Just some stuff about photography

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More Lensbaby fun

in Photography , Thursday, January 26, 2006

Just an excuse to post a photo this time. This was taken last week in Samnauen, on a "no chance" skiing day. samnauen_0106-00003.jpg

In to the trees...

This was produced direct from CaptureOne, following Colin Jago's further experiments on sharpening. The Lensbaby is fun, but it is a right bug*er to handle, especially when it's cold!

Calendar Publication

Following a very limited experiment last year, this year I decided (under much persuasion) to attempt to create a good quality calendar of Icelandic images, purely for family & friends.

My first attempt was through Lulu. This is a US web-based self publication service which includes services for book printing and calendars amongst others. It seemed ok, even after visiting the forums where there was a fair amount of complaining. Having done plenty of pre-press work in the past, it seemed that preparing photos for print on their digital printer would be feasible.

Lulu provides a couple of lightly customisable calendar templates, to which users can upload photos. The system is not very user friendly, and requires far more fiddling than it should do. Customer support is also very poor, with customers (paying customers that is) being largely fobbed off to the forums. At the prices Lulu charges, this is pretty bad.

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Cover for the "lulu" calendar



Of course, the most important thing is the quality. Well, at nearly $30 a copy (and double that for shipping, in some cases), it is really bad. The paper is horrible, an off-white stock (described as "white") with a quite inappropriate texture and the coil binding does not have a hook (the pages are perforated for hanging, which defeats the point of coil binding). Print colour is ok, quite a close match to my prooofing, but shadows up to at least 10% are muddy and detail-free (despite a shadow threshold of 12), and there are nasty vertical streaks on most pages. Very amateur and certainly not worth half the price. One plus point, the packaging is robust and secure.

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Interior page from the "lulu" calendar



I was ready to give up at this point, but at the last moment heard from a friend about XPress Printing, a digital printing service in Romania. In this case, it is print & print only - although they do offer a design service. So I had to do a very fast design using Adobe InDesign, and uploaded a 30Mb PDF for them to print. They provided excellent support and could answer all questions I put to them, immediately and with no hesitation.

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Cover page for the final calendar



The printed calendars arrived a few days later. The quality is fantastic, at under $10 a copy, on very nice paper. They are coil-bound, and have been very well received. The packaging was not so good, but the second batch was better. I'm not sure if the people at Xpress speak English, but I think they do - they are well worth getting in touch with if you need printing services like this, but do be aware you need to know what you're doing. They will just print whatever you send!

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Interior page from the final calendar



All of the photos were taken with the Olympus E-1, except for the cover, with is an Xpan image. The rush job resulted in two errors, a typo in an Icelandic title, and somehow ending up with "01.2006" for August - which took quite a while for anyone to spot (grazie Stefano!).

We had 30 printed. We have got a few spares, so if anybody out there is interested, I'll be happy to send you one (if you ask in time) against the price of postage.

Panasonic Lumix LX1

in Photography , Friday, January 13, 2006

It is two years since I last bought a new camera, and this state of affairs could not last. I had been thinking of buying a new digital compact for quite a while. My old Olympus C4040 still works fine, but it is slow, cumbersome and not really much fun to use. I was very interested in the Ricoh GR Digital, being a big GR1 fan, but early so-so reviews put me off. In fact they prompted me to revive my GR1, which I used on two seperate mountain outings last weekend. Unfortunately, on the second of these, the film jammed after a few frames - not for the first time. Patchy reliability has always been an issue for me with both of my GR1s, and this time I've had enough. In the meantime I had both handled a GRd and read better reviews. Probably stories of quality control issues, combined with my recent GR experience should put me off, but I was still very interested: the GRd is a gorgeous device. I very nearly bought one - the fact that I didn't is down to a spectacularly incompetent salesman. As it was I ended up sleeping on it, and at the very last moment the Lumix won due to its greater flexibility, the 16x9 sensor, and the price of the Ricoh's accessories. The lack of any sort of viewfinder on the Lumix worries me, but the Ricoh external viewfinder is a bit clumsy, not to mention expensive. The final decider was Michael Reichmann's field report, and the fact that it just promises to be more fun!

