INDEX

photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

Panasonic Lumix L1 previewed

in Product reviews , Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The new Panasonic L1 has been previewed by Reponses Photo (excellent French print magazine). As they say, on paper, a collaboration between the makers of the Lumix compacts, Leica and Olymous should be something special. But they're disappointed. Whilst they are quite enthusiastic about the general concept, the build quality, and the degree of control, there are a series of downsides.
  • The "Live View" feature simply isn't as useful as the version on the Olympus E-330, mainly because the screen is fixed. However, unlike on the E-330, apparently you can use auto-focus without restrictions.
  • The optical viewfinder is dark and cramped, and the physical design, which sticks out 1cm at the back, is simply asking to be damaged. They reckon that the eyecup will be lost within days.
  • The handling is a bit clumsy, as balance, with the kit lens attached, is front heavy. Which exacerbates the viewfinder design issue.
  • The "Leica" kit lens is interesting, but the aperture ring is awkward to use, it is very heavy, and whilst its performance is good, it does not meet the expectations associated with Leica.
  • The camera is very expensive, twice the price of the E-330, which they consider to be a better camera on balance.
  • Still stuck with that rather tired old Olympus AF module
  • Did I mention too expensive ?
On the plus side:
  • Panasonic provide Silkypix RAW software rather than reinvent the wheel (poorly), although arguably it would have been better to also use DNG format.
  • The lens isn't all bad: as RP points out, this is the first stabilized zoom lens from any company with a decent maximum aperture.
  • They describe the flash design as "genius": it has two positions, the first pointing 45 degrees upwards for bounce flash.
  • The image quality is reported to be good up to 800 ISO.
  • The camera also includes 3:2 and 16:9 ratio setiings, and this is where Panasonic's implementation of Live View adds an extra dimension. But of course these sacrifice resolution.
At half the price, well, maybe. But at 2000 Euros, though, it looks like Panasonic have screwed up this one. Pity.
 

How many Megabucks is that camera ?

in Product reviews , Tuesday, May 16, 2006

I was initially going to post this on the Luminous Landscape forum, in this topic. But finally, it didn't seem appropriate... A recently posted article compares the technical performance of a series of digital camera systems ranging from extremely expensive to jaw-droppingly, c'mon, you're kidding, expensive. The article is perfectly ok as far as it goes (actual it is very boring, but whatever, some people will like it), but there is a wider context. In discussion, in response to a poster who says he's happy sticking with 35mm (I suspect he means the very expensive EOS 1Ds, but anyway) Michael Reichmann, the author, statest that "Many thousands of photographers around the world aren't spending their hard earned money on these tools just on the off chance that they may provide slightly better images" Well, many thousands of photographers - pros too - around the world are also doing wonderful work with old, obsolete, film cameras (and digicams for that matter). And these may often represent a very considerable amount of their hard earned money. I don't really know how to express this without coming across as envious (I'm not) or insulting (really not my intent), but as far as I can see the return on investment on these uber-systems, especially in from a fine art point of view, is extremely low. They don't take better pictures, just bigger ones. I always understood that the Luminous Landscape website was mainly aimed at people coming from an artistic perspective, rather than commercial (for want of a better divide). A 5 figure digital mega-system may make perfect sense in a commercial context, but is it really the case that without it, one cannot aspire to make good photography ? I know the answer to this should be "no", but this is not the message I'm getting either from the LL site or indeed the Video Journal DVD in recent months. The message I'm seeing is "if you can't afford this stuff, you're out of this league". It's interesting to see high end stuff - sometimes - and I'm not knocking the article, especially as I haven't read it. But unless the audience of the Luminous Landscape is going to be an exclusive set of millionaires and highly succesful pros, then maybe it might be a good idea to get back to basics now and then. There's nothing terribly educational about saying that a 39Mp back makes very high resolution photos. I could work that out for myself... Some sense of perspective would be nice. I have a good income, above the national average where I live, and a lot of (no, far too much of) my spare income goes into photography, but I could never afford an EOS 1Ds, let alone a 39Mpix back. And I know at least one person who is semi-pro and quite widely published (and extremely talented), who could not even afford a 30D. Somebody wrote recently, I think it was J.C Bechet in Reponses Photo, that a few years ago, it was actually possible for the average person to at least aspire to top end cameras, like Leicas or medium format Hasselblads, Rolleis, Fujis etc. Nowadays the gap is so huge, that on the one hand there is the mass market, topping out at entry level DSLRs, then a yawning chasm, with maybe the odd, but still very expensive midrange offering from Canon or Nikon, then the foothills of the unattainable, then the Himalaya of the wealthy and top professional. Who is catering for, or even tempting, the "serious amateur" these days ? It seems to be a rapidly dwindling sector. It must also impact on fine art photographers, who, in the past, could maybe justify their outlay by selling 20 prints a year, With costs multiplying by a factor of 10, how are they going to make numbers add up in the future ? I can't honestly see that 120 format film is going to around for much longer. It doesn't take much to imagine that there will be a growing perception that if a photo is made using one of these top end systems, it isn't "art". Driven by marketing, and by the often influential owners of these systems, the "fine art" market could well end up owned by an elitist set, who are not necessarily there by virtue of talent (although I'm not claiming any lack of talent by the authors of the article). Maybe I'm over-reacting. I hope so, but I'm far from sure....
 

