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photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

revisiting RAW

Yet more options….

in Apple Aperture , Monday, October 31, 2011

Prompted by a series of posts by Mitch Alland, I decided it might be interesting to take another look at a RAW processor I’d not seriously considered in the past, Raw Photo Processor, or RPP.  RPP is not your usual run of the mill RAW processor.  It concerns itself only with the initial steps of translating the RAW file into a finished photo, and, unlike others (the author claims - I’m not 100% convinced), recalculates from the raw data for each applied edit.  It works a bit differently from a user interface perspective too, foregoing sliders for direct numeric input, and in most cases refreshing the preview only on demand. However, it isn’t as hard to use as it seems on first glimpse.

Mitch Alland reports that “it’s been a revelation because RPP does a much better job in raw development than Aperture: it simply produces better resolution and better color”. So it seems worth taking it for a spin.

Here’s a comparison of a file output from Aperture at default settings (above) and from RPP, with a contrast curve applied in Photoshop, below:

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As you can see, the white balance is significantly different. I’m not sure which is “right”. The RPP version is very neutral, but I couldn’t say for sure if the Aperture (actually, in camera) version is capturing an accurate cast. RPP white balance works well on Auto, or Custom, but In Camera is a bit strange.

As for detail, well, yes, I’d say that RPP visibly delivers a touch more, but it’s not going to be noticeable to the average audience.

RPP also delivers more image. On this Olympus E-P2 shot, Aperture outputs a 4032 by 2034 pixel image -which is to Olympus’s specifications. RPP recovers more, providing 4090 by 3078. I believe the “extra” pixels have something to do with calibration, but apparently they do contain usable image data.

The big difference between basic RPP and basic Aperture processing, disregarding white balance, is Aperture’s Boost slider. Basically, RPP delivers a file with Boost set to 0. According to Apple, Boost applies a camera-specific contrast curve directly after RAW demosaicing. It is actually remarkable what a difference it makes - this, effectively, is the “look” or magic sauce of a RAW converter. Of course it’s a subjective judgement as to whether this is a good thing or not.  RPP gives you the best shot it can at providing you with the basic ingredients, and it’s then up to you to make the most of these in subsequent post-processing, be it in Photoshop, Aperture, Lightroom, or whatever.

It’s difficult to make a quick judgment on the real-world merits of RPP, but using it gives you a clearer idea of what’s really going on behind the smoke and mirrors, and potentially it might just give you a quality edge.  In any case it’s a useful tool to have. And it’s free - although donations are appreciated.

 

m.zuiko 45mm f1.8

a bundle of fun

in Olympus E-System , Friday, October 28, 2011

One of my favourite-ever lenses was the Canon FD 135mm f2.0.  This fast telephoto would let me pluck a detail out a scene, beautifully sharp, with the fore- and background smoothly blending into a creamy smooth bokeh. And it had great contrast. And I gave it away, with most of my Canon FD gear, to the daughter of a friend who wanted to study photography but had no way of affording the gear. 

I never really found anything to compare to that lens, but now maybe I have: the Olympus m.Zuiko 45mm f1.8, which has the added advantage of being almost absurdly low-priced.  Mine arrived today. And here’s a sample of what I’ve found it can do.

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Stray leaf. Olympus E-P2 with m.Zuiko 45mm f1.8, wide open

So far I’ve found that the E-P2 tends to underexpose by 1/3 to 2/3rds of a stop with this lens compared to the 14-45mm. But that’s not much of a problem.

This is a fun lens to use, much more so in my opinion that the highly-rated Lumix 20mm. It is light, but well built, with a large, well damped focus ring. It looks gorgeous. And the results are pretty much guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. This is a must-have lens for and Micro Four Thirds camera owner. And an absolute bargain.  I’ll post some more examples soon.

 

retail therapy

(in reverse)

in Photography , Sunday, October 23, 2011

This is time of year where the days draw shorter, where weekends get taken up with life’s trivia, and going out to take photographs just doesn’t happen.  And in fact I’m getting a but tired with all the trappings of photography, and can’t help but wonder what it’s all for.

So it’s a good time to re-discover the Ricoh GR Digital slipped into my jacket pocket.  This wonderful little cult camera is such a pleasure to use that it demands that photo opportunities be found.  Even after a hard saturday afternoon’s shopping.

