Month: June 2012

My Top 5 Reasons to go Micro 4/3

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Panasonic GX1 14-45mm
Copyright 2012 Robin Whalley

I have done a number of camera club presentations recently and it’s very clear there are a lot of people who really get the concept of Lightweight Photography. I have to say that it’s usually the women who appreciate this most and appear much more accepting of this new approach. Many of the men seem to be stuck in the paradigm of using an SLR for ultimate quality (sorry chaps, but you need to wake up and smell the coffee).

Much of the resistance to the idea of using lightweight equipment is that the quality isn’t there but this is a myth. I easily dispel this by showing some of the prints I have made from Micro 4/3 cameras and asking people to comment. Somehow people seem to equate heavier SLR cameras with quality and distrust anything that is lightweight, even when the evidence is in front of their eyes.

I thought therefore that I would share my top 5 reasons for using Micro 4/3 cameras:

  1. Size – these cameras are much smaller than SLR’s and consequently much more portable. It’s easy to hold and shoot with such a camera only inches from the ground or high above your head. It’s easier to experiment and be creative with these in comparison to using an SLR. Interestingly small also equates to less of a threat in the minds of the public. People tend to ignore me when shooting with a small camera but point an SLR in their direction and they react – something you don’t want.
  2. Weight – these cameras are much easier to carry around so you are more likely to take them places and more importantly use them. It also makes them much less tiring to use which should be reflected in better and more enjoyable photography.
  3. Depth of field – because the sensor size is half that of a full frame camera, the depth of field that can be achieved is greater. Try it out and you will be amazed by how wide the aperture can be and still allow you to achieve a full depth of field in your image. I now regularly shoot at between f/5.6 and f/7.1 and seldom need to stop down beyond f/11.
  4. Quality of image – this is related to the previous point. Not needing to stop the aperture right down helps me avoid diffraction which can lead to soft images. Having a wide aperture keeps lots of light entering the lens, the shutter speed fast and the aperture within the area of best performance. Also it allows me to shoot handheld and still keep the ISO low. All these points add up to great quality in the final image.
  5. Price – I am sure this will change as there is a shift to these cameras, but the cost is generally lower than equivalent SLR kit. At the time of writing I can by a 16Mpixel GX1 for less than £400 which is about the same as an entry level SLR. For around £150 I can buy a 14-45mm lens which is superbly sharp. Then there is the 45mm Olympus prime which is under £300; to get anything like this for the Canon 5D would cost 3 times as much if not more.

There are other benefits to the Micro 4/3 camera but to stop you from dumping all your gear on eBay right now I will stop there. If however you have your own reasons for loving Micro 4/3 that I haven’t covered, why not add a comment to share this.

Creative Freedom in Photography

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Recently I have read quite a few articles by professional photographers who have been using lightweight cameras in their work. Cameras that were once dismissed as “toys” are now being accepted, even embraced by top professionals. I read one article where the photographer (I wish I could remember his name) had finished a shoot using their top of the range Hassleblad with digital back and instead of packing up, pulled out a GF1 with 20mm lens. He then proceeded to shoot a series of un-choreographed portraits of the models. The results he says were some of the best images of the shoot. This seems to be a pattern that is repeating itself across photography.

So what can we learn from the above example? Well, the photographer said they felt a sense of creative freedom from using this camera. Odd? Perhaps not.

Lightweight cameras and equipment give you freedom to move around and engage with your subject much more intimately. If your subject is a person, the lightweight camera creates a much smaller physical barrier between the subject and the photographer. Look back to the 70’s and you will find that many press photographers also carried small high quality compacts with fast lenses, loaded with fast film such as ISO800 (fast at the time). This gave them the freedom to shoot in unusual circumstances where an SLR couldn’t be used.

Somehow, somewhere, many of us have forgotten the benefits of small, lightweight, quality cameras. Perhaps it’s because the equipment just hasn’t been up to the task until recently with the move to digital. Perhaps we have been “brainwashed” by the big equipment manufacturers who had nothing to offer us except ever larger, more complex SLR’s.

There is one further lesson I would like to draw from this story and that is the value of having a personal project. The photographer clearly knew he wanted to shoot these images. We don’t know if he had a personal project but I suspect he did; most professionals do. When you have a personal project (or two) on the go you will find the world opens up opportunities to you. If you don’t, your photography will flounder.

