, although you probably would think twice before putting out that much money.

But who needs a Leica lens when you can have the fixed 45mm f1.4 lens on the Yashica Lynx-14? I can tell you, I've never seen more beautiful results on 35mm colour film, period! Truly amazing, and if you can find one of thee cameras in working condition, it shouldn't cost you more than $100. I got mine for $40.00.

The downside? Plenty! Rangefinders might be the most accurate method of manual focussing, with it's simple alignment of a split image that can be accomplished very quickly, but unless this is the only type of camera you use, it's easy to forget that your viewfinder isn't looking through the film lens. You could shoot a whole roll and not remember to take the lens cap off - it has happened!


 Point-Shoot Sisters - Pair of Pentax Zoom-90's

Do you need a true "PHD" (press here, dummy) camera that truly does everything for you and still takes excellent pictures? Do you want a camera that's even simpler than a digital point and shoot - in fact, even simpler than a smartphone camera? In the 1990's, Pentax, Canon, Minolta, Nikon, and quite a few others made these black plastic battery powered film cameras with zoom lenses that had auto-everything; they even loaded, advanced and rewound the film for you. They required almost no setting up (unlike today's digital point and shoots, which can be downright baffling). There were typically only three controls - a shutter button, zoom toggle, and flash control (which you might as well set to "automatic"). But I can at least vouch for the Pentax Zoom 90 - they take fantastic pictures!. You can even get quite serious with one, as perfect focus is attained instantaneously. People watching you use one of these will never take you seriously, but you'll know differently, making these the perfect street camera!


 Early Digital - Canon Rebel XT, EF-S 18-55 and EF 55-200 USM

Like the 5D Classic, the Digital Rebel XT is about eight years old. It is quite simple to set up and operate, with only features that would be considered "essential" by today's standards, meaning it has far less unnecessary features than a similarly priced digital point-and-shoot. Pixel Density is low, and so light capture and noise performance are better than what would be expected. It is light-weight, and even the very cheap and now infamous 18-55 kit lens performs better than it looks like it should. Typically, these are selling for $200 or less, with lens, making them a viable camera for any DSLR beginner - I doubt the price would ever be much lower, and it should be an easy re-sell if you feel you must upgrade - personally I wouldn't. It's a great little grab and go camera. As with the 5D, the rear LCD is very poor by today's standards, but one should use a DSLR's rear display to show the Histogram instead of the actual picture just taken - even with the best modern LD's you can learn more from "chimping the histogram". Also, this was the last Canon EOS "Rebel" camera to have a separate Info LCD, which was on the rear where it can be more easily seen with the camera on a Tripod. It is far more typical to have these on top of the camera, if it has one at all.

It operates like any other Canon DSLR - always fast and dependable, in spite of the plastic construction common to the Rebel series - with a big advantage of light weight. Obviously, these cameras can last just as long as their bigger brothers, although they're not meant for professional use.


 The King and Queen - Pair of Canon Elan-7's - the King is sporting a Battery Grip

 King and Queen Again - Top View

Now, we've come to my favourites. The Elan-7 was Canon's last mid-level film SLR, and it is amazing how similar they are to all EOS DSLR's of any series, right up to the present day models. Although not built like Pro models, they're much better than the Rebel series. There are two huge advantages to these cameras - one being that the Viewfinder is bigger and brighter than I've seen with any camera - I'm sure there are a lot of cameras that are better still, but the Elan-7 is the best I've experienced personally. The other thing I love about them is their perfect weight and handling - you can see they're shaped quite different than any of Canon's DSLR's - it seems to be a formula that really worked well. Another thing I like is how the Drive and AF Mode Functions are set with real switches on top of the camera. These aren't things you change a lot, but it adds a touch of real quality.

Really, I can't think of anything not to like about the Elan-7. They work just like all of the newer DSLR's, run on two CR123 batteries, or with the battery grip, will also work with four AA's. All of Canon's EF lenses, even those with Stabilization will work on these film SLR's - really, you almost have to keep reminding yourself that you're shooting film, not digital. There's even Canon's familiar "Custom Functions" menu, with a lot of the same settings used by the digital SLR's. It seems that Canon hit on some great things in the late 1990's, and have carried the same basic design ideas through to the present day.

Why do I have two of them? Well, for $20 each, why not? Unlike with digital cameras, film only comes in one ISO, so by having two identical bodies, you can load one up with ISO 160 and the other one with ISO 800, for when things get dark, or fast.


Featherweight Champ - Canon EOS 500N (Rebel G) with EF 28-90

And why not have a third compatible film body on hand for yet another film type? I simply had to buy a film Rebel, to compare it to a Digital Rebel, and for $20 with lens, and good batteries, again, why not? Again, like the Elan series, these are now one of the most overlooked bargains of all time. The Viewfinder is far bigger than any Digital Rebel (to be fair, it's because a film camera uses a bigger 35mm, vs 24mm frame) - it's not as good as the Elan-7, but comparable to the EOS 5D (35mm digital). Another big plus for the Rebel G is it's incredibly light weight, especially with the kit lens. Everything is plastic - even the lens mount, but in spite of that, the Rebel G still inspires confidence. Feature-wise, it's really bare-bones, which I like, if you haven't noticed. It only has one control wheel instead of the Elan-7's two, which makes some settings a bit awkward - same problem is carried forward on the Digital Rebel's by the way. It remains however, that even with a plastic mount, any EF lens will fit this camera, and you can even use a Canon "L" Series (Mega - $$), and why not? It's film- The result would be spectacular, even though the idea of putting a $2000 lens on a $10 camera seems ludicrous, it would work just fine.

One thing I should mention is batteries. Some older EOS cameras used the 2CR5 battery - avoid these like the plague! The Elan-7 and Rebel G both use the far better CR123's. These older Lithium camera batteries are getting expensive right now, and twice, I've bought a 2CR5 for the old EOS 650 I had, only to find they were depleted, right off the shelf. I've never had this problem with CR123's. In fact, I just ordered eight pairs of them from a Hong Kong Ebay seller at a very good price, and all of them tested fine. So, especially if you come across one of these Rebel film SLR's, make sure it uses CR123 batteries! I gave the EOS 650 away to a local charity yard sale because of the deplorable 2CR5 battery - far better to have it be somebody else's problem.

