image quality

New Fuji Lens and a Warning

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Misty morning in the trees at the Roaches. Fuji XT2 + 16-55 lens.
Misty morning in the trees at the Roaches. Fuji XT2 + 16-55 lens.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, then you may well be aware of the problems I have experienced with my Fuji 55-200mm lens. Following some rather odd results, the lens was returned to Fuji back in November who couldn’t find any problems. Wex then returned it for a second time following a review of some test images as they agreed, there must be a fault.

The lens is still being inspected by Fuji but Wex have kindly allowed me to trade it in against another lens. This is a huge help as being without a good telephoto lens means I can’t use the Fuji kit properly and always end up taking a second camera with me. Thanks to the trade in I now have the Fuji 50-140 f/2.8 + 1.4x Teleconverter and this weekend was my first outing.

Unfortunately, the location we chose was very foggy and remained so for most of the day. The fog did lift to a certain level but generally it was too dense to use the new lens properly. I did however manage a few test shots of distant rocks which a group of climbers were scaling. I mounter the camera on my tripod and lined up the shot using both the lens and teleconverter. The conditions were still with no wind and I was using a cable release.

To my horror, when I zoomed in to check the image I could see a lot of camera shake and the image was blurred. I tried again and again but I couldn’t remove the shake. I then tried removing the teleconverter to see if it was the cause of the problem but it wasn’t. The results looked very much like those I experienced with the lens I had returned.

Below you can see one of the problem images. Notice how the shake isn’t consistent across the frame and some areas almost come into focus but don’t quite get there.

Example of problem image.
Example of problem image.

And a section at 100% magnification.

Section of poor image at 100% magnification
Section of poor image at 100% magnification

Then through trial and error I worked out the cause of the issue.  Take a look at the image below which was shot immediately after the image above. This time the image is pin sharp across the frame.

Good image
Good image

And again, a section of the image at 100% magnification.

Section of good image at 100% magnification.
Section of good image at 100% magnification.

The cause of the issue was the Lee 0.3 ND grad filter I was using. With the filter on the lens, the images were out of focus and appeared shaky. With the filter removed the images were crisp and sharp. I could repeat the result time and again with all my Lee filters.

What appears to be happening is that the filter is causing a problem for the autofocus mechanism in the XT2 and it continues to refocus as the shot is being taken. Later I turned off the autofocus and could focus manual to capture a pin sharp image. If I set the camera back to autofocus the problem occurred again. What I haven’t been able to work out is why I have only seen the issue with the telephoto lenses. My other lenses (10-24, 16-55 and 18-55) all work fine with my filters.

This is one to watch out for if you are a landscaper and use filters. I was also wondering if anyone else has experienced a similar issue?

Fuji RAW File Processing Improvements

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Waterfall near Thirlmere i the Lake District. Fuji XT2.
Waterfall near Thirlmere i the Lake District. Fuji XT2.

Many of you will be aware of my frustration over the poor results when processing Fuji RAW files with Lightroom. This apparently is a well-known problem amongst Fuji users who want to shoot RAW (although it wasn’t well known to me when I purchased my XT1). The problem seems to have spawned many different solutions among users, from trying to work with Lightroom using “quite extreme” settings to adopting other RAW converters. I personally have pursued and experimented with this last option myself, but it’s not ideal. Lightroom is a great tool and provides an excellent workflow.

Then, a few weeks back I reported here that following experimentation, I was now able to achieve improved sharpening results when using Lightroom. This involved minimising the use of the Detail and Threshold slider, then applying a subsequent Structure adjustment in Viveza. What I couldn’t rationalise though is why I was now experiencing such an improvement by holding back on the Detail slider when previously it had often been necessary to push this to 100%.

Then the penny has dropped.

I had been contacted by a couple of Fuji users who asked if I was aware of any improvements to Fuji sharpening in the latest release of Lightroom and Photoshop. Whilst I hadn’t seen anything, it made me realise that I had upgraded to the latest Adobe CC release, just before experiencing the improvement.

I have since processed a lot of XT2 RAW files and all are responding very well to a traditional sharpening and processing approach in Lightroom. In a recent comparison with my Sony A7r (with which I use with Canon L Series lenses), the resulting images are similar except the Sony has slightly larger dimensions and is slightly sharper at full magnification. Both images produce an excellent print where you can’t see any difference.