Why this image? It’s from one of my projects exploring surveillance cameras in the city.

Out for a Walk

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Whilst I love photography, one of my other passions is hill walking. I can’t think of anything better than being out in the mountains with the exception of being out in the mountains with a camera. And that’s where I was at weekend, up in the mountains of the Lake District. Unfortunately I didn’t get too many pictures as for most of my walk the visibility was less than 10m – thank goodness for my map, compass and GPS.

At the moment I am trying to put in some serious miles as I have an Alpine trek coming up where I am trekking from Monte Blanc to the Matterhorn at altitude. The other Saturday was therefore spent completing a 20Km walk around the Newlands Horseshoe taking in Maiden Moor, High Spy, Dale Head and Hindscarth and extended by including Catbells. Despite only being 20Km it was quite demanding with a good amount of ascent and decent so the day stretched out to 8 hours (not helped by the thick fog reducing visibility to less than 10m).

As I said above I can think of nothing better than taking pictures on these treks so I took my lightweight kit with me which consists of a Panasonic GX1, 9-18mm Olympus lens, 14-45mm Panasonic lens and 45-200mm Panasonic lens. Reducing my equipment down to this level makes my backpack much lighter and the walking much more enjoyable. There is also a further benefit of this lightweight equipment that I wanted to highlight and that is the carrying of the camera itself.

I tend to like my camera hung around my neck as I walk or sometimes slung around my neck. Over the years this has actually caused me a lot of neck problems and I know of a lot of others who also suffer because of this. The lightweight camera gear I now use is much more acceptable to carry in this “always ready” way and I now notice how much better my neck and back feel the day after a walk.

So my plea is to those of you who are reading this and are young enough to think this problem will not affect you. I want to tell you that it will, it’s just a matter of time. I therefore want to save you time, pain and money spent on Physiotherapy bills and say don’t carry your camera around your neck unless it’s lightweight. Even then, invest in a longer strap and carry the camera around the neck, with one arm through the strap so the strap comes across your body. I would hate to think you read this in 20 years time and think ah yes, he was right.

Noise Reduction Update

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A few posts back I mentioned a new noise reduction program I had been using with my GX1 images. The program was Topaz DeNoise and I had a 30 day free trial. Well I’m happy to give an update and I will start by saying I purchased the full edition.

After the blog I got down to the serious business of trying out quite a few noise reduction products. These ranged from OK to quite good but DeNoise was the best for my needs. I must admit that if I was judging this purely on how effectively some of the products removed noise, there were a couple of programs that seemed to match the performance. Unfortunately these were devilishly complicated to use.

The problem most of the programs seemed to suffer is that they had too many tabs and sliders to be adjusted. First I would need to select the range of noise e.g. high frequency, medium frequency etc then I would select the level of reduction for both luminance and colour noise. In addition to this I could target tones (highlights, mid tone and shadows) as well as different colours. Often there were a number of other controls I also needed to play with. These solutions to me are not lightweight and usually left me wondering if I had made the best selection I could. I also wasted a lot of time cycling through all the options trying to perfect the noise reduction.

What I really like about DeNoise is that it’s very quick to use as well as being very effective. Firstly I set the level of noise reduction whilst viewing a mid-tone area of the image. I then look at a shadow area and use a shadow slider to increase or decrease the level of noise reduction in these areas. Next I check the highlights and use the highlights slider to make any further adjustment.

Once I am happy with the noise in these areas I can apply additional colour cleaning noise with another slider as well as using two more adjustment sliders to affect the red or blue channel. What’s great about these sliders is that they all work together. The first slider is enough to achieve good results but the other sliders allow you to fine tune and target the effect.

Once you have applied your noise reduction you might find you have impacted some of the very fine detail. To counter this there is a “Recover Detail” slider which is quite effective. There is also a De-Blur slider which I never fail to be impressed by. This is something that I first came across in the Topaz Detail plug-in and it reduces typical lens blur introduced by camera optics and anti-alias filter. Even with top quality optics and perfect technique, this slider can make a difference. There are a few other sliders to help you really get superb results but this blog was not intended as a product review.

