Saturday, April 26, 2014

Be Natural - Keep It Real

Lumix DMC-LX5 Camera, DxO Labs Optics Pro and Film Pack - Kodak Elite 200
This ordinary picture was taken with a very good compact digital camera, and then processed with very good corrective RAW processing software (the best in the business in fact), and then the exported JPG was treated with film emulation software from the same firm, also the best in the business. The Post-Processing loop involved is very fun, and as you can see, in spite of the picture being not very interesting, keep in mind this is for demonstration purposes only. I'm trying to find an ideal marriage between digital-film / film-digital by experimentation, even though my rational mind tells me this actually leads me in another direction - a "natural" one.

If you think about the characteristics of digital photographs - razor sharpness, excellent colour control, and very low noise, and compare them with the characteristics of film - WAIT; (screeching halt)! Which film??? Here's where rationality goes off the rails I'm afraid. Now I'm going to put in a picture I took with film (a newer brand of Kodak 400 - I can't even remember the exact name right now):

Canon EOS-Elan 7 Camera, EF 40mm f2.8 Lens, Kodak Film, Epson V500 Scan
I realize this is not a fair comparison by any means - the second picture was taken when I was on vacation and out looking for great shots, and so is a far more exciting photo than the first one when I found myself recently sitting in the car - bored, and thought I might as well take a picture with "the camera I always have with me". So, put those differences out of mind, and simply compare the two in terms of the usual stuff that everybody's always talking about these days - sharpness, noise / grain, colour accuracy, saturation. Also keep in mind how these both involve "digital-film", or "figital" as it's come to be known. The first is taken with a digital camera, optimized from a Raw Data File, then made to look like a particular film using software. The second is taken with a film camera, from which the negative is digitized to a TIFF file (almost the same as Raw) using a scanner, and then re-sampled as a JPG, which makes it into a manageable file size which is good enough for screen display, but less suitable for printing.

I think they both are excellent in all four parameters - sharpness, without being too sharp (typical of good film), low noise, great colour, and perfect saturation. The first picture succeeds in "looking like film" because of two things - 1) a very slight graininess which I purposely added, and 2) a slight softening of both colour and detail, especially in the background, which probably was done by the software's film emulation, or perhaps the camera itself. As for this softening of colour and detail toward the background, this is something that my artistic eye picks up on as a characteristic of colour film photography. To my eyes, digital cameras, especially the best ones, can have a sharpness that just doesn't quit - it goes all the way to the background if you want it to. This can be good or bad, and it is also easily controllable with the lens, of course. But the softening of colour toward the background - that is something which is not as easily accomplished with a digital camera, except that it is somewhat obtainable using film emulation software as I have done here in the first picture. When I was a painter, I was taught how to soften colour gradually toward the background, and found this worked wonderfully as a technique to make a painting look natural. Digital photography, with the emphasis on sharpness and high dynamic range which people seem to be all GaGa over, does not always make this happen to the degree that it should happen, but I would say that good film emulation does indeed help it along.

But one thing that film emulation will not do is "add the magic". You have to look at a lot of film photography to get an appreciation for this. I like film emulation a lot, because I really prefer taking my pictures with a digital camera, for all the obvious reasons, and film emulation can make the right adjustments to a digital image to make it more "painterly", with a single mouse click. But the emulation fails to "add the magic" that you get from just shooting with film, with everything else being equal.

I haven't used film since last summer, but I expect that I will get back into it this summer. I hope that I've given you a bit of insight about how to retain "naturalism" in your photography - this is the kind of photography I really prefer. Not "nature photography", but "natural photography" - just as when I did paintings, I preferred naturalism over impressionism, and I take great interest in talking about photography in these terms.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Digital Zoom

