LX5 Dynamic Black and White RAW Problem

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Black and White conversion from an LX5 RAW file. This is the Imperial War Museum in Manchester.

If you are a regular visitor to the Lightweight Photographer site you may be aware that I like to solve people’s photographic problems if I can. One of the problems that seems to crop up with some regularity on Forums is that when shooting with the LX5 using the Dynamic Black and White setting the images come out in colour but the colours look odd. Here is an example below.

Dynamic B&W mode on the LX5 produces RAW files with an odd colour

The answer is relatively straight forward in that the user is shooting in RAW format. As RAW captures the image data but doesn’t apply any processing the images from a colour sensor will be in colour. If you want the Dynamic Black and White appearance for your image then you will need to capture your images in JPG format or at least RAW and JPG.

But why then the odd colour?

Well it helps add punch to the image when it is converted. The approach chosen by Panasonic is to bump the colour temperature up the maximum, shifting it to the warm end of the colour spectrum and reduce the tint settings for the RAW file (-95) so that the image is also shifted towards green. The internal processing of the camera then applies a digital filter and the result is a higher contrast image with greater tonal separation than a straight conversation. Here is the resulting file Dynamic B&W file.

Dynamic B&W setting on the LX5

Don’t however be lazy; lightweight yes but never lazy. Processing your colour images into Black and White will give you much greater creative control. The example at the top of the page was a conversion using Nik SilverEfex Pro 2 and took me around 3 minutes. I think that’s a good investment of my time.

ND Grad Filter or Multiple Exposure

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A typical high contrast scene where I needed to use a ND grad filter . The filter also helped to emphasise the beams of light coming through the cloud. I could have used multiple exposures but I was on a fast moving boat at the time which could have made post processing difficult.

Here’s a query that I see with some regularity so I thought it would make a good blog topic. When photographing landscapes the sky is often lighter than the ground and this can cause the land to be either too dark in the final image or the sky is too light. Two common approaches to solve this problem are the Neutral Density graduated (ND Grad) filter and multiple exposures. Which do I recommend?

ND grads are filters that fit to the end of the camera lens and which are dark on one half and clear on the other. The dark part is placed on the lens to darken bright areas such as the sky, so balancing the exposure with the land. This results in a nicely exposed sky and ground, leading to a more pleasing image. I should say that if you want to know more about purchasing these filters, there is a full tutorial on my Lenscraft website at http://www.lenscraft.co.uk/training/160.html.

The approach with multiple exposures is to take as the name suggest multiple images, all identical except that the exposure changes. Typically this involves bracketing the exposure by say 1 stop above and below the correct exposure. The resulting images are then blended together in an image editor to achieve a final image with a balanced exposure. Alternatively you might choose to blend the images together using some form of HDR software.

Before saying which method I prefer I should make it clear that neither approach is perfect and both have advantages and disadvantages. Because of this I actually use both approaches from time to time although I do prefer one over the other.

The problems I see with the ND Grad filter are:

  • The graduate filters can be a little clumsy to use as you really need a holder and lens adapter to attach them to the camera. They actually add quite a bit of size to the camera, sometimes quite dramatically.
  • The filters are prone to scratching as they are usually made of optical plastic. If you buy the glass ones they are prone to cracking or breaking, which given their price makes you want to cry.
  • Although these filters should be neutral they often display a colour cast which is sometimes linked to the lighting and weather conditions. This can result in odd coloured skies even when the filters are neutral.
  • They can sometimes be difficult to line up so that their effect isn’t obvious. This isn’t so much of a problem with micro 43 cameras which have a small sensor.
  • The areas of light and dark don’t always line up in a straight line e.g. a tree cuts into the sky and ends up becoming darker because the filter cuts across it.

The Multiple Exposure method also has its difficulties:

  • The exposures really need to be identical for the best results. This often forces the use of a tripod.
  • You need to ensure you don’t change the lens focal length or point of focus between shots.
  • The longer exposure shot in the bracket sequence can sometimes be soft due to camera shake. Another reason to use a tripod.
  • When using a lightweight camera I don’t like to carry a tripod unless I have to.
  • Blending takes time and photo editing skills. Often I just can’t be bothered with all the extra work.

