New Lightweight Definition
Lofoten Islands, Norway March 2012
Copyright: Robin Whalley 2012 – but feel free to repost and share
When I decided to start this blog it was my intention to discuss the creation of great photography of professional quality using lightweight equipment; that is smaller and lighter than the usual DSLR and accessories. Having thought this through further I think there is a need for another dimension to this definition. Rather than concentrating on size and weight I think the third dimension is time and for a very important reason. Creating great photography seems to be taking me more and more time these days.
Since turning digital some 10 years back I have found the role of the photographer has dramatically changed and is taking far more time. Consider the idea of a stock library. In the old world (pre digital) a photographer would typically shoot and submit slides to agencies, keeping records of who had what. The agency would record, file, keyword, possibly scan the work as well as promote the photographer (if you were lucky). Now all of this work has passed to the photographer including with some agencies the role of promoting the photographer and their work. There are a few exceptions but generally there is much more for the photographer to do with rates of return much lower than they were 10 years ago. It’s therefore necessary for the photographer who wants to earn decent money in stock to be as efficient as possible, or to put it another way have a lightweight workflow.
Even if you don’t want to make your living at photography but just want to produce great work, you still need to store and catalogue your images. You need to spend time converting the images from to TIFF files and then perfect your vision using tools such as Photoshop. All this adds up to time on your computer rather than time behind the camera. This is something that we need to address and a new dimension that I will try to cover in my future blogs.
Travelling Even Lighter
Manchester, May 2012
Copyright: Robin Whalley 2012
Today was a great day for photography. I met up with a friend in Manchester where we spent the entire day shooting urban scenes. The weather played ball for once and the light was simply stunning. It was the sort of crisp clean blue light that you get in early April which makes architectural images (especially metal and glass) simply sparkle. Take this image where I was fortunate enough to catch the light on the building whilst a rather dark storm cloud passed overhead. There is a clarity of light in this that you don’t ordinarily see in the UK in May.
What really stood out for both of us however was that by the end of the day we were still very fresh and could have carried on shooting for much longer. In the past we have both taken too much equipment, equipment that wasn’t needed and in truth never got used. Today was different however and we adopted the Lightweight philosophy.
Steve was shooting film and has a Nikon F90 with a 28-105mm lens carried in a small shoulder pack. I was using the GX1 + 14-45mm lens. I also carried a 9-18mm lens and a 45-200mm lens. I did use both of these during the day but only for a handful of images. I also carried my LX5, spare batteries, memory cards and a small monopod – you never know where you will venture on these sorts of days. All of this was in a small LowePro slingshot bag.
In truth I was carrying to much kit with me as I really only needed the GX1 and the 14-45mm lens. All of this would have fitted easily in a small shoulder pack that I have. Never the less, we were able to complete the entire day from 9:30 to 6:00 walking around and shooting. Not once did we run out of energy and when we did stop for the odd break and something to eat, our equipment didn’t get in the way of others.
Lightweight photography is definitely the way to go.
Over the course of a year I am asked to give quite a few presentations to camera clubs here in the UK. These presentations cover a variety of topics rather than just being about Lightweight Photography, but I do often make reference to my use of compact cameras. I also like to take along A3 prints I have made, including those from my LX5 compact camera, so people can view them at the break.
The first thing I like to try is for people to pick out the LX5 prints from those made on my 5D MkII. People sometimes guess which one but there is virtually no one who selects the correct print with a rationale such as the quality isn’t as good. My challenge then is to ask how many people print larger than A3+ and very few say they need to do so. Of those that only print up to A3+, I like to ask “how many spend lots of money on expensive lenses and SLR bodies in order to produce images that they can’t distinguish from those shot on a compact camera costing a few hundred pounds”. Killer question eh?
All sorts of justifications now start to come out as to why they can’t possibly use a compact camera. One of the most frequent and one that is regularly raised as a question is that you can’t use filters with a compact camera because there is no filter ring to attach the filter folder to. In fact I also hear this when I am out with my camera; people come over to me to ask how on earth I have attached a filter.
The truth is that many of the high end compact cameras do allow for a filter attachment but people don’t realise it. Often there is a plastic ring around the base of the lens that can be unscrewed. It’s then possible to attach a tube to the thread which also has a thread at the other end to which you can attach a filter ring and holder. The cost of this little accessory is around £10 and they can be purchased from eBay for all sorts of cameras. As I say, I use mine with an LX5 but my friend has a Canon G12 and can do the same. He also came across someone with a Canon G9 who found he could attach the filter holder. Another acquaintance had a Canon S95 which also used this solution. In fact, it’s probably a good bet that if your compact camera can shoot RAW files that it will also have some sort of mechanism for attaching filters.
So don’t make this assumption and reject compact cameras from your photography. And if you know your camera does have a way to attach filters, why not leave a comment here to share this with others.
