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photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

Best Cameras For Landscape Photography

it’s not what you think…

in General Rants , Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Recently the photonet has thrown up a couple of pieces aiming to list the Best Cameras For Landscape Photography. Both DP Review and Photography Life have pretty much concluded that you must have a very big and expensive digital camera to do landscape photography, and frankly, if you don’t have a $10’000 Fuji GFX100, you might as well give up. I will say that DP Review have rebalanced things a bit with a video demonstrating that you can get excellent results with a basic DSLR, but the general theme, as ever, is that for some vague reason, “landscape” photography demands huge resolution.  Leaving aside the fact that neither list includes any camera I own, which frankly doesn’t bother me, this peer pressure pushing people to buy unnecessarily complex and expensive gear makes me angry.  Gear-oriented discussion of Landscape photography comes with a number of tired, ungrounded clichés, which apart from the ridiculous and ever increasing demand for megapixels, includes equating Landscape with “wide angle”, with ultra high end lenses, and huge backpacks.

Frankly it’s all rubbish. Just a couple of years ago people were salivating over 16 megapixel cameras, and winning awards with photos taking with 35mm film.  Those ancient cameras still work, and if your photos (or indeed my photos) are no good at 16, or even 6, megapixels, they’re not going to be any better at 100. You’re just going to have a lot less money to be able to spend on travelling around to actually enjoy photography.

And speaking of travelling, airline carry-on bag dimensions and weight are constantly decreasing. If you like to have a reasonable selection of focal lengths to chose from, even “full frame” is going to become troublesome.  There’s not much point in having that super mega camera or that super bright telephoto lens if you can’t afford to travel with them.

Of course sometimes the biggest and best is justified, but either because somebody else is paying, or because you’re wealthy.  And even then, the difference in outcome is often not much more than size.  Take Julian Calverly for example: while he does a lot of commercial work with a medium format system - where he actually needs tilt shift lenses - he also produces equally fabulous work using an iPhone.

Far be it for me to lay down the law, but I’m just passing on my experience - I spent too many years in the gear acquisition hamster wheel, and frankly it has bought me very little lasting pleasure. If I look at my favourite photos, there is no correlation whatsoever with the perceived quality of whatever camera I was using. Actually most of the few photos I have which have received external praise, and even generated income, were taken using a 5Mpix camera.  A camera which just happened to have excellent ergonomics.

And that’s the key really - the best camera for your landscape photography is the one you feel the most comfortable with, which will get out of the way and allow you to concentrate on the photography. The so-called “image quality” is close to irrelevant, as pretty much all cameras today are well past good enough.  And what differences there are are far from linear - a $10’000 Fuji GFX does not have image quality 10 times greater than a $800 Fuji X-T30. In fact in many cases you’d have to look very closely to see any difference.

My advice is simple - keep the weight down, and buy something digital with weather sealing. The rest will take care of itself.

 

So many photos

and so many more photos

in General Rants , Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A couple of weeks ago, Kirk Tuck wrote a blog post entitled “What do you do with all the photos you take?”.  It was a very good question. Kirk, it seems - SPOILER ALERT - deletes a significant number of his before they even get on a computer. I probably should do the same, but I don’t. I have got an awfully large number of digital photos, and a whole lot more on processed film. Actually, my Lightroom catalogue, which goes back to 2004, more or less, as of today has 74’702, which I suspect is actually not so many, especially as 50’000 of those are test photos of ducks. But even so I can’t keep up. I continually take new photos, and the projects I have in mind for the previous batch get overwhelmed as I sift through the newer ones, which in turn get overwhelmed by their successors.

I have several projects I’ve actually started, apart from all the ones in my head. One is a fairly straightforward book of Antarctic photography - I’ve even written the text for it. Another is a rather more eccentric concept for a series on Venice.  I’ve got the raw material for this stuff, I’ve got the ideas, but I haven’t got the time, or the ability to focus. And then I had an actually quite well planned and executed harvest of photos of Madeira’s levadas, which I absolutely love, but that’s still sitting on the virtual shelf. I’d get onto that only I have some stuff from the Lauterbrunnen valley from last week which got in the way.  And so it goes. The problem is that I suspect that the part of all this which I most enjoy is taking the photos - well that and shopping for gear. I suppose I have some vague idea of a long enjoyable retirement when I’ll sort it all out - but actually, a retirement spent sitting in front of a computer, waiting for the final shutdown…is maybe not the best idea.