Here is an example comparison at 100% magnification. The image on the left was captured using the Sony A7r whilst the image on the right is the Fuji XT2.

Sony A7r compared to Fuji XT2
Sony A7r compared to Fuji XT2

I wondered if this was just an effect when sharpening the XT2 RAW files, so I returned to my XT1 files and tested some of these. The results are also much improved. Comparing the results from Lightroom to the same file processed using the Iridient RAW converter, the gap has narrowed. The Lightroom results now appear much closer to those from Iridient when applying just Capture Sharpening. The Lightroom results can then be improved by applying Selective Sharpening in Lightroom as well as Structure adjustment with the Nik Tools.

Due to the workflow in Lightroom and my use of other cameras (Olympus EM5 and Sony RX10 & A7r) I suspect I will be using Lightroom for most of my Fuji RAW conversion. I may have occasion to venture into Iridient or RAW Therapee but where I need to work fast I think Lightroom is now up to the task.

I’m interested to hear if others have any similar experiences to share.

Yet More Fuji Lens Issues

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Fuji XT2 + 16-55 lens. Trpiod mounted. 0.3ND grad + Polarising filters.
Fuji XT2 + 16-55 lens. Trpiod mounted. 0.3ND grad + Polarising filters.

Some of you may recall the problems I experienced when I bought my Fuji XT1 together with a couple of lenses. Th Fuji 10-24 was excellent but the 18-135 was quite poor. In the end, I returned the 18-135 exchanging it for a 16-55 new and a 55-200 used lens. The 16-55 is amazing but the 55-200 was a little odd.

At first the lens seemed sharp enough but I never really had the chance to try it out properly. Once I did try it out, I didn’t pay too much attention to the images but I did notice my hit rate was poor, many seeming to display camera shake. Ultimately, I contacted Wex where I had purchased the lens and arranged with them for the lens to go back for repair by Fuji (I was a good month out of the 28-day refund period).

The performance of the lens looks to have deteriorated over time even though I have hardly used it. It doesn’t matter if it’s hand held or tripod mounted and the shutter speed doesn’t have much effect on the results. It appears to overexpose a lot, lack contrast and it has soft spots, the location of which change. As you zoom to the longer focal lengths the focus issues seem to get worse but the severity varies.

To give you an example of one of the more severe cases, look at the following.

Example Image with the 55-200 Lens on a Fuji XT2.
Example Image with the 55-200 Lens on a Fuji XT2.

This is image was captured at f/8 with a shutter speed of 1/10”. The camera was tripod mounted and a shutter release used. It was part of a panoramic sequence and the entire sequence has the same strange focus issue where only the top left of the frame is in focus. In some later images, the entire frame is in focus except to the top left.

Image section magnified. Click to view at 100%. Only the top left of the frame is in focus.
Image section magnified. Click to view at 100%. Only the top left of the frame is in focus.

My friend Steve has a theory about lenses such as these. He thinks that most people keep the good ones and trade the poor ones. I think he could be right. Whatever the reason, I hope Fuji can repair this.

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Another RAW Processor

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Forest Scene. Fuji XT1 + 16-55 lens. Post processing in Ididient + On 1 Effects
Forest Scene. Fuji XT1 + 16-55 lens. Post processing in Ididient + On 1 Effects

Since I purchased the Fuji XT1 (and had the fright of my life due to soft, distorted images) I have become a little obsessed by image quality. The results I can now achieve using the XT1 are far beyond my expectations. I’m even beginning to question the need for my Sony A7R, especially as I have the Fuji XT2 on order. I need to give this some serious thought.

Anyway, back to the purpose of today’s blog post. I should stress that whilst I am using the Fuji XT1 RAW files as an example, other RAW files also see improvements. Whatever your camera, you need to experiment with alternate RAW converters.

So far I have concluded the best converters for the XT1 files appear to be RAW Therapee, Photo Ninja and Iridient. This is purely in terms of ability to render fine detail and image sharpness. If you’re not a Landscape Photographer, this might not be as important to you.

I have now returned to test Affinity Photo and have been quite impressed.

