Equipment

Continuing Fuji Thoughts

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Daybreak on the island of Stromboli. Captured with the Olympus EM5. read the text to find out why.
Daybreak on the island of Stromboli. Captured with the Olympus EM5. read the text to find out why.
It’s now been a few weeks since I purchased the Fuji X-T1 and I think it’s fair to say it’s been a bit of a roller coaster in terms of how I have taken to the camera. But despite this it’s also been a huge learning experience for me and one that I am happy (now) that I have had. With this in mind I wanted to share some further thoughts about the camera in a few broad areas.

Handling & Build Quality

The camera is very well thought out and handles perfectly, at least for me. All the dials and buttons are where I would like to find them on the body, allowing me to work quickly. I find the layout and operation largely intuitive but so far I am probably using only a fraction of the features. I tend to shoot in Aperture Priority mode and then use exposure compensation to correct the exposure.

The only niggle that I have is that when I am changing the ISO dial, I sometimes catch the dial below this and set the camera to do multiple exposures or something equally annoying. With the EM5 this wouldn’t have bothered me as I tended to keep the ISO at the base 200. With the X-T1 I am much happier to push the ISO high for reasons I will mention shortly.

The build quality of the camera gives a lot of confidence. I have heard some people complain the body is too light, but I would say it’s about right and is in line with the EM5 that was my main camera.

The camera with lens attached is slightly larger than the EM5 and I probably need to find a new bag. I am struggling to fit a body and two lenses into my LowePro 140 which can take my EM5 and three lenses. I would say thought that size and weight of the Fuji kit is still acceptable as a travel and trekking camera.

Lens Range

The lens range is excellent although not as large as the Micro 43 range. I really like the build quality of the lenses, especially the super wide angle 10-24mm. Although there are a couple of lenses in the Micro 43 range that offer similar focal lengths these won’t accept filters due to the front element protruding. As I rely on lens filters heavily to achieve good exposures, this makes the Fuji system a real joy to use.

In the past I have tried the Micro 43 wide angles and then sold them because of the filter issue. Only the Olympus 9-18 remains in my kit as it will accept filters but it just doesn’t compare to the Fuji 10-24.

So far I have only tried 4 Fuji lenses. These are:

  • 10-24 – excellent
  • 16-55 – excellent
  • 55-200 – excellent
  • 18-135 – poor

It’s possible the 18-135 that I bought (and which has now been returned) was faulty. I experienced some focus issues with this lens as well as it appearing to exaggerate the watercolour effect (see below).

Overall the lenses that I have give me a great deal of confidence in the Fuji system.

I particularly like the Image Stabilisation in the lenses (although I would prefer it in the camera body). Despite this I seem to be able to shoot at some crazy shutter speeds handheld. Couple this with the excellent noise handling at high ISO (see image quality below) and you have a very flexible camera. It’s a real shame that the stabilisation is missing from the 16-55mm lens.

Image Quality

My initial thoughts on the image quality were that it was poor. I couldn’t believe this was a premium camera with no anti-aliasing filter as my result were so soft. With more use I have come to realise a few important points:

  • The water colour effect is a problem with the Adobe software but you can improve the results with careful sharpening, noise reduction and contrast/micro-contrast adjustment. The feedback on the “Fuji RAW File Conversion Challenge” was very insightful.
  • There are a number of factors that seem to exaggerate the water colour effect as mentioned below and you should try to minimise these in your shooting. This includes camera shake and getting the depth of field/focus point wrong.
  • Poor lens performance appears to exaggerate the Adobe water colour effect problem. Remember, lenses may not perform well across their entire focal range and aperture making the problem more difficult to pin down.
  • The water colour effect can be hidden if you are working on a screen with a high pixel density. If you are using a large screen with such as a 24” screen in HD resolution (1980 x 1020) you will likely see it much more than if you were using a 27” 5K Mac screen.
  • There are some great RAW converters out there which do a superb job of decoding the XTrans RAW file. Both Iridient and RAW Therapee produce better results for me than Adobe software, with fine detail being preserved and not becoming blocky. The Adobe software also appears to introduce a false pattern in distant foliage and which these other RAW converters avoid.
  • The images are very clean with noise not being evident. Even when I am shooting at ISO800 I have can happily turn off the noise reduction (Luminance and Colour) in order to better preserve fine details.
  • The RAW files are very flexible and stand up well to heavy processing. You are able to recover significant amounts of shadow and highlight detail without causing noise or other issues to become evident.
  • Colours are excellent and the film simulations supported in Lightroom are superb although sometimes a little contrasty. It’s therefore best to apply these first if you are using Lightroom. I also recently discovered that the Iridient RAW converter has its own version of these simulations which are also good and can be applied to other camera RAW files, not just Fuji.

