This Camera Rocks

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Golden Canyon. Death Valley, USA
Golden Canyon. Death Valley, USA. Click the image to enlarge.

First, I must apologise for the visual pun and poor quality of my humour. I also must admit to a rather strange fascination with rock and a desire to photograph rock. I can’t put my finger on why but I just love the texture and sometimes the colour of rock. The image above is typical of what I like to shoot, where detail and texture are all important. The ability of my camera and lens combination to capture this detail is therefore very important to me. In this example it was a Panasonic GX1 and Panasonic 14-45mm lens (this by the way was the old kit lens for the GF1 and is a real cracker in terms of the image quality it can produce).

As some of you reading this will know, I recently made the decision to sell all my DSLR equipment and switch completely into Micro 43 format cameras. This lead to the purchase of an Olympus OM-D E-M5 which I am very impressed with but leaves me with a Panasonic GX1 doing very little. I had been contemplating selling the GX1 body given that it is pretty similar to the OMD. It produces the same size images and has nothing about it that elevates it beyond the OMD. I can’t however bring myself to sell it.

The GX1 has now come down to such a low price that I don’t feel it’s worth my effort to sell it and that I may be better keeping it. The body is pretty tiny and fits neatly in my pocket or camera bag as a backup. The build quality is very good. And when I look at images such as the one above it amazes me what quality the camera can produce (when shooting in RAW format). Take a look at this section viewed at 100%.

Image detail viewed at 100%
Image detail viewed at 100% shows superb clarity, sharpness and detail resolution. Click the image to enlarge.

So for now at least, I think it’s going to stay in my camera bag – it makes an ideal travel camera.

So, that was the blog I had originally intended to post. The only thing is, the image wasn’t shot on a GX1 at all. It was shot on my Sony RX100 but I had copied it to the wrong location. That’s right, it was captured on a compact camera. WOW!

I wanted to end this blog with a question. Which image is better, the colour one above or the black and white conversion below? I can’t make my mind up but I’m interested to know what others think. I think I prefer the colour image but it’s a close run thing.

B&W conversion using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2
B&W conversion using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. Click the image to enlarge.

Sharing some Pictures

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Whitby after sunset. Hand held on a Sony RX100
Whitby after sunset. Hand held on a Sony RX100

For today’s blog post I don’t want to do much more than share some recent images and rave about how impressed I am with the RX100 compact camera. I tend to forget this until I come to process some of the images that are lying around on my hard disk.

All the images you see in this post were captured hand held using the RX100. Despite the low light and slow shutter speeds the images are detailed, sharp and colourful. I even decided to print a few on A3+ paper (I increased the ppi resolution to 360 to avoid reducing the size of the images and to achieve the native resolution of my Epson printer). The prints look absolutely stunning. I’m going to start taking this camera out much more often given the results I see here.

I suppose I should also mention that Sony have now released the RX100 MkII. This isn’t however a replacement but will be on sale alongside the original RX100. The main difference from what I can see is the improved low light performance and the tilting screen. I haven’t yet seen the prices in the UK so am undecided if it is worth upgrading my existing (nearly new) camera. The tilting screen would come in handy for some of the low and close shots I take.

Enjoy your weekend.

Whitby sunrise
Whitby sunrise
Whitby sunrise on an RX100
Whitby sunrise on an RX100
Whitby sunset on the RX100
Whitby sunset on the RX100

Microstock Update

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Whitby Pier at Sunrise. Captured on a Sony RX100.
Whitby Pier at Sunrise. Captured on a Sony RX100.

Some time back I published a blog post saying that I wanted to test out the Microstock market using Compact and Micro 43 cameras. I already sell stock through a couple of “traditional” agencies who require I meet certain equipment standards. Interestingly these now allow the use of Micro 43 cameras providing they meet the quality and pixel count standards. Most Micro 43 cameras will achieve this when correctly used and I have already had submissions accepted.

Before I started this experiment I did visit a few site forums to pose the question about the acceptability of Compact Cameras for Microstock and the usual view was that whilst the libraries may claim they will accept lower quality submissions you do need a DSLR or they will reject the images.

So, how has my experiment been going?

Not well to be honest. Not because the cameras aren’t good enough but because I just can’t find sufficient free time to shoot and submit stock (I have the same problem with my traditional stock work also). My initial few submissions went well enough but I soon ran into problems with the way some libraries limit submissions. Some have a weekly or daily limit and you need to build up a reputation with them. Others are very time consuming and don’t support FTP batch uploads. There were also problems with the speed with which some of these image batches were reviewed. Because of the nature of this experiment I didn’t want to submit too many images without first having an earlier batch accepted. This quickly caused a backlog of images with some sites taking 3 months to review my submission and one site still hasn’t reviewed my submission from January. I guess they don’t want new photographers.

