Month: April 2013

Free Lightroom Printing Article

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Natural colours like these need special attention when printing. I have found Lightroom to be a particularly good solution.
Natural colours such as these found in the Artist Palette in Death Valley need special attention when printing. I have found Lightroom to be a particularly good solution. Click the image to see a larger version.

Last week was a big week for me. After 5 years of painfully slow service I decided to replace my PC. The PC in question is an old quad core HP with 1TB storage across 2 hard drives running Vista 64bit and 4GB of memory. It was state of the art 5 years ago but is now painfully slow. To give you some idea it takes 40 minutes to start up. My new PC starts in under 30 seconds running Windows 8. I also want to say that I now hate Microsoft with a vengeance for what they have done to the Windows operating system and the amount of time I am now wasting trying to find my way around.

Anyway, the point of this blog post is that it took me most of last week to migrate my computer data and install all my software to the new system. In all this activity I forgot to post that I had just added a new comprehensive article to the Members area of my Lenscraft website covering Printing in Lightroom. So if you are a Lightroom user you can download it for free by following this link – you do need to be signed in as a member but joining is also free.

Alternatively you can wait for it to be published on ePHOTOzine some time in the next few weeks.

Lightweight Panoramic Photography

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Death Valley panoramic created from 4 Panasonic GX1 images stiched together in Hugin.
Death Valley panoramic created from 4 Panasonic GX1 images stiched together in Hugin.

I am and always have been a fan of panoramic photography. I’m not sure why but the format (usually somewhere between 2:1 and 3:1 ratio) really appeals to me and makes sense as the way I see the world. Unfortunately, to create good panoramic images you need additional equipment beyond just the digital camera and this tends to go against my lightweight ethos.

Typically to make a good panoramic I need a tripod, panoramic head and stitching software. Unless you are prepared to spend tens of thousands of pounds (or dollars) on a digital panoramic camera, panoramic images need to be shot as a sequence of overlapping images which are then stitched together in specialist software.

I should at this point mention that I am a real stickler for quality so if any aspect of my images is lacking (in my mind) I will not be satisfied with the finished panoramic. This means that I don’t like to handhold my camera when shooting image sequences and always try to mount my camera on a tripod. I would also like to use a panoramic head to avoid problems of parallax error where objects in the various images don’t align correctly, as the stitching software will either distort the images to make them align or leave “ghosting” traces of objects. I do have a panoramic head for my tripod but it’s so heavy and bulky that I seldom take it with me.

This combination of problems means that I need to rely on stitching software to do a good job of aligning and merging images. Until now I had been using either Photoshop or Panorama Factory to complete my stitching. Photoshop seems to do a reasonable job but feels a little clunky and doesn’t give me the fine tuning/image optimisation that I want. It also has a habit of distorting images when I don’t want it to and not aligning all the objects along a stitching seam correctly. It’s usually close but not quite good enough.

As I have never really felt completely satisfied I tried out and invested in Panorama factory. This does a nice job of aligning the elements of the image as well as offering lots of power, but really does need a panoramic head to work properly. It often leaves some areas which are not quite sharp e.g. where fine details such as grass didn’t align exactly between images. My solution to date has been to output the panoramic image as a layered Photoshop file. This allowed me to fine tune the blending to remove blurred areas by adjusting the masks in the layered file. This is time consuming and quite complex even when you know exactly what you are doing with Photoshop masks.

If I am totally honest with myself I shouldn’t have invested in Panorama Factory if I wasn’t prepared to use a panoramic head but I was swayed by the cost. You see, when I did my testing a few years back PTGui was really the best option given how I wanted to shoot but I was put off by the cost. PTGui is only a graphical front end for Panorama Tools (which is a freeware package) and I just wasn’t prepared to pay a hefty license fee for something built around the genius of another’s work. This was the wrong decision and I think I should have purchased PTGui.

As I have now decided to make panoramic work a major feature of my photography I have recently downloaded the trial version of PTGui and PTGui Pro once more. I have to admit that I am very happy with the ease of using the software which can be highly automated saving me time and effort. This sits well with my lightweight philosophy. The only problem; I am still reluctant to pay the license cost as I would need the Pro license.

