Month: July 2013

Best Compact Camera for Travel

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Handheld image in a very dark church using the low light feature of the RX100. Even when you lighten the shadows they are free from noise.
Handheld image in a very dark church using the low light feature of the RX100. Even when you lighten the shadows they are free from noise. Click the image to see a larger version.

In my previous blog post I mentioned how I now view the Olympus OMD as my perfect Travel Camera. And whilst this camera is a great package and quite small, it’s still a lot larger and heavier than a compact camera? On my recent trip to France however there were times when I wanted the size and weight of a compact. What I needed was a small camera that would fit easily into my pocket and yet produce good sized image files, with great quality.

Here is why I now think the Sony RX100 meets my requirements better than any other compact camera that I know of:

  • Camera Size & Weight – This camera is small and fits neatly in the hand. Initially I had trouble with it being a little too small and slim but since I purchased the Sony leather half case I have found it very easy to grip. Despite weighing very little you can feel the quality of the build due to the metal construction. It easily fits into a pocket and can be carried (even around my neck) without causing any problems. The small size also makes it very discrete and people tend to ignore you taking pictures where they are very aware and avoid people carrying SLR sized cameras.
  • Image Quality & Resolution – If you are not already aware, this is a 20Mpixel camera with a much larger sensor (1 inch) than a traditional compact, even those that have oversized sensors. The sensor size is just a little smaller than the Micro 43 cameras which helps ensure low noise and good image quality for such a high resolution. The camera has a good sharp lens that will resolve a remarkable amount of detail and will produce good results even when used wide open at f/1.8. The zoom range of 28-110mm could do with being a little more at either end (24-140mm would be perfect) but I am probably splitting hairs here. The camera shoots RAW images so you have lots of flexibility in extracting maximum quality from your images. This all adds up to a camera that produces very clean images at the base ISO but which produces very usable images up at ISO1600 (I am very picky about noise). I have also been submitting images from this camera to photo libraries and have not had any problems with them being accepted.
  • Features – Normally I am not one for being impressed by lots of technical features; I am much more interested in image quality, resolving capability and camera size/weight. With this camera I have to admit that there are a few features I am finding very useful and considering important. These are HDR, Sweep Panoramic and Handheld Low Light shooting.
    • With the HDR feature you simply select the dynamic range you want to cover (or place it in auto). The camera then shoots the required number of frames in quick succession when you release the shutter and merges them into a JPG. The JPG’s look very natural and are of a high quality. I feel the results are quite impressive with the only downside being that the image isn’t recorded as a RAW file. This can however work to your favour as you can set up the camera to shoot as normal using RAW or, when you switch the quality to JPG, start shooting HDR images automatically.
    • Sweep Panoramic isn’t yet perfect but it appears to be an improvement over the Sony NEX5 I used to own. Switch the dial to the panoramic mode and start shooting whilst moving the camera in the indicated direction. The image is then stitched in camera and the result is quite a large, detailed image. If you want straight lines then this feature won’t work for you but the results are very interesting, effective and fun.
  • Low Light Hand Held is something I haven’t used before but I now think is wonderful. When you release the shutter the camera shoots a sequence of images at a high ISO and with the aperture quite wide. This means you will achieve a fast shutter speed but each image will contain a lot of noise. The camera then blends together the various images in order to produce a very clean and sharp image. The results have amazed me. I was able to shoot hand held at night and indoors and produce images that are of sufficient quality to publish (in print). It even handles well situations where people are moving, producing a nice soft blur rather than ghosting. I don’t know how Sony has managed this but it’s very impressive.
100% magnification from the above image. It doesn't look as clean as the original as I added some soft grain in the black and white conversion.
100% magnification from the above image. It doesn’t look as clean as the original as I added some soft grain in the black and white conversion. You can still see th image is sharp and crisp despite this.

So, now you know why the RX100 is now my top tip for a compact travel camera. I definitely won’t travel without this camera (or possibly the RX100 MkII if I decide to upgrade)

Revising my Opinion

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Captured on an Olympus OMD with 14-45mm Panasonic lens. Converted to Black and White using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2
Captured on an Olympus OMD with 14-45mm Panasonic lens. Converted to Black and White using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2

It wasn’t that long ago (March) when I returned from a trip to the US having visited Death Valley and San Francisco. At the time I was raving about what a great travel camera the Panasonic GX1 makes and that in my opinion it’s probably the best travel camera. Well, I have just spent the last week in France (visiting my daughter who lives there) and I’m going to revise my opinion.

The GX1 is still a great travel camera but it has now been knocked off the top spot. The Olympus OMD EM5 is now the best travel camera in my opinion. It is just as discrete as the GX1 but the image quality it definitely superior, as is the low light performance and it has some other great features. If I had this camera and a 14-45mm lens, I would travel happily in the knowledge that I would be able to capture some great images. In fact, over the past week I didn’t use my 9-18 lens at all and only used the 45-200 lens on a couple of occasions.

During my trip I was able to shoot very freely in locations where larger cameras were being frowned upon because people found them obtrusive; the inside of churches and cathedrals spring to mind immediately as one example. The low light performance of the camera also allowed it to cope well with the low light levels and the image stabilisation in the camera is superb. Outdoors the camera was equally able to handle the bright conditions and produce amazing image quality. All this is on top of the great depth of field you can achieve with Micro 43 cameras and a body that isn’t much larger than the GX1 but is built like a tank.

I now see the OMD EM5 as my perfect travel camera and looking on Amazon the prices seem to be coming down. Could this be as the result of a new Olympus on the horizon?

The shot above was captured during a visit to a nearby coastal town. The images from the OMD RAW files seem to convert very nicely to black and white and give a feel of very fine grained film. When viewed up close the image quality reminds me a little of Kodak TMax100 film which was one of my favourites.

