Opportunity or Rip Off

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I have now been a Panasonic LX5 user for around 18 months and have been incredibly impressed by this little camera. I love its small size, its RAW files, its fast super sharp lens and its great little sensor. And whilst it’s only a 10Mpixel sensor I can easily create A3+ prints that look stunning. I was therefore very excited the other day when I read on the Online Photographer Blog that the LX7 is being released.

At the mere thought of the LX7 my mind went crazy with all the improvements that might be incorporated. Whilst the sensor and lens combination are great at A3+ I would ideally have liked a 14Mpixel sensor. Perhaps also a tilting LCD display and a built in EVF. Perhaps the lens will have its zoom range increased to 24-120 like the legendary Sony R1.

 I was however a little taken aback when I read the spec to find out it was quite like the LX5. Admittedly the lens is even faster and supposedly sharper, whilst the sensor is better at producing clean, noise free images. This wasn’t however the huge step change I had hoped for and I now wonder if some of the other manufacturers e.g. Sony with their RX100 20MP wonder are pulling ahead.

Having spent some time reading the specifications I doubt I am going to spend the £450 necessary to upgrade my LX5 which on paper looks to have a similar spec. Perhaps when I come to use one I will appreciate the great lens and sensor sufficiently to want one – but I can’t help thinking I might be getting ripped off.

New Tools for Lightroom

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As I have said before in my blogs, I am a huge fan of Lightroom because of the speed and ease with which it allows you to edit your images, converting them from RAW files. I find that in the majority of cases I can get at least 80% of the way to my final image by just using the tools Lightroom provides. It’s then a case of exporting these images to Photoshop for some final “pixel polishing”.

Well this all changed at weekend when I decided to invest in some of the Nik software packages. To be honest, it was the free copy of Viveza 2.0 that came with my recently purchased ColorMunki that convinced me to try Nik’s Black and White conversion software. When I downloaded this for Photoshop (and by the way I was very impressed by the package) I noticed they had a Lightroom version and that I could buy all their packages for use in Lightroom at about half the price of Photoshop.

Over the weekend I took the plunge and purchased the Lightroom collection of Nik plug-ins. As soon as I started to use these I found that I was able to produce higher quality, finished images without the need to step outside Lightroom. This approach is a huge time saver for me and really strips my processing workflow back to the essentials.

That’s not however the end of the story because being able to use these plug-ins within Lightroom got me thinking what other plug-ins do I use that might work with Lightroom. Following up on this I was able to install and use a version of Photomatix HDR software in Lightroom. I then found I could download a free piece of software from Topaz Labs that made their plug-ins available in Lightroom.

Now one limitation of Lightroom is that it doesn’t have the capability to support Layers and Masking, something I use extensively in Photoshop. I remembered something about On One Software developing a package called Perfect Layers that provided this capability so thought I would investigate. That’s when I found I could download Perfect Layers 2 for free from the On One website, I assume because they will be releasing Perfect Layers 3 shortly.

So if you use Lightroom I would suggest a little investigation into third party plug-ins/editors could prove to be very valuable.

Color Checker Passport

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A little while back I mentioned that I was unhappy with some of the colours being produced by my GX1 and also LX5. The greens seemed a little too green and the image overall had a slightly blue cast to it. This inspired me to purchase a Color Checker Passport from X-rite as it could be used to produce a custom calibration for your camera which can then be used in the develop module of Lightroom. Well I have now purchased and used the passport and can report on its performance.

My first reaction when opening the packaging is that you don’t get a lot for your money. The passport itself is small and made from plastic. There is a CD containing the software which you load to your computer but there were no instructions other than a link to the X-rite site. In the end I watched a very good video of how to use the passport and software to generate a profile and all was clear.

The passport is basically a colour checking chart and grey card contained in a plastic cover. It’s small, light and fits neatly in your pocket. The first thing I used was the grey card in order to create a custom white balance for my GX1 (I won’t describe how to do this here as each camera is different). This was very simple and once the white balance setting was registered made an instant improvement to the images, removing the blue colour cast preventing the greens from looking quite so sickly.

Next I took two reference pictures of the colour chart in the passport. One was in direct sunlight and the other in shade, both taken around midday under a sunny sky. Back at home I converted the RAW files for the two images into DNG format using Lightroom and then loaded these to the passport software. A click of a button and 20 seconds later and my profile was ready.