That’s when I came across Hugin which is also a graphical front end for PTGui. It feels remarkably similar to PTGui in terms of operation and it appears to be just as capable with very similar features to the Pro version of PTGui. The image above was created from 4 images captured on a Panasonic GX1 which was tripod mounted. I tried the stitching in Photoshop and Panorama Tools but I could see problems. PTGui did a great job but so did Hugin with an almost identical result even down to how it determined the stitching – not surprising given they both have the same stitching engine.

Now you might be thinking that I am about to repeat my past mistake of not paying for the best tool because of the cost. I don’t however know at this stage which is the best tool. And, Hugin is freeware so there is no cost other than in my time to learn and experiment with the package. I might still decide to invest in PTGui but so far Hugin is doing a great job and meeting all my requirements. If you are interested in shooting and stitching panoramic I think this is a great package that’s well worth investigating and it’s free.

Printing, Always an Interesting Exercise

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Not taken with Lightweight gear but this is the colour image I was using to test my prints. It's quite challenging to print and shows up poor colours quite well.
Not taken with Lightweight gear but this is the colour image I was using to test my prints. It’s quite challenging to print and shows up poor colours quite well.

As I mentioned in one of my previous blog posts, I recently sold my printer, a Canon Pixma 9500MKII. The main driver for this was that I wanted to make larger prints, typically A2 or 17” wide panoramic. I also wanted larger ink cartridges because I do quite a lot of printing and I thought this might help reduce the overall cost. Well, my new printer arrived at the weekend, an Epson Pro3880 which is A2 and will print 17” panoramic up to 37” or wider if you use a third party RIP rather than the Epson print driver. Sounds great and it is, but there have been a few surprises.

First was a nice surprise in how small the printer was. It’s not much wider than the Canon (but it’s a little taller) and fits neatly at the side of my desk. I am also surprised about how little ink has been used in the 30 plus test prints I have made; this barely registers on the ink monitor. I had read reviews and comments by others about just how much ink is in these high capacity ink cartridges but I hadn’t really appreciated it until now. I’m sure however I will be crying when it comes to the cost of replacing just a single cartridge.

Now for a surprise I wasn’t prepared for; the Canon Pixma 9500MKII made nicer black and white prints (I didn’t check colour but suspect it was more vibrant). Before the Canon was sold, I made quite a few test prints on different papers (using high quality fine art and fibre based papers) in an attempt to pick a paper to standardise on. After this I started to use a Permajet paper called Fine Art Pearl 290. It wasn’t quite as good as Ilford Gold Fibre but the differences were so minor that most people wouldn’t spot them but it was excellent for both mono and colour work. As I still had a number of test packs available as well as paper I had purchased I decided to repeat the exercise and the results were very surprising:

As already mentioned, none of the papers could compete with the prints made on the Canon. This was despite producing custom profiles. Held side by side with the Canon the Epson prints looked a little flat where the Canon produced prints with a greater feel of depth.

All the papers tested with the Epson produced broadly similar results when printing in black and white. The main difference was the base colour of the paper. Some were warm tone whilst others were neutral and others still were bright white. The Ilford Gold was however better than the rest and was only marginally beaten by the Ilford Gold Mono.

Printing in colour revealed quite a variation between papers. The Ilford Gold again produced the best results with the other papers looking rather lifeless and flat. Only the Gold had a real depth to it.

This exercise was also repeated by another friend who has the same printer and his results are very similar. In a “blind” review of each other’s results (so we couldn’t be swayed by knowing the paper manufacturer), we came up with identical conclusions. We had to conclude that with the Epson the Ilford Gold was the best paper. This is a real shame because it’s a very expensive paper and the cost will tend to curtail the amount of printing I do.

The story doesn’t end there however because I decided to try out some Fotospeed PF Gloss 270. This is a standard gloss photographic inkjet paper that is around quarter of the price of the Ilford Gold and I didn’t expect it to be very good. Whilst I am not a fan of the Gloss surface I had to admit the results were almost as good as the Ilford Gold for Mono and marginally better for colour prints. This is quite a shock but makes printing much more affordable. I am now keen to try out the Satin or Lustre finishes to see if they are preferable to the gloss surface. If they are I think I will be buying this for my regular printing and saving the Fine Art Papers (Ilford Gold) for any print sales.

