quality

Comparing the Nikon D800

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Nikon D800, Nikkor 18-35 lens at f/14 for 15 seconds. Lee 10 stop ND filter.
Nikon D800, Nikkor 18-35 lens at f/14 for 15 seconds. Lee 10 stop ND filter.

I would like to start this blog post with an apology. It’s taken me far too long to publish my first thoughts about the D800 and how it compares to the Olympus EM5. But there is a reason for this in that I have wanted to get used to the D800 given that it’s a new camera. It usually takes me a number of outings to begin to understand a camera and then quite a few more to start producing work that I am pleased with.

I have now had exactly three outings with the D800 and I feel that I am starting to understand it and get “the feel of the camera”. Despite this I c

an’t keep you all waiting any longer so I will start to discuss my findings. First though I should outline the equipment that I have been using and the technique I have adopted when using the D800.

As you may be aware I purchased the D800 used as it was an absolute bargain. I also purchased two lenses to use with the camera:

  • Nikkor 24-85 f/2.8-4D IF
  • Nikkor 18-35 f3.5-4.5G ED

Neither of these lenses are the top rated in their category but they are more reasonably priced than the pro lenses. Price wise they compare with the lenses I use on my Olympus EM5 for similar focal lengths although the 12-40mm Olympus is a little more costly than the Nikkor 24-85. Of the two Nikkor lenses the 18-35 is sharper and produces better results although you do need to be peeping at those pixels in 100% magnification to notice.

In terms of using the D800, I have been shooting almost entirely with the camera mounted on a heavy Manfrotto 055CL which is one hell of a sturdy and robust tripod. I have also been using a cable release to minimise vibration. When shooting landscapes I have been using 100mm Lee ND Grad filters.

My mode of operation with the D800 on the tripod is to shoot in Live View and with the lens set to manual focus. Using this I will select the point of focus, zoom in to 100% magnification then focus the lens manually. I have found this will provide a better and more reliable result than relying on the camera’s auto focus system. A couple of observations I would make here are:

  • You need to use Live View in order to gain the flexibility of the focus point positioning. Only in live view can you position this anywhere in the frame. If you are using the optical viewfinder you will be limited by the cameras autofocus points. This is rather annoying as these points don’t extend sufficiently into the frame to obtain the best focussing.
  • When shooting in this way you need to remember to close the rear curtain on the viewfinder or you will get exposure problems as you can see from the image here. The light leak look is quite appealing but I don’t want it on every frame.
Nikon D800 showing light leak caused by not closing the rear curtain on the viewfinder
Nikon D800 showing light leak caused by not closing the rear curtain on the viewfinder

So now you know a little about how I am working with the D800, my next post on the subject will start to compare some of the factors such as image quality. I would also like to make this quite interactive so if anyone reading this has a comparison characteristic they would like to know about, just ask.

As a parting comment, I would like to point out that the EM5 is far more forgiving as a camera than the D800. I can use it hand held at ridiculously slow shutter speeds and still achieve a very sharp image. I can also work with it in very flexible and creative ways where with the D800 I am fighting with the tripod for most of the time. This has cut my shooting rate to about 1/10 of the EM5.

My most disappointing camera is…

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The hills and moors above Dovestones in Saddleworth
The hills and moors above Dovestones in Saddleworth

I should actually say my most disappointing camera was because there has been some remarkable changes with it. But first you need to hear a story to understand my disappointment.

Back in 2009 I purchased a Sony R1. For those of you don’t know, the R1 was a bridge camera with a fixed lens that was the size of a small DSLR at the time. It was very expensive new and had quickly lost favour with the general public. It was quite a weight really due in part to the huge lens. This was a 24-120mm lens made by Zeiss which was razor sharp. The 10Mpx sensor was the same one as used in some of the Nikon DSLRs at the time and was good at ISO 200 (base ISO) but quickly became noisy. The camera also lacked image stabilisation.