Restarting Lightroom and switching to the Develop module I could see my new conversion profile which when selected had an immediate impact on the image. I noticed that the image contrast improved and some colours (red in particular) became much more vibrant and realistic. Colours also looked completely natural.

I wondered if this result had been a fluke so repeated the process with my LX5. The results were even better and the images now look very lifelike. The image here is of the edelweiss flower (I hope I spelled that correctly) which is actually quite rare and grows at altitude in the Alps. I found this particular flower at around 2,600m under a bright blue sky and took the picture on my LX5. The colours having used the “passport color checker” appear completely natural and subtle.

This tool is quickly becoming an indispensible accessory in my camera bag. I just need to remember to use it.

New Lightweight Tool

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Lightweight Photography is not just about using lightweight cameras, sometimes it’s about using streamlined processes to make life easier or about tools that can fulfil more than one function and so lighten your load. I have just made one such purchase and I want to share my experience with you. The tool in question is the “ColorMunki Photo” which I’m sure many of you will know about and perhaps a few of you own this.

The ColorMunki provides a simple and fast way to profile your monitor so you can be sure the colours in your images are being accurately represented on the screen. It also allows you to profile your printer (the main reason for my purchase) as well as profiling cameras and LCD projectors. The later will come in useful where I give presentations to camera clubs and often run into issues with my images projecting too dark.

My previous approach to colour management was to use the” i-One” monitor profiler from X-Rite (who also make the ColorMunki). In comparison to the ColorMunki the “i-One” takes much longer to complete the profile and isn’t as user friendly. For printer profiles I tended to use either custom made profiles purchasing from a remote profiling service or sometimes made my own using VueScan and a desktop scanner. The first option is time consuming as you need to rely on the postal service whilst the second option wasn’t really reliable. Since I switched to using a Canon Pixma 9500MkII I have struggled to generate good profiles and if I’m truthful, gave up.

My experience of the ColorMunki is that it performs the two functions above (monitor and printer profiling) brilliantly. It’s very fast, easy to use and the results are fantastic. My printer seems to be using less ink but more importantly the results seem to be much more vivid. Prints I had previously thought were good seem to have just come to life with the new printer profiles I have generated. The profiles also seem much better than the generic profiles you can usually download from paper manufacturer sites.  To say I am delighted is an understatement and I wanted to share this positive experience with everyone.

Two Heads are Better than One

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I had an interesting weekend in terms of photography. I didn’t take a single image but I did improve my work and made some substantial breakthroughs. What gave raise to this? Well one of my friends came over and we spent time reviewing our work and suggesting improvements.  This was great in terms of development but it also allowed me to discuss some frustrating aspects of micro 4/3 photography with a second person. The most frustrating of these is the colour produced by my Panasonic cameras when converting RAW files.

You see I have long thought that the RAW files from my LX5, GF1 and now GX1 produce colours that don’t seem entirely natural. Greens, reds and blues all seem too strong and saturated. It is however difficult to judge on your own so yesterday was a great opportunity to discuss this with a very knowledgeable photographer whose views I trust. The result was that we agreed the colours were off. Whilst the image at the top is a black and white conversion I am showing the original colour image here together with a colour adjusted version we created.

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The original colour image with the defauilt RAW settings is shown above

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Here is the corrected image. Notice the orange of the cylinder on the right. In the uncorrected image this is a false orange and is also over saturated. Also notice the red plastic can on the left. In the original this looks raspberry and is too saturated.

To create the colour adjusted image we needed to:

  • Increase the colour temperature by 300K
  • Shift the Orange Hue and reduce its saturation
  • Reduce the saturation of blue in the scene

These are subtle adjustments but they are enough for your brain to pick up that something isn’t quite right.

The reason for these odd colours is not however down to Panasonic but the Adobe software I am using to convert the RAW files. It’s the calibration Adobe bundles with their colour engine that is causing the issue. I have therefore taken the step of purchasing a colour passport checker to use with my Panasonic cameras in future. I hope this will allow me to correct the problem and will report again in the future.

Holding Steady

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I have a number of lenses that I use with my Panasonic GX1:

  • Olympus 9-18mm
  • Panasonic 14-45mm
  • Panasonic 45-200mm
  • Panasonic 20mm
  • Olympus 45mm (a recent addition and a stunning lens)

When you look at scientific test results to understand which is the sharpest lens, the 20mm stands out as being in a class of its own. I should say that the 45mm is probably in a similar class but I haven’t seen any data on this.