Switching back to the EM5

Last week I took a bit of a break and went to Italy to hike up a few volcanoes. I decided not to take the Fuji as it was a little heavier and bulkier than the EM5. Overall I had the feeling the EM5 was a little like a toy camera in comparison to the Fuji. This is despite me having loved the EM5 for over three years. Now I am back and looking at the images I have captured, the RAW files don’t feel as flexible when applying image adjustments. I can also see much more fine noise in the images than with the Fuji RAW files, even when the EM5 is at base ISO.

In summary, I’m now sold on the Fuji. The only question now is do I carry out the rest of my plan to buy the Fuji X-T2 when its released? I’m really tempted by the increased pixels but would I be better upsizing the X-T1 images?

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Fuji RAW File Processing for Optimum Quality

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Test Image 2 at 100 percent
Test Image 2 at 100 percent magnification. Superb detail from a Fui RAW file.

In case you haven’t been following the story so far, allow me to recap. I decided it was time to replace my trusty Olympus EM5 and I was seduced by the great Fuji lenses and the promise of excellent image quality. I purchased a Fuji XT-1 and a couple of lenses only to find problems with the RAW files when I came to convert them – the images look as if they had been painted and lacked crisp details. Apparently this is a well-known problem.

I managed to improve the performance of the system by updating firmware. I also returned one of the lenses, replacing it with two others so that I have:

  • 10-24mm
  • 16-55mm
  • 55-200mm

The results from all of the lenses can be excellent which leads me to suspect lens quality is a factor in the problem. I have also chosen my words carefully here as I have seen the painterly effect with the 10-24mm when used at the longer end of the focal range.

Despite all these improvements, the single biggest factor seems to be the RAW converter used and this can have implications for all of us, even if you’re not a Fuji user. Let’s take a look at an example focussing just on the image quality.

What I want to see in my images is plenty of sharp, well defined fine detail as well as getting a feeling of texture in the image. What I don’t want to see is lots of noise.

The first thing I have noticed with the Fuji RAW files is that they are incredibly clean and don’t have much noise even when shooting at ISO 800 or 1600. In some cases, they seem unnaturally clean so I have started to shoot at ISO 400 and 800 regularly as I prefer the appearance.

Something else you may have read is that the JPEG files are great out of camera and are difficult to improve on. My experience of the JPEG’s is that they are indeed very good out of camera. But when processed well with a good RAW converter, you can easily exceed the results. With this in mind, let’s take a look at an example image.

Test Image
Test Image

OK, it’s not pretty but it was shot in good light and features the type of detail that people often complain isn’t rendered well by the Fuji. I have checked the image over and its sharp everywhere.

Here is a section from the JPEG out of the camera image at 100% magnification. You may need to click on this to view at full magnification.

JPEG File From Camera
JPEG File From Camera

What you see here is a screenshot of my screen which us 24” and running at 1920 x1080 pixels. This isn’t a very forgiving resolution but is great for sharpening and checking if things are in focus.

Let’s now compare this with the RAW file processed in Lightroom.

RAW Processed in Lightroom
RAW Processed in Lightroom

If this doesn’t look quite as sharp and detailed as the OOC JPEG image, I agree. This Lightroom rendering was also using all the tips I could find from the resources on the Internet that readers suggested as well as my own trial and error.

