Friday, October 24, 2014

Yes Subject Isolation Is Possible With a Small Sensor

Inner Brace With Serial Number
Although it's more difficult to achieve subject isolation with a small sensor (compact) digital camera, it certainly isn't impossible. In the above photo, I used my Panasonic DMC-LX5 at f2, where the Serial Number and upper course of strings are in focus, the rest is not. The secret, of course, is the Macro Mode. Granted, the DMC-LX5 has a slightly larger Sensor than most other older compacts and smartphone cameras. If you are looking to buy a compact, pay attention to the Macro Mode specs and maximum lens aperture. The LX5 will focus less than 1 centimetre from the subject in Macro, which is superb, but the downside is that getting in that close is really the only way it will achieve good subject isolation with a blurred background... but it can be done.

Now, on to the subject - it's a 1920's era Mandolin. The Mandolin has become my other passion, and lately I've been spending more time with them  than I have my cameras. This one is almost certainly made by Larson Brother's - here are some more pics:

Ebony Shelf Under the Fretboard

Enclosed Tuners

Fold-Top Construction

This One Had the Top Crushed, and Nicely Repaired, but it still sags a bit

The Back Covers Up the Neck Joint.
These pics all show some Larson Brother's unique construction practices (except for crushing the top of course), but there were a few copy-cats. This one's labelled "Century - Chicago" inside. Whether authentic Larson or not, it's a great little player.

Mandolins are great little instruments. They cover three Octaves with only 4 strings (or more commonly string pairs). Guitars also cover three octaves, but need six strings to do it, with the exception of a Tenor Guitar, which also does it with four strings. It's because Mandolins, and Tenor Instruments are tuned in fifths, while a normal guitar tuning is in a combination of fourths (with one third). That "third interval" between a guitar's G and B strings, adds weirdness, compared to instruments that are tuned in all fifth intervals between every string. Mandolins also have a lot of chord that can be played with just two, or at the most three fingers, making the learning experience almost instantaneous, and the fifth interval tuning makes for much quicker mastery, compared to a standard guitar. Add to this, you have the mandolin's take-anywhere size, and great tone and projection - it all spells F-U-N!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Yashica FR Review

Stock Photo
This is one of two cameras that were given to me by a very gracious Sister-in-Law; the other being a Yashica Lynx-14, of which I now have two. I immediately wanted to start using the FR, simply because it feels so well built, with a very strong metal exterior, and a sense of quality throughout. I could tell that the light seals had deteriorated over time, and so I sought out a case wrap-around for the bottom half, and immediately scored a very similarly sized Yashica FX-3 - a piece of plastic junk by comparison. Besides the case, I also got a smoother working 50mm f1.9 kit lens, an "Image" brand 80-200 Zoom, and a flash unit, all for $80.

"113" With Yashinon 50mm f1.9 Lens Wide Open
The image quality is both totally unique and magnificent. Even though the "Bokeh" (that out of focus region that results from close focussing on a subject with the lens wide open) is a little rough, showing that this isn't a Zeiss Lens, I immediately fell in love with the rich colours. I was expecting something a little more "Yashica" in character - and for me that means the lens built onto my Lynx-14, but such is not the case. These are two very different lenses.

"Cormorant", taken with the Image 80-200 Zoom

I didn't use the Zoom a whole lot, but very glad I had brought the FR, with this lens attached, on a little trip down Pugwash way recently. This bird was striking up quite a pose! In fact, he was posing for so long, he allowed me to take a pic using my digital pocket cam too, to allow me to make yet another film - digital comparison:

Lumix DMC-LX5 With a Lot of Digital Zoom 
The Cormorant was now joined by his mate! I know I'm comparing apples and bananas here, but the digital shot has better white balance - a digital camera always seeks perfect WB when set to Auto-WB, but with film, you take what you get - which was Daylight Film on a cloudy day. I could have corrected it with software, but I tend to leave my film shots untouched. I think that neither of these is perfect, but there are simply two very distinctive "looks". Somehow, the film shot provides more natural "weight and roundness" to the lamp and lamp-post, and yet, the digital, although a bit blurred due to the digital-zoom (crop), managed to show up more detail in the bird's feathers - totally lost in the contrast of the film shot.