So the first question I wanted to answer was “will the libraries really accept images from a compact camera”. The answer is yes. I only had a couple of images rejected for being underexposed. These had been shot in the evening and to be honest, I would agree with the rejection. If I brightened them too much it revealed noise and even removing this left the images lower in quality than I would like.

One interesting point is that one of the libraries has repeatedly rejected my LX5 images as showing signs of being shot with a low quality lens. Looking honestly at the images I think this is rubbish and no other library has identified a problem. This has only happened with one library and it is so consistent that I suspect they are checking the metadata.

So what about sales?

Not too bad actually. Despite only having loaded around 20 images many of these have continued to sell regularly and appear to have generated around $60 in sales across the various sites I have submitted to. Not a huge amount but it shows there is potential. The two surprising best sellers are images of the Statue of Liberty and perhaps more surprisingly a rather lacklustre image of Wastwater in the English Lake District.

What all this has done is encouraged me not to leave my compact camera images on my hard drive and to submit them to the Microstock libraries. As for using Micro 43 cameras for stock, I now have no choice having sold my Canon 5DII and switching to an Olympus OMD.

I will provide a further update in the future but if you are wondering if you should try your hand at Microstock using a compact camera, I don’t think there is anything to stop you – especially now I have seen what cameras such as the Sony RX100 can achieve.

More Details

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Beach rock detailed captured on a Panasonic GX1 - the right tools for the job make the job much easier.
Beach rock detailed captured on a Panasonic GX1 – the right tools for the job make the job much easier.

I have to admit that I have never been very good at taking detail shots. I’m not talking here about macro work but about identifying and shooting abstract details and patterns close up. This is the sort of work that photographers such as David Ward have become well known for.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate this work, I do; I am actually in awe of people who are able to do this well. I simply struggle to create something pleasant myself.

When I look back at the times I have tried this in the past, I seem to struggle to visualise and spot the opportunities. I think this is partly because much of this type of work uses a square format. As much as I like the square format, finding it very balanced, I can’t seem to create compositions within it myself. If I do happen to spot something I then find it difficult to translate this into a composition on the camera. My shots never looked quite right.

Recently however I took a trip to Whitby with some photography friends. When the conditions became less than ideal for Landscape work we switched to trying to capture details on the beach. Typically this would be things such as sand patterns and rock details. At first I tried using my DSLR (which I have now sold) but then switched to using the GX1 Micro 43 and Sony RX100 compact camera. Suddenly I found this world opened up to me simply because I wasn’t hunched uncomfortably over a tripod trying to use a DSLR.

I found that I was able to visualise and compose much better images by holding the camera away from me and using the image on the back of screen as feedback. Whilst I still struggled to compose images within a square frame, at least I was able to see and appreciate this. I then switched format and surprisingly (because you don’t see it often with detail shots) I found the 16:9 format much more rewarding.

Whilst I still have a way to go with producing this sort of work I have at least captured some images that I might be happy to share. I will also be trying this type of photography much more in the future.

Depth of Field with Micro 43

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Captured with a GX1 and Olympus 9-18 lens. Front to back sharpness was achieved with 12mm focal length and f/9.0 aperture. The foreground is just feet away but I selected the point of focus carefully.
Captured with a GX1 and Olympus 9-18 lens. Front to back sharpness was achieved with 12mm focal length and f/9.0 aperture. The foreground is just feet away but I selected the point of focus carefully. Click the image to see a larger version.

I responded to a question the other night asking for some guidance on Depth of Field and if possible an article. I thought about this for a while and it’s quite a complex subject involving ideas such as circle of confusion and hyperfocal focusing. Personally I don’t like complexity as it tends not to be that practical in the real world. Here then is my Lightweight guide to depth of field with a Micro 43 camera.

The first thing to realise is that Depth of Field is something completely different to lens sharpness. Sharpness is about how well defined edges appear in your image. Lots of things can contribute to an image being sharp or not. Camera shake will detract from sharpness as will vibrations. Unfortunately the aperture also contributes to sharpness which is possibly why people sometimes become confused.

When a lens is wide open at its maximum aperture e.g. f/1.8 it is unlikely that it will produce its sharpest results. Whilst high quality lenses will perform well when wide open, most lenses achieve their best results when stopped down around 2 stops from wide open. My experience with Micro 43 lenses is that they usually perform well when wide open and achieve excellent results when stopped down by around 1 stop from the maximum.

Stop a lens down to the other extreme and you will see the effects of diffraction creep in. This is where the light entering the lens diffracts on the blades of the aperture. This causes it to spread and the image becomes softer. Different lenses will start to suffer from diffraction at different apertures so I can’t give you any guidance other than to say test your lenses.