DMC-LX5, GIMP G'MIC Kodachrome 64 Film Emulation
There are quite a few things that speak of "Spring" - like the first Robin, or Crocus flowers popping up through the dead grass, and through much of North America, Spring was long over-due this year. But nothing speaks of spring quite as much as a flock of sheep with new-born lambs. These pics were captured near Memramcook, NB from quite a long distance due to some surrounding flooded, soggy ground, not to mention that it was private property. This flock of sheep and their babies were well beyond the 3.8X Optical Zoom limits (or 90mm  Equivalent lens) of "the only camera I had with me" - and so I went with one of my Custom Settings, which includes having the Digital Zoom turned on. In fact, for most of these, I was near the limit of 20X Combined Zoom (480mm Equivalent when the 90mm Optical Zoom is combined with the Digital Zoom), and quite frankly, I was very impressed with the results. "Digital Zoom" is something that serious photographers don't talk about much, because it supposedly is something that runs contrary to good photography, to artificially go beyond the limits of what your lens can actually give you. A DSLR camera does not provide Digital Zoom - if you need to be shooting at 480mm Telephoto, then with a DSLR, you need to attach a Telephoto lens that will reach that far. And so, the Digital Zoom feature is something that is only found on fixed zoom lens compact cameras, such as the DMC-LX5.

I should explain what it is, and how it works - and this won't take very long. Digital Zoom is simply the imitation of a long Telephoto Zoom lens, accomplished within the camera by cropping down to the centre part of the image, and then enlarging it. It is exactly the same thing as opening any picture on your computer with photo editing software (like Photoshop Elements or GIMP), then cropping-off a lot of the picture, and enlarging what's left. I did make the comment above about how a DSLR doesn't provide it - well, this is one way of achieving it, even with a DSLR - simply crop and enlarge the picture using computer software (or an "App"). With a Compact Camera, Digital Zoom is simply the camera doing this crop-enlarge for you.

There is a huge disadvantage to it, which is why "serious photographers" won't even talk about it. The disadvantage is - you loose a lot of MegaPixels, which equates to loosing a lot of resolution. Simply put, you are cropping a lot of your resolution right into the digital dust bin. If this were film photography, it would be the very same thing as taking a pair of scissors and cutting away most of your print, and then re-enlarging what's left. Certainly it wouldn't look nearly as good as using a long Telephoto lens to have taken the original shot to begin with. I should also mention that smartphone cameras use nothing but Digital Zoom - their tiny lenses are not capable of any Optical Zoom.

But I must say, I am very impressed with the results I got with the Lumix DMC-LX5, even near the maximum limit of Digital Zoom, these pictures still look like they have plenty of resolution, even though by using it I've in fact reduced my camera's native 10 MegaPixels down to 2 MP. The camera is built with what Panasonic calls "Intelligent Digital Zoom" - and I really don't know what that means exactly, but somehow it allows the camera to retain a great deal of it's resolution even when zoomed to the max. I'm sure what really helps this along is that it has one helluva good lens, made by Leica.

I'll also say it again - don't be fooled by MegaPixels. It's a black art. you might wonder "the newest smartphones now have 16 MegaPixels, and here I am bragging up a camera that only has 10?" Even the LX5's successor, the LX7, also only has 10 MP. For the same reason that my "old" Canon EOS 5D DSLR only has 12.8 MegaPixels, I can get better quality photos from it than from a newer camera with 20 MP or more. I am certainly getting better pictures with the 5D than I was getting from the 18 MP EOS 7D (worst camera I've ever owned!). Panasonic is keeping the Pixel count down on this, their top of the line Compact for a good reason - "Pixel Density". The more Pixels (which are made up of Photo-Diode Arrays) that get crammed on a camera's image sensor, the less light each individual Pixel can handle, because each Photo-Diode has to be smaller, and crammed closer to the adjacent ones. In general, more MegaPixels = higher pixel density = lower image quality. The only thing you gain from having more MegaPixels is that you can make larger prints - and "only" 10 MP will print a 30"x20" no problem. Now, take this back to my digital-zoomed sheep - they look great on a computer screen, but as they've been cropped to only 2 MegaPixels, a more realistic maximum print size would be 5"x7".