On balance and because I come from a film background where I used to shoot slide film, ND Grads are my preferred option. I will however shoot multiple exposures if the situation needs it and I feel the benefits of doing so will outweigh the additional processing time. Overall I would say both methods work and it’s a personal choice you feel happiest with.

How Much Depth of Field with the LX5

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New York skyline at night. Shot hand held with an LX5 compact camera using ISO200 and f/2.8.

I recently posted an article discussing how micro 4/3 cameras could achieve good depth of field at relatively wide apertures. This also stressed how the common advice to stop down the lens to a small aperture was misleading and probably resulted in poor lens performance and loss of image sharpness. Well, now it’s the turn of the LX5.

The LX5 is a compact camera with an oversized sensor and a great Leica lens that’s the equivalent of a 24-90mm lens on a full frame camera. Despite its oversized sensor, this is still much smaller than the Micro 4/3 cameras, which gives the LX5 a much greater depth of field at the same aperture.

I can only describe the lens on the LX5 as extraordinary in terms of sharpness and its ability to resolve detail, even in distant subjects. It has an aperture of f/2.0 at its widest to f/8.0 at the smallest. The f/2.0 can only be achieved with the lens set to the equivalent of 24mm. At the other end of the zoom range the widest aperture is f/3.5.

From my observations when using the LX5, the camera produces good images at any aperture and is certainly usable wide open (f/2.0). If I stop the lens down it start to hit its sweet spot by f/2.8 and performance begins to drop off after f/4.5. The question then, is how much depth of field do you get with f/2.8 and the lens set to 24mm (I am assuming here that you like I spend most of your time photographing landscapes)

To answer this question I am not going to resort to a depth of field phone app as I did before, but use a feature built into the LX5 which not only shows me the depth of field but allows me to set the hyperfocal distance. In case you’re not familiar with the term hyperfocal distance, this is the theoretical focus point that gives the maximum depth of field for your aperture/lens right the way to infinity. Here are the steps:

  1. Select the Aperture Priority mode (A) on the top dial of the camera.
  2. Switch the camera to manual focus using the switch on the side of the lens. When you are in Manual Focus, MF will appear in the bottom right of the screen.
  3. Press the rear adjustment dial on the back of the camera (top right) until the MF is highlighted. This is the dial that allows you to adjust the aperture and if you keep pressing it in you will cycle through aperture adjustment, exposure compensation and manual focus settings.
  4. Rotate the dial to the left and right. As you do this you will see a depth of field guide appear on the bottom of the camera screen with a solid yellow line that moves left and right. This line represents the zone of focus at the aperture and focus length selected.
  5. Move the dial left and right until the yellow line just touches infinite focus on the right hand side. You have now set the focus to give the maximum depth of field at your aperture and focal length.

To give you some idea of how much depth of field you can achieve at 24mm and f/2.8, you will find the closest point in focus is just over a meter away and the zone of sharp focus extends to infinity. Now the other benefit of shooting at f/2.8 is that you will achieve a very fast shutter speed and can hand hold even in poor light as well as reduce the risk of camera shake.

By way of an example, the night shot above was taken from the top of the Empire State Building hand held using ISO200 and f/2.8. Its pin sharp and prints beautifully at A3+. I have even passed it off at various presentations around the UK as being shot with a 5D MKII. I do always own up later as its great fun to see people’s faces when they realise it was shot with a compact camera.

Should I Go Micro 4/3

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Get out and about with Micro 4/3 cameras

This is a common question about which I receive quite a regular flow of emails. I have also noticed recently that this question is starting to show up in search engine queries directed to the Light Weight Photographer blog so I thought I would answer this for anyone arriving here with the same question.