An improvement on Lightroom was Capture One which you can see below.

RAW Processed in Capture One
RAW Processed in Capture One

A word of warning with this image, it was produced using version 7 pro. I have tried to upgrade this but it just goes wrong with my Capture One 9 Sony only version. The results from version 9 may be better than the above. The RAW file converted in Capture One shows great colour and lots of contrast. The sharpness and detail are marginally better than Lightroom and probably on a par with the JPEGs. Some of the improvement may be contrast related.

Next we have Iridient which many people seem to swear by.

RAW Processed in Iridient
RAW Processed in Iridient

Apologies for the watermark but this is an evaluation version. The results are very promising and I may well spring for a copy of this. The detail is better than Capture One and the image looks very natural. It’s definitely better than the OOC JPEG.

Now for second place runner up and in fact, with some practice I might put this in the winning position but equally I might also relegate it to last spot.

RAW Processed in Affinity
RAW Processed in Affinity

This is sharper and more detailed than Iridient but much more difficult to control. I have actually over sharpened this image in the RAW converter. Part of the problem is that the image preview appears to have some form of blurring applied each time you make an adjustment but once you apply the conversion the blurring effect is removed. This may make it very difficult to handle but the results can be very good.

Now for the top spot in RAW converters for extracting fine detail and texture and one I recommend for all Fuji users and possibly other camera users as well.

RAW Processed in RAW Therapee
RAW Processed in RAW Therapee

This is from RAW Therapee. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s a free RAW converter and it really does blow away the competition with the Fuji RAW files. The OOC JPEG files don’t even come close to the detail that can be rendered by this application.

I repeated this testing with a number of files and the results are consistently good. Here is a second test image from the Fuji.

Test Image 2
Test Image 2

And a section of this at 100% magnification.

Test Image 2 at 100 percent
Test Image 2 at 100 percent

And if you don’t use Fuji, please still try this out as I had great results with the Olympus EM5. I suddenly realised how poor Lightroom was in comparison.

Now for the slight downside, the interface for RAW Therapee is pretty poor and the software crashes from time to time. There are that many options available that you probably need a PhD to get the optimum results. Despite this, it’s well worth the effort, especially if you have been plagued by the dreaded painter effect.

If you are wondering what happened to the fuji RAW converter from SilkyPix, I started to see quite a lot of artefacts in the tree detail so ruled this out. Equally, I didn’t like the lens distortion from Photo Ninja although the detail and sharpness was good. I have been a user of both of these software packages in the past and they may be worth taking a look at.

Finally, I will point out that the painter effect isn’t just as a result of the RAW converter. I’m finding it from time to time in all the RAW converters and in some of the JPEGs. I will post more about what I think is causing it once I have managed a little more research. But for now, RAW Therapee is producing great results.

I hope you found this useful. I’m off for a lie down.

Fuji XT1 RAW Processing Part 2

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Test shot from the fields near my house. Fuji XT1, ISO200, f/6.4 1/220", 10-24 lens.
Test shot from the fields near my house. Fuji XT1, ISO200, f/6.4 1/220″, 10-24 lens.

If you have been following this blog of late you will have no doubt read about my possible switch to the Fuji XT1 and the problems I have encountered. The problems became evident after I shot my first few images and noticed the camera wouldn’t resolve grass very well at all, rendering areas which should contain fine detail as a green mush.

Many of you made some valuable suggestions for which I am very grateful. Apparently this is quite a common problem and relates to the RAW converter not being able to translate the data from the XTrans sensor very well. Some of you agreed there is a problem whilst others haven’t noticed an issue. I have three points to make on this before we start to look at the RAW converters.

  1. There appears to be variation between cameras judging from some of the RAW files people have shared.
  2. There is variation between lenses used. I have two lenses, an 18-135 and a 10-24. At the common end of the focal lengths (18-24mm) the 10-24 lens performs much better than the 18-135. I have also noticed that the 18-135 lens is softer and less able to resolve detail across the focal range. That’s no great surprise but it seems to exaggerate the issue.
  3. If you’re a Mac user, you might be interested to know that you probably don’t notice the issue. But before you get excited, I believe the issue is being masked to some extent by the brilliant retina display. I suspect the pixel density is hiding the effect as I can process an image on the Mac and it looks great at 100% but move the resulting file to my Windows PC and it’s not good.

