digital photography

Great Black and White Images from Micro 4/3 Cameras

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If you are a new visitor to this blog then you might have the impression that I am a black and white photographer – not so. What I find however is that I am producing more and more black and white work recently. The reason being is that I think the black and white images shot on my GX1 look great; better than those shot on my Canon 5D or even those shot with true black and white film (which by the way I still use). I have thought a lot about why this is and I believe it is linked to the sensors used in the Micro 4/3 range of cameras.

All cameras produce a pattern of noise in the images they produce. Colour noise looks ugly and is best removed but the luminance noise can be used to your advantage in black and white pictures. Usually you don’t notice this noise but under strong processing it starts to become more visible especially if you are looking on a screen with the image viewed at 100%. With my Canon 5D the noise pattern is very regular, quite light and to be honest looks ugly when enhanced. With the micro 4/3 cameras however this luminance noise is a little stronger and the pattern more appealing. When the images are converted to black and white the noise appears almost like the grain structure in film. The benefit of having this fine structure in your images is not to make it feel like film but to enhance areas of detail so images appear more detailed than perhaps they are. When output to paper the prints definitely have an extra snap to them.

Here then is my workflow for making the most of the micro 4/3 characteristics when producing black and white images:

  1. Shoot in RAW. This gives you the control over how much noise is removed. If you shoot using the in-camera black and white mode you will end up with JPGs which will have had varying degrees of noise reduction applied before you start to work on them. You don’t want this.
  2. Because you are shooting in RAW you will need to convert the image to a TIFF file. I use Lightroom to do this and I apply sufficient Colour Noise reduction to remove all the visible colour noise. With Luminance noise however I set the reduction to 0 so that nothing is removed. I also avoid converting the image to B&W until later in the workflow for reasons I will come to.
  3. Once I have my colour TIFF image I examine it to see if I want to perform any selective luminance noise reduction. I will usually leave all the noise in areas of texture such as grass and rocks but remove noise from areas of clear blue sky. Personally I like to leave some luminance noise in white clouds as it helps me emphasise the clouds later.
  4. I use two tools for noise reduction; Nik Define and Topaz DeNoise. The Nik product is quite subtle and has some great selection tools to control where the noise reduction is applied. The Topaz product is noise reduction on steroids. It can be extremely aggressive but it’s also brilliant. If I want to remove strong noise from the image, this is the tool.
  5. Once I have my “clean” colour image I will convert it to Black and White using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. I do have other black and white converters but what I like about the Nik tool is that I have a “Structure” and “Fine Structure” slider. The effect of using these is that it enhances the Luminance noise so it becomes much more visible and starts to take on the appearance of grain. I should also warn you to take care with this step as once you have enhanced the noise there is no easy way back. Running noise reduction on the finished image won’t have much if any effect.

Now what I can’t show you here is the effect of this workflow on the finished print so you will have to take my word or try it for yourself. This really does enhance the print giving it that something extra, improving the perception of detail and sharpness. You can get some idea of how the screen image will look as a print by viewing your image at 50% resolution from about 12 inches away (a general rule of thumb).

If you have a micro 4/3 camera I hope this has inspired you to give my method a go and I am as always happy to answer any questions.

Landscape Photography with a Micro 4/3 Camera

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View from the summit of High Street
Landscape photography with a Micro 4/3 camera. Not just possible but a good alternative.

One of the things I love to do is question conventional wisdom and push boundaries. One assumption that I believe needs to be challenged at the moment is that a Micro 4/3 camera for Landscape Photography is not a good choice.

I think this assumption has an historical background. Look at the great Landscapers of the past and you will find they shot in the main with Large Format cameras which gave them two advantages:

  1. The size of the negative/transparency is large so they can be used to create large prints with good quality.
  2. The camera movements allowed the image to be rendered with a full depth of field so that the nearest and furthest points were pin-sharp.

As photography has progressed, the large format camera remains the medium of choice for “serious Landscape Photographers” although many have moved to use slightly smaller/lighter cameras which allow the attachment of a digital back.

Whilst the original advantages of using Large Format still exist, I would question if they offer quite the advantage over a Micro 4/3 camera that people immediately assume. More importantly I think the downsides to using a large format camera probably outweigh any advantage (certainly for myself). Now to be clear, I am not saying all large format photographers should switch to micro 4/3, just that if you want to shoot Landscapes doesn’t rule out the Micro 4/3 cameras.