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Caffeinated. Ricoh GR Digital in B&W mode, Ilford FP5+ simulation in Nik Silver Efx Pro.

I know of a least two great photographers working daily with this camera (and similar models), Mitch Alland, who’s street photography from Bangkok is endlessly fascinating, and Wouter Brandsma, who’s transformation of everyday trivia into photographic art is an inspiration.  Not really what I do, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it.

 

Silverfast 8 - initial impressions

A look at SF 8 HDR Public Beta

in Product reviews , Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Lasersoft Imaging released Silverfast 8 towards the end of August. Unfortunately, they don’t yet support my main scanner, although they do support my CanoScan 9000F, but they have just released a public Beta of Silverfast 8 HDR. Since most of my time with Silverfast 6.6 is spent using HDR, this was welcome news.

Since it has come during a bit of a lull in both photography and especially scanning, I haven’t really had much reason to try it, but yesterday evening I thought I’d give it a go. Note, this article is written under the influence of a combined throat infection and heavy cold.

The big thing about Silverfast 8 is the user interface redesign, but that’s not the only point. However, it really dominates the update, so here it is.

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The Silverfast 8 HDR Studio user interface

and here it was:

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The Silverfast 6 HDR Studio user interface

Silverfast 8 introduces a modern, compact, unified user interface which, although remaining a little idiosyncratic, is a huge improvement.

I haven’t run anything approaching a full session, so I’ll just list a few early impressions. These are taken from running on MacOS X 10.6.8.

Positives:

- hugely improved UI. Massive step forward
- installs and runs following normal guidelines, including access to preference panels, etc. Uses standard OS toolbar.
- detachable tool panel, so you can “roll your own” UI to some extent
- ability to turn various edits on and off in preview (like Aperture or Lightroom)
- ability to run Silverfast 8 and Silverfast 8 HDR concurrently - I think. I’m not 100% sure as my trial of Silverfast 8 for CanoScan 9000F has expired, but I can open both launch screens at the same time. I can also run SF 8 HDR and SF 6 HDR (or AI Studio) at the same time.

Negatives (remembering that this is a Beta):

- allows quit without warning to save edited images
- the colour cast slider seems to have vanished. Now the level is set in Preferences only

Neutral:

- the image manager, Silverfast VLT, which works as a front end to Silverfast HDR 6.6, is gone.  This is not necessarily a bad thing as it is somewhat buggy and has some very poor design choices. However as a way of building up Job Manager lists is was pretty good. Maybe it will return.
- seems stable. No crashes so far.


Generally all the tools remain the same, including the superlative colour correction tools, but they’re easier to use and understand.

All in all it looks encouraging. Let’s just hope Lasersoft come up with a pricelist which takes into account that it’s not 2001 anymore, otherwise selling a product like this into a dwindling market is going to be pretty challenging.

 

Volcano hopping in the Aeolian Islands

shooting volcanos

in essay , Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Aeolian Islands form an archipelago of seven volcanic peaks poking above the sea to the north of Sicily and the  Messina Straits. Of those seven, one, Stromboli, is active, and has been in constant (“strombolic”) eruption for  at least 2000 years. Another, Vulcano (the name is a bit of a giveaway), is a smouldering stratovolcano which last blew its top about 100 years ago, and must be thinking about a repeat act in the not too distant future, based on its past record.  Lipari, the largest island, is classified as active by geologists, and has some low key fumarole activity scattered around. The rest are dormant or extinct. Salina, with it’s distinctive twin peaks, is the second largest, and fairly busy by Eolian standards (i.e sleepy). Panarea is a small, discrete high end tourist resort, with the relicts of a massive explosion, Basiluzzo, featuring active undersea vents, a kilometer or so offshore. Filicudi and Aliculdi are car-free, timeless, sleepy dreamlands which you’d love or loathe. All seven are linked by a web of hydrofoils and ferries. If you ever happen to have read Christopher Priest’s novel “The Affirmation”, or his “Dream Archipelago” short stories, this could well be the setting for them.

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Lipari, and Salina’s twin peaks, from the rim of Vulcano’s crater.