With these points in mind, let’s take a look at how we will evaluate the available RAW converters.

RAW converters are really quite personal tools. What one photographer likes will drive another crazy. Some will see fault where others will see perfection. What some may see as essential others will see as a waste of time. So here are my categories for evaluation and they are in the order of importance I place on the feature:

  1. Ability to render fine detail in the converted image.
  2. Natural colour rendition and the ability to control colours.
  3. Control over sharpening and noise reduction.
  4. Support for lens profiles and automatic lens correction.
  5. Support for colour profiles.

Some functions such as exposure, saturation, contrast, shadow and highlight controls are a given. If the converter doesn’t provide these then it shouldn’t be on the market to my mind.

In the next blog post I will look at how some of the available converters fair in my assessment.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention, the 18-135 lens is going back. I should have known there was a problem with it when some of the early test shots produced images such as the one below. Just because the issue seemed to right itself doesn’t mean it’s entirely fixed.

Can you spot the point of focus.
Can you spot the point of focus.

Fuji XT1 RAW Processing Part 1

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Depth and colour from the Fuji XT1 (with the right processing)
Depth and colour from the Fuji XT1 (with the right processing)

My previous post detailing problems I have seen when trying to process RAW files from my XT1 has caused quite a bit of feedback. As many of you have pointed out, this is a well-known and documented problem with the Adobe RAW converters. Apparently it’s been largely fixed except that in my opinion it hasn’t.

What I’m going to share with you over a few blog postings are some findings. It appears quite a few people who read this blog are Fuji users so I hope some of you find this useful. To remind you of the effect, take a look at this image and image section.

This image is a RAW file and has been sharpened. The red box on the left shows the area of the crop with the right side of the image showing this area zoomed to 100% magnification. The image itself is sharp but the detail has been lost and now appears to be more like a painting than a photograph.

I’m pleased to say that I can now achieve much better results through the steps I have taken.

Close of Pine trees showing the watercolour effect
Close of Pine trees showing the watercolour effect

There are only two things that I have done that made a difference:

  1. Upgraded the firmware of the camera and lenses
  2. Switched RAW Converter

Starting with the firmware (a tip from Dave Shandley – thanks Dave), this was 4.10 for the camera body and has now been upgraded to 4.31. One of the lenses had version 1.10 firmware (the latest) but the other had 1.01 and so was also updated. This seemed to improve the results, not just of the RAW files but also the JPEG images. This had me producing acceptable images, even in Lightroom although I can still detect the water colour effect in the fine details.

The second improvement was to the RAW converter. I will be writing about these findings in a little more detail in a separate blog post as I think everyone could benefit. To give you a flavour, here is a test file I produced together with some close-ups.

Test file showing large areas of fine detail. The Grass would have been a problem.
Test file showing large areas of fine detail. The Grass would have been a problem.

File from Lightroom at 100%. This was after the firmware update.

Section of the image from Lightroom at 100%
Section of the image from Lightroom at 100%

File from Affinity Photo at 100%

Section from Affinity Photo at 100%
Section from Affinity Photo at 100%

File from Iridient at 100%

Section from Iridient at 100%
Section from Iridient at 100%

In my testing, Lightroom really struggles when converting Grass but it also struggles to pull decent levels of detail from the Fuji RAW files. Every RAW converter I tried performed better. I also ran some of the Olympus and Sony files through the other converters and found they were either on a par with Lightroom or better.

In testing the Fuji with Lightroom, I came to realise a few other things that people might find helpful:

Lightroom noise reduction, particularly colour noise reduction hurts the quality of the Fuji files and seemed to add to the effect.

