Month: December 2013

Return of the LX

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LX7 landscape shot from the Peak District, UK
LX7 landscape shot from the Peak District, UK

Regular readers may recall my decision a few months back to sell the Panasonic LX5, as I wasn’t using the camera. Most of the time when I needed a compact camera I was taking the Sony RX100 which is a great little camera and much more compact than the LX5 (when the filter adapter was fitted).

I don’t know why but I recently had a rush of blood to the head and found myself missing the LX5. I think it was on processing and printing some images I shot in New York where the A3+ prints were simply amazing.

LX5 New York image.
LX5 New York image.

Anyway, I have now purchased an LX7 to replace the LX5. I was about to write that it’s still limited by its 10Mpixel sensor but stopped myself. This doesn’t matter. It will produce great A3+ prints so why do I need more pixels.

In terms of sharpness and image quality the LX7 seems pretty much on a par with the LX5 although the noise at higher ISO settings is reduced. The other nice feature is the filter adapter which screws onto the outside of the lens. This makes it much more compact and it will now fit easily in my pocket.

Had I traded in the LX5 to buy the LX7 I would have been disappointed as I don’t think it justifies the additional cost. Having sold the LX5 I somehow feel the purchase of the LX7 is OK and that I haven’t traded one for the other. It’s early days yet but this camera feels like the return of an old friend.

Broken Link in Silver Efex Book

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New York in the Evening. Captured on a Panasonic LX5.
New York in the Evening. Captured on a Panasonic LX5.

I was recently contacted by someone who had purchased my Nik Silver Efex book but was having problems. I mention in the book that Nik provide a number of useful presets on their site which are free to download. These include a good Landscape preset and a faux infrared preset which is quite dramatic. There were also links to download a number of additional presets for the Color Efex software. When trying to access the link I provided this person was being redirected to a new Google/Nik site.

The bad news is that Google, despite all the improvements they have made to the Nik software, has removed the presets. I spent quite some time trawling their site and archives and can’t find the presets anywhere. Whether or not this is temporary  I don’t know.

The good news is that I have been able to locate the presets using the “Wayback Machine” website. Here is the link for anyone wanting to access these.

http://web.archive.org/web/20130203200623/http://www.niksoftware.com/addons/index.php/presets/index?lc=en

In case you are wondering, the image above didn’t use any presets. It was shot with a Panasonic LX5 from the top of the Empire State Building in New York shortly, after sunset on a rather dull day. But more on the LX5 in another post soon.

Friday Image 004

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Sony R1 Image Quality is still hard to beat
Sony R1 Image Quality is still hard to beat

For this week’s Friday image I wanted to share the picture above. I shot this about 4 years ago. It’s from the town centre of Krakow in Poland. There is nothing spectacular about this image but I wanted to share it because it makes an interesting point.

The image was shot on a Sony R1 which at the time was about 3 years old, perhaps more. I had bought it second hand because the owner had “upgraded” to a Sony SLR. I later sold it because I “upgraded” to a Sony NEX5.

All this time later (that’s time measured in digital years) this camera is still my benchmark. The image is so sharp and detailed, as are most of the other images from this camera. The only thing that “let the camera down” was the sensor when you moved away from base ISO (which was 200).

I had hoped that my recent purchase of the RX10 would match this camera but I am still doubtful. Don’t get me wrong, the RX10 is very capable but I am still to be convinced because I need to use it in similar conditions and see the printed results. Images from the R1 and its 10Mpixel sensor could be blown up to give great prints at 24” or even larger.

So was I happy with the NEX5? No, I sold it because the image quality wasn’t as good as the R1 and I went chasing newer equipment. For the moment I want to leave you to think about why we upgrade so frequently only to find the new camera doesn’t match the performance of our old one.

Friday Image Step by Step

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Step by Step Friday Image
Step by Step Friday Image

I had a request over the weekend to provide further details about how I did the Silver Efex conversion for the Friday 003 image. So here is a high level breakdown of the work.

Step 1 – Start with the end in mind

This involved looking at the image and understanding how I wanted it to look when finished. I won’t go into too much detail here as you can see the finished conversion so you know what I had in mind. I will point out though that I sometimes make notes and rough drawings to help develop an idea before I jump in with the processing.

Step 2 – Create the base image

This involves making adjustments in Lightroom or whatever RAW converter you have to produce the best quality starting image. Quite often this involves contrast and colour adjustments that will help the ultimate conversion to B&W. For example by making all the colours stronger I can separate them better when I convert the image to black and white. You can see the starting image below.

Friday 003 - Step 1

Step 3 – Clean up

Here I removed the red boat on the right side as it was distracting. I then applied Nik Dfine to remove any noise in the image followed by Nik RAW sharpener. This produced the starting image for the conversion which you can see below.