I forgot to show a picture of the EF 40 f2.8 STM Lens (just Google it). This in fact is my second favourite lens, which says that for some strange reason, my favourite lenses happen to be the smallest and less costly in their categories... I actually prefer them for their image quality in both cases. Between the two of them, the range is covered from 40mm through 80mm, because on the 35mm body, the Industar 50-2 and EF 40 give me 50mm and 40mm, while on the 24mm body, they give me 80mm and 65mm. 

Adding it all up, my photo gear gives me so many different ways to shoot, and yet, especially within the Canon EF system for film and digital, with which all the M42 lenses also work perfectly, the whole thing works together, with the old school and P&S film cameras serving as extras, or loaners, or educational pieces, etc.

Monday, September 23, 2013

How Much Should We Alter Photographs?

As you may have gathered from some of my past Posts, I am very much a Purist when it comes to photography. I maintain that if a photograph does not have classic photographic qualities, then I cannot take it seriously.  But that's just my personal opinion. As a good example of what I mean, High Dynamic Range (HDR) does not have that classic photographic look to it, and therefore, I cannot refer to it as HDR Photography - I might be inclined to call some of it "HDR Art" if it's well executed, but aside from the fact that it's done using a camera doesn't make it photography in my books.

Now consider the two photos above. These were both done by me, using yet another "new to me" camera that was given to me by a good friend, software developer Michael Milne, in exchange for some photo projects he will be working on in the future for which he wishes to call on me. The camera is a Canon EOS Rebel XT (or the EOS 350), with a standard Kit Zoom (EF-s 18-55mm) and the short lived, but excellent EF 55-200 USM Zoom. I wanted to mention this both to thank Mike, and also to say that I did not use a film camera, nor my new to me EOS 5D Classic. But this is a side-note, again to say "thanks Mike!"

These are shots of the recent "Harvest Moon" we enjoyed seeing last week. I'm sure that any trained eye will be able spot what I did, either because I didn't do it so well, or because it is known that just a camera (any camera) by itself is unable to execute this without some help. That's correct - it's the moon itself. To have any kind of exposure in the picture's foreground, or in the beauty of the setting sunlight, the surface detail of the moon would not have been captured, and what I actually ended up with from the camera was this:

Obviously I took the liberty to use another shot of the moon itself, and exposed it only for the moon to capture it's surface detail. Then I used the "Layers" function in GIMP to replace the detailed moon over the actual one in the shot, scaling it to look bigger. What I did was in fact a kind of HDR - one shot was exposed for the scenery, and the other shot was of the moon itself, correctly exposed. If I do not consider HDR as Photography, but something else, am I being true to myself here?

I will say that this is the way I saw it - I could see the foreground detail, as well as the moon's surface with equal clarity, so my "editing" represents, in fact, what I actually saw. But it could be argued, in favour of HDR, that when standing in a dimly lit room and looking out the window, you will see both the room's detail and the outdoor detail with equal clarity, but a camera cannot - to combine them together, one must combine two or more separate exposures of the same scene if both the outdoor and indoor subjects are required to be seen. Personally, in that scenario, I would rather have the indoor subjects exposed correctly, and let the outdoor highlights blow-out, because that would represent the aesthetics of a photograph. But this was different - the drama of actually seeing the moon's surface as it rose low on the horizon simply had to be shown, and so I took a separate shot of the moon, and layered it in, HDR style.

My objection to HDR as most people have seen it is this - to have everything correctly exposed in a photograph makes for an extremely flat photograph. It makes everything in the picture possess an equal exposure value, with all shadows lifted, and all highlights flattened. For me, in most situations, it is best to lose shadow detail, and allow some highlight blow-out, because this is one of the most important ways to keep depth in a picture. With HDR, especially when it's poorly done with no thought put into it, you lose the emphasis of good exposure that is supposed to be on your subject. For my pictures above, the moon is in fact the subject, but the camera didn't see it that way. At the same time, there is enough compositional strength and subtle plays of light to provide beautiful textures that would've been lost if I had exposed only or the moon. This is one of the very few times that I will put an HDR technique to work for me, and I did not HDR the entire picture - only the moon itself, allowing me to maintain a correct exposure for the real subject, while at the same time capturing the beauty of what was surrounding it with proper exposure related depth perception.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Final Word- Film Vs. Digital

Here now I offer you what should be one of the most fair assessments of "35mm Digital vs. Film" Photography. This is an opportunity for which I'm grateful to have had all the right equipment and software to be able to provide this comparison, and to make it as scientific as a non-scientist like myself can be. I would also like to mention I have taken into account some good comments I received from earlier comparisons I had presented, and shot accordingly.

The Equipment:

For Digital, I used a new (to me) 2006 Vintage Canon EOS 5D, original 12.8 Megapixel model, set for RAW + JPEG capture. For Film, I used a Y2K Vintage Canon EOS Elan-7 with Kodak Ultramax 400 film. The lens used for all but the first pair of shots was the Canon EF 28-105, f 3.5 - 4.5 USM Version 1 Zoom, of which I conveniently have two, so that I didn't have to swap lenses between cameras all the time. The first pair of shots was taken with the Canon EF 40 f2.8 STM. The settings used on both cameras was identical - 400 ISO, Evaluative Metering, Aperture Priority, and making sure Aperture and Shutter Speed settings were close enough to being the same for both cameras, and as close to the same focal length (zoom setting) as possible, although some minor errors are seen in some of the pairs of shots. For Film, I used my own Epson V500 set at 300 DPI for an image size of 11" x 17".

The Post-Processing (PP) approach was to use Photivo (Open Source Lightroom clone) for both the RAW output from the digital camera and the 16-bit TIFF output from the film scanner to get the pictures to look as good as possible (not as similar as possible), with no regard to colour adjustments. The parameters which I tweaked in Photivo were Lightness, Gamma, Local Contrast and Noise Reduction, although no noise reduction was necessary for the EOS 5D. In some cases, I would use one step of Dynamic Range Compression only if I found it helpful in either case. Once completed with Photivo, I created a new TIFF file, and then used GIMP (Open Source Photoshop Elements clone) to convert both the RAW and TIFF files down to a screen-friendly 8-bit JPEG, and to rotate and crop as necessary. GIMP was not used to make any further lightness, contrast or colour adjustments.