YES (in my opinion)

I suspect the reason why people are asking this is that they don’t trust a tiny camera to produces images as good as the camera they are already using. The truth is I don’t know if it will be as good as good as your current camera because everyone has different expectations and priorities. Does my GX1 produces images as good as my 5D? With both cameras in my hands the answer is no, the 5D will produce superior image size and quality. BUT only you will know if you are happy enough to make the switch and also what you might expect of a Micro 4/3 camera.

So allow me to assist you with the decision making process by asking you some questions. Spend some time considering these and most importantly writing down the answers so that you can refer back to them in the future:

  1. Why are you unhappy with your current camera? Make sure you produce a list of all the factors.
  2. What do you think the Micro 4/3 camera will bring you that your current camera doesn’t? Rank these in order with the most important points first.
  3. What is stopping you making the switch to Micro 4/3 today? Again you need to list all the concerns or unanswered questions that you have.
  4. What expectations do you have of a camera (any camera, not just micro 4/3)? Again list these in order of priority to you. Don’t be influenced by others, what is most important to you?

To help you with question 4 above let me provide some suggestions that you might like to consider. Size of the camera, size of the lenses, ability to fit in a pocket, quality of the image (sharpness, contrast, clarity), image resolution, cost of the camera, cost of the lenses, range of lenses available, availability of third party lenses, availability of accessories e.g. lens adapter, noise characteristics, low light performance, ease of use, features in the camera e.g. in camera HDR, panoramic stitching, styling & design.

Interestingly when most people consider question 4 they tend to place in camera features and styling much lower down the scale of importance than some of the other points such as price and image quality. Camera manufacturers sell to us however based on camera features and this can cloud our judgement and decision making. Get clear on what is important to you and why.

Now go back to the concerns and unanswered questions in point 3 and research these. You need to take care not to just accept other peoples options for example what someone might think is a sharp image another person might think is soft. The best way to resolve this would be to find sample images and evaluate them yourself.

When you have answered these 4 questions look at the purchase you are considering and honestly answer, do I think this camera give me what I want and expect?

If you decide it will, do 2 things:

  1. Sleep on it for a week to see if you change your mind. At the end of the week review your answers again to ensure you still agree with them.
  2. Go and handle your chosen camera in a camera shop or if all the camera shops have closed in your area consider hiring one. Use the menu system. Take sample pictures. Do you feel comfortable using this camera?

Micro 4/3 doesn’t suit everyone and some of its quirks might drive you crazy. For me it’s almost the perfect system but then again I also know how I would improve it.

GX1 Depth of Field

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Shot on a Panasonic GX1 with Olympus 9-18mm lens set to 10mm. I used f/9.0 for this image and whilst its sharp it would have been better at f/7.1. I didn’t have my depth of field scale with me and couldn’t take any chances. Click the image to see a larger version.

I am growing tired of seeing the same advice trotted out time and time again about Landscape Photography. The advice that has me so wound up is that “if you want to get a full depth of field you need to use a very small aperture”. This advice has almost been carved in tablets of stone for all to see. Does it work; yes it does BUT IT ISN’T THE BEST ADVICE.

To me, this advice is almost the lazy way to photograph landscapes. The advice you should be getting is to shoot your landscape with the best aperture (the one that gives you the highest quality image) whilst still giving you the required depth of field. To understand why and why this is so important for Micro 4/3 and compact camera photographers you need to understand a few basics about lenses and depth of field.

Firstly most consumer lenses are designed to achieve their sharpest images and resolve the most detail when the aperture is closed down about 2 stops from wide open. For many lenses this means you will get the best results at around f/8 to f/12. Either side of this range you will find the image just isn’t as sharp and if you stop down the lens to around f/22 you might find all sorts of distortions can kick in. Buy the best lenses you can and you might see some improvement on this.

Now the thing with Micro 4/3 cameras is they seem to hit their best performance when stopped down just a little bit and the best way to understand this is by testing your own lenses. I haven’t done extensive testing but with my 14-45mm lens, I tend to shoot landscapes at between f/5.6 and f/7.1 for the 14mm end of the zoom range. I have found that if I stop down to f/8 or beyond then it’s not quite as sharp.