To deal with the issue of the negative/transparency size versus the size of the tiny micro 4/3 sensor first let me say one thing, the end result is everything. If I can print my image at the size I want and achieve the quality I want, why do I need lots of potential in reserve. For me this means being able to print an image where the longest side is 30” (although most of the time I print on A3+ paper). If I can produce my image at these sizes and see loads of detail in the print (not on screen) when I view the print then the camera is achieving the results I want. This is the case with images I shoot from the 16Mpixel Panasonic GX1. When I look very closely at my prints with a magnifying loupe and compare them to the screen, I can see the printer is the limitation not what the camera can capture.

Think about this. Do you really need to reproduce your images larger than 30”?

Next to the subject of using Camera movement to achieve huge depth of field. The Micro 4/3 camera doesn’t have this and currently doesn’t have any tilt and shift lenses that could achieve the same effect. The sensor in the Micro 4/3 is however small and this allows a much larger depth of field to be achieved without needing to stop the lens down to an excessively small aperture. Most of the images I shoot with my 14-45mm lens use f/5.6, f/6.3 or f/7.1. With the lens set to 14mm I usually achieve sufficient depth of field to render everything sharp. Sometimes if I am shooting a close subject I might go as high as f11 but I like to use the larger apertures. This allows me to avoid the effects of diffraction (caused by having a small aperture) softening the image. A large aperture also translates into faster shutter speeds so getting a sharp image with no camera shake is easy and makes a tripod unnecessary in many situations.

So, if I can achieve large, detailed prints where the entire image is sharp from front to back do I really need to move to a larger camera?

Now consider the other benefits of Micro 4/3. It costs less to buy a complete kit; I can’t believe how affordable some of the great lenses are. You can carry it around easily so are able to visit quite remote locations. It’s less tiring so you are fresher when trying to create your work. You can work much quicker and therefore respond easily when the lighting is changing rapidly. You are more manoeuvrable so explore many more compositions and angles. It’s much easier to learn how to use. It’s much easier to achieve good results with a Micro 4/3 camera for the average user.

I think the message is clear, Micro 4/3 cameras can be a serious tool for the Landscape Photographer.

Are we being lead in the wrong direction

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

I don’t ordinarily like to pass comment over what’s happening in the photography industry but I actually think things are getting a little “interesting” at the moment. In recent months the idea of Lightweight Photography has really grabbed people’s imagination and camera manufacturers have responded with a glut of new offers. We have seen multiple camera releases from the likes of Sony and Fuji and even Canon has joined in on the game with the new M series compact. Innovation is rife with most manufacturers trying to squeeze more megapixels into the sensors and even larger sensors into the cameras. Just the other day Sony launched the first full frame compact camera which is indeed a great achievement.

Is there a downside? YES – Have you seen the price of these things? I suspect companies are trying to recover their entire R&D bill with the first model they release and that smacks of short term profiteering to me. The pace of change has accelerated and the lifespan of cameras is getting shorter. With it the risk for the camera manufacturers has increased and I don’t think they like that so they pass the risk and cost on to us the consumer. I think this will result in lots of new gimmicks being released regularly as well as an increase in prices as manufacturers ask us to buy more often and pay more for our cameras whilst trying to recover R&D costs more quickly.

My suspicion (and I think we are seeing some of this) is that we will be told (brainwashed if you like) that all the existing cameras/sensors are no good and we need to upgrade to the latest, newest fastest, highest quality camera. I don’t know about you but I have limited funds to spend on replacing my equipment and I like to get good value from it. I do hope some of the manufacturers read this and realise we the consumer are passionate about photography. They can just keep thinking about making money for shareholders; they need to give something back to the enthusiast also.

To prove the point, I have recently been answering some questions for one of our readers who was considering buying a new GX1. I found myself playing down the quality of the images from the GX1 as it didn’t quite measure up to the quality from the 5D MkII which is a full frame, 21Mpixels DSLR with L series lenses. I then printed the image above and realised I was being drawn in by the marketing machine.

The image was shot on a GX1 with an Olympus 9-18mm lens. I printed it at A3+ and even pressing my nose right up to the print it looks good. No, I will rephrase that, it looks amazing; even in the areas that I thought were a little suspect on the screen (at 100%). I now know I could print this image much larger if I wanted to and still get a fantastic print. Why then would I need to upgrade my camera to an “even better” model?

What I have come to realise is the old advice of investing in the highest quality lenses in preference to buying a better camera is now true again. At the start of the digital revolution this wasn’t the case as cameras and sensors needed to catch up with film. Now we can produce super quality huge prints from tiny cameras the old adage has kicked in again. I for one would like to see the manufacturers put as much development into their lenses so that we can have tiny lenses that resolve huge amounts of detail, have fast constant apertures and are super sharp for a reasonable price. Unfortunately I can’t see this happening any time soon as that’s not where the money is to be made. As always I am interested in any other thoughts on this subject.

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.

LX5 Compact Camera Outperforms 5D Mk II SLR

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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.