The question I have then is why the images shot with the 20mm lens don’t appear quite as sharp as the 18-45mm lens which was actually a kit lens from my GF1.

A little bit of experimentation allowed me to identify that I wasn’t quite holding the camera steady enough when shooting with the 20mm lens. The lens is incredibly sharp and able to resolve a huge amount of detail. Unfortunately it also reveals the slightest movement leading to the image appearing not quite as sharp as I expected. There isn’t however sufficient movement to detect this as blur.

There is an old rule of thumb in Photography to say the slowest shutter speed you should use is the inverse of a lenses focal length. If the lens is a 20mm (effectively a 40mm) then 1/40 second is the slowest shutter speed that should be used hand held. What I was finding with this lens is that I really needed to use a shutter speed twice as fast as this (1/80 second) to be sure of having a steady, really sharp image.

I suspect the reason for my 18-45 appearing sharper is that it has an Image Stabiliser (unlike the Olympus cameras that have these built into the camera). If I switched this off it reveals a similar performance problem.

This was helpful but not quite the full story. I also found out that I was stopping the lens down a little too far. The 20mm lens appears to hit its sharpest level as around f/4.0. When I looked at some of the landscape scenes I was shooting I realised that f/4.0 was more than sufficient given I was typically focussing on a point that the camera often considered to be infinity. A greater depth of field from a smaller aperture would not therefore give me any sharper results. An f/4.0 aperture would however give me a faster shutter speed and keep me in the area where the sharpest results could be achieved.

It’s interesting how we get “locked in” to using our equipment in certain ways that might not give the best performance.

My Top 5 Reasons to go Micro 4/3

Panasonic GX1 14-45mm
Copyright 2012 Robin Whalley

I have done a number of camera club presentations recently and it’s very clear there are a lot of people who really get the concept of Lightweight Photography. I have to say that it’s usually the women who appreciate this most and appear much more accepting of this new approach. Many of the men seem to be stuck in the paradigm of using an SLR for ultimate quality (sorry chaps, but you need to wake up and smell the coffee).

Much of the resistance to the idea of using lightweight equipment is that the quality isn’t there but this is a myth. I easily dispel this by showing some of the prints I have made from Micro 4/3 cameras and asking people to comment. Somehow people seem to equate heavier SLR cameras with quality and distrust anything that is lightweight, even when the evidence is in front of their eyes.

I thought therefore that I would share my top 5 reasons for using Micro 4/3 cameras:

  1. Size – these cameras are much smaller than SLR’s and consequently much more portable. It’s easy to hold and shoot with such a camera only inches from the ground or high above your head. It’s easier to experiment and be creative with these in comparison to using an SLR. Interestingly small also equates to less of a threat in the minds of the public. People tend to ignore me when shooting with a small camera but point an SLR in their direction and they react – something you don’t want.
  2. Weight – these cameras are much easier to carry around so you are more likely to take them places and more importantly use them. It also makes them much less tiring to use which should be reflected in better and more enjoyable photography.
  3. Depth of field – because the sensor size is half that of a full frame camera, the depth of field that can be achieved is greater. Try it out and you will be amazed by how wide the aperture can be and still allow you to achieve a full depth of field in your image. I now regularly shoot at between f/5.6 and f/7.1 and seldom need to stop down beyond f/11.
  4. Quality of image – this is related to the previous point. Not needing to stop the aperture right down helps me avoid diffraction which can lead to soft images. Having a wide aperture keeps lots of light entering the lens, the shutter speed fast and the aperture within the area of best performance. Also it allows me to shoot handheld and still keep the ISO low. All these points add up to great quality in the final image.
  5. Price – I am sure this will change as there is a shift to these cameras, but the cost is generally lower than equivalent SLR kit. At the time of writing I can by a 16Mpixel GX1 for less than £400 which is about the same as an entry level SLR. For around £150 I can buy a 14-45mm lens which is superbly sharp. Then there is the 45mm Olympus prime which is under £300; to get anything like this for the Canon 5D would cost 3 times as much if not more.

There are other benefits to the Micro 4/3 camera but to stop you from dumping all your gear on eBay right now I will stop there. If however you have your own reasons for loving Micro 4/3 that I haven’t covered, why not add a comment to share this.

Making Mirrorless Work

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