So, on with the show. If you look at every one of these in quick summary, you will see that with film, there is an obvious colour shift toward deep blue. So this is a standing comment that when comparing 35mm Digital to 35mm Film using Kodak Ultramax 400, Digital is the clear winner as far as colour accuracy is concerned. I've talked about film's colour characteristics before. As to why I did not make some colour adjustments to make the film capture more true - the answer is that I don't know how to do this well, and actually, I thought it would be more fair to show this particular film with it's own characteristics, because with film, they're all different, even the same brands from one roll to another can have colour variances.

Pair 1:

In this picture, the Plaque on the stone gate can be read more easily with the Digital - I actually used the plaque as a focus point with both cameras. Either the Elan-7 does not focus quite as accurately, the film has lower resolution, or most likely of all, it could be a result of what my budget model scanner does, especially with "Digital ICE" (dust removal) turned on. However, the film version reveals a lot more shadow detail beneath the top of the stone arch, showing how well the Kodak Ultramax 400 favours shadow detail.

Pair 2:

With this pair, there is more than one problem with the film picture. Aside from the colour shift, there is a lot less sharpness, and the sky detail is completely lost. However, the reflections of light throughout the picture - in the car windows, wet pavement and especially underneath the canopy came off far better in the film shot.

Pair 3:

Once again, sky detail is all but lost in the film shot, and colour saturation seems unnaturally high. However, the film provides a much better separation of all of the picture elements - look especially at the sense of space provided between the two trees. The digital shot has some of the typical lack of vibrancy, which the film version provides in bucket-fulls throughout the picture.

Pair 4:

Exactly the same comments as above - leading me to conclude that the "Evaluative Metering" works a bit differently between the two cameras, which is a fair statement, as the Elan-7 is probably at least five years older than the 5D, and we are told that Evaluative Metering is constantly improving. The film version again shows a very high colour saturation, and as I said in the introduction, I did not want to try messing with the colour.

Pair 5:

Here, I have to declare film as the absolute winner, because I love reflected light. In the digital shot, the hay-mow almost gets lost into the background, but somehow, the film caught the light from this rusty old machine far better. Also, there are nice light reflections throughout the film version that are almost completely missing in the digital - look at the green flower pot, and also the side of the white VW parked in the background. The digital shot isn't bad, but the film shot is a perfect example of why I love film.

Pair 6:

Exactly the same comments as with Pair 5, giving the film version much more life and vibrancy. Unfortunately, the composition between these two pictures is quite different, but there's enough here to show how different the two mediums are.

Pair 7:

This pair is quite neat, in that it shows how a digital camera works with great caution, with it's built-in computer, to give everything a "dull perfection", while a film camera simply captures the light that is thrown into it with wild abandonment! Yes, the leaves of the plant are more washed out with over-exposure, but that's fine because the sunflower is given a lot more "pop".

Pair 8:


These two are quite close - the film version is of course showing higher saturation, and again, the sky detail is all but washed out completely. I believe that a simple saturation increase in the digital shot would've made these two virtually identical. But what else do we look for. This "something" that I personally refer to as "separation between elements" is a little better in the film shot - the actual space between the front row and second row of cars is more clearly seen in the film version I believe.


With this exercise, I took as much care as possible, although I'm sure there are people who will point out some things I could have done differently - and suggestions / criticism is always welcome here. I'm going to offer a real crazy conclusion - that is, I haven't proven anything. I have shown that film and digital photography are quite different, but that was proven long ago, and my demo here does nothing to improve on that. I will give you my overall opinion however. Digital photos are always dead-on accurate in terms of measurable values - they're always "perfect", especially with a camera as great as the one I'm using here. Good digital pictures give us a kind of "lab reference" so to speak. Film is unpredictable - I was not expecting the blue shift that can be seen in every one of these pictures. I was also not expecting the wash-out of highlight detail - this film seems to prefer shadow detail at the expense of highlights. Also, some deficiencies in my scanning is noticeable - and that's the way film photos are processed now, even at the one-hour photo counter - film is digitally scanned and  printed, and you can either do it yourself, or have Walmart do it for you.

But to continue with my opinion, film is often better than digital in terms of "immeasurable values", with "separation between elements" (i.e. - sense of space) being one of a few of these sorts of things that I notice. Another thing I notice is the quality and quantity of reflected light - film always seems to do this better. These are things which I learned to do using specific techniques as a painter - there are "tricks" to create a sense of space, and to add light to a painting. This may explain how I look for such things in photographs and expect them to be there. By and large, digital photography fails to deliver on things like this when compared to film photography, but to be fair, these are things that most photography enthusiasts seldom look for.

I won't say "never again" - I may do more digital vs. film comparison, but I rather strongly doubt it. I'd much rather simply be learning how to  take better picture and using this Blog to talk about them. This I think would be a far better, but much more challenging use of my time.

EOS 5D Classic Mini Review

Hanging Around a Truck Stop
EOS 5Dc, EF 28-105 @35mm, RAW Processed With Photivo

My past two posts have been about my Canon EOS 5D "Original" version that I picked up for a very good price, and given the fact that I can only spend hundreds, and not thousands of $$ on photo equipment, thanks to the long-of-tooth age of the original 5D, I am now in the exciting world of 35mm Digital photography, which is otherwise known as "Full Frame". Previous to this, I was content to be into "full frame" via 35mm film, with a EOS Digital Rebel on hand for occasional use.

So, is this wonderful old camera going to scratch me where I itch when it comes to my preference for film? Well, here's a SPOILER ALERT regarding my next post - I have been working on a mini-project, shooting exactly the same pictures, at nearly the same time, using exactly the same lens, and the same camera settings. I am not simply going t offer the digital camera's JPEG output (I was previously criticized for that - go figure!), but rather, I am going to work up BOTH the Digital RAW output, and the 16-bit TIFF images from my film scanner so that both are optimized to the best of my ablity, even though I still maintain it makes more sense to use simple "SOOC" JPEG output from both the camera and scanner for comparison, as I have done in the past. However, for the sake of science, I will do as advised by those who favour the image quality of digital over film, and see what we get. Later today, I'll be getting the film processed. The above truck stop picture is one of the comparison shots that's in the running here - now there's a teaser! I must also add, this will be the last film vs digital comparison that I will be doing here.