Despite its limitations the camera was a joy to use and produced amazing images. There are many fine art photographers who used this camera at the time and indeed I sold mine to one in 2011. Despite loving this camera I had become convinced that the Sony NEX5 was going to be a direct replacement for it but much smaller. Needless to say it wasn’t and I ended up switching to Micro 43, which I’m very pleased I did.

Roll forwards to December of last year and Sony launch the RX10. I didn’t pay much attention at the time based on past experience but then I say a picture of the RX10. It was clear that it was a reworked R1 with the same huge Zeiss lens. I did have some reservations about the 1″ sensor but already owning the RX100 I knew the sensor was quite capable. I purchased one immediately having traded in a very poor Panasonic 14-140mm lens.

The new RX10 was everything I wanted it to be. It reminded me so much of the R1 but improved. It handled well and meant no more lens switching. The lens range was now improved to 24-200mm with a fast f/2.8 constant aperture. I was so pleased.

But then came the let down. On paper this camera should perform brilliantly but when I processed the RAW files I couldn’t attain the sort of legendary image quality as the R1. At the time I was comparing this to the Olympus EM5 which is my main workhorse camera. The RX10 just seemed a bit, well soft in comparison. I tried all sorts, even convincing myself that the files were good enough. Once or twice I even came close to selling the camera had it not been for the excellent handling and convenience. In the end it was relegated to be my walking camera.

I hope you can now understand my disappointment.

Then to surprise recently I decided to open some of the RX10 RAW files in CaptureOne 8 (more on this some other time). The results were excellent. Image quality was not as “crisp” as the EM5 but then the images appeared more natural. The colours were also amazing.

At this time I also decided to update the firmware in the Sony as it was version 1.0 and version 2.0 was now available. Whilst the firmware talks about improvements to video, I’m sure they have done something to the focusing and image stabilisation. The camera now handles much better and I am getting much less shake than previously.

Over the past couple of weeks I have made a number of A2 prints from the RX10 files and they are really nice. There is a good feeling of depth to the images and they don’t feel so crisp that they appear unnatural.

In summary, a camera that was often left at home as it was disappointing has turned into one that I am happy to use and pleased to have purchased.

Friday image No.034

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Olympus OMD EM5 + 45mm Olympus lens
Olympus OMD EM5 + 45mm Olympus lens. Click the image to enlarge.

Yet another trip from my recent visit to Nantes in France.

This time I was walking along the river and spotted these three bird(two cormorants and a heron). They appeared quite tame as this was shot with my 45mm prime – it was the longest lens I had with me at the time. Fortunately it was the 45mm prime which is exceptionally sharp and will allow me to a high quality enlargement if required.

I hope you like it and have a great weekend.

Don’t buy a Micro 43 lens until you read this – Part 4

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Captured with an Olympus OMD EM5 and Panasonic 45-200 lens.
Captured with an Olympus OMD EM5 and Panasonic 45-200 lens.

Telephoto (Long) Zooms

Continuing this miniseries, it’s time to take a look at telephoto lenses. I class these as lenses that have a focal length beyond 45mm. And please do remember, I only cover lenses that I have used. As I haven’t yet tried any pro level lenses in this class I haven’t included them in the review. If anyone does have experience with these please add your thought to the comments section. I for one would be interested in the Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 or Panasonic 35-100 f/2.8. Lens titles include links to amazon.co.uk to view the lens and ensure you know which I am refering to.

Panasonic 45-150mm

This is my current long lens having switched from the 45-200 below. The reason for my switch is because of the size and weight. This lens is actually tiny when you consider its focal length. It’s only very slightly bigger than the 14-45 kit lens so is very easy to carry. This is a huge advantage over the typical telephoto DSLR lens which tend to get bigger and heavier.

Performance in image quality ranges from excellent at the 45mm end to very good/excellent at the 150mm end of the range. At the 45mm end I would say that my example is sharper than the 14-45mm kit lens that I love so much. It also performs well from wide open, displaying little colour fringing but does improve slightly when stopped down.

A lens of this quality for such a low price is a real bargain.