Cranes and moon - first photo using LX1

It took me only a few minutes to decided that I'd made the right choice. It is fun to use, and easy to handle, albeit a touch small. Yes, the images show some noise, but nothing that can't be cleared up. Capturing in RAW mode doesn't slow things down much (unlike the Ricoh GR), and responsiveness is far better than my old C4040. Thanks to Adobe Camera RAW support, images can be converted in Photoshop / Bridge or the new Lightroom. Highly recommended (don't bother with the Leica version, you're just paying for the badge). The rest is down to the photographer.

Adobe Lightroom

in Product reviews , Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Amazing: you wait forever for decent photo workflow tool, and then two turn up together. Adobe lost out on the race to go public first with Lightroom, but Apple may lose out from under delivering on expectations with Aperture. The big difference to most people is, basically, $500. You can now try out an early beta release of Lightroom for free, but Aperture is strictly for paying customers only. I haven't even seen Aperture except boxed on a shelf, and in screenshots, but I have downloaded Lightroom. I am quite impressed with Lightroom's UI design. Apparently the guy who designed worked with Kai Krause, on the UIs for KPT, Bryce, Soap, etc, and it shows. It is pretty, but also effective. The "rooms" metaphor from Soap is quite clear in Lightroom. Lightroom works fine with Olympus E-1 RAW files, as expected, or at least as well as Adobe Camera Raw, which is not as good as Olympus Studio or PhaseOne C1Pro. Aperture also works with E-1 files, which I know from opening E-1 RAW in iPhoto. The quality is pretty poor though, not as good as Adobe. Olympus files seem to cause problems for many converters. So, as of today, I would use either for RAW conversion.

An Olympus E-1 RAW file open in Lightroom's Library view

What I'm looking for is a rock solid versioning and management tool. I want to work with photos, not files. I want a program to realise that a TIFF, JPEG or Photoshop file processed from a RAW capture is a version of the same photo, not a completely unassociated file. Both Lightroom and Aperture seem to be offering this, although I think it is fair to say that Aperture is more sophisticated. And, whilst browsing, comparing, rating and labeling functions are welcome, I also want the application to get out of my way and let ME decide how I'm going to process RAW files. If I want to use the C1Pro engine, let me. There is no reason why managing a RAW file cannot be disassociated from processing it. Lightroom has received some plaudits over Aperture, because, apparently, Aperture is perceived as being tied to the Mac OS. Well, this is true to some extent, but Lightroom is just as much tied to Adobe's product line. Aperture is actually designed to work with Photoshop (even if it does not do so entirely perfectly so far), so arguably it is more open. Lightroom also promises an API, but what sort of API remains to be seen. Unless it supports Photoshop plug-ins out of the box, I can't see it being a big advantage. Aperture has many other issues, and I certainly would not buy it yet (although if the RAW converter improves I might, and if Apple offer a limited trial period it would help a lot), but it does seem more ambitious than Lightroom. I don't for a moment believe that Lightroom has been knocked up in two months to spoil Aperture, but I do suspect that its focus has changed. If you read the history published by Jeff Schewe over at PhotoshopNews, the initial idea of Lightroom does seem to be closer to a "Kai's Soap Pro" than anything else. I'm also a little put off by the exuberant enthusiasm of some of the Adobe cheerleaders (Jeff Schewe, Andrew Rodney, even Michael Reichmann) for Lightroom over Aperture. There is no doubt that Lightroom is interesting, but it is being seriously overhyped. It doesn't actually do very much yet. So far, it is a (very) nice UI design wrapped around Adobe Bridge functionality and a few editing and display tools. Not much more than iPhoto, to be honest. The excitement of the cheerleaders seems a little out of proportion. Yes, it is a beta, but releasing a beta has benefits and negatives, and you can't take one without the other. If Lightroom is going to be released in Q3 2006, Aperture has quite some time to make good it's defects, and incidentally profit from the free market research on the Lightroom forums. Personally, I think there is a real opportunity for PhaseOne and iView to merge C1Pro with MediaPro 3, and forge a fantastic full workflow product from two strong specialists. Who knows, maybe it will happen.