Needless to say, as far as image quality goes, this is by far the best DSLR camera I have ever owned. I cannot say the same in terms of features, of course, because so much has been added to Canon DSLR's in the 8 years since the original 5D was made. However, in my previous post, I was showing how the relative lack of features can be a real advantage, because it's only got what you need , with almost all of the control points in the right places, no more, no less. This camera can be used without taking your eye away from the viewfinder - as it should be.

A lot of people are saying lately that a camera's sensor size no longer matters as far as image quality goes - that is to say that a Canon APS-C sized sensor will give the same image quality results as a Canon full-frame sensor camera. Yes, that is now true - the 18 MegaPixel EOS SL1 has close to the same image quality as the new 24 Megapixel EOS 5D Mark III. Ken Rockwell himself just showed us recently how true this is. Yes, this is true now, but it's not true when you compare the original 5D to even the very newest PS-C Crop Camera. In this comparison, the original 5D will come off a lot better. The reason is, of course - the 5D original only has 12 megapixels spread across the same size 35mm sensor, compared to the 24 of the newest version, or the 18 of the newest smaller sensor cameras - this translates to half the pixel density, or more simply put, pixels that are twice as big. Being twice as big, the pixels on the 5D original can catch more light and introduce a lot less noise than any new Canon DSLR. Mr. Rockwell also verified this when talking about early full-frame digital cameras. It is important to note that Ken isn't contradicting himself here - he's right on both occasions. Eight years ago, the pixels were much bigger, but today's EOS 5D has been degraded by way of having the same pixel density  than all of their cheaper cameras, and I suppose that Canon is hoping that people won't notice too much, as we get more and more accustomed to the look of digital images.

For myself, the difference I see is when I post-process a RAW file. The double-sized pixels in the 5D Classic provide far more latitude for enhancing both the shadows and highlights than I have experienced with any other camera. With smaller (APS-C) cameras, I was finding that noise would start creeping in as I was making image adjustments to recover shadows an highlights, increase the gamma, or to add local contrast. This does not happen with the 5D Classic - there is simply a lot more room to manoeuvre, so to speak. Other people's experiences with other cameras and diferent software will of course differ.

So then, I just arrived back home with my roll of comparison film, so I'm very eager to start scanning it! Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Refreshing Lack of Buttons

One of the greatest features of the Canon EOS 5D Classic (original) is it's lack of features. Introduced in 2005 as "the first affordable full frame DSLR" (that is, equivalent frame size as that of 35mm film), it was hardly affordable then, being priced body only at over $3000.00, but a well cared for used one can be had now for a very affordable $650 or so (I got a much better deal than that on mine).

A look at the rear panel shows the old 5D as being a uniquely sparse, simple camera compared to what it's become today.

The Canon EOS 5D "Classic"
(Stock Photo)

The Newest Evolution EOS 5D Mk. III
(Stock Photo)

As you can see, the new model has sprouted a lot more control buttons, and has moved some of the old ones around to make room for the new. Camera reviewers certainly like lots of buttons, and tend to complain when camera functions are "buried within the menu". I agree - I do like a camera's controls to be on the outside so that the features can be easily accessed. But such is not the case with the 5D Classic. It doesn't have a lot of external control points, and neither does it have a lot of features that can be accessed via the Menu. In fact, it's missing so many features that we now take for granted on top-line DSLR's that many don't consider it to be a viable camera any more. But am I complaining? No, not at all. In fact, I think it would be a great idea for Canon to start building the 5D Classic once again, and actually call it that, and sell it as a truly affordable full-frame picture taking machine, for say around $1000 brand new. It's much the same idea as Boeing continuing to build the old 737 passenger jet.

If Canon were to do this, what would we lose? Here's a list of additional control points on the 5D Mk. III has, which the original 5D did not have:

  • Separation of Power Switch from the Quick Control wheel lock
  • Quick menu button
  • Combined Movie / Live View control button
  • "AF On" button (also found on all EOS lenses)
  • "M-Fn" Button
  • "Image Effects" button
  • "Rate" button (so you can give "star ratings" to pictures right in the camera)
  • "Magnify" button separated from the AF Point button
  • Price - $3500 body only (just to note how much you're paying for all these extra buttons!)
Keep in mind that all I'm talking about here are control points (buttons), not necessarily the features behind them. Sure, it's nice to have a DSLR that shoots HD Video - in fact, the 5D Mk. III has become a real go-to camera for serious video enthusiasts who can equip the camera with video-cam extra hardware, making the 5D a real rival in professional use to much more expensive video equipment.

I'm talking about "buttons" here for one simple reason - the 5D Classic is the only camera I've ever owned that I can operate easily without having to take my eye away from the finder to look at the back. I had a 7D for awhile, which is an APS-C sized pro-grade camera which is set up very similarly to the new 5D Mk. III, and aside from being one of the worst cameras I've ever had for image quality, it was also very difficult to operate. The 5D Classic on the other hand, gives you only the most important control points for taking pictures without taking your eyes away from the viewfinder; there are only six of them:
  1. The combined focus lock (half press) / shutter button
  2. The exposure lock (*) button
  3. The AF multi-point call-up button (just to the right of the * button)
  4. The front control wheel
  5. The rear control wheel
  6. The depth of field preview button
These are all you need for controlling a camera to take pictures with. The 5D Classic only has one unfortunate, unnecessary control point - that is the "multi-directional controller" (joystick) just above the rear control dial. It's supposed to be used to select which AF point you want to use while looking through the viewfinder, but because it's awkwardly placed, and hard to get a feel for with your thumb, I find it much easier to select AF points by rapidly turning the rear control dial - this can be set up as a custom function.

So I hope you can see what I'm getting at here - the 5D Classic control points can be learned very quickly and easily with your eye at the viewfinder, and operate without hitting the wrong buttons that get in your way, BECAUSE THERE ARE NO WRONG BUTTONS..THERE ARE ONLY 6 RIGHT BUTTONS! All of the right buttons on the 5D Classic can be accessed easily with your thumb on the rear, and your index finger on the front; all the while the camera grip beautifully guides you around these control points without looking. The joy-stick controller is an unfortunate and unnecessary mistake, but it's far enough out of reach that it can be easily ignored, and also disabled via the C-f Menu. 