As I was saying, the problem is focus. I also have a lot of material to write about. It’s mostly in my head. I suppose I might manage to publish more frequently if I thought that anybody except me is actually reading this stuff, but pretty much nobody is, so it may just as well stay in my head. I’m not complaining - Kirk Tuck’s Visual Science Lab blog is a whole lot more appealing than mine, and deservedly popular.  Item: he publishes a lot of gorgeous photos of equally gorgeous women. I don’t. Item: he writes extensively about endless buying fabulous camera gear allowing his readers to enjoy vicariously whatever his latest craze is, and to justify to themselves their own spending sprees. I don’t. I sometimes write about gear of very marginal interest to 99.99% of the gear audience, from a very eccentric angle. And always the same gear. Don’t come to me to fix your buyer’s remorse. Item: Kirk runs a successful photography business. I don’t. Item: Kirk has time for (a) at least one hugely interesting photowalk every day, (b) to maintain an extensive fitness program, (c) to write long and interesting blog posts, (d) to run his aforementioned successful business, (e) to have what appears to be a health and happy family life, (f) etc.  Well, I suppose I do too, but actually mostly I procrastinate and read Kirk’s blog.

And I’m forever veering wildly off topic.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll delete all the test photos of ducks from 2005. And publish a set from Trümmelbachfälle. Or maybe I’ll just go out and take some more photos.

Drm 050111 193232

Your time’s up, duck

 

 

Snow what? Snow where?

what’s in a name?

in General Rants , Thursday, June 13, 2019

I registered the domain name “snowhenge.net” around June 2001. Although I had been running my own website since around 1997, this was supposed to be a step in a more ambitious direction.  The choice of the name “snowhenge” was a bit backwards looking, referring to an incident in the past where my somewhat strange sense of humour had been deployed. I don’t think I intended to be particularly meaningful at the time, although the initial site design had a strong “snowhenge” theme. Rather, it was fairly typical bit of misdirection.

When I walked away from Antarctic research and science in general, somewhat in disgust, I expected that polar regions were firmly in the past. Even though my involvement in research did eventually drag on for a few more years due to unfinished commitments, in my head I’d moved on. Well, more or less. In 1999, having already decided I need a major change of direction, I spent 3 weeks trekking in Eastern Greenland, back when it still had ice. A major motivation for that was wanting to rediscover the unique soft evening light which had enraptured me in the Antarctic. Photographically it was a disaster, as my camera’s exposure meter malfunctioned without me realising it, and my travel zoom lens fell apart. Actually at that point I didn’t have much of a clue what I was doing, and photography was not my main objective. My objective was to find a quiet place to sit on the rocks and gaze at icebergs. It probably still is.

Greenland 02

Greenland, 1999

From then onwards there was little real connection to snow, or polar regions at all on snowhenge.net. I got much more into photography, but this was concentrated on areas adjacent to my my new home in Ticino.  There was a glimmer of a return when I embarked on a bit of an Iceland obsession from 2004 onwards (my first visit in 1999 having for some reason made no impression on me), but still, there was no real direct justification for my web site’s title.

But eventually things turned around. In 2010 I visited Svalbard with a private expedition of 10 people, and then finally in 2013 returned to Antarctic as a tourist, with a somewhat unexpected follow-up in 2016. This, along with beginning to write quite a lot more about the Antarctic, seemed to indicate that I was finally making thematic sense.  But recently I’ve noticed that the home page barely mentions anything polar, and I’m beginning to wonder if maybe it is time for an identity shift. Actually the URL davidmantripp.com points here too, perhaps I should make it the primary name. Then perhaps people will not visit expecting to find a Snowhenge and immediately turn away disappointed.  Or maybe they do that because there’s not much to see anyway…  I’m certainly no Influencer!

I have to confess that I have another Antarctic trip lined up for early next year, something a bit different this time, which will leave me utterly penniless (but maybe also with a new sense of direction). But then again, I’m equally enthralled with other places, most recently Madeira. So I guess snowhenge.net will remain what it seems to have always been, a testimonial to my chronic appetite for digression.