When I did this particular conversion using Nik Silver Efex Pro I thought the image reminded me of an old style (film) black and white image so I enhanced this a little further by using “clumsy” dodging and burning. Notice there is a slight halo around the lighthouse to help give this feel. This is similar to the dodging and burning that would have been in the done in the darkroom as it would have been difficult to align the effect with the lighthouse. I could easily have achieved a perfect dodge/burn effect on the lighthouse in Photoshop but I thought this halo effect help suggest an image from a time that has now passed.

If you are interested in the full conversion from colour and how it was achieved I will be putting together a fact sheet over the next week or two and make this available for free download.

Hope you like it.

Some Points I Learned or Relearned

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The mast set against a stunning sky.
The mast set against a stunning sky

Today I wanted to share another of my images from my moorland walk at the weekend. This particular image is of the transmitter mast located on top of the moors and is backed by a superb sky. I captured the image on my Olympus OMD EM-5 using an Olympus 9-18mm lens at 18mm. I didn’t use any filters (except for a clear glass lens protector) and the image was converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. In creating this image I learned (or relearned things I had forgotten), a few points that may be interesting to you:

  1. The Olympus OMD has either has no Anti Alias filter or a very weak one (I suspect it’s the latter). As a result the images are incredibly sharp in comparison with my Panasonic GX1.
  2. The Olympus 9-18mm lens is also incredibly sharp, or at least my particular lens is. It appears to be sharper and better at resolving detail than my Panasonic 14-45mm when also used at 18mm.
  3. The OMD isn’t noise free. I have seen lots of claims that it is but don’t believe them. Even at ISO200 (its base ISO) there is noise but it appears to be mainly luminance noise and very high frequency. This means the noise is hard to distinguish and it looks pretty much like extremely fine film grain.
  4. You don’t actually notice the noise in the images until you use something like Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 and its structure slider. When pushed hard this seems to highlight the noise. To be fair to the Olympus it is much better than any of the other cameras I have used, even the 5D. The 5D suffered (perhaps suffered is too strong a term) from Low Frequency noise that could be accentuated by darkening the blue channel during B&W conversion. I prefer the Olympus.
  5. If you are converting your image to B&W pass it through noise reduction software first, even if your think there isn’t noise present. You can achieve great quality with no noticeable noise by doing this. The resulting image will then withstand any enlargement much better.
  6. Nik Sharpener Pro is a super sharpening solution (my favourite had always been Focal Blade). Using the control point tool I was able to target the sharpening on the mast but leave the sky untouched. Trying to do this conventionally using layers and masks would have been very time consuming.
  7. Using Nik Sharpener Pro I was able to target different areas of the sky to avoid sharpening it. I could then also adjust the Local Contrast and Structure sliders to produce a more natural look to the sky.
  8. When I printed this image on an Epson 3880 I set the print driver to use Epson ABW mode. Within this I was able to set the level of “darkness” for the final print. This offers the levels “Dark, Darker and darkest”. In the past I have followed the advice to set the driver to “Darker” but this time I set it to “Dark” and the results are better. If you are using an Epson printer with ABW mode it may be worth experimenting with this. If you use another printer make try experimenting with the driver.

Hope you like the image.

Another Bag Update

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The cotton grass on the moors this year is amazing. I have never seen so much. From a distance it looks like patches of snow.
The cotton grass on the moors this year is amazing. I have never seen so much. From a distance it looks like patches of snow.

The weather here in the UK is absolutely glorious at the moment. This is especially unusual in the area where I live (Saddleworth) which is well known for being wet (and unfortunately for the Moors Murders back in the 1960’s). Yesterday I took full advantage of the weather and went for a 12 mile walk over the moors. I did of course take my camera and used my belt pack discussed here recently to carry the equipment.

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

The weather for photography was poor as it was simply too bright and the light too harsh even at 9:30 in the morning. The only camera that was likely to work reasonably well for me was my Infrared GX1 which loves these conditions. My decision was therefore to take the GX1 and Olympus OM-D E-M5 together with 3 lenses (Panasonic 14-45mm, Olympus 9-18mm and a 7.5mm Fisheye). As I wanted to do a few comparison shots for depth of field against the MD I also popped the Sony RX100 in there together with its leather carrying case. Finally a couple of spare batteries, a HiTech ND graduated filter, filter holder and lens adapter ring were added.

Unfortunately not everything listed here fit into the belt pack. In the end I had the 14-45mm lens attached the OMD body in the main compartment of the bag. The 9-18mm lens and the Fisheye lens were both packed in Neoprene lens pouches and placed in the main compartment alongside the OMD. The GX1 body was placed in a front pocket where it fitted easily without a lens attached. The filters, accessories and batteries all went into two internal pockets. Only the RX100 had to be carried separately but that’s not a big issue.

Overall the bag was perfect and far, far better than I had expected and seemed to carry a huge amount of equipment. The entire kit was very light and easy to carry. When walking any distance I had the belt pack behind me where I didn’t notice it. When I stopped to take some pictures I simply spun the belt pack around (without needing to remove it) and everything became easily accessible. Whilst I didn’t take a backpack on this occasion the bag when worn on the front was not uncomfortable and would still easily allow the use of a backpack.

Was it perfect? Very nearly but I do reserve the right to change my mind after further use. My only minor problem was with the lens neoprene lens puches. I have a habit of carrying my lens hoods attached in a reverse position on the lens. When the 14-45 lens had the hood lens attached it wouldn’t fit properly into the lens pouch I had taken. This isn’t a huge problem as I do have larger pouches I could use but I wanted to avoid large pouches. I may therefore not take the lens hoods in the future.

I think this is quite a good carrying solution for a small micro 43 kit and doesn’t look like a camera bag.

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.