Friday 003 - Step 2

Step 4 – Nik Silver Efex Conversion

I start with the Neutral preset as I know what my finished image should look like and I also understand how to create this. Sometimes it can help to review the presets if you aren’t sure what you want to do.

First I apply a Yellow filter to help darken the sky and lighten the ground slightly. I also increase the filter strength to 100% from the default 50%. It’s then time to emphasise this effect even further using the Soft Contrast slider and a setting of -40%. You can see the result below.

Friday 003 - Step 3

This has achieved a good balance between the foreground and the sky but overall the image is too light. I use the Dynamic Brightness slider at -50% and the Amplify Black slider at +20% to address this. The result is shown below.

Friday 003 - Step 4

Next step is to make the sky more dramatic so I make a selection with a group of control points. I then increase the Structure and Amplify Black sliders to +20%. The result is shown below.

Friday 003 - Step 5

Next I add a curves adjustment to darken the lower 2/3 of the tonal curve. The resulting image is shown below.

Friday 003 - Step 6

My final step in Silver Efex is to add in some grain. I gave up with the grain sliders at one time but recently they have been improved and are now quite good. I use a grain setting of 400 which is quite fine. I used to shoot using Kodak TMax so quite like the fine grained films.

Step 5 – Dodge and Burn

In the previous version of the image I used Nik Analogue Efex to add a vignette and film boarder (admittedly it was a slide film boarder but I liked it). In this version I dodge and burn in Photoshop to produce the image at the very start of this post. I also tweaked the contrast further using another filter called Contrast Master from PhotoWiz. I made these final changes differently because I took more time over the edit, deciding I wanted to make an A3+ print of the finished image.

I hope people find this helpful. If you want to know more about Nik Silver Efex or Photoshop, I will make a quick plug for my books which you can find on Amazon. There are further details of these in the blog menu for anyone who is interested.

The Friday Image 003

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First Images from the Sony RX10
First Images from the Sony RX10

The past couple of weeks I have failed miserably to publish a Friday image. My best intentions went out of the window due to being away both weekends so I am trying to make up for it with this image.

On the surface there is nothing particularly excellent or stunning about it. It is however one of the first images captured on my new RX10. Quality wise it’s not great but I am putting that down to the Sony RAW converter – sorry Sony but you do need to improve this software.

The thing that has me interested about this image is that it was shot without a filter. An image such as this would normally need an ND grad over the sky to balance the exposure with the ground. In this instance I didn’t have one on the camera and the sky which was quite bright was showing that it had blown out. Equally the land was quite dark and underexposed.

The resulting image you see here was processed from RAW and then converted to B&W using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. Notice that I have been able to reveal detail in the shadows and maintain the sky without areas being blown out. Overall, I am quite impressed by the RAW file produced from this sensor. I now need to check the image quality by processing the RAW file in either Photoshop or Lightroom once these support the RX10.

In fact, as I write, Lightroom 5.3 has become available and it looks like it supports the RX10. I will report more about the image quality next week.

Have a great weekend everyone.

When is an A Series Filter not an A Series Filter

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Sunset on the mud flats. ND Graduated filters are a must for shots such as this.
Sunset on the mud flats. ND Graduated filters are a must for shots such as this.

I want to share with you a valuable lesson about filters. Those of you reading this blog regularly will no doubt be aware of the importance I place on the use of filters, particularly ND Graduated filters, for Landscape Photography.

For some time I have wanted to try out the reverse ND graduated filters that have started to become so popular recently. These are just like the normal ND graduates except that they are slightly lighter at the top part of the filter. This means there is a darker band running across the centre of the filter. The idea is that you place the darker band on the horizon where it is typically lighter at sunrise and sunset. This helps prevent the rest of the sky becoming unnaturally dark.

The problem with these filters is that they are unusually expensive. To buy a set of 100mm filters you need to take out a second mortgage and I can’t help but feel that I’m being ripped off. The P series are a little better but still cost upwards of £60 each.

My solution has been to switch to using A Series filters. I can do this as I use micro 43 and compact cameras (forget the recently acquired RX10 for the moment). To give you the complete story a friend had been thinking about the same thing and made the purchase first. I tested the filters on my lenses and all worked perfectly with no vignette so I was happy to make a purchase.

The filters I bought were the HiTech 67mm which are the same size as the Cokin A Series and are the same as my friends. He was using his with the Cokin A series filter rings and holder but I thought that I would buy the HiTech versions. This was more costly but I liked the modular holder and it would allow me to attach a 77mm polarising filter with a separate adapter.

All is fine with the filters and the holder is great.