So you know the aperture range where your lens performs best, how do you ensure there is sufficient depth of field? The answer is by selecting the correct point of focus first and then selecting the correct aperture in this range. This is probably best explained with an example.

Suppose you find a nice landscape scene and there is a lovely rock that you want to place in the foreground. You compose the shot with your camera mounted on your tripod at just below eye height and the rock is about 5 feet from where you are stood. The distance from your camera to the rock is probably going to be about 7 feet. If I consult my depth of field chart (it’s actually an app on my phone) I find that focussing on the rock with my lens set to 14mm (on the GX1) the widest aperture that allows me to achieve infinite depth of field is f/6.3 – yes you read that right. The nearest point to me that is in focus is actually only 3.4 feet away.

Taking a more extreme example lets lower our tripod and move in close to the rock so that it looms large in our viewfinder. Unfortunately the 14mm lens isn’t wide enough so we move the Olympus 9-18mm set to 10mm. This is the equivalent of a 20mm lens on a full frame camera. Having moved in close we find our point of focus on the rock is just 4 feet from the camera. Looking at my depth of field app I find that I can achieve infinite depth of field at just f/5.6 and the closest point in focus is just 1.9 feet from the camera. At this aperture my lens is going to be performing at its sharpest and resolve the maximum amount of detail. The images produced will be substantially better than if I had used a small aperture such as f/16. Just for fun I thought I would check the aperture I needed with my 5D and its f/11.

Do you think you think you have been selecting the best aperture for your work?

Great Black and White Images from Micro 4/3 Cameras

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If you are a new visitor to this blog then you might have the impression that I am a black and white photographer – not so. What I find however is that I am producing more and more black and white work recently. The reason being is that I think the black and white images shot on my GX1 look great; better than those shot on my Canon 5D or even those shot with true black and white film (which by the way I still use). I have thought a lot about why this is and I believe it is linked to the sensors used in the Micro 4/3 range of cameras.

All cameras produce a pattern of noise in the images they produce. Colour noise looks ugly and is best removed but the luminance noise can be used to your advantage in black and white pictures. Usually you don’t notice this noise but under strong processing it starts to become more visible especially if you are looking on a screen with the image viewed at 100%. With my Canon 5D the noise pattern is very regular, quite light and to be honest looks ugly when enhanced. With the micro 4/3 cameras however this luminance noise is a little stronger and the pattern more appealing. When the images are converted to black and white the noise appears almost like the grain structure in film. The benefit of having this fine structure in your images is not to make it feel like film but to enhance areas of detail so images appear more detailed than perhaps they are. When output to paper the prints definitely have an extra snap to them.

Here then is my workflow for making the most of the micro 4/3 characteristics when producing black and white images:

  1. Shoot in RAW. This gives you the control over how much noise is removed. If you shoot using the in-camera black and white mode you will end up with JPGs which will have had varying degrees of noise reduction applied before you start to work on them. You don’t want this.
  2. Because you are shooting in RAW you will need to convert the image to a TIFF file. I use Lightroom to do this and I apply sufficient Colour Noise reduction to remove all the visible colour noise. With Luminance noise however I set the reduction to 0 so that nothing is removed. I also avoid converting the image to B&W until later in the workflow for reasons I will come to.
  3. Once I have my colour TIFF image I examine it to see if I want to perform any selective luminance noise reduction. I will usually leave all the noise in areas of texture such as grass and rocks but remove noise from areas of clear blue sky. Personally I like to leave some luminance noise in white clouds as it helps me emphasise the clouds later.
  4. I use two tools for noise reduction; Nik Define and Topaz DeNoise. The Nik product is quite subtle and has some great selection tools to control where the noise reduction is applied. The Topaz product is noise reduction on steroids. It can be extremely aggressive but it’s also brilliant. If I want to remove strong noise from the image, this is the tool.
  5. Once I have my “clean” colour image I will convert it to Black and White using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. I do have other black and white converters but what I like about the Nik tool is that I have a “Structure” and “Fine Structure” slider. The effect of using these is that it enhances the Luminance noise so it becomes much more visible and starts to take on the appearance of grain. I should also warn you to take care with this step as once you have enhanced the noise there is no easy way back. Running noise reduction on the finished image won’t have much if any effect.