The downside to using standard photo papers for printing. They don’t feel as nice as the fine art papers to touch – not an issue when they are framed. They also don’t have quite as nice a surface finish – again this is hard to see if the work is framed and is probably my personal preference.

I hope this helps anyone out there struggling with cost and the difficult decision of which paper to print with.

My San Francisco Trip

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The Golden Gate Bridge captured on a Sony RX100 compact camera. Post processing in Lightroom and Viveza. This has a very tenuous link to the blog post.
The Golden Gate Bridge captured on a Sony RX100 compact camera. Post processing in Lightroom and Viveza. This has a very tenuous link to the blog post.

As some of my recent blog posts mentioned, I have recently returned from a trip to America. Part of this trip was a week in San Francisco, hence the image at the top of this post. The purpose of this post however is not to tell you all about my trip but to share a book I found whilst over in the US.

The book in question is Desert Realty by Ed Freeman. It’s quite a large book in terms of dimension but doesn’t have all that many pages. The book is a collection of fine art photographic images of property (most in need of some loving attention) but more on that shortly.

I found the book in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) where it was discounted from $25 to $10. For some reason (my wife rushing me away) I didn’t purchase the book. This haunted me for a few days until I was at the airport where there was a shop for MoMA and they also had the book for $10. This time I didn’t purchase the book as I didn’t have space in my hand luggage but instead looked it up on Amazon and purchased it on my phone. Anyway, the book arrived yesterday.

There are a few things I like about this book.

Firstly there is the excellent imagery so if you are interested to see this I suggest you look up Ed Freeman’s website where you can fine images from the Desert Realty exhibition/book. Well worth it.

Secondly Ed makes some very good distinctions between Photography and Art Photography. There aren’t many words in the book but they are well worth reading.

Thirdly and most importantly is the explanation of the images and how they were created, which is at the end of the book. Interestingly, if you start by looking at the images you seem to accept them as being very unusual images and to some extend real. You do however recognise that the colours must be faked but generally you think these places perhaps do exist in the desert. When you then move on to look at the back of the book and see the starting images you suddenly see the images in the book at highly manipulated and it jolts you back to reality.

The other aspect of seeing the starting images and reading the accompanying text is that it makes you realise how ordinary the starting images are. They appear almost like a collection of snapshots but it’s clear Ed is simply collecting material for the production of the finished image which he has in his mind’s eye. Don’t however expect detailed description and step by step instruction; this isn’t a how to book. It has however made me think twice about my own work and how I create my images.

Now there certainly isn’t a link between this work and Lightweight photography (I just wanted to share some thoughts with you) so I will point out that compact and Micro 43 cameras are probably the ideal tool to collect the starting material given their size and speed of working.

There, I feel justified now in making this blog post.

Day Out with an Olympus

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Shot at ISO 800 on the Olympus OMD, handheld with a 45mm lens. The RAW image file displays low noise, excellent sharpness and lovely colours.
Shot at ISO 800 on the Olympus OMD, handheld with a 45mm lens. The RAW image file displays low noise, excellent sharpness and lovely colours. I didn’t take any brilliant shots but it was a great day out.

I won’t bore you with the details but all of my free time (including that I use for blogging) has vanished, at least for the short term. I am actually putting this blog together whilst trying to eat some lunch. Yesterday however I was fortunate to have a day out on a photography course designed to allow you to try out a camera – the Olympus OMD.

This Olympus Experience Day was put together by Olympus with pro landscape photographer Steve Gosling. I like Steve’s work a lot and having been on his “Business of Photography” course some years back so very interested in attending this day. The course was held at the RHS gardens in Harrogate and whilst not my usual subject matter I found a few things to shoot and try out the camera. What I thought was good (other than the exceptional value of the day) was that I had an OMD to myself for the entire day.

At the start of the day there was a short session to help delegates understand how to use the camera followed by a questions wrap up at the end. In between Steve spent time with each person individually to answer any questions they may have. I think this is a great way to allow people to try before you buy and I wish more manufacturers would follow the model (other than Hasselblad and Phase One as I can’t afford their hardware). It was also a great day with an experienced pro photographer and opportunity to draw on his experience and thinking.

Now you know I was impressed by the day, what about the camera.