For those of you who aren’t aware, Affinity Photo is an image editor with Photoshop like capabilities. Currently it’s only available for the Mac but its priced well and includes a RAW developer module. If you are a Mac user and want an alternative to Adobe, it’s worth exploring. It also costs less than Elements and Iridient (but infinitely more than RAW Therapee which is free).

In this test, I processed the same RAW file (from which the above image was produced) and developed this in both Iridient and Affinity Photo. The conversion was done on a Mac and then the resulting TIFF files loaded onto my Windows PC. Here the two images can be seen side by side at 100% resolution.

Sinde by side comparison at 100% magnification. Affinity is on the left and Iridient on the right.
Sinde by side comparison at 100% magnification. Affinity is on the left and Iridient on the right.

The image on the left is from Affinity whilst the image on the right was converted using Iridient. The Affinity image appears sharper and with better defined detail. It does though suffer a little from my having added too much clarity. The Iridient image appears slightly more natural and softer. For the Iridient image I used the Deconvolution sharpening. If I apply a further round of sharpening using Nik Pro Sharpener (RAW) I can pull more detail from the Iridient image but not from the Affinity image. I suspect the difference in performance between the two is down to my (as yet) lack of experience with Affinity.

Something further that I noticed when doing the tests is that Iridient appears to have automatically corrected for lens geometry whilst Affinity didn’t. Overall, both packages did a great job of converting the RAW file as can be seen below (Affinity is on the left).

Side by side comparison. Affinity is on the left and Iridient on the right.
Side by side comparison. Affinity is on the left and Iridient on the right.

As I mentioned at the start, the results from the Fuji XT1 have impressed me greatly. I’m so pleased I didn’t dump the camera. I can’t wait to test out the XT2.

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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Further Fuji Thoughts

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rwhalley_xt1_2016_09_10_dsf3221
Fuji XT1 + 16-55 f/2.8 lens.

At the weekend I managed to take the Fuji XT1 out for a full day’s photography. In short, I loved using it but there was a nagging concern throughout that my images were being affected by the possible water colour effect. Am I right to be worried or am I imagining problems where there aren’t any?

Here’s an update following the day:

Initially I purchased two lenses, a 10-24mm and 18-135mm. The 18-135mm was always going to be a bit of a compromise in terms of image quality but I reasoned that the trade-off between optical performance and the convenience of using one lens was acceptable. In the end, a lot of the images I found unacceptable were shot with this lens so it went back.

A lot of the “image failures” I have found relate to loss of fine detail in rocks and foliage, particularly in the mid distance (20m-100m). The Lightroom and Photoshop RAW converters do seem to exaggerate this effect but I suspect quite a lot of the problem relates to the lens:

  • I may have bought a bad copy of the 18-135mm as a lot of people love this lens and swear by it.
  • It could be diffraction was setting in earlier than I would expect from a quality lens and this could then be exaggerated by the RAW conversion.
  • It could be (very fine) camera shake from using the lens at longer apertures although the IS should deal with that. I also saw this with the camera on a tripod so I don’t believe it’s the issue.

Whatever the cause, the lens has been exchanged for a 16-55 and 55-200 which appear to produce good image quality more consistently. Whilst I can still detect a problem with Lightroom RAW conversion using images shot with these lenses, it’s now much less of a problem and the images are acceptable. Both of the lenses are good performers and the 16-55 is outstanding. Although it doesn’t have IS, the optics are excellent and the focal range is perfect (for me).

The use of these lenses has though helped me refine my thinking further.

Lightroom and Photoshop do still produce a watercolour effect as well as some other “problems” that I don’t like. This may not be as bad as it once was but I can still see it in Landscape images, especially where there is fine detailed foliage in the distance. I often see a false pattern effect in the foliage of distant trees and it doesn’t look natural to me.

Click the image to zoom in. Tree foliage takes on an odd look.
Click the image to zoom in. Tree foliage takes on an odd look.

Fine detail in RAW files converted with Adobe also seems to become “blocky” when sharpened which may cause some of the fine detail to become lost.

Click image to zoom in - Grass has a blocky appearance rather than showing fine detail.
Click image to zoom in – Grass has a blocky appearance rather than showing fine detail.

If I use Lightroom for RAW conversion, I now prefer a sharpening Radius of 0.7 or less. I then set the Detail slider to around 85 before adjusting the Strength setting. This usually requires a Strength setting of at least 30-45 but sometimes more. I also leave the threshold at 0 as increasing it also seems to cause the blocky effect I mention. Colour and Luminance noise reduction are both set to 0 and only introduced gradually where problems are found.