Now for depth of field. The first thing to realise is that there is only one point of true focus in an image. The further you move from this point the more the focus deteriorates. Near to the point of focus you probably don’t notice this but further away the image starts to appear blurred and out of focus. The area that appears in focus to the eye is the zone of acceptable focus; remember it’s not actually in focus, only the point of focus is in true focus.

The acceptable zone of focus extends beyond the point of focus and also in front of the point of focus. This is said to be the depth of field. How far this zone extends is determined by a number of factors which include:

  1. The size of the sensor – the smaller the sensor the greater the depth of field at a given aperture. Micro 43 is therefore good if you want lots of depth of field. Generally speaking you can’t do anything about sensor size unless you change camera.
  2. The distance of the point of focus from the camera – the nearer the point of focus to the sensor then the less the depth of field.
  3. The aperture – a smaller aperture will produce a greater depth of field than a larger aperture on the same lens assuming the other factors are constant. Take care however as you could make the aperture so small that the lens suffers from diffraction. There is therefore a balancing act between depth of field and optimum aperture.
  4. The focal length of the lens – Now all you science types don’t all cry out saying there is no difference it’s just down to compression and magnification (ignore this comment if you don’t know what I am talking about). Remember, this is the simple approach to depth of field. The wider the focal length of the lens then the greater the apparent depth of field that can be achieved, all other things being equal. Putting this in simple terms, take a picture with a 14mm lens and take the same picture with the same aperture and focus point using a 45mm lens and the 14mm will appear to have a greater depth of field.

The final key piece of information is that the depth of field extends roughly twice as far beyond the camera as in front of it.

So, how to use this assuming you want to create a large depth of field from the foreground to the distance:

  1. By the time you are about 50m away from the camera, you will effectively have reached infinity focus on your lens. Remember, this is a practical real world simplified guide.
  2. Select a lens that will allow you to create the composition you want.
  3. Estimate how far the nearest point to you (in the frame) is.
  4. Estimate how far 1/3 of the distance is from this point to 50m and identify something around that point in the frame. This is where you should pick your point of focus. Don’t leave this up to the camera to decide.
  5. Select an aperture that gives you the depth of field you need. Until you are adept at judging this you may need to take a few shots and check them at 100% magnification on the back of your camera.
  6. When you check shots the foreground is more important to judge than the distance. The foreground will show up areas that are out of focus much more than the distant hills.
  7. If you find your image is slightly out of focus in the foreground but the hills are fine you need to move the point of focus nearer to you.
  8. If the hills are blurred but the distance is fine you might need to move the point of focus away from your OR use a smaller aperture. Try both.
  9. Try to keep the aperture within the range for optimum sharpness.

All this might sound like a lot to remember but after a while it becomes second nature. I tend to shoot landscapes with a 14mm lens set to f/8.0. I know when the focus point is well selected this will give me good depth of field on most of my compositions. Selecting the focus point becomes automatic for me based on years of experience gained by taking a picture and checking the results.

Hope this helps.

I’m Getting Closer

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Another of the Olympus OMD images shot at Haweswater recently. The quality of this camera is amazing. It has also shown me what the 14-45mm Panasonic lens is capable of.
Another of the Olympus OMD images shot at Haweswater recently. The quality of this camera is amazing. It has also shown me what the 14-45mm Panasonic lens is capable of.

Firstly I want to say there has been a great response to my previous post about my search for a Micro 43 bag. Thanks to everyone who has added comments and to those who have emailed me with various suggestions. I really appreciate your help and there have been some great ideas which I am going to look at properly over the next week.

At the time I wrote the last post I had been considering one of the ThinkTank bags (I think it was the Speed Demon v2) which straps round your waste and also has a shoulder strap. It can therefore be used as a shoulder bag or strapped around your waist. When around your waste you can wear it at the back, front or even to the side. The shoulder strap can also be worn around the neck/over the shoulder to add extra support. I was actually near to buying one of these when I realised it was still going to be too bulky and probably not what I was really looking for.

Another of the suggestions that came in via email was to use the bottom half of an Orion Lowepro backpack (thanks Ed). This is an old model now but the idea was that there was a split backpack where the top half could be used to carry clothing and food whilst the bottom half was for your camera gear. What was special about this design was that the two halves could be detached. The bottom part could then be turned into a belt pack and also had a detachable shoulder strap just like the ThinkTank bag.

Ed provided a picture of his kit in the bag and it looked to fit great. More importantly I actually have one of these bags in the loft so I decided to get it down. Unfortunately this still isn’t the solution. The idea is sound and the bag is extremely well padded. This however makes it rather bulky so trying to strap this to your front whilst wearing a backpack makes you feel very confined. More importantly I felt a little unsteady and decided it could make me unstable when out on the hills.