"1962 Morris Minor" - Yashica FR With 50mm f1.9 Kit Lens
This shot of an original Morris Minor came off perfect - it was a very hot, bright sunny day, and I recall using 1/1000 sec and an f4 Aperture, pushing the 400 ISO film well into overexposure, yet all shadow detail was captured (note the tire-tread), but no highlights are blown out - this is where film still trumps digital with real honest Exposure Range. Absolutely nothing about this fine camera and lens stood in the way of letting this shot come out perfect.

"Horse and Barn"
If you're a fan of even more vintage horsepower, here's another over-exposed shot in which all shadow and highlight detail is naturally preserved, with no HDR digital funny business.

Although the Yashica FR SLR camera and lens makes wonderful image quality, almost rival to a Yashica Rangefinder, I must say I was disappointed in the way this camera's controls are executed. The worst part is the primitive electronic metering. At the very right edge of the viewfinder, you are given a green light in the middle, and two red lights - one at the very top of the frame and one at the very bottom. It is extremely difficult to visually locate these indicator lights, which simply mean "correct, over and under-exposed", but nothing tells you by how much. I really prefer a moving analogue needle - something which the much older Lynx-14 provides, both on top of the camera body, and within the viewfinder. Another usability issue is having both a micro-prism and split-image focussing aid in the middle of the viewfinder window. At first, I though I was going to love this feature, but in real life, I found it confusing for some reason.

In real world usage, both of these issues got in my way and slowed me down. The Yashica Lynx-14 Rangefinder camera has far better indicators for exposure and focus that are a pleasure to use, and do not slow down the process of getting the shot quickly.

I'll end this review with a few more shots, to show off the image quality of what could almost be the best film SLR camera of the 1970's:

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Film Emulation Made Better

Those of you who have been following this Blog for some time will know how much I obsess over "the film look", and my rather reluctant conclusion that "if you really want it, you have to shoot film". I've been somewhat disappointed by Film Emulation Software from DxO Labs, and the GIMP Plug-in G'mic, although I was amazed at how similar the results are when comparing these two. I won't say that G'mic copied DxO, because they've both got the same goal in mind, but I will say that G'mic has so-successfully reverse engineered the DxO product (without actually knowing this is actually the approach they took), that if you are a GIMP user, you needn't bother purchasing DxO Film-Pack 4.

I find myself asking these same question over and over - "what is the film look? What influences it" Can it truly be well emulated digitally? As an owner of many film cameras, do I really want to emulate it?" The answers are below.

DMC-LX5, Photivo pre-Treatment, G'mic Fuji Astia 100F Emulation

DMC-LX5 Jpeg Straight From Camera
1) What is the "film look?"

This is so difficult to answer, because often, film can be a lot more pristine, and high-res in comparison, depending upon the camera used, the quality of the film stock, and the care taken in processing it. But most often, it is not - when using consumer grade film like Ultra-Max 400, developed at Walmart, and scanned at home with a consumer grade scanner, film does come off quite "botched" in many ways. When compared with a pristine digital photograph, film is not-so-pristine. I've found that out time after time. But film is, for many reasons, easier on the eyes, more exciting to look at, and most importantly, seems to make much more exciting digital CMYK prints.

2) What influences the "film look"?

I listed some things above - the camera used, etc. I will add to that list two things - the lens used, and, of utmost importance, "white balance". Herein lies the secret, I think, and I'll explain this further below.

3) Can the film look be well-emulated digitally?

Yes, with some work. First of all, Film Emulation Software can only do a generic shift with your JPEGs to create the most obvious qualities of any given film. I find that they never "improve upon the perfection" of a JPEG, but rather, apply specific Degradations to create emphasis of a given film's best known qualities. If this is true, then what, if any further work can be done with a Camera RAW file for more successful film emulation?