Grass is more natural with the finer settings
Grass is more natural with the finer settings (click to zoom or you can’t see the difference)

 

Trees are also more natural
Trees are also more natural (click to zoom or you cant see the difference)

Please keep in mind these are RAW conversion/capture settings only. Once the image has been further processed additional sharpening is applied and the image seems to respond well to the additional sharpening. Images which have the “blocky” effect I mention don’t appear to respond well to additional post conversion sharpening. You may think I’m being picky and it is hard to see from screen grabs, but it does make a difference to the image.

There are definitely better RAW converters than Lightroom and Photoshop for Fuji RAW files. The three best RAW converters that I have found in terms of being able to render fine detail are:

  1. Iridient (Mac only – I have now purchased this)
  2. RAW Therapee (Free but complicated)
  3. PhotoNinja (quite expensive)

All three seem to do a much better job than the Adobe RAW converters and having tried these on a large range of Landscape images they all do a great job. I can’t though decide which is best – it’s probably Iridient.

Incidentally, the size and resolution of your screen definitely plays a part in whether you see an issue with the conversions or not. I have now tested the RAW conversions using a MacBook Pro, iMac 27” 5K retina display and a PC with a 24” screen at 1920 x 1080 pixels. The two Apple machines don’t display any problem when using the Adobe RAW converters but when the converted image is moved to the PC (with the lower resolution screen) the problems can be clearly seen. The images also tend to have been over sharpened for the PC dislay.

When shooting with the Fuji I have noticed a couple of other problems that may be relevant to the question of image quality:

  1. I was trying some long exposure shots with the 55-200 lens. The exposure was around 10” using a 10 stop ND filter and the camera was having difficulty focussing automatically. I switched to manual focus using a combination of focus peaking and focus assist and found I needed to focus at infinity. When I reviewed the results though I found they were out of focus even though I was certain I focussed correctly. At first I thought the problem was camera shake but I repeated the exercise a number of times. Each time I found I needed to reset the focus to infinity between shots suggesting the focus is shifting. When I switched to autofocus and managed to pick up a point in the far distance to focus on. The result was a sharp image. I’m not sure what quite is happening here but I was able to repeat the problem.
  2. After shooting with the very forgiving micro 43 format I may be focussing too near to the camera. This is limiting my depth of field and may be seen in some images as a lack of fine detail in the mid distance (but not exactly image blur). If you then combine this with the “painterly effect” of the Adobe RAW converter, the effect is further exaggerated.

In summary, I am now achieving much better results and love using the camera and lenses. I am even considering stepping up to the XT2 in the future, which was my original plan before encountering this problem.

My tips for Fuji users who suffer from the painterly effect are to try the following:

  1. Pay close attention to lens quality and be honest. Do you see the effect on all images or is it at certain focal lengths and or apertures?
  2. Try a different RAW converter (any of the three I mention seem to minimise the issue).
  3. Be sure to use a fast shutter speed (probably twice as fast as you might otherwise) or tripod mount the camera.
  4. Ensure you select a good point of focus and aperture to maximise depth of field.
  5. Try shooting the same image at various apertures to check where diffraction kicks in and if this causes the water colour effect.

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Fuji RAW file Conversion Challenge

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Following my last post which explained my experience with various RAW converters and ranking RAW Therapee as the best, I have received a few emails. I can only think they are from disgruntled Adobe employees. Let me be the first to say that I want someone to prove me wrong – I would love Lightroom to be the best converter as I have been using it for years and have a lot of time tied up in its workflows.

To say that I am keen to learn how to improve the results from the Fuji RAW files as an understatement so I am issuing a RAW file conversion challenge to anyone who wants to take it up.

If you use Lightroom and are interested, follow this link to my Lenscraft website. Here you will find the rules of the challenge together with a link to a zip file which you can download. The zip file contains the RAW file I used for the testing in my last blog and a JPEG produced using RAW Therapee. If you can match the results from RAW Therapee post the settings, you have used as a comment either here or on the website. I will validate the results and we all get to learn how to produce great results in Lightroom.

Thanks for reading and hopefully participating.