Hard sharpening of the Fuji files in Lightroom seemed to make the watercolour effect more obvious rather than pull detail. I would suggest using the detail slider at the maximum value, the Amount slider below 25 and Radius slider below 25. I would also use the masking slider between 10 and 30. Once you have the file out of Lightroom sharpen it with something else such as Nik Sharpener Pro or Focal Blade.

Shooting at a higher ISO improves the look of the image. I found an ISO setting of 800 seemed to give the image a little more definition. I also found that adding a little grain or noise to the image could help reduce the effect.

I have two lenses for the Fuji, a 10-24 and 18-135. I knew the 18-135 was a compromise but I wanted it for single lens use when out walking. Lightroom definitely made a better job of sharpening and detail extraction from the 10-24 lens, almost to the point where I would question the 18-135. Running the same files through the Iridient RAW converter was amazing. Details that were blurred and out of focus in Lightroom snapped into sharp focus.

I don’t want to say too much more in this blog other than I am very impressed with the Fuji XT1. It’s also a great camera to use.

Revenge of the EM5

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The Lake District. Olympus EM5 with 12-40 lens, 0.6 ND Grad filter.
The Lake District. Olympus EM5 with 12-40 lens, 0.6 ND Grad filter.

Over the last few months I have been noticing an increase in the image noise from my EM5. Some areas which you would expect to be free from noise, such as clouds and blue sky, are starting to display faint traces of noise. These then become quite exaggerated when processed hard with Nik filters. In addition, I was beginning to feel that the greens and blues in the EM5 images just weren’t quite right, but it was difficult to put my finger on the problem.

It’s hard to say when this started but it may be that I was becoming increasingly fussy about quality as the Sony A7r was generally producing much cleaner images. A further factor may be that where I had begun to process old RAW files from the Canon 300D I was also seeing a very clean image, surprisingly so. All these factors started to suggest to me that it might be time to upgrade the EM5 or perhaps even switch to another camera manufacturer.

My intention had been to hold out and get the new EM1 when Olympus gets around to launching but I don’t know what the timeline is. In any case, I didn’t feel that happy with the Olympus colour handling and it certainly wasn’t as good as the Sony. These perceived problems together with my impatience lead to me trying a Fuji X-T1. The Fuji line up would also give me a great ultra-wide angle lens in the 10-24mm that would also accept filters. This was a failing of the Micro 43 ultra wides with only the Olympus 9-18mm taking filters but which suffers from edge distortion at 9mm (at least that’s what I was telling myself).

Hopefully this gives you an idea why last week I purchased a used Fuji X-T1 together with 2 lenses. Now the EM5 has taken revenge by making me regret this decision.

At the weekend I collected the new camera from the post office and headed off to the Peak District to try it out (between the heavy showers). Later with the images on my computer, what I saw shocked me. I called my wife in to get her opinion of the images and the first words out of her mouth was that the Fuji image “looked like a watercolour painting”, and that’s without zooming in on the detail. You can see this image below.

Fuji Sample
Fuji Sample

When you zoom in to the detail you don’t see much at all other than blur. Take a look at this 100% crop from the point of focus. You may need to click the image below to appreciate it fully.

Section of Fuji at 100%
Section of Fuji at 100% – click the image to enlarge

Now let’s compare this with an image shot on the EM5 from a couple of weeks earlier.

Olympus EM5 sample
Olympus EM5 sample

And again, here is a 100% crop from the point of focus.

EM5 section at 100% - click to enlarge image
EM5 section at 100% – click to enlarge image

Both images have been sharpened only slightly in Lightroom as part of the conversion from RAW. I found I couldn’t sharpen the Fuji very much without causing artefacts. Both images have noise reduction turned off. Both sections are from the point of focus.

I can also tell you that this effect has occurred on all the Fuji images using both lenses and across different apertures. Fine details just vanish and become smudged.

I find this unusual as a friend who has the same Fuji shared a RAW file with me before I bought the camera so I could check the image quality and it was much better than I seem to be able to achieve. Another friend has also just shared a link with me which confirms the “watercolour” effect is a known problem with the Fuji XTrans sensor when using Adobe RAW converters.