There's only one exception to this easy access design of the Classic- that's the depth of field preview button. There's been a lot of fuss and general agreement among professional camera reviewers that Canon has a long history of getting this wrong, and they're right - it is in a very awkward and hard to locate place way down on the lower left side of the lens mount. All EOS cameras have done it this way since 1985 when the EOS 620 / 650 were introduced. Many argue that it belongs on the right side (for operation with the middle digit of your right hand) - the way Nikon has always done it. The 5D Mk. III has finally done this - putting it on the right hand operation side, as a large button that you press into the body, not laterally towards the lens mount. As for me, I think I prefer it to be on the left hand operation side, as the only control that is meant to be used by your left hand, thus making the right hand less busy - this makes sense to me. But Canon has always put this button way too low, making it necessary to kink your finger to get at it. The idea of moving it up higher, and pressing into the body is nice, but I question the need for moving it to the opposite side of the lens mount.

So, is the 5D Classic still a viable camera? Certainly, it is now a truly affordable way to get into full-frame digital, for a second had unit with prices having only two zeroes and not three. Even if you got one which, through professional use had a worn out shutter, if it could be bought really cheaply as a broken product, typically a shutter replacement costs around $400, so you could get one together with a brand new shutter and still be well under three zeroes, I think. But what about all those missing features that go away with all those added buttons? Well, it depends what you want. If all you want is to take high quality still photos, and don't need video, or if you don't need the ability to apply effects and rate your images inside the camera, and you know that you can really do without 22 mega-pixels for a much more reasonable (and less noisy) 12, then yes, the 5D Classic is exceptional. Unlike the newest high-end cameras, it doesn't require lens micro-focus (a real pit-fall I noticed with the 7D, which caused me to make haste to get rid of it). Another feature that's notably absent from the 5D Classic is Canon's ultra-sonic sensor cleaning thing that kicks in every time you turn the camera off. This felt rather strange, because, starting with the lowly Digital Rebel XS, my first DSLR, the sensor self-clean feature has always been there. With the 5D Classic, you have to clean the sensor manually, which is, in some ways a rather tenuous thing to do.

The 5D Classic feels real heavy, but at 895 Grams it is a tad lighter than the latest Mark III which is 950 Grams. The heaviest APS-C sized DSLR I've owned was the 7D, which comes in at 850 Grams.

EOS 5D, EF 28-80 USM Lens, RAW PP'd Via Canon Digital Camera RAW

EOS 5D, EF 28-80 USM Lens, RAW PP'd Via Photivo for Linux

Having a full frame sensor, the 5D Classic gives you lot's to work with in your Post Processing ("PP"). The above two samples used two different RAW converters on the same picture. My personal preference is Photivo, simply because it is more interactive, and has every conceivable processing feature - quite similar to Adobe Lightroom. I could have tweaked it using Photivo to give a similar result to what I got with the Canon software, but probably not vice-versa. I have a preferred formula of my own in Photivo for outdoor shots, which puts more emphasis on light capture than on high saturation and contrast. Either way, I see nothing wrong with the 5D Classic's image quality - it's certainly far better than what I was getting with the feature rich and excessively complex EOS 7D, which I simply could not stomach.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Isthmus of Chignecto

Freight Train At Sunset
Fort Lawrence, NS

This is another of my favourite local photography spots - at Fort Lawrence, NS. You'll find the spot by looking for the road which forms the western edge of the wind turbine field at Exit #1 to Amherst NS. There's a small single lane bridge that goes over the rail-road - it's an ideal place to stand for photographing a train when it's coming through, and there's a bit of a thrill when you get hit with the strong pulse of the Diesels just as they go under the bridge. It doesn't take much to thrill me, I know!

This location sees a lot of rail traffic. It is actually at the narrowest point between Chignecto Bay and the Northumberland Strait, and also exactly where Nova Scotia meets New Brunswick. The freight traffic rolls in both directions between the port of Halifax and the rest of Canada, I would guess. The trains are long - I've seen as many as four locomotives; this particular one only had two, and most of the cars appeared to be livestock carriers, and it was East-bound, toward Halifax. There were a lot of cars, but not an extreme heavy weight. 

To give you a context of this location, here's a much less exciting shot of the train, after it had gone under the bridge, passing by the wind turbines, and the outskirts of Amherst Exit #1:

Train and Turbines

Here's a little Black and White study of the bridge:

Rail-road Overpass, Fort Lawrence, NS

Here are the livestock cars just about to enter the underpass:

At Speed

This is a high moment, as the loco's were about to pass right under me:

About to Feel the Power!

This whole area, known from grade-school Geography as the "Isthmus of Chignecto" is vastly interesting as subject matter, because it represents the best combination of the old ways in our modern world - where big freight trains pass alongside ancient open-wire telegraph lines, into a nice little town that isn't growing or changing very fast, but yet has one of the most visible wind turbine fields you'll see anywhere. It's also an incredibly flat - almost prairie like landscape, with large bodies of water very nearby on either side.

As with most any location, the most dramatic shots happen at "the golden hour" - I think I was a bit later with some of these - making them a bit closer to being night shots. For all you Camera Club members nearby, this might be a place you'd want to check out.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Remarkable Low Noise



This is an unexpected surprise to me concerning the EOS 5D Classic - even though the ISO only goes to an unimpressive 3200, using the "extended" setting (all new DSLR's can now reach at least 12,800, with premium models going as high as 102,800, which is 5X better than the 8 year old 5D Classic), I was amazed to find how exceptionally absent the noise is with this older camera.

I took both of these pictures last night with the ISO set at 1600 in a very dimly lit room, and just to get any kind of realistic shutter speed (which ended up at an insane 1/4 sec) I had to apply an exposure compensation of -2 EV. The lens I was using was my 28-105 zoom, set at around 35mm, and so my Aperture was "wide open" at f4. So, in every respect, we're "way down there" - I've never had a full frame DSLR before, and I just surrendered an almost new Rebel T3i (APS-C 23mm size frame, 18 Megapixels) to buy this 8 year old 5D (Full Frame 35mm size, 12 Megapixels). Cost wise, it ended up being close to an even swap for me, although to get the 5D, I had to put out some extra cash to buy two lenses, pay for delivery,  and some unique accessories.

