Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Books received: "Road to Seeing" by Dan Winters

Received delivery of Road to Seeing by Dan Winters. Big book, but one I'm eager to dig into. This is not late night in bed read, but attentive, quiet afternoon reading. I buy more and more of my books in digital form, usually from Apple's iBooks bookstore. But books like this have to be read "in the flesh."

I got the tip on the book from David Hobby's post about the book over at and refer you there for more info.

Friday, March 21, 2014

How to make the best black and white camera?

I want to stipulate two things up front.

First, I love black and white. No, it's more than that. I love black and white and — to be brutally honest — I feel very uncomfortable with color.

And second, I'm an not now, nor have I ever been, an engineer.

With that out of the way, I want to think a bit about the best way to get black and white images from a digital camera.

Colonnade at Balboa Park, San Diego. Not a lot lost in this black and white conversion, as the original scene wasn't very colorful. In any case, what I was most interested in was the composition and the tonalities.

The idea of a black and white digital camera seems to come up fairly regularly. I remember reading a thread years ago on a Pentax forum from a photographer who thought that Pentax ought to come out with a black and white digital camera. More recently, somebody has suggested that Olympus do the same thing. Mike Johnston, a.k.a. The Online Photographer, reports this proposal, which was made on his blog's comment board.

As much as I love black and white images, in the past, I have always thought that this idea was crazy. It just seemed crazy to me to throw away the color info. When I do a black and white conversion, I often find myself wanting to change the tonality of a blue sky or a pair of blue jeans, or darken a red bloom on a flower, or lighten green grass. Since my raw files contain info about color, I can do these things.

But Ctein, technical editor for The Online Photographer, points out something important that I never thought of:
An anti-aliased Bayer array camera discards about three quarters of the light hitting each pixel and has about 60% of the resolution of a dedicated monochrome camera. In other words, the quality of detail you'd get out of a 12-megapixel monochrome camera is comparable to what you'd see in a 30-megapixel color camera. Plus, the bigger, more efficient pixels make a real difference in how clean the tonality is and how well-rendered subtle gradations are.
That's pretty interesting.

And yet, I'd still hate to lose that color info. Back in olden days, when we shot black and white film either because we liked it or (my primary reason) because it was cheaper than color, we'd use color filters to skew the tonalities one way or another, when we wanted to. You could still do that, with a digital camera, of course, and perhaps that's the answer to my objection. But I'm pretty used to being able to look at the default rendering of my raw images to see what color something really is, and at the moment anyway I feel like I don't want to lose that ability.

A better answer, I suspect, is provided by the Foveon sensor used in Sigma cameras. As it happens, Mike Johnston has commented on that, too, recently ("The Sigma DP2 Merrill and B&W"). With the Foveon sensor, every sensel captures red, green and blue. With normal non-Foveon sensors like the ones in all the cameras I have used, each individual sensel captures only one color, and a "filter" (usually with a Bayer pattern) manages to make remarkably good sense of what is really only a sample of the colors that reach the sensor. Seems to me that the Foveon sensor should be God's gift to black and white photography.

Really wish I had about $8000 lying around, so I could buy the Leica full-frame, black and white camera. Some folks dream about fancy cars or sailboats; this is what I dream about it. Probably not going to happen. But perhaps in the next year I may be able to afford a Sigma DP2 Merrill, so I can give the Foveon sensor a try.

Tourists on the beach ogling at a napping mother seal and her pup, La Jolla (San Diego). There was color in this scene, in the water, and particularly in the clothing of the tourists, but that color was distracting. To me, this shot was about the shadows.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Great Masters: Prokudin-Gorskii's color images

Usually pioneers come first, then masters come later. Russian photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii was both a pioneer and a master of early color photography. By "early", I mean over 100 years ago. Some of the basic concepts involved in color photography were sorted out in the late 19th century and there were other photographers taking color photos; but it doesn't become easy until the release of Kodak Kodacolor film in 1941. So Prokudin-Gorskii was way ahead of the curve.

At that time, serious photography of any kind involved work, typically involving large cameras on large wooden tripods exposing on glass plates. Prokudin-Gorskii's method involved taking three exposures in a row, using blue, green and red filters. He was then able to combine the plates to generate a color image that could be projected as a slide. The images have now been digitally recombined. Even with the help of computers it's an arduous process. You can read about it on the Library of Congress's website, here.

