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photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

A bridge of two halves

la dolce vita

in Travel , Thursday, May 29, 2014

About 3km from where I live in Switzerland is the town of Ponte Tresa, named after the bridge over the river Tresa, which drains Lake Lugano into Lake Maggiore, and marks the border with Italy. Ponte Tresa is actually two separate towns sharing the same name, with a Swiss side and an Italian side.

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The bridge over the Tresa. Italy starts at the signpost.  Note the contrast between the spotless, perfectly maintained railing on the Swiss part and the rather more, er “relaxed” look on the Italian side…

Both sides, it is not unfair to say, are rather run-down. Old photographs show a much more prosperous past. Lifting of most border controls, and the shifting patterns of commerce have drastically lessened their status as frontier towns, with just a few fly-blown import agencies as reminders of past glories. But even so, the two sides are remarkably different. The Swiss town keeps up appearances, but seems lifeless. Even the banks are closing. But of course it is clinically clean, quiet and tidy, and the surrounding holiday homes and lavish apartments on the hillsides above and by the lake lend a solid air of Swiss prosperity. The Italian town, on the other hand, is scruffy, chaotic, noisy and vibrant. Even the dingiest bar serves great coffee at crazy low prices, the shops are open in the evening (gasp) and even on Sundays (even bigger gasp) - although the smaller ones take a healthy afternoon siesta. On Saturdays it’s great to just wander over the bridge for a jolt of culture shock and soak up the atmosphere. At weekends in the warmer months there are floods of German, Dutch and Swiss-German tourists, all eager to go bargaining in the wonderfully, ahem, authentic Italian market, where they’re sure to be fleeced by traders from authentic Italian locations such as Pristina, Poznan or Bucharest… or maybe on the odd occasion Palermo. But it’s all good fun.

Ponte Tresa feels like monochrome photography. So here are a few scenes from around town.  These are all taken with the Sigma 60mm DN lens, and converted in Nik SilverEFX.

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Of course I don’t want to knock my adopted country, and there are some quite obvious economic reasons why commerce is dead on one side of the border and thriving on the other (and then again, why there are beggars on the street on one side and not on the other) - but even so, the difference in atmosphere is quite remarkable, given that both sides, in theory at least, share a common Lombardy culture and the same language.

 

Venice, again

preparations for a journey

in Photography , Saturday, May 24, 2014

In a few weeks I will be going back to Venice again, but this time in a different context. I decided to sign-up to the Olympus sponsored workshop led by landscape photographer Steve Gosling and Travel and Portrait photographer Neil Buchan-Grant.

At this point I should probably have a clear idea of my objectives and how I expect this workshop to “take me to the next level”, and to “further developing my own eye and style”, as photo guru Ming Thein puts in in the prospectus for his own (far, far more expensive) Venice workshop.

Of course, the truth is, I haven’t got a clue. I don’t know if can get to the “next level”, never mind if I want to or need to.  I’m not sure I even know where it is, or if I’d recognise it if I walked into it. What I do know is that I have a recurring dissatisfaction with my photography, which is increasing in frequency, and I think it might kick me out of a rut to be able to spend some dedicated time with other photographers, in a location I know well enough that I won’t be hampered or distracted by unfamiliarity. And I like the work and writings of both of the two workshop leaders. And, I assume thanks to Olympus, the cost is astonishingly low (slightly more than 1/10th of Ming Thein’s offering).

To get some idea of what my objectives might be, I decided that establishing some kind of baseline might be a good idea. This meant finally getting around to selecting 16 photos for a Venice set to add to my galleries. I was surprised how quickly this fell into place, normally it takes much longer. It was helped by the extensive pre-selection I’ve been doing over the past few months, but even so.  Maybe it will give me some idea of where the mysterious next level is, although in Venice of course one never really knows…

Venice gallery

Maybe in a few weeks time I’ll have been transported to a higher (Olympian) plane of photographical excellence and I’ll be able to junk all these. We shall see.

 

Life at 60

(60mm, that is!)

in Photography , Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Well, I may be a way off 60 yet (mind you…), but the effects are clearly setting in early: when I wrote my review of the Sigma 60mm lens a few days ago, I completely forgot that I’d taken another set of shots specifically to illustrate it.  Oh well, it gives me an excuse for another gratuitous post.

So here are some more photos taken using the rather excellent Sigma 60mm DN f/2.8 “Art” lens.

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The following two photos are processed using a blend of colour and black & white layers, following Gianni Galassi’s mentioning of this technique on his blog.  I’m sure he does it better than me, but anyway I quite like the effect.

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Sigma 60mm DN f2.8

a subjective (re)view

in GAS , Monday, May 19, 2014

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I rarely talk about gear these days, but for once I’ve got something to write about. A couple of days ago, on an impulse triggered by a post on Kirk Tuck’s blog, I indulged myself in a bit of retail therapy in the shape of a Sigma 60mm DN f2.8 lens for micro FourThirds. This was greatly helped by the unbelievably low price, in Switzerland at least, of CHF 170. Bearing in mind that this is about a third of the price of the Olympus equivalent (which to be fair is a macro) and something like one fifth of the cost of an Olympus 75mm f/1.8, and taking into account the fabulous optics on my Sigma Merrill, it was hard to resist.

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Olympus E-P3, ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/640

Apart from the 40-150 zoom, the longest lens I had for mFT was the Olympus 45 1.8, and I could certainly find some uses for a relatively fast, sharp 60mm. It could come in quite handy for stalking street photography,as well as landscape. So along with Kirk Tuck’s glowing praise, I had enough to convinced myself.