Now what I can’t show you here is the effect of this workflow on the finished print so you will have to take my word or try it for yourself. This really does enhance the print giving it that something extra, improving the perception of detail and sharpness. You can get some idea of how the screen image will look as a print by viewing your image at 50% resolution from about 12 inches away (a general rule of thumb).

If you have a micro 4/3 camera I hope this has inspired you to give my method a go and I am as always happy to answer any questions.

Landscape Photography with a Micro 4/3 Camera

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View from the summit of High Street
Landscape photography with a Micro 4/3 camera. Not just possible but a good alternative.

One of the things I love to do is question conventional wisdom and push boundaries. One assumption that I believe needs to be challenged at the moment is that a Micro 4/3 camera for Landscape Photography is not a good choice.

I think this assumption has an historical background. Look at the great Landscapers of the past and you will find they shot in the main with Large Format cameras which gave them two advantages:

  1. The size of the negative/transparency is large so they can be used to create large prints with good quality.
  2. The camera movements allowed the image to be rendered with a full depth of field so that the nearest and furthest points were pin-sharp.

As photography has progressed, the large format camera remains the medium of choice for “serious Landscape Photographers” although many have moved to use slightly smaller/lighter cameras which allow the attachment of a digital back.

Whilst the original advantages of using Large Format still exist, I would question if they offer quite the advantage over a Micro 4/3 camera that people immediately assume. More importantly I think the downsides to using a large format camera probably outweigh any advantage (certainly for myself). Now to be clear, I am not saying all large format photographers should switch to micro 4/3, just that if you want to shoot Landscapes doesn’t rule out the Micro 4/3 cameras.

To deal with the issue of the negative/transparency size versus the size of the tiny micro 4/3 sensor first let me say one thing, the end result is everything. If I can print my image at the size I want and achieve the quality I want, why do I need lots of potential in reserve. For me this means being able to print an image where the longest side is 30” (although most of the time I print on A3+ paper). If I can produce my image at these sizes and see loads of detail in the print (not on screen) when I view the print then the camera is achieving the results I want. This is the case with images I shoot from the 16Mpixel Panasonic GX1. When I look very closely at my prints with a magnifying loupe and compare them to the screen, I can see the printer is the limitation not what the camera can capture.

Think about this. Do you really need to reproduce your images larger than 30”?

Next to the subject of using Camera movement to achieve huge depth of field. The Micro 4/3 camera doesn’t have this and currently doesn’t have any tilt and shift lenses that could achieve the same effect. The sensor in the Micro 4/3 is however small and this allows a much larger depth of field to be achieved without needing to stop the lens down to an excessively small aperture. Most of the images I shoot with my 14-45mm lens use f/5.6, f/6.3 or f/7.1. With the lens set to 14mm I usually achieve sufficient depth of field to render everything sharp. Sometimes if I am shooting a close subject I might go as high as f11 but I like to use the larger apertures. This allows me to avoid the effects of diffraction (caused by having a small aperture) softening the image. A large aperture also translates into faster shutter speeds so getting a sharp image with no camera shake is easy and makes a tripod unnecessary in many situations.

So, if I can achieve large, detailed prints where the entire image is sharp from front to back do I really need to move to a larger camera?

Now consider the other benefits of Micro 4/3. It costs less to buy a complete kit; I can’t believe how affordable some of the great lenses are. You can carry it around easily so are able to visit quite remote locations. It’s less tiring so you are fresher when trying to create your work. You can work much quicker and therefore respond easily when the lighting is changing rapidly. You are more manoeuvrable so explore many more compositions and angles. It’s much easier to learn how to use. It’s much easier to achieve good results with a Micro 4/3 camera for the average user.

I think the message is clear, Micro 4/3 cameras can be a serious tool for the Landscape Photographer.