The other night I received a number of emails that reminded me how people involved in Landscape Photographers are failing to move with the times. It used to be that you would start photography using a 35mm film camera and in time, if you were interested in Landscape Photography you might move up to a Medium Format camera. Finally, if you were taking your Landscape Photography seriously and ultimately wanted to turn pro, you would use a large format camera which gave a number of benefits such as image size and camera movement. In truth for many, the camera movement was mainly necessary in order to get proper depth of field and stopping down the lens to a small aperture e.g. f/64 just wasn’t sufficient.
What prompted me to think about this last night were a number of emails I received showing relative newcomers to Photography posing next to their new large format cameras. This caused me to wonder if they had a specific reason to migrate to the large format camera or if they were just following the well trodden path of landscape photographers in the past.
In the past, large format equipment meant exceptional image quality and detail together with huge depth of field; all the things the landscape photographer needed. It still does equate to these things however there are other routes to achieving great landscape results. I can show you images that I have shot with my GX1 using a 28mm lens set to f/7.1 where the rocks at my feet are sharp and detailed, as are the distant hills. This is one of the advantages that having such a small sensor brings; incredible depth of field even at quite wide apertures.
As for the question of detail and resolution, I can upscale my prints to 30 inches and it’s got just as much visible detail as the file printed at the native size. Why, because the printer is the limiting factor. If I can see the barbs on a barbed wire fences when I view the image at 100% on screen, then I might need to print the image at double its current resolution or more before I can see the same barbs in the print. The limitation is therefore the quality and resolving power of the lens and the ability of the printer to print the detail.
I should stress that there is nothing wrong with large format cameras and that a micro 4/3 camera can’t compete with the image resolution from a large format camera, but do you really need all that extra cost, weight and time investment if you don’t print larger than say A3+?
I will however admit however that it doesn’t look quite the same when I am posing for a promotional shot with a tiny GX1 as opposed to a large format camera.
If there is a single accessory I see as essential (not just useful) it’s the ND Grad (Neutral Density Graduated) filter. This is the filter that is clear at the bottom but a dark grey colour at the top. There is a graduated area to gradually transition from one to the other. It’s call Neutral because it’s not supposed to have any impact on the colour of the image although some do. If by the way you want to know more about these filters and the options there is a tutorial on my Lenscraft website at http://www.lenscraft.co.uk/training/160.html.
The ND grad comes in various strengths and is used to darken a bright area of an image such as the sky, which might otherwise cause the other areas to become too dark. As I’m sure you can imagine this is very important to Landscape Photographers especially when shooting scenes with a high dynamic range such as sunsets. Without this filter you will typically end up with either a lovely sky and a black ground or a well exposed ground and a white sky.
Not using ND grad filters is probably the biggest mistakes newcomers to Landscape Photography make. Certainly you can take multiple exposures and blend them together but this is additional effort and time. If we are to keep our workflow lightweight as well as our equipment, it’s important to get it right in camera where possible and this is why the ND grad is so important to me.
There are a number of manufacturers of ND grads. Lee Filters are widely considered in the UK to be the best and used my most of the Pro Landscape Photographers. Whilst I too use Lee filters, I find they are expensive, quite bulky and heavy. Certainly where I am using a small sensor camera such as my GX1 or LX5, I don’t need the size or weight of the 100mm Lee system.
Recently I have started to use Hi-Tech filters which in the UK are marketed by Format Filters and they have performed very well indeed. These filters can be purchased in P size (85mm), are slightly thinner than Lee, certainly cheaper and the accessories to attach them to the lens are much lighter. By carrying a 0.3 and 0.6 filter wrapped in a lens cloth I have everything I need at a fraction of the weight and cost. Additionally, if I need a Neutral Density filter (rather than a graduate) to slow exposure I simply pull the filter down lower in the holder so only the dark area covers the lens.
All this keeps my equipment light and allows me to enjoy my photography much more. The image shown here was taken using a ND grad filter to balance the exposure for the sky with the rest of the image or I would have lost the light rays breaking through the clouds.
It sounds absurd doesn’t it that a little pocket camera costing a few hundred pound could outperform a DSLR costing almost 10 times as much? But that’s exactly what happened to me recently.
I happened to be driving through Somerset with the best part of the day free so I decided to take a detour and visit Wells Cathedral to take some photographs. I had seen some very impressive images of the inside and knew that the Cathedral encourage photography (providing you pay a few pounds for a permit). The only limitation I had to contend with was the low light levels and how to shoot without a tripod.
I decided I could use my 5D with a high ISO setting because of its low noise levels but I would take the LX5 along in my pocket as a sort of backup. With shooting underway, I found I was taking most of my images at either ISO800 or ISO1600 with my lens set to its widest aperture and the image stabiliser turned on. At these settings I was still only achieving a shutter speed of between 1/15” and 1/30”.
As I progressed with my shooting I started checking the LCD at 100% to see if the images were sharp. Unfortunately many of them weren’t, exhibiting quite a bit of noise from the high ISO and some camera shake. I decided to experiment a little with the LX5 and quickly found my favourite low light setting of ISO200 to ISO400 and f/2.8 was giving a shutter speed of between 1/5” and 1/15”. The resulting images did however appear sharp on the camera LCD.