What all this searching for a suitable bag has made me realise is that I might already own the solution. About 8 years back I bought a Marmot belt pack. The idea was to keep a drink, waterproof and food in this pack if I was out carrying my large camera backpack with SLR. It is however very light (really it was made for fell runners), quite spacious and would allow me to carry most of my Micro 43 gear comfortably (we shall see). It also has an internal waterproof pocket that is perfect for batteries and memory cards. One of the front packets would be perfect for my Infrared GX1 and the side pockets would fit my larger Panasonic 45-200mm lens.

Front view of my Marmot pack
Front view of my Marmot pack

If I now purchase some Neoprene lens wraps (GBP7 each) I can protect the lenses from rubbing against each other. The whole lot can then be placed into a waterproof Exped bag that fits into the main pocket. You can guage the capacity in the next image.

Inside the bag is the OMD with 14-45 lens attached, the 12-50 Olympus lens and in the size pocket the bulky (in comparison) Panasonic 45-200.
Inside the bag is the OMD with 14-45 lens attached, the 12-50 Olympus lens and in the size pocket the bulky (in comparison) Panasonic 45-200.

This still isn’t perfect but it’s the right size, weight and more importantly it’s comfortable when I am wearing my backpack. I still think I will end up buying a 14-150mm lens to prevent lots of lens switching but this solution allows easy access to all my equipment when out on the hills.

And a final word, please keep the suggestions coming as my solution isn’t perfect but your might be.

Camera Bag Frustration

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One of my Haweswater images from the weekend shot on the Olympus OMD. It doesn't show the lake but it does show the start of the ridge in the background that we would later be walking up.
One of my Haweswater images from the weekend shot on the Olympus OMD. It doesn’t show the lake but it does show the start of the ridge in the background that we would later be walking up.

I am feeling happy once more. My frustration with not taking my camera out has subsided somewhat. At the weekend just gone I was up in the Lake District with my new camera at one of the best locations you can imagine – Haweswater.

Unless you are familiar with the Lakes it’s unlikely you have visited this spot and yet it’s one of the most spectacular. It lies near to Penrith and is away from the usual tourist destinations. It has one narrow lane that leads to a dead end at the head of the valley where the lake also ends. Well, I say lake but it is actually a manmade reservoir. When it was created the designers were careful to create a number of features that blend it into the landscape. I suspect they must have been photographers as it’s so picturesque.

The purpose of this blog is not to bore you with details of the location but to share a new problem now that I have gone totally lightweight. I couldn’t find a bag that suited the equipment I wanted to carry.

For the day I had decided to take the Olympus OMD and the GX1 Infrared body. In addition to batteries and memory cards I also took a few lenses; the Olympus 9-18mm, Panasonic 14-45mm, Panasonic 45-200mm and the Olympus 12-50mm that came with the OMD. This was too much equipment to fit my small shoulder bag but it wasn’t enough to warrant carrying my Lowepro Mini Trekker. At the same time, because we intended to walk one of the ridges leading up to the summit of Highstreet, so I also needed to take a traditional backpack with outdoor gear. Oh yes, I also wanted to take the Sony RX100 as a backup. I did think of using a Sling shot but it would have been that little but too heavy and I need to watch my back/neck.

Interestingly my friend had the same issues with his kit which is also Micro 43. As you can imagine, the conversation soon turned to the inadequacy of most camera bags to cater for Compact System Cameras such as the Olympus and Panasonic. Particularly those of us who want to combine this with day treks in the hills.

Since returning I have been scouring the internet trying to find something that meets my needs but most of the bags are either a shoulder bag or designed for DSLR sized cameras, making them quite bulky and heavy.

What I am really looking for is a lightweight bag which is either a back pack or a front pack. If it’s a backpack it needs to hold my waterproof clothing and extra layers in winter as well as food and of course the camera equipment. It needs to be the correct size for the Micro 43 camera as I don’t want wasted space of lenses rattling around. The alternative I think would be a front pack and I think this would be more practical as it would allow access to gear without needing to remove the bag. It should however be light and again suitably sized for the Micro 43 equipment. If it’s a front pack it needs to include some sort of shoulder of neck strap to prevent the pack hanging too low as you walk. It must also allow me to still wear a backpack for my clothing, emergency shelter, first aid kit, food etc.

Now I don’t think this is too much to ask for but I haven’t yet found it. I did come across some bags last night that look promising. They are designed for press photographers who work in the field and need to keep mobile and on their feet. The bag strap to your front and over one shoulder to allow easy access to kit but I need to do more research; they may still be too bulky.

If you are a bag manufacturer and reading this, let’s see some serious bags aimed at Micro 43 cameras and don’t try to brush us off with your SLR line rebadged. If you are a Micro 43 photographer who has cracked this problem I would love to hear your solution.