And the colors he has left us are amazing! Here's the church of St John Chrysostom in Jaroslavl:

Prokudin-Gorskii (1911): Church of St John Chrysostom (Jaroslavl). In collection of Library of Congress.

With good light, a photo like the one above might be completed in a second or two. This interior photo on the other hand might have taken a minute or longer. He didn't have the option of simply cranking the camera up to ISO 3200 (or any ISO, for that matter)!

Prokudin-Gorskii (1911): Iconostasis of church in Borodino. 

This image of a Khazakhstani Emir might have taken a full second or more to expose.

Prokudin-Gorskii (taken 1905-1915?): Alim Khan, Emir of Bukhara

Here are the "negatives" for the photo of Emir — or rather, of the three photos of the Emir:

Whenever I find myself lying awake late and night and wondering why photography is so difficult, I try to remember what the great photographers of the past went through. Prokudin-Gorskii might have given both legs and his left hand to be able to shoot with an iPhone 5, let alone an Olympus E-M1.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Reichmann on where things are now

Terrific piece by Luminous Landscape's Michael Reichmann, talking about where the innovation is in the camera industry right now, which new ideas are good and which new ideas are not so good.

Nobody Knows Anything (Michael Reichmann at Luminous Landscape)

This article lines up almost perfectly with the way I have been seeing things go for the last several years. And the way I've been watching things develop explains why I didn't go with Canon or Nikon when I left film for digital, why after a couple of years I abandoned Pentax for Sony, and why I'm now shooting with an Olympus OM-D E-M1.

Monday, February 10, 2014

My early years with digital cameras

A long, long time ago, back in high school and college, I mostly used Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex cameras. My first SLR (a gift from my immigrant grandfather) was an outstanding Exakta made in Germany. Later, I owned SLRs made by Ricoh and then Nikon.

But I'm not here to talk about any of those cameras. This is a quick review of my first ten years with digital cameras, from 1998 to about 2008.

1998: Kodak

The first digital camera I can remember using was a little Kodak point-and-shoot. Here's a picture I took in November 1998, hiking the Grand Canyon with my wife and some friends.

I probably took it on that trip because it was light and I didn't want to risk damaging my film SLR. I don't remember for sure, but I think that little camera cost several hundred dollars. It didn't encourage me to expect much from digital in the future.

2001: Olympus C3000

In April 2001, my wife and I traveled to China to adopt our third daughter, Catherine. Although I had given up on the little Kodak camera, I'd been paying attention to developments in digital imaging, and when Joan and I decided around Christmas 2000 that we needed a better camera for our forthcoming trip, I had changed my mind and felt that digital cameras were just about ready to replace film. My wife, who is more skeptical about technology than I am, was unpersuaded, so we ended up buying two cameras: a new Nikon N65 film SLR for her, and an Olympus Camedia C3000 (3MP) for me. We paid over $600 for each of the cameras. 

She took some nice photos with the N65. But the photos I took with the C3000 turned out pretty well, too, or at least I was pretty impressed with them at the time. This photo, taken in Lanzhou (north central China), was published some years later in a university journal, in connection with an article on personal milk production in China.

Here's the compulsory image of the Great Wall at Badaling (north of Beijing).
Great Wall of China at Badaling, April 2001. Taken with Olympus C3000; slightly reprocessed in 2014 with PhotoNinja.
I cringe a little looking the pictures from that trip now. The memories are wonderful, of course. And at the time I thought the photos were great. It was that trip and that Olympus C3000Z camera that got me excited about photography again, after I'd away from it for about 20 years. But looking back at the images now, I have to admit that they're technically mediocre at best. My iPhone 5 takes much better photos. And apart from the cameras, I'm a much better photographer now than I was in 2001. 

It no longer seems to work, but I still have that C3000 and we still have the Nikon N65, too. What can I say. I'm sentimental. 

2005: Canon PowerShot S1IS

I kept shooting with the C3000 for another couple of years. Around 2005, I decided I needed a camera with more powerful telephoto reach, and I got the 3.2 megapixel Canon PowerShot S1IS. The S1IS was released in early 2004, when the megapixel race was just getting started. It was actually less expensive than the Olympus C3000 had been. 

This pic was taken with the Canon S1IS on a ranch in Bandera, Texas.