The Dream Archipelago

I have always been vaguely aware of the Aeolian Islands. They seemed to be a distant, mythical, far off place which was hard to get to, and about which little was said. I just knew I wanted to go, and finally at the tail end of a two week  vacation in eastern Sicily (also highly recommended, especially Etna), I had my first opportunity. Three days in Lipari, a quick glimpse of Stromboli, an afternoon on Salina and a hint of Vulcano and I was hooked. The next trip  was exclusively to the islands, included cameras, and a first ascent of Stromboli.  The second, earlier this year,  was exclusively photographic, out of season, and featured Vulcano and Stromboli, and some serious near-vertical trekking.

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Alicudi and Filicudi, spied from Lipari.

Vulcano and Stromboli are the obvious attention grabbers, especially Stromboli, so for now I’ll concentrate on these. I’m really at a loss to say which fascinates me the most. Stromboli is more spectacular, more isolated,  more wild and, I guess, more romantic. Ingrid Bergman certainly thought so. Vulcano is more accessible, has fewer  restrictions, is pretty spectacular itself, although you need to seek it out a bit more, and from a photographic  perspective arguably has more potential. I’d hate to have to choose between them.

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The volcano looms over the church of San Vincenzo on Stromboli.

Vulcano

Vulcano’s main feature is the Grand Crater. It is truly impressive, about a km in diameter, with the rim between 400 and 600m above sea level. The north west side is riddled with fumaroles, of varying activity, and wide  deposits of sulfur and other minerals. The crater itself is sprinkled with large lumps of obsidian, which you  really would not want falling on your head.

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Sunrise through sulphuric fumes, Vulcano.

The contrast between the bright yellow sulfur, the deep blue  Mediterranean sea, and the equally blue sky, is full of potential but not so easy to exploit well. Especially when  the pretty yellow patches are associated with enthusiastically poisonous fumes emanating from the fumaroles and  tending to creep up behind you when you least expect them. Please note: if you do visit Vulcano, don’t let the relaxed attitude to public safety put you off. In a nanny state like the UK these would be seriously fenced off. They can be lethal, and stumbling around a steep rocky smoke breathing toxic fumes is not a fun way to spend your time. But then again, with care and attention to your getaway route, you can get extremely close. Of course, then  you’ve got to watch out for boiling water and scalding steam. Hey, it’s a volcano!

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Obsidian and sulphur, Vulcano.

The climb up to the crater is quite straightforward, but don’t carry too much gear, and do carry as much water as  you can carry, and a snack. There’s no bar or gift shop up there!  If you’re taking photographs, honestly you want  to go for the sunrise or sunset slot. Sunrise is better (clearer air) but sunset can be spectacular.  To get to  the path, just follow the road south out of the port, skirting the crater. About 2km from the dock you will see a  path to your left.  Don’t even think about shortcuts, the path is the only safe way, and any shortcut is going to  be much harder.  The path zigzags up the side of the crater. At the first hairpin, a recently installed feature is  a kiosk where you might be asked to pay 2€ for entrance. This is not a con, but an official move to raise funds to  protect the area and improve access. The results can already be seen in a much improved upper section of the  path, which previously could be quite tricky.  However, the kiosk tends not to be manned at 5am ...  Initially the  path is pretty steep. Take your time, plod along. It’s not as bad as it seems and all will be forgiven when you  get your first glimpse of the crater.

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The Grand Crater, Vulcano.

And it will get you prepared for Stromboli! Stromboli is a different kettle of fish. The crater zone is  approximately 1000m above sea level, which is where you’ll be starting from (sea level, give or take 50m).

No pain, no gain

The  climb is steep, unrelenting, frequently exposed to the Mediterranean sun, and as you get higher you’ll be walking  on volcanic sand and ash. It takes between 2.5 to 3.5 hours, depending on the conditions and the group. Because  you’ll have to go in a group. Health & safety regulations introduced some years back in reaction to several  accidents as well as increasing volcanic activity now dictate that you must go with a recognised and licensed  mountain guide, who will always have at least one assistant, and stays in constant communication with the emergency services. Most guides are local, multilingual (at least to some extent), and have extensive knowledge of aspect or the other of the island and volcano, be it geology, vulcanology or botany. Several are qualified scientists. So there is no rip-off here, the guides are well organised and responsible, and the charges are quite  reasonable (around €20). But there is a supply and demand problem. In-season (basically Easter to August), demand  is very high, and groups are large and constrained. In theory each group should spend no more than 30 minutes on  the summit ridge (not including a rest at the lower platform, at about 850m).  This is in part a restriction for  safety reasons, to minimise exposure to toxic gasses (including carbon monoxide), and in part a limitation to  allow the maximum number of visitors per day (and all groups aim to be there or thereabouts at sunset). After  such a climb, it can feel pretty disappointing to have so little time at the summit, so try to go out of season.  Rules are more easily bent, the atmosphere is more relaxed, and 90 minutes on the ridge is not unheard of - by  which time it’s dark anyway.