I thought these shots would be hopeless - with four things working against me:

  • Hand-holding a 1/4 sec shutter speed with no Image Stabilization
  • -2 EV - you "never do this with a digital camera", as you're shooting way down in the less-significant data
  • Wide open Aperture contributes softness to image
  • Using camera's next to very fastest ISO is bound to make a lot of noise / speckle
  • Dim ambient light with no AF Assist would normally result in extreme difficulty focussing
I shot these with RAW, which allows me to re-expose everything in Software - with RAW, you can reset the White Balance, lift a -2 EV exposure back up to normal (and usually end up lifting a lot of noise with it), and also apply noise reduction if needed. You can also vary the colour curve from the characteristic RAW linear curve to a more visually appealing S-curve that will enhance the look of your photo in many ways; usually this will increase noise also. To do RAW processing, I use Photivo, which is an Open Source (free) Adobe Lightroom clone for Linux, Windows and Mac.

I was totally blown away by the lack of noise in these shots, in spite of having these four significant factors all working against me. For the first one, Merlin, I didn't apply any noise reduction at all. For the second one, Larry, I applied one step. It is clear that a full frame DSLR is in another league entirely, in spite of what the usual specifications might tell you. In fact, it turns out this laughable ISO 1600 capability is behaving a lot more like 6400 - at least twice as good, and probably more. It turns out that even though you cannot select an ISO better than 3200 directly, you can safely do it indirectly by going into the basement with lots of negative Exposure Compensation, knowing that you can lift it back up with RAW software in post-processing. It's great to know that I can safely do that with this camera. The reason? Again, it is the laughable by today's standards specification of only 12 Megapixels on a full frame sized image sensor. This is what is called a very low "pixel density" and when you have that, you have a lot less pixel elements crammed onto the sensor surface, and this means each individual element is far more sensitive to light, which gives a much better signal to noise ratio. The 5D Classic was a professional camera, and a professional would know how to make this work for him, in spite of the extremely conservative specification placed on this camera in it's day - eight years ago.

Does this mean that owning the EOS 5D Classic is going to sway me back to being a digital fan? Well, I  can say this - what I've done here cannot be done with film easily. There is a Fuji Superia 1600 film on the market, but it's quite expensive. In theory, it would've given me the same shutter speed under the same conditions, but it's unknown to me how it would behave under dim tungsten lighting - a digital camera allows you to select any white balance, or even automate it. Also, it's guaranteed this film, as good as it might be, will show a significant amount of grain. Film and digital simply aren't the same thing, and comparisons made at this end - the dark end of things, will most certainly favour digital. I know this coming weekend, I'll be just fine shooting the cat show at ISO 1600 with my 5D Classic. I'm going to try a few shots with my Elan-7 loaded with Fuji X-tra 800 ISO, just to see how that works. From what I've seen, film works far better under bright light. When it comes to sunny daylight exposure, film says "bring it on", while digital seems almost afraid of it. I am eagerly awaiting a sunny day to try out the 5D in bright light, just to see if the full size sensor exhibits a more film-like behaviour at the bright end.

But do I like my EOS 5D Classic? Oh yeah! Very impressive.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Didn't See This Coming - A Full Frame Digital!

Pointe-de-Bute Cemetary
Canon EOS-5D Classic, Tokina AF 19-35

Less than a week ago, I sold my only working digital camera - the EOS Digital Rebel T3i, mainly to help cover part of the cost of a Mobility Scooter for my wife Kathy. Other than a Panasonic DMC-FH27 I had borrowed from her, I had nothing but film cameras left, which didn't bother me, as film has placed me on a seriously new learning curve. But yesterday, I found a deal too sweet to pass up - a Full Frame Canon EOS 5D "classic" (some call it the Mk-I, others call it the 5D Original). No matter what you call it, this was in the local classifieds, so I could avoid all the "++" charges on Ebay, and it was very reasonably priced. I won't say what I paid, except that it was about 25% lower than actual selling prices on Ebay. It's condition is spotless - like new, shutter count is around 10,000, it came with a custom focus screen (the one with the Grid etched into it), 3 batteries and a rarely ever seen AC power adapter. Also included in the deal were a Tokina AF 19-35mm f3.5-4.5 ultra wide angle, and a Canon EF 28-105 USM (I already had one, now I have two, one for film and one for digital!)

I spent last evening checking everything out thoroughly, and found that everything is indeed 100% great. This morning, it was very rainy, so I took it out and did three shots from the car window, starting with the one above, plus these two:

All three were taken with the Tokina lens, which is also my first experience ever with an extreme wide-angle on a full-frame body, and with the ISO at 400. There was also a fourth shot, but I'm saving that for a later day, because I brought my Elan-7 along with me, and did exactly the same shot with the same lens (the EF 40mm STM), and made sure the two cameras were set with everything exactly the same. I want to determine for myself, and my readers, the difference between film and a full frame digital sensor. I've gotten a bit of criticism lately about some recent comparisons I've done - mainly along the lines that my digital files were not processed enough to make them compare more favourably with film! My thinking was that this is the whole point - compare a straight from camera digital JPG to a straight from scanner film JPG - and of course film does look better every time when this comparison is made. However, one individual suggested that I should've optimized the digital camera RAW files to make the comparison more fair - so that is now going to be the way I do it - the digital will be optimized RAW to JPG conversions, and the film scan will be optimized as necessary TIF to JPG conversions, using exactly the same optimizations done with the same software. It is true, I suppose, that digital photographs need a lot of optimization to make them look anywhere close to the way film already looks without any help. Fair enough - that's what I'll do.