 

Sigma sd quattro H

take it, or leave it ?

in GAS , Wednesday, June 05, 2019

A couple of months ago I finally succumbed to the temptation of buying a Sigma sd Quattro H. Ever since the camera was announced, some years ago now, it intrigued me.  As a sometimes delighted, sometimes frustrated owner of the Merrill and Quattro dp fixed-lens series, this new interchangeable lens Foveon sensor mirrorless camera seemed like something I could put to good use.  Of course, it being a Sigma, things are not as simple as they could be. The camera is indeed mirrorless, and fairly compact, but it is designed to take Sigma’s DSLR lenses. This is not totally bad news, as the recent generations of Sigma lenses have been gaining a strong reputation for Zeiss-like levels of optical performance and build quality at a quarter of the price. Unfortunately, they are not a quarter of the weight, or the bulk, and a quarter of Zeiss prices is still a lot of money.

But anyway, here I am, with a sd Quattro H body (let’s shorten that to sd-H from now on), a 35mm f1.4 Art lens, and a 24-70 f2.8 Art lens. The latter is really huge.  And now I need to be convinced all this was a good idea.

IMG 5741

The Sigma sd Quattro H with 24-70 f/2.8 lens next to the Olympus E-M1 with equivalent 12-40 f/2.8

I have used the Quattro dp0 quite extensively, mainly as a “panoramic” camera with the 21:9 ratio. That, together with previous Merrill dp2 & dp3 experience meant that I was not blind to the potential issues. In suitable conditions these cameras can be jaw-droppingly effective, but the range of conditions that can be reliable considered suitable is narrow, to put it mildly.

Although the usual claim by enthusiasts of these Foveon sensor cameras is of remarkable resolution (which they have, but let’s not go overboard), for me the killer feature is (and again, in the right conditions), a film-like delicacy of colour and colour transition. This can justify me packing the dp0 Quattro as special-use secondary camera, but the question is, are the results clear enough to justify the sd-H and 24-70 lens, four times heavier and bulkier?

Before following up on that, let’s just have a quick recap of what the sd-H offers. There’s a full, in-depth review at DPReview, so I’m not going to spend much time on technical stuff here. The body is very well built, and feels like it cost more than it did. It is comfortable to hold, despite its unconventional shape.  The controls are well laid out and easy to reach, although I would prefer the QS Quick Menu button to be in a similar position to that on the dp body. The menu is a paragon of good design - it’s a pity so few people will see it. The back of the camera has a typical Sigma quirk, with two screens side by side. The second, smaller one is used to display shooting parameters. And unlike the dp series, there is an electronic viewfinder, which is quite large and comfortable, but suffers from the difficulty of getting a high rate video stream from the Foveon sensor. Still, it is serviceable. Basically from an ergonomic point of view things are pretty good.  Oh, and there is an option to produce linear DNG output instead of X3F Raw files, which means you can open them directly in Lightroom, etc. Although I’m not sure I’d recommend that. Oh, and the autofocus can only be described as “****** hopeless”.

I have used the sd-H properly now on 4 outings. One to Venice, which didn’t go well, two quick trips to the local Valle Verzasca, and just recently a long weekend in Tuscany. It’s still all a bit inconclusive. I got some nice results in Verzasca, but I was very constrained by the lack of Depth of Field preview. Also the lack of an orientable screen or finder can be very restricting. Basically it’s not a lot fun using the sd-H on a tripod, but generally that is where it works best.

Drm 20181219 SDQH0081

this kind of detailed, softly lit scene is where the Sigma cameras do excel

Drm 20190417 SDQH0212

For my trip to Tuscany I went well prepared. The area is one I know extremely well (I even published a book about it) and there’s absolutely no stress to get the shot, because either I’ve already got it, or I’ll get it next time. I also made a DNG colour profile for the camera, and took along my MacBook Air to be able to do some on the spot verification.

So, I did some handheld shots, and some tripod shots, initially all in DNG, and imported them into Lightroom. I was pretty disappointed. For example, the clichéd shots of Tuscan poppies were just smudges, with reds either overblown to flat areas with no detail or clipped to white. Just like digital cameras 20 years ago.  A shot where the ISO crept up to 800 looked like some Chernobyl aftermath. Some shots were inexplicably soft (the 24-70 lens is stabilised, but it’s no Olympus), which I’d also noticed in Venice. And generally the resolution and sharpness was not impressive at all.

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Foveon colour at ISO 800. Ouch.

Oh, and the classic Foveon green flare made a unwelcome appearence.

Sdh green flare

the classic Foveon green flare

But then… when I got home, I opened the same images on my desktop computer, which has a fully calibrated Eizo monitor attached to it, and there a rather different picture emerged (literally!). The overblown reds turned out to actually hold detail. The softness in some cases turned out not to be so soft. Some of the poppy field shots turned out ok. And the photos which I took in X3F format are technically not so catastrophic. So the lesson there is that perhaps my 2011 MacBook Air is not the best tool for evaluating image quality.