It was at this point that I decided to purchase a cheap Cokin holder as a spare. Well, the damn thing won’t fit on the HiTech filter rings. They are too thick and slightly too wide a diameter. I checked this again by trying to use a Cokin A Series filter ring with the HiTech holder. That doesn’t work either as the Cokin ring is too small.

So, this lesson didn’t cost me very much (about £10) but I thought it would be worth sharing.

The A Series filters from HiTech are much more affordable as well so my loss is more than compensated.

When more is less

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GX1 V's EM5 V's RX10
GX1 V’s EM5 V’s RX10

So, I have done it. I returned the 14-140 lens for a refund and the money has gone against a Sony RX10. My first impressions are that this is quite a large camera. Actually, it’s not a camera at all but a huge lens with a sensor stuck on the back.

You might feel that I am being unkind but this is exactly what I expected and even wanted. It reminds me so much of the beloved R1 that I sold a few years back. This camera oozes quality and the dials and buttons are a joy to use.

In terms of size, it’s larger that my GX1 (which is now Infrared only) and it’s even slightly larger than the EM5 (which I absolutely love). It’s not however as large as either of these cameras plus the three lenses I would need to cover the same focal length as the 24-200mm lens. The lens also seems to produce great image quality across the entire focal and aperture range. It’s early days yet though.

Annoying limitations at the moment are that I don’t yet have a 62mm filter ring so I can’t really shoot good landscapes. Lightroom also doesn’t support the RAW files so I am having to use the dreadful Sony RAW converter (at least until Adobe release an update). I hated this software when I had an NEX5 and I still hate it now.

I’m looking forward to really getting out with the camera. It’s nice that it’s a sealed unit so less chance of dust getting in there. I also don’t need to stop to change lens so I am thinking this is a great hiking camera for the hill and it should make for a great travel outfit also.

I will report back on the image quality when I have been able to put it through its paces properly.

Never Give Up

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View descending Lingmoor Fell, The Lake District
View of Langdale Pike whilst descending from Lingmoor Fell, The Lake District

I was in the Lake District at the weekend for a couple of days walking in the hills and as you would expect I took my camera along (the Olympus EM5). Looking through the images last night, this particular one stood out for me.

This was the last picture I shot at the weekend. It was taken after sunset (although there wasn’t one to speak of) when the light was fading fast . There must have been sufficient light around though as it was captured handheld at 1/20″ using ISO400 with my 14-45 lens set to f/5.6. The great thing about Micro 43 lenses is that they tend to be sharp even when the aperture is quite wide.

When I took the picture I liked the scene but I didn’t hold out much hope for the image. I thought it would be quite coarse and grainy, filled with noise and lack detail. In fact, I almost didn’t take the shot because I had conditioned myself to give up under such circumstances.

I’m pleased that I did though as this reminds me never to give up whilst there is still light.

The Lens Goes Back

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View whilst ascending Bowfell, The Lake District.
View whilst ascending Bowfell, The Lake District.

I recently blogged about my new lens, the new Panasonic 14-140. I wanted the lens so that I didn’t have to keep changing lenses (between my 14-45 and 45-200) when out walking in the hills. The only problem I have found is that I don’t trust the 14-140 given the results I have had.

In my previous post I mentioned that it seemed OK in the 14-45mm range but less sharp than my 14-45 lens. Beyond this I thought the poor results were from my sloppy technique – NOT SO. Having had the lens on a tripod it’s still very soft, has poor contrast and even makes the images look grainy.

I ran through a batch of images that I had shot with the lens and nothing over 80mm was sharp – not one. Between 45 and 80mm the image quality was generally poor. Between 14-45 the quality was acceptable but not good. This is not a travel lens or a replacement for the other two when weight is an issue.

I suspect there may be some of you reading this who are screaming out that this is an excellent lens but I have talked to a few people now who have this new Panasonic lens and all have thought it quite soft. It might be that I had a bad sample but I don’t want to risk it so I have asked for a refund. As I left it a few weeks before trying out the lens and reporting it I am out of the refund period so the retailer will only issue a credit note.

This isn’t a problem though as I have my eye on a Sony RX10.

I have to own up and say that this for me is exercising the ghost of a perfect camera, the Sony R1. I had one of these a few years back that I had purchased second hand. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the R1, it was a bridge camera with a fixed lens. It weighed slightly less than an SLR and was only slightly smaller. It had a 10Mpixel CMOS sensor but coupled with an astonishingly good Zeiss lens. The lens was the equivalent of a 24mm – 120mm and was amazingly sharp and distortion free throughout the zoom range. The results from this camera were amazing.

When I look at the RX10, it looks very similar to the R1. It has the same huge Zeiss lens but this time goes from 24-200mm and is f/2.8 across the entire range. This is enough to convince me that I have to have one. No doubt I will dissatisfied in some way but at least I will have it out of my system.