So - about the 5D Classic - falling in love with this camera cannot be helped. As far as DSLR's go, it is absolutely rock-simple. There are no bells and whistles like you find on all lower-end cameras. This is a serious high-end, less-is-more workhorse. It is eight years old now, so naturally it is lacking features found on the most recent DSLR's, like Live View, Video, super high ISO, super high Pixel Density, and high resolution rear monitors. Let's start with the Monitor - it is really useless - the image quality on it is so poor, you can't really determine much about the quality of the picture you just took, except that you actually did take the picture. The best thing to use this Monitor for is in full-info mode, showing the RGB histogram, and a tiny representation of the picture in the upper left corner. Being more of a film fan anyway, I actually like this - I don't want my monitor telling me that I got the picture right - rather I want to know I'm getting the picture right because I'm making the correct settings -  and then having a tiny picture along with the histogram makes for a bonus over film, unless I choose to leave the monitor off completely. The rest of the experience in using the 5D Classic is actually very like that of an EOS film camera. All of your various settings are made by using buttons, control wheels and the top LCD monitor - very little is actually done through the rear LCD Menu - and I really like that too.

The camera is heavy and solid - a lot more than any of my EOS film cameras, and even heavier than the best DSLR I'd previously owned - the 7D. I don't mind big and heavy, but there's a lot to be said for light and agile too - such as my bare minimum EOS 500n (Rebel G) -an exceptionally lightweight all plastic bodied camera. My Elan7's are not that heavy, even with the battery grip attached. The 5D Classic is a real no-nonsense, minimalist professional working machine.

How about the image quality? Well, so far, I've only been working with the Tokina ultra-wide lens - it's far from being a Canon L series, so I don't really know for sure yet if I'm commenting on this lens or on the camera itself. Oh yes, I did one shot this morning with the EF 40mm, which turned out lovely, but I don't think it was any better than the Tokina. I will say that I'm very impressed with the little bit I've done so far. It's a 12.8 MegaPixel sensor, which for a full-frame these days, is about half of what you get brand new. But 12.8 is still plenty, and every other reviewer out there says that bigger pixels can be better than more pixels, because bigger pixels have much better signal to noise specs at high ISO settings. So far, everything I've done is at 400 ISO, and compared with 400 ISO film, the 5D images are remarkably noise free - very clean. This coming weekend, I'll be shooting another cat show, and I'll be doing that at ISO 1600. The 5D's highest setting is 3200, so compared to the last cat show I did last June, using the Rebel T3i at 6400, I'm at a big disadvantage. Then again, I was shooting cat shows in 2008 - 2010 with a Rebel XS, which was also an ISO -max of 1600, so I've been there before.

I believe I'm going to find the 5D Classic to be an exceptionally good DSLR when it comes to image quality - I'm expecting it to be equal, but still different than film - I really don't know yet where my preferences will fall. I really love how using this camera is so much like using an EOS film camera - it is very similar to using an Elan-7; there's not a whole lot of digital features to choose from, the ISO range is pretty much the same as you'd have used in the film era, and even though there is a rear LCD that shows you the picture you just took, there's no way that this LCD can even begin to tell you that you took the picture right - for that you need to wait until you get home to view the files on a computer screen.

I should also mention the Tokina 19-35mm f3.5-4.5 ultra-wide zoom lens. It's supposed to be a cheap lens - they're selling used now for around $150. First of all, click on the above images to enlarge them - this is just as much the lens we're looking at here as it is the camera. I think the IQ is excellent. The lens body seems to be entirely metal - you certainly don't get that with lower-end but way more expensive Canon lenses. The grip rings for manual focus and zoom are made of a better quality rubber than any low-end Canon lens, and finally, the zoom and focus rings turn as smooth as butter - among the best I've ever seen. Also, the auto-focus is very snappy and accurate. I expect I'll be using this lens a lot - it's a perfect focal range for shooting large buildings, cars and trucks.

There'll be a lot more to come from me as I spend the next little while with the EOS 5D Classic!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Spot Metering (Cont'd)

Canon Elan-7, EF 40mm STM Lens, 
Partial Metering (on the light grey gravel at the right), Kodak Ultramax-400

Yesterday,  I did an introduction to Spot Metering, following my own long-coming revelation of what this seemingly elusive-to-grasp subject is all about. In order for me to "get it", I had to re-build a far simpler model of Spot / Zone-System Metering in my own mind than that of the concept's co-originator, Ansel Adams (no less!).

Although I got no Comments here on the Blog, I got plenty of activity on my Facebook page, as I post this Blog on several Photography sites there. After reading the comments, all of which were very constructive and helpful, I decided a follow-up Post was required, and I got permission to use the words of a Vermont based Photography instructor,, as he provided much more detail on the topic. Stephen corrected me gracefully on certain points, mainly that I ought to stick with the language of Ansel Adams as originally proposed, especially now that I understand the concept. He also correctly pointed out that with using these techniques, it is best to do it in the context of your entire process, from your initial measuring of the light readings, through to the considerations of what film you're using (it's characteristics) as you develop it in the darkroom.  This part was more helpful to others who participated in the exchange than it was to me, as I'm a "Figital" photographer, using film scans, not a darkroom.

I'm simply going to quote some of what Stephen said here:

"... it is helpful to keep the information within the outline of traditional zone system terminology as not to confuse people. All camera meters are dumb and read for the sake of argument measure Zone 5 or middle grey. For negative material you need to expose for the shadows and process for the highlights (so meter with a spot meter on a shadow area that needs full textural detail, Zone 3, take that reading and under expose by two stops, so from 5 to 3... you place the exposure on zone 3 and see where the other values fall.... to do this you need a real spot meter.... in camera is ok but really not user friendly. For example you would like your highlights to fall around a Zone 7 if they need full textural detail but many films can handle way beyond Zone 7 with detail and of course a good scanner also is a must.