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Smoking vents, seen from the lower platform, Stromboli

Shooting a volcano

So, photography. Well, really, don’t take too much gear. Really, if you’re exhausted when you reach the top,  you’ll be in no shape to take good photos, especially as you’re going to have to act and react quickly.  First of  all, if you’re in a large group, try to be at the front for the final stretch. You’re going to want a front row  view. Second, or actually no, first of all: safety first. This is a dangerous place. One slip, and you’re quite  literally toast. Nobody is going to go down into to the rift to rescue you. No photo is worth that. Do take a  tripod. Forget filters, you don’t need them, and you’ve got no time to fiddle with them, with the exception of a  UV / Skylight to protect the lens from ash and dust ... which quite possibly will be raining down on you. That’s  why the guide gave you a helmet. Put it on. I would recommend a mid-range zoom lens, with a 35mm equivalent of  around 70-200mm. Take a wider angle if you feel you can take the weight (but honestly, there are few worst places  to change a lens), but you probably won’t use it. I’ve taken an XPan up twice and got almost nothing worthwhile. A  remote cable release is good to have as well.  Observe first: try to avoid seeing the world through your  viewfinder. The experience of being 500m away from an erupting volcano is literally awesome, and pretty much unique at least in Europe.  Identify a good candidate for photos, usually a crater which is producing eruptions  every few minutes or so, frame your shot, set up your exposure, check your histogram, and focus manually. Set up  your motor drive (actually, set up as much as you can before the climb). Then hold your cable release, enjoy the vista, and wait for the opportunity. If you hold your nerve, you’re in with a good chance to get a great shot. If you just flap around reacting to the volcano rather than observing and waiting, you’ll end up with a lot of  blurred shots with something that might be lava in the corner. It’s really not dissimilar to shooting fireworks.  Planning and anticipation are key.

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Third time lucky ? It took 3 visits to Stromboli before I caught this!

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The show just keeps going on.

Then sooner than you want it’s time to go down, but actually this is almost as much fun. You won’t go down by the steep path you came up on, but rather by a wild, head-torch illuminated semi-controlled slide down and across the relict ash slope on the south side of the volcano. You’ll take about 45 minutes to reach the village. And you’ll want several beers to go with that well-earned pizza.

And now ... the easy way up

If you feel like a (relatively) more relaxed and less constrained experience, alternatively you can walk  out towards to east of the island, past Piscinas, past the Punto Labronzo lighthouse, and follow the old path up the ridge overlooking the “Sciara del Fuoco”. You are allowed to climb up to 450m without a guide, and you can get as far up as a  platform which povides great views of eruption craters along the top of the ridge, as well as (if you’re lucky) lava flowing down the slope, and ejecta crashing into the sea below. It’s a different experience, but equally rewarding.

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Overlooking the Sciara del Fuoco, Stromboli.

And there’s a lot more to the Eolian Islands than Volcanos. The best time to visit, in my experience, is late  March, but it varies a bit year to year. At that time things are pretty quiet, the tourist infrastructure hasn’t really got going, and finding a guide is not 100% guaranteed ... but just relax. It’s all part of the experience.

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Not just volcanoes. A natural arch on Lipari’s west coast.

Getting there

The most reliable, year-round link is by hydrofoil from Milazzo. Both Ustica Lines and Siremar operate regular  services. Departures to the outer islands, including Stromboli, are much less frequent out of season. Milazzo is reachable from Catania airport, by a combination of public transport (entertaining but slow), or by taxi service  (fast but more expensive). In-season some bus services link both Catania and Palermo airports with Milazzo.

Stromboli Guides

Both Magmatrek and Antonio Famularo are highly recommended and very professional. Out of season they provide a joint service.

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It’s not all hard work…