Allow me just one more technical point, and then I'm through. Things are in fact changing for the better. Recall above what I said about newer smartphones having a lot more MegaPixels? This is an advantage, given that they can only do digital zoom - there's no optical zoom with a smartphone. If you do a 4X digital zoom with a 16 MP smartphone, you still have a reasonably healthy 4 MegaPixels. The new Nokia Lumia 1020 has 41 MegaPixels!!!  This is so they can accomplish digital zoom in a whole new way, and this is leading the way for the evolution of digital cameras. Nokia has come with a method of using this huge Pixel count in a way that provides great digital zooming, and at the same time combining Pixels into groupings to increase Pixel Depth - very ingenious! The idea of Digital Zoom now deserves conversation among even the most elitist of photographers, I would say. Having a huge Pixel Density like this only makes sense if the camera is designed to do the right thing with them, and it appears that Nokia has cracked the code and changed the game completely - bravo!
Yet, at the same time, HTC is sticking with only 4 MP, but on a much larger Sensor, and calling it "ultrapixels" - in Marketing babble, because of the phenomena I've referred to above.

Now enjoy the lamb, and remember the Lamb of God this Easter weekend!

Thursday, April 10, 2014


DMC-LX5, DxO Optics Pro-9
Freedom! This should've been the title of my first Blog entry when I retired just over two years ago. Two years! With respect to my photography, I guess it's been a busy two years, during which I learned a lot, and passed it onto you, my small but devoted audience. Small is a relative term I suppose - I've had over 77,000 page views here, but I think my number of regular viewers world-wide is probably a small number, when compared to someone like Steve Huff.

Speaking of small, this is primarily what this Blog has been all about over the past two years - SMALL EFFORT photography. I've always been about getting the biggest bag for the buck, with an emphasis on buying very good antique lenses for your DSLR, and re-selling them at a profit, buying and using film SLR's and Rangefinders at exceptionally low prices, using Open Source software that you don't have to pay for (with one notable exception), and finally, buying best in class digital cameras that are really inexpensive, because the mass market has left them behind. On this last point, I've made two recent purchases that literally put an end to it all - a "broken" Canon EOS 5D with battery grip for $200 and a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, also for $200 (landed price).

And once again, speaking of small, it is this latter camera that has become my sole photographic companion. I've been intrigued by the Lumix LX Series ever since it came out as the LX1 in 2005, and now that I finally own one, the LX5, it's simply blowing me away in every possible direction! This is one darn great little camera! But as it goes in the realm of digital photography, the market has left it behind. These are now selling for less than $150 (landed) on Ebay! By selling and landed, I mean that's the price that people are willing to pay in an Auction Style listing, with shipping included. This model was upgraded to the LX7 in mid 2012, and it's store price is between $350 and $400, but the extremely low price for which people are "dumping" the not-to-different predecessor for tells me that the market has indeed left this type of camera behind. The mass market is now chasing Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens (MILC) and Smartphone cameras, with the thought that the former is easier to carry  around and the latter is "the camera you'll always have with you". I would like once again to pop both of those balloons. The MILC in most cases may be smaller than a DSLR, but with a zoom lens attached, they're still not pocket-able, so what's the difference, aide from being a few ounces lighter in weight? As for the latter - the Smartphone - I agree, they do take remarkable pictures, and with plenty of Smartphone Apps available, they're like the new-wave "Instamatic". But unlike most people I suppose, I don't always have my smartphone with me. I seldom talk on the phone, and I never use Texting, and so my Smartphone is down to three uses - 1) it plays the tunes in my car, 2) it keeps me from getting lost via it's built in GPS (Darlin') and 3) it's a cell-phone, for the odd time I'm on the road and have to call someone - and the new laws now insist that you safely pull over before doing so. As an Internet device, Smartphones are terrible, although I know some people for whom their Smartphone has become their primary device for being connected - more power to you , my friends, but I can't read the screen for most web pages, and I can't use the virtual keyboard very well. So, unless I'm in my car, my Smartphone is seldom with me.

But the amazing little DMC-LX5 fits into any of my shirt pockets - even the smallest of them (although the protruding lens barrel makes it look like I might have grown one weird looking mutant breast). Now THIS is a camera that I literally have with me all the time, and it is simply  a superb camera, which has a few compromises when compared to my EOS 5D - yes of course. But I feel like a dick carrying that big heavy camera around - it's truly lacking in one thing - "Freedom!" This is a film-oriented, small digital camera that takes amazing pictures - an "artists' camera" if you will. It gives me what I want - snapshots in the style of Charles Cushman with a very film-like appearance. If Cushman were still alive, and had switched to digital, this is the camera he would've used.

Enjoy the samples!