4) Why do I want Film Emulation when I can still get film, and own some great (and not so great) film cameras?

I am getting less and less certain of film's future. It will certainly never go away completely, but film processing will most likely disappear from all places which I personally can easily drive to, do some shopping, and pick my developed negative up in less than an hour. Another factor is what I said in my previous post - film contains some real problems of it's own, being chemical in nature, far more-so than you'd get with a digital camera. Also, many of my cameras are broken in some way - bad light seals, film counters that don't work, things like that. They'e getting as old as I am in most cases, and I find myself breaking down too!

So why do I want Film Emulation? The bottom line is that I love film photographs, but doing film photography sometimes gives me trouble that can be avoided with digital. Consider the two sample photos of little "Sprocket" the Pygmy Goat. Starting with a bit of a disadvantage of using my digital pocket camera instead of my DSLR, I will point out that the straight from camera JPEG is good, but not great. Actually, I can say exactly the same thing about the JPEGs from my DSLR too - it would've been almost identical to what you see in the second picture above. This, I remind you, is why I always shoot with RAW + JPEG enabled.

Lately, I've been secretly re-processing a few RAW files taken with this same camera, with a specific goal in mind - try to create a "Film Emulation" photo I can be real happy with, and make the approach re-producible. I began this with the premise that one of the biggest issues with film is "white balance". With a digital camera, you can simply set it to "Auto White Balance" and forget it - 90% of the time, the camera will get it perfect - this is a big part of the pristine-ness of a digital photo. Beneath that setting of "Auto-WB", there are many values the camera can choose from, such as sun-light, cloudy, shade, flash, incandescent and fluorescent. There is also a continuous range of "Degrees Kelvin" values that the camera will choose to provide perfect WB, if none of these WB colours is correct.

But White Balance with film is entirely different - historically, there were two available - "Daylight" and "Tungsten", and I'm not sure that Tungsten is available any more, leaving Daylight film to cover the entire range. To make this work back in the film era (those golden decades), one had to fix Filters which had some compensation tints to the front of their lenses - they were just a few - "Daylight", Incandescent" and "Fluorescent", which would provide a degree of compensation to be used at the discretion of the photographer. I've never used these, mainly because I have so many film cameras, with many different sized front lens threads - in my film shooting, I just take what I get. And it's what you get with film shooting in all of the above lighting conditions with  only one single WB type available, which is what makes Film Emulation Software miss the mark - the software writers cannot possibly know what lighting conditions were actually used in any given shot, and so a "Vanilla" WB value is always used. Today, this means that "Daylight" balance for film is fixed and un-movable at around 5100 K.

When I took the picture of lil' Sprocket, it was in an overcast sky, but the surrounding colours were combinations of green, and warm browns, so the camera selected a "perfect" temp of 5820 Degrees Kelvin (K).

But, to make my picture "look like film would do", I had to use software (in this case, Photivo) to cool the colours - so I manually moved the White Balance slider to a much cooler setting of 4960, which tended to "blue" the overall tint of the photo. You can notice especially how the green grass "ain't quite as green green as it used to be", and the grey barn shingles, and the fencing wire, are quite a bit bluer, but I find this more pleasing than the "perfect" WB the camera gave me. I then made some further minor brightening and micro-contrast adjustments to the RAW file, then exported it as a JPEG, which I opened with GIMP, and used the G'mic Film Emulation filters to select from it's wide range of film types. A fave of mine is Fuji Astia 100 (a colour reversal (slide film)) - I love the way it turns green things into a yellow-green; that is to say, if there's any yellow within a green, Fuji Astia 100F will emphasize it. This is just slightly noticeable in the upper photo, in the dead leaves laying on the ground.

I love this result! To me, it looks like it could've been taken with my Yashica Lynx-14 Rangefinder. It is full of air and life, much better than the flat looking Camera JPEG. Keep in mind, these are exactly the same shot taken with the same small-sensor digital camera... and from some previous experimentation I've done, I would say that I've gotten a simple, reproducible method of making great film-looking pictures from a RAW file, using all Open Source (freee!) software.