This is a very impressive package that it incredibly easy to use and achieve superb results. Even shooting at the best ISO possible with my cameras, this plug-in will improve the results. Give it a try if you want a lightweight noise reduction workflow that is totally effective.

Help Needed to Limit Equipment

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One of the benefits of the Lightweight photography approach is as the name suggests that it’s lightweight. This becomes particularly true where you are engaging in another activity which compliments your photography but which is physically demanding. This is certainly the case with one of my other pursuits, Hill Walking. You need to keep equipment small and light so that you are able to carry it along with other essential equipment for the hills and mountains.

On a few of my recent treks I have found that I am keeping pretty much to using one lens, a 14mm-45mm which is equivalent to 28mm (wide angle) to 90mm (telephoto). There have been a few times where I have thought that I should switch to a wider lens and a few more times where I have thought that I should switch to a longer lens than 45mm. In all of these occasions I have had suitable lenses with me but they have been in my backpack so changing lens means stopping and removing the pack. As this is inconvenient for both me and anyone walking with me, I tend not to change the lens.

On my last outing I decided it was time to perhaps switch to a super zoom lens. I know Panasonic produced a 14-140mm lens which would give the equivalent of 28mm to 280mm (a huge range). Looking up the lens later I found it was around £500 and had a size and weight that was suitable for my use.  The lens really would open up a lot of opportunities and be far more convenient for me and there were a lot of reviews from people who were very happy with the performance.

Now it’s not that I distrust the views of others but I am highly critical when it comes to image sharpness and the resolution of lenses so I went looking for some sample images for download. I found plenty of sample images but unfortunately all were JPG; not a RAW file in sight. Looking at the JPG’s, all of them displayed the usual softness that in camera JPG’s usually do. Is this the lens or is it the camera? I suspect it’s the camera but without the RAW file I can’t judge how sharp the lens actually is. I’m also reluctant to splash out £500 to find out if the lens is good or not.

I really want to lighten my equipment further but not at the expense of image quality. My plea then is does anyone have any sample RAW files at 14mm, 75mm and 140mm using this lens, or know where I can find these? If you can help either add a comment to this blog or email me using robin@lenscraft.co.uk.

Select the Right Aperture – Part 3

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The final post in the series…

Compact mirror less cameras such as Micro 4/3 are slightly different from this. Most seem to be good performers from wide open, hit their best performance when stopped down by one stop and then gradually tail off as diffraction kicks in. The cameras do however have a huge advantage in terms of their smaller sensor size increasing the depth of field. A typical Micro 4/3 camera has a sensor with a 2x magnification. This also means my depth of field is also effectively doubled. I know that at f/7.1 on a 14mm lens (28mm equivalent) I can achieve a full depth of field. My LX5 has an even smaller sensor so by the time I have stopped down to f/3.5 at 24mm equivalent focal length I can achieve sharp focus from 1m to infinity.

So how do you use this advantage?

Firstly understand how your lenses perform at each of the apertures. When are they at their sharpest and when do they suffer from problems such as diffraction.  This gives you your ideal range which you should try to keep within.

Now select the focal length of the lens you will use. This has a big impact on depth of field with longer lenses having less depth of field than wide angles. I suggest selecting the focal length first as I see this as a more important consideration in composition than depth of field.

Once you have composed your image consider how much depth of field you need to achieve. A number of important factors come into play here:

  1. The focal length of the lens as wider lenses give a greater depth of field than telephoto lenses at the same aperture
  2. How far you are from the closest point you want in focus. The nearer this is to the camera the less the depth of field.
  3. The size of your sensor as small sensors give a greater depth of field at the same aperture than larger sensors
  4. Where your point of focus is. The depth of field at a given aperture extends roughly 1/3 in front of the point of focus and 2/3 beyond.

The reason I was able to shoot my New York Skyline image at f/2.8 is that my point of focus was at infinity and I was shooting at the wide angle end of my lens. These points alone were enough to give me the depth of field required. Once you have mastered the points above you suddenly realise the common wisdom of stopping your lens down to its smallest aperture often isn’t correct and won’t give you the optimal image.