The main point not to be lost here is that "all camera meters are dumb", and this means that the METER ELEMENT ITSELF is able to read the light, and convert it into an electrical signal, for one and only one value, which is calibrated to "Zone 5" on Ansel's system. This was ALWAYS the point at which I got lost, because I wasn't thinking about just the meter element itself, but as an Electronics guy, I was also thinking of the circuitry it is attached to, which the camera can automatically "fiddle with" to make a human - interpretable light meter. So you see, what I just said there is already over-complicating things. But let me at least add this point, and I think then you'll understand: the newer cameras (both film and digital) with Matrix (Evaluative) Metering do their magic by using a "Matrix" of a whole bunch of these tiny, "dumb" meter elements whose electrical outputs are all wired to the camera's internal computer, which is programmed to "evaluate" the light coming from all the meters in the matrix, and then set a correct overall exposure value (EV) that is actually based on Ansel Adam's Zone System, so I've been told. This EV is then used by the computer to automatically set the camera's Aperture and Shutter Speed for a correctly exposed overall scene. At least that's how it works in theory, but there are some little problems under some circumstances, and that's why the camera makers also offer the option of built-in spot metering - which is only good if you really... I mean REALLY know how to use it, as Stephen teaches his students (edited to maintain simplicity):

"...ok here is a zone system in 2 quick steps I teach to my students....1. Using a hand held spot meter meter for the area you need full textural detail.... under a shaded tree, dark hair etc..... then take that reading and place it at Zone 3 by underexposing by Two stops. 2. Just shoot and and have fun... if you are pushing a film keep your shadow placement at Zone 4 so nothing will be lost on the toe so meter for the shadows and underexpose by one stop. Thats it.... this of course in an in camera situation would be easy.... meter using the in camera spot meter the shadow region that has to have full textural detail and then using the exposure comp button under expose by two stops (so a -2).... thats it.."

At this point I was getting confused again, so I had to add this to the discussion:

"OK - I think - I understand. It was always this "place it at Zone-X" stuff that confused me... how do you "place it"? You answered that question - "by underexposing by two stops". But getting back to my write-up, I'm suggesting that "place it" means "point your meter at it, lock your exposure there, re-compose if necessary and shoot". If the camera has an ideal spot-meter in it, wouldn't that amount to the same thing - if I point my camera spot-meter at a girl's nice dark hair, instead of the mid-grey of her cheek, wouldn't the camera just set itself with the right shutter / aperture that would bring out the detail in her hair, although it might over-expose her skin a little?"

Stephen replied:

"if you meter for a persons hair that is dark it will meter it for Zone 5 or 18% grey as the meter has no idea what it is looking at... so instead you would meter the girls hair and the camera would suggest a Zone 5 meter reading, you would then just underexpose by two stops and the hair would now be a zone 3 with full textural detail and most Caucasian skin would then fall around Zone 5.5 to 6.5.... you can only place one exposure and the rest of the metering fall where they will so with negative material you meter for the shadows and let the highlights fall where they will....with transparency material it is the opposite, you meter for the highlights and let the shadows fall"

NOW I finally got what he was saying. In my article, I had said that as long as you find the middle grey in your frame and meter on that, you don't need to do anything else - you don't need to adjust your exposure up or down, you simply lock on your middle grey, recompose and shoot. That is technically correct - I wasn't wrong in saying that, because you have to match a spot meter to the only value that it knows - middle grey. But Stephen's instruction to his students is more comprehensive - what if you don't have a middle grey to meter on? The other day, I was contemplating the back end of a nice Triumph TR-6 that was white with black bumpers - thinking, what if I wanted to take a close up of that, using the zone system - what would I do? I was looking for a middle grey, but not really seeing one. Now, knowing Stephen's teaching above, I know that I'd meter on the black bumper and underexpose by 3 stops - black is black after all, and on Ansel's scale, black is Zone 1, but the meter wants to make it Zone 5. However, it was under strong sunlight making it not quite black, so I'd rather "place it" at Zone 2, which is underexposing by 3 stops. Now I understood what is meant by making the decision of "placing it at Zone-x".

With the approach I suggested in yesterday's post, looking for a middle grey and locking on it is correct, but it misses an important point. A good photographer should be able to "see in black and white", and therein lies the value of the Zone System - the idea is to learn every tone of a black and white scale, even though we're really seeing it in colour. From this, you learn the language of photography in the same way as by learning the notes of various musical scales you learn the language of music. Practising photography with a spot meter and thinking of a scene in terms of the 11 shades of grey from black to white will help you to "see in black and white". Getting the right exposures is merely a side-benefit of learning this language.

Finally, Stephen made a very important observation concerning my feeling that so much modern photography looks dull and lifeless:

"... another point.... one of the reasons digital looks dull and lifeless in many cases is that the capture is linear and not and "S" curve like most films... this curve provides much of the POP and contrast you see in a film scan.... but digital raw is a linear capture and requires a bit of work by the shooter to add the "S" curve to bring out the life and micro contrast of the file... the metering mode does not matter as long as it is correctly exposed but rather what you do with the sensor data in post production (is what counts). ... there are a select few companies like Ergosoft ($$$$ software) who make and give you the power to make  linear icc profiles.... I use this software, have since 2004. In the end what really kills online images is a lack of understanding of how much compression is happing with web projection.. .. I cringe every time I post and artwork online as 70% of the image quality is gone and that does not even touch on the issue of monitors, calibration and viewing conditions... "

(Stephen - I heavily edited your above statement, I hope it captures the gist of what you're saying).

So, what have we learned about spot metering? Let's summarize:

  1. Don't use it unless you learn the Zone System that goes with it. If you don't know what you're doing with your camera in Spot Mode, your results will be unpredictable at best.
  2. If You don't want to learn the Zone System, you might as well use your Matrix Metering, because it has a computer behind it that already knows the Zone System very well.
  3. But if you've used Matrix Metering and your picture looks dull and lifeless, just like half the pictures do on Flickr, do not publish your picture yet - you still have some work to do on it in Post Processing. If you don't want to learn the Zone System, that's OK, but DO learn how to use PP software tools to benefit your photography - and this can be done whether you shot digital or film. The beautiful thing about the times we live in is that we can now afford ourselves the advantages of both!
  4. The Zone System is the best way to learn to see things in Black and White - even if you don't shoot in B&W, it will still make you a better photographer, and this, I gather, is why Stephen teaches it to his students.

One more point I forgot to deal with yesterday - I mentioned that there is a difference between Spot Metering and Partial Metering, but then I forgot to explain it. The difference is only in the size of the area being metered. A Spot Meter measures light in a 1 degree to 6 degree cone, and a partial Meter picks up where the Spot left off - from 7 degrees through about 15 degrees. So the concept is exactly the same, but a Spot Meter provides more than double the accuracy of a Partial Meter.