I will need to investigate this further but if I can’t find an easy solution the camera will need to go back. This would be a shame as it’s a really great camera to use. Perhaps I should have waited for the EM1 MKII after all.

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Appealing Nuclear Power

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Seascale Nuclear Power Station. Olympus EM5, Panasonic 45-150. Three image stitch with post processing in Nik Silver Efex.
Seascale Nuclear Power Station. Olympus EM5, Panasonic 45-150. Three image stitch with post processing in Nik Silver Efex. Click to see a larger version of the image.

Firstly, my apologies for the blog and video silence over the past week. I decided to take a break with my wife to do some walking in the Lake District and then to visit our Grandson over in France. In fact, I haven’t been back in the UK for more than a few hours and wanted to share this image.

I shot this from the top of a hill in the Lakes called Black Coombe. The Power Station in the centre of the shot is at Seascale and beyond this you can just make out the hills in Dumfries (somewhere that I have wanted to visit for a while but never found a good excuse).

The image was taken handheld with the EM5 and Panasonic 45-150 lens at 150mm. It’s not bad and should print OK but it is suffering from a lot of atmospheric distortion. The best cure for that of course is convert the image to black and white then throw in a lot of grain. It hides the fine detail but helps make the image appear sharper and less distorted.

Aperture & Sharpness

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Death Valley. Even for extreme cases such as this three image stitch, f/9.0 was all that was required for full depth of field.
Death Valley. Even for extreme cases such as this three image stitch, f/9.0 was all that was required for full depth of field using th e Panasonic GX1.

At one time I didn’t understand the relationship between aperture & image sharpness. I read many magazine articles and books where Landscape Photographers would commonly say they stopped the lens down to the smallest aperture to ensure the image was sharp from front to back. What I hadn’t realised is that they weren’t discussing image sharpness but depth of field. I also hadn’t realised that many of these photographers were using medium format cameras where depth of field could be a real issue. Fortunately, I now understand this relationship but there continues to be misinformation published on the subject.

Here then are the key points you need to be aware of in relation to depth of field:

  • Depth of field is how much of your image appears to be in focus from the nearest point to the most distant.
  • Depth of field is determined by the aperture you use. If all other variables remain the same, as you make the aperture smaller (larger f/ stop number), you will increase the depth of field.
  • Other factors affecting the depth of field include:
    • Where you place the point of focus – the nearer the camera the shallower the depth of field. It’s also worth remembering that the depth of field will extend twice as far beyond the point of focus as in front of it.
    • The size of the film or the image sensor – the smaller this is, the greater the depth of field at the same aperture.
    • The focal length of the lens can also make the depth of field appear greater – a wide angle lens makes the depth of field appear greater than a long telephoto lens.

When I first started in photography, what I failed to grasp is that the factors determining how sharp an image is are different to depth of field. Let’s take an example where you shoot three images using a typical lens; the first image with the aperture as wide as it will go, the second with the aperture as small as possible and the third with the aperture between the two extremes. If you then review the images looking at the point of focus, you would find that the third image with the aperture at mid-value is the sharpest image. This is because lenses are design to perform at their best when aperture is closed down by a couple of stops. Once you go to the smallest aperture though, the performance and sharpness is compromised by something called diffraction, which makes the image appear soft.

One benefit of using a Micro 43 camera for Landscape work is that you can typically achieve front to back sharpness (depth of field) without needing to stop the lens down to the smallest apertures. In my own work I tend to shoot Landscapes with the lens set to 12mm (24mm equivalent on a full frame camera). The aperture I tend to use is f/7.1 or sometimes f/8.0. Providing you place the point of focus correctly you will have all the depth of field you typically need and the lens will be near to its optimum performance.

Where I use the Sony RX10 which has a smaller 1-inch sensor, I tend to shoot with an aperture of around f/5.6 for full depth of field at 24mm. And when I was shooting with the LX5 compact camera I was using f/3.5 to f/5.0 for full depth of field at 24mm.

I hope this helps all you small sensor Landscaper photographers.