I really like this camera, but to be honest I didn’t expect to at the start of the day. I had read some horror stories about the poor menu system which is something I have experienced before with my NEX5. I actually found the OMD’s menus quite logical and was able to set up the camera relatively quickly. It was certainly much better in my opinion than the NEX5 (when first launched).

I tried the camera with the 12-50 Olympus lens, my 14-45 Panasonic lens and my 45mm Olympus lens. It handled extremely well with all and felt very solid in the hands. I wasn’t however that impressed with the 12-50 lens other than a very nice macro function it offered.

To me, the most important aspect of a camera is how it handles and the image quality produced. I have to say, this is an exceptionally well made camera which feels very durable. The image quality is also very impressive for a Micro 43. Much of the day I was shooting at ISO400 or ISO800, something I would avoid with my GX1. The image above was captured inside a potting shed at ISO800 and my 45mm lens hand held. It’s very sharp with no camera shake and is very clean in terms of noise. In fact I can’t believe how clean the images from this camera are. I will have no issues submitting ISO800 images to stock libraries and believe me; I am very picky about this.

So will I buy one of these cameras? I would certainly like to. The only thing stopping me is that I have just sold my Canon 9500 printer with a view to upgrading to A2, so that’s my current priority. I may therefore need to stick with my trusty GX1’s for a while longer.

The best thing to have with you in a Desert

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Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Shot on a Sony RX100 using a limited depth of field. Post processing in Nik Viveza.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Shot on a Sony RX100 using a limited depth of field. Post processing in Nik Viveza.

Stop for a moment and think about the answer to the following question. What is the single best thing to have with you in a desert?

The answer is a Sony RX100.

If there is one subject matter I really love to photograph its sand and where else do you find lots of sand but in the Desert. On my recent visit to Death Valley I therefore headed straight for Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes near to Stovepipe Wells. I have seen many images of the area and whilst they all look a little clichéd, I love them.

The temperature in the dunes was only in the 90’s but having left behind freezing conditions only a couple of days earlier it was a little demanding. This was further amplified by the direct sunshine and the clear sky. This made me happy that the camera I was carrying was the Sony RX100 which is very light and fitted easily in my pocket.

I quickly found that having a small compact camera allowed me to explore different angles and compositions very easily as well as get in very close to the sand. Getting low and close also compensated to some degree for the limited wide angle of 28mm on the Sony. Looking around I could see many of the DSLR users shooting from the usual height whilst stood up. Most looked particularly uncomfortable carrying large camera bags.

The other advantage of the RX100 over my GX1 as I found out later is that the GX1 has dust on the sensor. This is a problem in dusty desert conditions but a well sealed compact camera unit doesn’t succumb to the problem.

And if you do get lost in the Dessert, the battery in the RX100 seems to last all day so you can keep yourself amused whilst waiting to be rescued.

Captured on a Sony RX100. This strange landscape is caused when pools of water in the sand dunes dry out. I like to call it desert paving and its rock solid. Post processing in Nik Silver Efex.
Captured on a Sony RX100. This strange landscape is caused when pools of water in the sand dunes dry out. I like to call it desert paving and its rock solid. Post processing in Nik Silver Efex.

Back to Blogging with Zabriskie Badlands

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Sunset at the Zabriskie Point Badlands. Captured on a GX1 with 14-45mm lens and post processed using Nik Viveza
Sunset at the Zabriskie Point Badlands. Captured on a GX1 with 14-45mm lens and post processed using Nik Viveza

I’m now back from a trip to the US and thought I would restart blogging with some images from the trip.

The first area I visited was Death Valley and the photograph shown above was taken at Zabriskie Point in the valley. It’s a bit of an odd place to visit in terms of Landscape Photography as the clear sky tends to limit when and how you shoot. My own preferrence when shooting landscapes at sunset is to have plenty of broken cloud which will colour up with the low sun. Here however the sky is clear much of the time so you don’t get the colourful sky. You can however achieve rather dramatic side lighting as shown on the hills here. In case you are wondering, these hills are just mud and gravel but they are rock solid and painful if you happen to slip on them.

The image was captured using my Panasonic GX1 and 14-45mm lens which was tripod mounted. There was plenty of light around so it wasn’t necessary to tripod mount the camera but I didn’t want to take any chances. I also think tripod mounting works well in any light and ensures very sharp images.

More photographs will follow once I have had the opportunity to download and sort them.