Revisiting the past

in Photography , Wednesday, January 04, 2006

It seems appropriate that the New Year finds me revisiting the past. Triggered by the flood of Antarctic photos posted recently by Michael Reichmann and some of his co-travellers, I have had another attempt at salvaging something from my extensive slide collection from Antarctica which I took in 1988 and 1992. At the time of these visits, I had absolutely no intent beyond personal mementoes for these photos. I had very little idea of what I was doing, despite endless, patient advice from people such as Rick Frolich and Julian Paren, and my equipment was basic: Canon FT, with a few Canon lenses (pretty good f1.4 50mm, a 28mm, and a Vivitar zoom, along with a fish eye add-on), all borrowed from my father, and an Olympus XA compact. The second time, I think I had a second Canon body, an FTb, but I'm not so sure now. I took my colleagues advice and used mainly Kodachrome 25 & 64, with a few rolls of Ektachrome 64. I had little idea of what a tripod would be used for. On top of this, I did not take good care of the slides, and many are damaged by fungus, dust and scratches. Of course at that time, the only practical things you could do with slides was to project them, and to get Cibachrome prints made. The idea of scanning them into a computer and manipulating the results would have been pure science fiction. As far as I was concerned, at that time computers lived in big rooms and were used for science. Small computers, primitive PCs, pre-Windows IBMs, Commodores, BBC Micros and the like were useful for recording data and writing short reports...but image processing ? No way! On the second trip we did in fact have a number of Macs with us, including a Mac II and a Portable, and probably we had Photoshop 2.5 lurking somewhere, but this was used for science, not photography. My interest was revived around about 1998, when I started getting more into photography as a goal in itself, and when I bought my first film scanner, a Minolta Scan Dual. At that time I had little computer power, although of course I had far more than in 1988. Scanning slides into Photoshop 3.0 was pretty disappointing: at 2400dpi, with no dust & scratch removal, no colour management, no real idea about editing, there was little to be done. However, the results from that time are actually still on the web, in an orphaned, unmanaged web site at Easynet. Later, some 3 or 4 years ago, I had another go at salvaging a few slides. It was a bit more successful, but still not totally satisfying. However, in recent months, both some positive comments on a few slides, and the realisation that I should make the most of what I've got have combined to make me decide there was still some mileage in these slides. The Luminous Landscape reports were the final push, since apart from anything they helped me to realise that short of a miracle I'm never going there again - tourist trips are strictly in high earner territory. Now, with the improved scanning performance from my Minolta Scan Multi Pro, 16x multisampling, and wide gamut colour space, I'm getting better source material (although the dynamic range still doesn't quite cope with some Kodachromes - black & white penguins against white snow are pretty challenging). Using the Scanhancer also helps a lot, especially as it enables Digital ICE to work on Kodachromes. The way in which some fungal damage is cleared by this combination is little short of miraculous. Noise Ninja is great for reducing film grain and scanning noise, and the grey balancers in PhotoKit Colour are very useful shortcuts (although their effect can be replicated with curves). The vignetting tool in Photoshop CS2 is also extremely useful. Possibly I have acquired slightly better composition skills, which help me to make better crops. Another very useful new tool comes from Joseph Holmes's Chrome colour profiles. These allow saturation to be adjusted in a completely non-destructive way, by assigning variations of his wide gamut colour space, and are very well suited to Kodachrome. There is also a strange pleasure in rediscovering the neutrality and ambience of Kodachrome. Makes me want to go out and buy some more while I still can.

Before...

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...and After

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The British research ship RRS John Biscoe near Damoy hut.