Panasonic 45-200mm

This is another good performer which achieves results similar to the 45-150 lens discussed above. Beyond the 150mm lens the image does soften slightly but it’s still very good and beyond what many DSLR lenses can achieve at this focal length.

As I mentioned above, I recently sold this lens because I found I wasn’t using the additional reach beyond 150mm, given the additional size and weight of the lens.

Panasonic 100-300mm

I have seen some negative commentary on this lens but have found this difficult to understand. From my experience, I have wondered if the problems are more to do with technique than the lens. With a lens of this focal length, small vibrations can be a problem as they are significantly magnified.

The downside to the lens is that it’s quite costly and also quite specialised, giving the equivalent of 600mm at the long end. Whilst this is a good focal length for getting close to action, the maximum aperture is quite slow, making it less suited for low light work.

Next time we will look at prime lenses where there are a few surprises.

Don’t buy a Micro 43 lens until you read this – Part 3

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Shot on a GX1 with Olympus 9-18 lens as part of my Cloud Structures project
Shot on a GX1 with Olympus 9-18 lens as part of my Cloud Structures project

In this posting we will look at the lenses falling in the super wide angle category. I define this as being those that are wider than 24mm (full frame equivalent) or 12mm (Micro 43). At the time of writing there are only two zoom lens options which are described below. Headings are links to amazon.co.uk to see the lenses.

Super Wide Angle Zoom

Olympus 9-18mm

If you need a wider angle lens than the 12mm standard zoom you don’t have much choice. It’s either this lens or the Panasonic 7-14mm mentioned below. I own the Olympus 9-18 and really like it. It’s a sharp lens that performs well. At the wider angle end of the zoom range it will distort but the lens retains its sharpness. Some chromatic aberration is apparent but no more than you might expect from such a wide angle.

The lens is very light and small. It also collapses down on itself when not in use. This makes it very easy to carry and suitable for all sorts of camera design. Most importantly you can easily use filters on this lens, something that can be tricky with the Panasonic.

Panasonic 7-14mm

I can’t deny this is a sharper lens than the Olympus and is most certainly pro quality. The downside when compared to the Olympus is that it’s larger and quite a bit heavier although it’s still much smaller and lighter than a DSLR wide angle lens.

Despite its amazing performance, I opted not to buy this lens because of one key problem. The front element of the lens protrudes beyond the front of the lens making it very difficult to attach filters. If you can overcome this limitation and don’t mind that it’s quite a lot more costly than the Olympus then this is a great lens.

Don’t buy a Micro 43 lens until you read this – Part 1

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Steps at Sandsend near Whitby. Olympus Em5 + 25mm Olympus lens. The quality of this lens is amazing.
Steps at Sandsend near Whitby. Olympus Em5 + 25mm Olympus lens. The quality of this lens is amazing. Click the image to view larger.

I recently bought another camera (used) and whilst I will have more to say on that in the future, one thing it made me realise was just how good the Micro 43 lenses are. But this isn’t the case for all of the Micro 43 lenses; there are some really poor ones out there. When these lenses are good they are really good. The corners are sharp and show little distortion and you can use them wide open without worry. But when they are poor, they can make you question your decision to invest in the Micro 43 system. With this in mind I thought I would share some of my experiences and hopefully others of you will share yours.

I will point out that this is not a scientific lens review but what I think are the important points having used the lenses discussed. You also need to be aware that being a Landscape Photographer I like to achieve a good depth of field, very sharp images and well defined details. Depending on your photography interests you may have different needs.

Now both Panasonic and Olympus produce some excellent lenses (as well as some poor ones) but they take very different approaches to image stabilisation. Olympus builds stabilisation into their camera bodies whilst Panasonic build it into the lens (but not every lens). This means that if you have an Olympus body you can use any lens and still benefit from stabilisation. If you have a Panasonic body then you will only benefit from image stabilisation when you use a Panasonic lens (and only then if it is stabilised as not all lenses are).