Like all of Sigma’s “Art” range for mFT, the 60mm comes in black and silver versions. I would have preferred the black, but it was back-ordered everywhere, and impulse buys demand instant gratification. So I went for the silver.

The package, especially for the price, should make Olympus hang their heads in shame. The lens comes in a robust box, complete with padded carry case, lens hood (hear that, Olympus?), and a cute Sigma Switzerland credit-card format warranty card giving not only 2 years guarantee but also a free yearly service and alignment check. For CHF 170. Ok, aesthetically the lens itself is going to be an acquired taste. It’s probably a little less challenging in black, but in silver the first visual impression is of a large tin can. Since it is also available for APS-sensored Sony NEX, it’s larger than it needs to be for mFT. The design is certainly, um, functional, but nevertheless solid, and with some really nice touches, for example the characters around the front of the barrel and left uncoloured, just etched into the black plastic, so as to avoid any chance of spurious reflection off a filter. The lens barrel itself, though, while very large for mFT, has a slippery finish and makes manual focussing harder than it needs to be.

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Olympus E-P3, ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/1000

When you pick up the lens you are rewarded with a muffled clunking sound. Being pre-warned about this, I wasn’t worried: the autofocus system apparently uses an electromagnet, and when there is no power to the lens, the assembly just moves around. A bit weird, but by design. And it doubles as audible check that the camera is switched on - give it a shake and if the lens goes “clunk!” the power is off! Once powered up, the autofocus seems good enough. I don’t measure this stuff, but subjectively it seems a touch slower than average. Oh, and the lens barrel scratches very, very easily. If keeping your gear pristine and ding-free is important to you, DO NOT buy this lens.

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Olympus E-P3, ISO 200, f/3.5, 1/500

I’ve been going through a bad period of photographer’s block recently (or possibly much, much longer but I’ve only just noticed), so the photography here is illustrative at best. But hopefully it gives some idea of how this lens works.

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It’s a portrait lens. So here’s my long-suffering portrait subject. Olympus E-P3, ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/1600

It does that bookey stuff too!!

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Olympus E-P3, ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/800

From what I can see, it performs very well. There’s no sign of vignetting, even wide open, and the edges seem as sharp as the centre, also from f/2.8 onwards. It’s a fun lens to use.

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Olympus E-P3, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/800

And finally, a bit of pixel-peeping. Two 1:1 segments of the above photo:

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The centre

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The bottom right corner

And that’s quite enough gear reviewing for now. Far too much like hard work. In conclusion, I can hardly not recommend this lens. Even forgetting the quite unbelievable value for money, it delivers great results and is fun to use. It is a little on the large side on my Olympus E-P3, but less so than, for example, the Panasonic / Leica 25mm. A less slippery focussing ring would be nice, and as I said, if you’re allergic to scratches, steer clear.  But if you like great quality optics for not very much money at all, you can’t go wrong with this lens, or indeed pretty much anything from Sigma these days.

All photos taken at the UNESCO-listed Monte Sacro di Varese, Lombardia, Italy. A stunning and remarkably little known location, well worth a visit.

 

Washout

all the gear… no idea.

in Photography , Tuesday, May 06, 2014

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I’ve just spent 4 days in Tuscany, which has become a strong habit over recent years. Tuscany has deservedly become one of the top destinations for photographers, featuring fantastic landscape and impossibly photogenic medieval (and older) villages and towns, all shifting mood with the seasons and weather. In some places you can’t swing a cat without knocking ten tripods flying. It’s a visual goldmine for photographers from nature to street and all points in between. I’ve accumulated over 6000 digital shots from Tuscany, and pre-2004 plenty of film as well. But this year, I managed a sum total of 119 photos over 4.5 days, including friends & family snapshots. The weather was cold and wet, mainly, which didn’t help, and I struggled to motivate myself to take any shots at all. But even those I did apply a little effort to are very, very underwhelming, and even technically poor, with endemic exposure and focus errors. Of course, when all else fails, one can resort to ND grad filters (as above) to desperately try to recover a bit of drama. And when THAT fails, convert to good old grainy black and white for that authentic look.

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Actually I quite like this one but it only really works when it’s bigger enough to see the direction of the policeman’s gaze.

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The barbershop cliché...

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…and the poster cliché...

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…and wrap up with the Umbrella shot. At least I didn’t selectively colour it.

Basically I’ve gradually lost interest over the past months, and photography is becoming a bit of a drag. I think I’ve realised that I’ve hit something of a peak in my photography, but compared to most it’s a pretty low peak. I’ve tried to do all the things one is supposed to do, try new subjects, enter competitions, submit portfolios, but it’s not stopping the general feeling of decline. I’m not even interested in gear, for heaven’s sake, despite my dearly beloved’s best efforts to get me to buy an Olympus E-M1. I’ve developed pre-purchase buyer’s remorse, the ideal solution for Gear Acquisition Syndrome.

Just to show equal-opportunity all-the-gear-and-no-idea, here’s some stuff that might pass as “landscape” - well, for a beginner, anyway.

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So rather than find something more constructive to do with my time, I’m going through a process of assessing and qualifying my extensive archives. It’s not always that encouraging - I don’t seem to have taken a single interesting photograph in Italy, for example - but it might give some clue on how to rekindle my interest. Or indeed confirm that it’s time to switch to knitting, or something. Or even do the housework.