Select the Right Aperture – Part 2

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Copyright: Robin Whalley, 2011

Continued from previous blog…

So, looking at the use of aperture to control depth of field is actually a very effective tool for doing this and depth of field is a key creative decision you need to make when capturing your images. Let’s say you want to create a portrait but the background is distracting. The solution is to open the aperture wide to throw the background out of focus and isolate the subject. If you are shooting landscapes and want to achieve the maximum depth of field so that everything from the foreground to the distant background is sharp, you would select a small aperture. Sure there are other factors at work here which can emphasise the impact of the aperture but they do just that, emphasise the effect. The priority should still be to select the right aperture for the image.

Now let’s consider some of the problems that come with the aperture control and lenses. The first occurs when we stop the lens down to its smallest aperture. This often results in diffraction and potentially distortion. I once had a wide angle Pentax lens that when stopped down to its smallest aperture would bend and distort images in the corner. Diffraction is a little different and will result in soft and slightly out of focus images. Again I remember when I was first starting in photography and I had a cheap wide angle Tokina lens that suffered badly from diffraction. Not understanding this I would stop down the lens to f/22 and the results were always poor.

At the opposite end we can open up our aperture as wide as possible. Most lenses however don’t go very wide with a maximum aperture in the range of f/3.5 to f/5.6 (particularly true of zooms). At their widest aperture most lenses are also soft, especially in the corners. Many also suffer from uneven lighting and tend to vignette due to light fall off in the corners – not always something you want. Higher quality lenses from top manufacturers such as Zeiss and Leica tend to be the exceptions and will still perform well when wide open or stopped down. Unfortunately they are also expensive.

This then leaves most of us with an area of optimum lens performance which is usually 1-2 stops above wide open for usually 1-2 stops. With a typically zoom lens on an SLR this is probably in the range of f/8.0 to f/12.0. Does that sound familiar?

To be continued.

Select the Right Aperture – Part 1

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Last Thursday night I was presenting at Bolton Camera Club. It was a good evening with lots of discussion, especially when I pulled out the sample prints I had taken. A lot of the members looking at the prints made from my LX5 compact Camera were surprised by the not only the quality and detail displayed but the “relatively wide” aperture I had selected. The image above was shot at f/8.0 yet it’s sharp from front to back. My New York Skyline shown in an earlier post was shot at f/2.8 and everything is in focus, even viewed close up printed at A3+.  The member of Bolton Camera Club are not however alone in this surprise as it’s something I experience often when talking to club members from all over.

Selecting the right aperture for a scene is something we tend to do automatically once we have been in photography for a while. Unfortunately the aperture selection in lightweight cameras might not be quite as you expect it and you could end up making choices that have a negative impact on your photographs. If you stop and think, there are only a couple of reasons why you might want to control your aperture:

  1. To control your depth of field
  2. To control your shutter speed (increase or decrease)

Now I’m going to be controversial and say the only reason you should be changing your aperture is the first one. The second option, to control your shutter speed is in fact a trade off from controlling your depth of field. If you disagree good (you have your own opinion) but stay with me and understand my argument. It might just change your perspective on photography.

So let’s deal with the “misconception” of using aperture to control shutter speed and why I argue against this. My reason is that it’s actually a relatively ineffective when used in this way. If you want to change the shutter speed for creative reasons (which should be your first priority) it will be because your current speed if either too slow to freeze action or it’s too fast to introduce creative blur and motion.

Let’s say I want to freeze motion so I open up my aperture as wide as I can. This will increase the shutter speed but at the expense of reducing the depth of field in the image, something I might not want.  Often such a reduction in depth of field will affect the aesthetics of the image and will change it completely. A better option is to increase the ISO setting as this is more effective. It will introduce noise but you can always address noise if it becomes too great in other ways. Another solution which is often overlooked is to use flash to help freeze motion. In the end you might need to adjust the aperture as well as these solutions but this needs to be a deliberate decision and you need to be aware of the impact on your image as well as the drawbacks.

Now if you want to slow the shutter speed you might try to stop down the lens to as small an aperture as you can. This will however introduce diffraction as we will cover later as well as affecting the aesthetics of the image. Rather than this approach try reducing the ISO you are using. Again, this might not have sufficient effect or you might already be shooting at the slowest ISO your camera can support. The best option however is to use a Neutral Density (ND) filter placed over the lens. These come in various strengths up to 10 stops and are incredibly useful. An alternative option might be to use a polarising filter which usually takes out 3 stops of light.

To be continued.