Now you can mount a Panasonic lens on an Olympus body without any problems; this is one of the prime features of Micro 43 – it’s a standard. For example, I frequently use a Panasonic 14-45mm lens with stabilisation on my Olympus EM5. I do take care to turn off the lens stabilisation using a switch on the lens barrel. But even when I forget it seldom causes an issue. With other lenses such as the Panasonic 45-150 the lens is stabilised but there is no stabilisation switch on the body. Despite this I have never experienced a problem mounting these lenses on my Olympus EM5 and leave the stabilisation for the camera on all the time.

In short, don’t worry about mixing lenses and camera bodies from Olympus and Panasonic although you might need to give a little thought to manually switching it off for some combinations of lens and camera body.

Next time we will start to review some of the zoom lenses I have used. But before we go I will leave you with a few section of the above image zoomed to 100% magnification. This shows just how good the Micro 43 system can be.

100% magnification
100% magnification. Click to zoom in fully.

 

100% magnification. Click to zoom in fully.
100% magnification. Click to zoom in fully.

 

100% magnification. Click to zoom in fully.
100% magnification. Click to zoom in fully.

Deciding how to edit a photograph

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View from the leading edge at the top of Yewbarrow
View from the leading edge at the top of Yewbarrow

Following my last blog post on the Essential Skills for photography, the question was posed “Where I’m stuck is the step between picking the strongest image and playing with software. How do I decide what to do with it. ” This seemingly simple question is one of the most fundamental in photography and is one that I found myself wrestling with for a number of years. This is how I resolved the for myself. As I am a Landscape Photographer I will speak about scenes but you can apply this approach to most forms of photography.

The key to deciding how to edit an image doesn’t start when you download the image to your computer, it starts much earlier. It even starts before you even lift the camera to take the shot. It actually starts when you spot the opportunity to capture an image. When something catches your eye and you recognise there is a photograph to be taken, at that moment you should be working out what has captured your attention.

Having identified something that is attracting you to a scene you will begin to take photographs. It’s unlikely your first image will be what you wanted (if it is you are either amazingly talented or very lazy) so you need to experiment with angles and composition. As you work with a scene your vision for the image should become stronger. This is the vision that will become so important when you come to edit your image later.

Having a strong vision is the key to understanding how to edit your image.

Having selected the image that you want to work with; the one that best represents your vision, you should ask yourself 2 questions:

  1. What defects is the image suffering from that I need to correct? Perhaps it’s too bright or it looks a little flat. Perhaps it has a lot of dark areas which look ugly and need to be opened up. Spend time looking at the image and identify what you don’t like about it. Defects in the image hide your vision from the viewer.
  2. Now consider your vision and ask how can this image be enhanced to better convey my vision for the photograph? This should take you right back to the reason for taking the picture in the first instance. Why did you take the picture? How can you emphasise this aspect of the image to the viewer?

As you consider these questions, make notes about the changes that you would like to make. Don’t try to get all technical about how you will make the adjustments, just describe the changes. If you want to make some dark areas lighter, write that down. If you want to make the pinks more vibrant and colourful, write it down. If you think the image looks a little hazy and you want to give it more snap, write that down.

Once you have the list of changes you need to write out a plan for the adjustments you will make. Start with the global adjustments and work down to the smaller localised changes. Also try to make the corrections and fixes (question 1) before you make the enhancements (question 2).

I hope I haven’t made this sound easy as it’s not. It takes years of practice to develop your own styles and preferences as well as the skills necessary to be able to make the adjustments. But preserve and improvements will come.

Starting image for the scene above.
Starting image for the scene above.

Friday image No.028

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Lloyds Building, London, Captured on an Olympus OMD EM5 with Olympus 9-18mm lens. Conversion to black and white using Alien Skin Exposure 6.
Lloyds Building, London, Captured on an Olympus OMD EM5 with Olympus 9-18mm lens. Conversion to black and white using Alien Skin Exposure 6.

Some of you might recall that a month or so back I asked people to recommend their favourite image enhancement filters. I love playing around to explore new software and was interested in film emulators. One thing led to another and I ended up trying then buying Alien Skin Exposure 6. I don’t know why I haven’t bothered with this software before but I love it. I will go into the reason why some other time, but I also discovered some great tools (not Alien Skin) for pulling more detail out of my Infrared images which, I will share this in another post.