Back at home when reviewing the results I found only about 1 in 5 of the 5D images were acceptably sharp whilst only 1 in 5 (or less) of the LX5 images exhibited camera shake and noise levels on all were acceptable. The problems I seemed to be encountering with the 5D were:
- Camera shake was evident even though the image stabilizer was on. It seemed much easier to hold the LX5 steady whilst taking the photograph.
- Because I could shoot with the LX5 lens almost wide open (f/2.8) I was able to maintain a lower ISO setting which resulted in quite good noise control.
- The lens on the LX5 is f/1.8 and performs very well at this level. Stop it down just slightly to f/2.2 and the performance is excellent. With the Canon lenses (even though they were L series) I need to stop down at least 1 stop to gain good performance.
- The Canon 5D is a full frame sensor so when used with wide apertures I was achieving very limited depth of field, certainly not enough for the compositions I wanted to shoot. Contrast this with the LX5 which has a small sensor so even at f/2.8 I got great depth of field.
So what of the pixel count difference?
Well the LX5 is 10Mpixel and the 5D 21Mpixel. This means I can realistically print the LX5 ISO400 images at A3+ after a bit of resizing. The 5D produces an image of this size without resizing but what use is that if the images are blurred through camera shake, lack sharpness because of noise or simply don’t have enough depth of field?
Finally I should point out that the LX5 was a joy to use in this environment where as the 5D was heavy, tricky and restricted my photography.
So now you know how it’s possible for the tiny LX5 to outperform the much higher spec and more expensive 5D. The message is know your equipment, where its strengths lie and what its weaknesses are. Shoot in the right way and you can achieve some spectacular results with equipment others don’t take seriously.
In my previous posting, and the first Lightweight Photographer blog I set out what I mean by Lightweight Photography and why this is of so important to me. In this posting I’m going to look at the history of my interest and what got me to this point in my Lightweight photography.
Now if you are reading this posting on my regular Lenscraft blog (www.lenscraft.co.uk/blog) you might wonder what’s going on so I will take a moment to explain. After a lot of soul searching about my photography I realised I am enjoying my photography more when I am using lightweight equipment; it helps me feel more free and creative. I decided therefore to create a second blog on WordPress (https://thelightweightphotographer.wordpress.com/) to explore this, but I will also post the same blogs on Lenscraft under a new category called “The Lightweight Photographer”. Back then to the blog.
There is a new trend in Photography that I’m sure you will have noticed and that’s the almost meteoric rise of the CSC (Compact System Camera). Not surprisingly the camera manufacturers have started to jump on the popularity of these small cameras as it’s a new market for them to extract even more money from us photographers. Initially I was sceptical about these cameras but now I am a huge advocate.
If I look back to where all this started for me, about 5 years ago I won a competition giving me money to spend with Olympus and a trip to Paris to use it. At the time Olympus offered either pocket cameras of SLR’s and I wanted neither. I already had an SLR and lenses (I was hooked into Canon) and wanted better quality than was offered by a pocket camera, I decided to use the prize on their new bridge camera. This was supposed to be a pocket camera that gave SLR quality by virtue of having a good lens, larger sensor than a compact and allowed image capture in RAW. I won’t go into if this was in fact the case because it’s irrelevant, what is important is that I became hooked on shooting with Lightweight equipment that could produce high quality results.
After my initial steps with the Olympus I traded it in for a Sony R1 as I wasn’t happy with the quality of the images. The R1 was a spectacularly good camera with a fixed 24-120mm lens. Image quality was and still is amazing but it was big; almost as big as my SLR. This caused me in time to trade the R1 for a NEX-5 which was Sony’s new baby at the time. This again was a great camera that was much easier to carry than the R1. It was however let down by down by the limited available lenses and the suspect quality of some of these.
Around the time I bought the NEX-5 I also purchased a Panasonic Lumix LX5, which is a top end compact camera with a superb lens and which shoots RAW. It may seem counter intuitive but the results I was able to achieve in many of my shooting conditions were better than I managed with the NEX-5. I also found the LX5 much easier to handle and was therefore more likely to use it. On one trip to New York I found myself gravitating away from the NEX-5 and using the LX5 almost exclusively. It was this trip that convinced me to sell the NEX-5 and make the switch to a Lumix GF1 in the hope the expanded lens choice and better quality would give me what I wanted – great image quality that Stock Libraries were happy to accept.
Looking at it on paper the NEX-5 should outperform the GF1 on almost every level. It has a higher pixel count, a larger sensor, better ISO performance etc. None of this however mattered to me as in practice I was achieving much better results with the GF1.
In the past couple of days I took the decision to upgrade the GF1 to a GX1 in order to take advantage of the 16Mpixel sensor and improved ISO performance. I suspect I will upgrade this when something better comes along but for the time being I am happy. What interests me about my latest upgrade and also the GF1 is the quality of results that can be achieved with small cameras has become outstanding. This is something I will look to explore in future posting.
For now, here is an example image taken on the GF1 which prints beautifully on Matte paper.