Bandera, Texas, September 2005. Taken with Canon PowerShot S1IS and lightly processed in PhotoNinja.
The S1IS had several advantages over the C3000. The lens on the S1IS may have been a little better, and the camera was certainly more versatile. The S1IS could take movies. The S1IS had a better in-camera image processor than the C3000. And it had IBIS or "in-body image stabilization." This helped particularly with photos taken at telephoto focal lengths.

Here is a little bit of video taken with the S1IS in December 2005 at Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge, in northwest Arkansas (near Russellville). Now I love to watch movies, in fact, and I've learned a lot about photography from the great cinematographers. But I've never cared much for making movies myself and I seldom use the video feature on my cameras and I admit that this bit of video isn't much to look at. But one thing I learned from this experience is the value of sound. We were standing in a field as thousands and thousands of snow geese hovered ahead, then landed near us. The sound was deafening.

Snow geese coming down for night at Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. Taken with Canon S1IS.
At a wedding in 2013, for the first time, I shot some video of the ceremony, not to capture the look of the ceremony, but in order to record what was said.

The versatility of the S1IS helped me start thinking about what I liked to photograph most. When I first got the S1IS, I thought it was birds. I loved shooting with the telephoto zoom, at focal lengths greater than 300mm (in full-frame terms). But eventually I discovered again what I'd known decades earlier, that what I really like to photograph is people.

2008: On to a DSLR with the Pentax K10

In 2008, I decided that it was time to "graduate" to a proper digital SLR.

Olympus had something to do with pushing me over the edge here. I was taking personal photos at the Dallas Arboretum when a fellow asked me if I'd take a photo of him and his girlfriend. He had an Olympus dSLR, the four-thirds E-520. After composing and shooting for years with the S1IS's rear display, which was low-res digital, the experience of looking through the Olympus dSLR's excellent optical viewfinder was nothing short of a revelation. I remember saying to myself, Wow! Immediately I sensed what I'd been missing from my film SLR days. In addition, shooting with my eye to the viewfinder seemed so much more direct than shooting with the camera held at arm's length. It truly was a conversion experience.

But although I was about to reject the S1IS, Canon also had a major influence on my choice of dSLR. The image stabilization in the S1IS had persuaded me that in-body image stabilization was a must-have feature. I never considered either Canon and Nikon dSLR bodies because they did not (and still do not) have image stabilization. I didn't look seriously at Olympus, either, although I don't remember why not.

Instead, I went with Pentax, buying a K100D. I knew of Pentax's great contributions to history of SLR photography. The fact that the Pentax K100D was one of the most affordable cameras on the market at the time was also a factor. I didn't take many photos with the K100D but one of them happens to be one of my personal favorites out of all the photos I've taken.

Abby Running, taken February 2, 2007, with Pentax K10D.
The K100D was soon replaced by the K10D, which at that time was Pentax's top-of-the-line pro camera. I used the K10D for the next couple of years, to take vacation pictures:

Catherine in the snow (Mt Nebo, Arkansas, December 2007). Pentax K10D.
Landscapes like this shot taken in Rocky Mountain National Park:

I took thousands and thousands of mostly very bad photos of school sports like basketball and volleyball:

And swimming:

I like this photo — although to get this view of the bored swimmers waiting their turns, I had to shoot over a most unattractive, overflowing trash can.
I started shooting portraits for the Dallas Arboretum with the K10D, and used it for other family portraits in the White Rock Lake area:

And the K10D helped me through my first several weddings:

Great photographer Edward Steichen said that "No photographer is as good as even the simplest camera." I became a better photographer using the K10D and I've continued to get better as I've moved on to better and better cameras. But I have to confess that Steichen was right: I never came close to being as good as the K10D.

2008: After the K10D

That Pentax K10D was eventually succeeded by a Pentax K20D. Both were excellent bodies. Fashion photographer Benjamin Kanarek had left Canon for Pentax (for a while) because of the K20D. Pentax was also an excellent choice because the Pentax lenses were outstanding. Unlike Canon and Nikon, Pentax didn't really make a clear distinction between its consumer dSLR systems (mediocre but cheap) and its pro line (high quality but very pricey). Instead, Pentax had only a couple models for sale and basically one lens line, in which practically everything was very good.

Of course, eventually I moved from Pentax to Sony APS-C and then to Sony full-frame (A99), and most recently, I moved again from Sony full-frame to Olympus micro four thirds. But that's another story for another blog article.

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