For now, here is the latest Friday image. I shot this on my trip to London back in April. This is landmark Lloyds Building which I used to pass almost daily when I worked in London. Back then I never paid any attention to it but now I think it’s iconic. In case you’re wondering the conversion to black and white was done in Alien Skin Exposure 6, using one of the Infrared Presets which was then tweaked a little.

Have a great weekend everyone.

Another Drought

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Low water in the reservoir. Sony RX10. See text for details.
Low water in the reservoir. Sony RX10. See text for details.

I had intended to get out yesterday for a long walk (about 20 miles) as I find it helps to clear my mind. In the end the 24 hours of torrential rain and quite severe thunder storms put an end to my hopes.

Today was much better though and despite not having the time for a 20 mile hike I did manage a drive over to the Peak district and a clocked up 12 miles over the hills.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived was how low the water level was in the reservoirs. Above is one of the images I shot with the Sony RX10 and it makes me wonder if we are heading for another drought with all the nice weather we have been having.

As a side note for those of you wondering about my use of the RX10, I have tended not to use it much as I don’t find the images anywhere near as crisp and sharp as my Micro 43 cameras. Despite that the camera has a lovely feel and is a joy to use.

For this particular image I didn’t use the usual Nik sharpening tools but opted for Focal Blade. This is an excellent although quite complex sharpening filter which I have been using on and off for a number of years. I don’t know why but it appears to achieve better results than Nik Sharpener Pro with the Sony images.

The other thing I did was apply Contrast Master which is a contrast adjustment tool from the same people who produce Focal Blade (PhotoWiz). I was reasoning that the images from the Sony seem to lack contrast and pop which is easily corrected in Contrast master. Having just printed this image at A3+, the detail is excellent. It also has a very nice quality to it, very much like film.

I just thought I should try adding some grain and making another print. I’m off to experiment…

More Emotional Impact in Photography

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Does this image trigger any emotional memories for you or does it leave you blank ad wondering what it's about?
Does this image trigger any emotional memories for you or does it leave you blank ad wondering what it’s about?

I have posted a few blogs now talking about creating emotional impact in photographs. The subject is something I find absolutely fascinating but it’s also a double edged sword. You see each person’s background and experiences will dictate to a large extent what triggers an emotion. There are of course some things we are all hard wired to respond to such as a kind smile, but in general it’s our past experience that we link to with emotional triggers. The double edged sword I mention is that whilst these emotional triggers can create very powerful photography they can equally fail to have any impact, leaving the viewer wondering what the image is about.

So what sort of things can trigger an emotion?

There is the subject matter – examples might be a cute image of a baby or it may be an image of a subject that triggers nostalgic feelings. If you are from the UK you might instantly start to date the image above in your mind, possibly linking it with hardship or good times. But if you are from another country you might not understand the image at all; it could be meaningless to you.

Colours can trigger feeling such as blue making us feel cold and reds are warm. But it goes beyond this as certain combinations of colour used when toning an image can trigger feelings. Some pastel shades are particularly helpful in this respect and if you look carefully you will find this used in lots of advertising materials. Ever wondered why cupcake packaging all follows a similar theme.

Some special effects such as a simulated light leak or film scratches or film grain can all trigger emotional memory (even if you never shot film). This is possibly why some of the software packages that simulate film have become so popular in recent years.

Light can trigger emotional feelings as in the following image. This small out of focus image of light reflecting on water triggers a very strong emotion in some people that reminds them of lazy summer days spent relaxing, possibly in their childhood. Personally I love it even though it’s of nothing in particular; it may not do anything for you.

Light reflecting on the sea, but deliberately out of focus
Light reflecting on the sea, but deliberately out of focus

Why do I keep talking about this? Because I think it’s a route to creating more compelling, powerful images. If we can identify different ways of triggering peoples emotional memory we can create more striking, enjoyable and enduring images.