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Foveon colour at ISO 200. A bit better.

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Hardly a portfolio shot, but technically this one worked ok.

Since there was quite a lot of mountain bike touring involved on this trip, I didn’t limit myself to the Sigma. I also took my Olympus E-M5ii, with my old and travel worn 14-42EZ pancake zoom. This, unlike the sd-H, could happily travel in my backpack. Oh, the shots show a somewhat alarming softness on the right bottom corner, but if you don’t look too closely, the combination actually works pretty well.  Of course, putting a “proper” lens on the Olympus narrows the gap quite a lot, making me question the sd-H even more.

When quickly reviewing photos to illustrate this post, I noticed some shots taken in previous years in Tuscany using the dp0. That camera has a smaller sensor than the sd-H (APS-C rather than APS-H), but a fixed precisely matched (and ultra wide) lens. And even as thumbnails, the shots just pop off the screen. I expected the sd-H, with Art lenses, to have the same effect, but so far, it doesn’t. I’m not quite ready to put it on eBay, but as it stands at the moment it could not justify its place in my camera bag on a real trip.  I guess we still need to work on our relationship.

Drm 20190602 SDQH0278

This is beginning to get there.

 

 

My photos suck

...and I don’t care

in General Rants , Wednesday, April 10, 2019

From the vast amount of stuff I’ve read about photography, I can really only come to one conclusion: my own photography is basically worthless.  My take away from Landscape Photography pundits is that to have any worth, photos have to have some deep and mystical connection to the natural world. A photo of a tree is not of a tree, it is a representation of the photographer’s relationship with the landscape. Well, in my case, the photo is actually of a tree, and the reason I made it is because for whatever reason I liked the tree. There’s no message in there, there’s no whispered pseudo-religious revelation. There probably isn’t even any “pin sharpness”.

In the past few days I’ve been editing my latest haul of photos of Venice. Some are geometrically interesting, some have nice colours - some have both geometry and colour - and a few have people in them. Almost all are technically more than competent. All are, unfortunately, totally soulless. I’m not going to kid myself, they may look nice in “Lights Out” mode in Lightroom on a black background, but they have zero artistic or cultural value. They do not in any way communicate the emotions I feel when wandering around the outer zones of Cannaregio or the Giudecca. In the cold light of self-analysis, they’re worthless.

As for the technical side, well, actually, I think they’re ok, but perhaps I really don’t know. I’ve read about all this stuff on DPReview and countless blogs, but when I set the slider to 0 I still can’t see this infamous “noise” in the shadows, or all this (lack of) dynamic range. I guess I just don’t have the skill to see it.

I might once have aspired to reaching some sort of higher level of vision or something, but I got stuck at the snapshot stage, and that’s all their is too it.  There are so many other ageing white male engineer-types trying to pretend they have an artistic side by buying camera gear - some of them call themselves Fine Art Photographers, especially if they’re American - that I just got lost in the crowd.

This realisation that I really not any good at any kind of artistic expression has crept up slowly on me, so it isn’t much of a surprise. I’ve known about it for some time. It also impacts on wider things, sometimes in a good way. For example when thinking about places to travel to or go on vacation, these days I don’t start wondering about what gear to take, or how to get “the good light”.  I just go with the flow - I might take some snaps, I might not, but I don’t feel bad about not being that guy wandering the streets with 20kg of camera tech strapped to his back.

At the same time I’m getting more and more weary with all the photography chatter in Twitter and everywhere else. I’m not the only one who can’t take a meaningful photograph, but I seem to be the only one who realises it. Even more, I’m fed up to the back teeth of people who are convince that a totally dull photograph becomes a work of genius because it was shot on film (or even better, expired film).

So, does this mean I’m giving it all up? No, I like taking photos. But I’m not going to keep stressing myself reading all this stuff about how I should “take it to the next level”, “find a a philosophical basis for what I do”, make a rock be “more than a rock” or all the rest of the depressing psychobabble. I’m certainly not going to dive in some kind of ersatz conceptual art.  Vacations will be vacations, not “photo tours”. I’m just going to take (hopefully) pretty pictures of things and juxtapositions that grab my attention or resonate somehow, enjoy the process of doing so, and enjoy looking at them. And I’ll publish a few here on my website too, just in case they give a few fleeting microseconds of pleasure to others.

 
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