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.
 

Fixer Labs FocusFixer - A Review

in Product reviews , Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Every now and again, a product crops up that really grabs my attention. Recently, I noticed a short review of a product called FocusFixer. Despite the review being a bit short on detail, it roused my curiosity, and I investigated.

First impressions

FocusFixer is a product from the British company Fixer Labs. It makes a fairly incredible claim - to quote the product's ReadMe "FocusFixer is a Photoshop plug-in for Mac (OS X) and PC/Windows that restores out-of-focus images". This is a pretty astonishing claim. Sure, digital photos can - and need to be - sharpened, but all sharpening products, and pretty much every sharpening expert, states that sharpening can increase a photograph's accutance, thus increasing the sensation of sharpness, but an out of focus shot is out of focus - end of story. It seemed too good to be true, but since I have a vast collection of badly focussed photos, it was certainly worth trying. In particular, I have a shot from Jokulsarlon ice lagoon, in Iceland, which I particularly like, but which is badly focussed. So I downloaded the trial version of FocusFixer, and gave it a whirl. Approximately 20 seconds later my jaw hit the floor. Iceland_040708_110.jpg Original image. Pretty, but as you can see from the detail view below, the foreground is soft. detail_before.jpg After running it through FocusFixer, a considerable improvement can be seen: detail_after.jpg First, it should be noted that I applied FocusFixer using a mask, selecting just the foreground ice above the waterline. Second, it is clear that the final result, whilst greatly improved, is still not going to win any competitions. However, it is now printable, and on an A4 print the difference is significant. It would have been better if I had focussed better at the time - but to err is human, and FocusFixer can help to reduce the pain.

The Product

So how does it all work ? Well Fixer Labs maintain a fairly inscrutable front, not giving too much away. They hint at a mathematical process which can refocus an image, perhaps somewhat akin to DXO Labs technologies. How all this works in practice I have no idea - clearly there is not enough information in a photograph to refocus it, in the way that coherent radar images can be focussed. All we have for each pixel is amplitude, no phase, no timing. But really, I don't care how they do it, just how well it is done. The software is implemented as a Photoshop plug-in, which provides a couple of simple controls. FF_Ice.jpg At the top are two before and after views, and a zoom control. Below these, two sliders. According to the user notes, Deblur gives a numerical feedback of the radius of the "circle of confusion" in pixels. The greater the effect you need, the higher you need to set the slider. I've found that a value between 4 and 5 is usually optimal. If you go too far, things get a bit wild. Threshold allows you to reduce noise and edge artefacts. I've found that it is usually better to keep Threshold at zero, and contain edge artefacts by carefully masking the area you want to work on. The next bit is intriguing: LensFIT (Lens File Information Technology) apparently is an optical modeling technology which uses camera EXIF data to identify the lens, and accordingly optimise processing. How it does this is not discussed, but there is certainly a subjective difference - an improvement - when LensFIT is turned on. For some cameras it will activate automatically. In other cases - including the Olympus E-1 I use - you have to give it a hint. FocusFixer seems to support a wide range of DSLR and digicam models, and more are being added. If the camera is not supported, a default algorithm is used. Now this could all be mumbo-jumbo, and I'm a bit puzzled as to how any optical modelling can be done without the lens information as well as the camera model. Certainly some information on the lens is in EXIF, but first I'm not sure that it is always adequate to uniquely identify a lens, and secondly it seems a bit unlikely that Fixer Labs has tested each and every lens on the market. DXO certainly haven't. However, it does appear to work, and the evidence is that there is indeed a new approach to sharpening underlying the plug-in. The fact that LensFIT has a patent pending doubtless makes it difficult for too much information to be revealed.

Field Test

FocusFixer is designed to correct focus blur. It cannot handle motion blur, and works best with high quality data. Focal Labs do not claim to work miracles, but they do deliver results. I decided to try out FocalFixer on a deliberately out of focus photo (not that I need to try hard) and compare the results with a similar in-focus shot. Because I'm lazy the shots, of a palm in sunlight, were handheld, at 1/200th - this may not be ideal. They were taken with an Olympus E-1 using the 14-54mm lens. palm_compare.jpg The two images above are 100% detail zooms on a palm frond. The right-hand image is the "in focus" shot (unsharpened). The left-hand image has been partially processed by FocusFixer - the area of the palm above the red line is "fixed", the area below is untouched. I used settings of 4.5 Deblur, 0 Threshold. The conclusion is obvious: it is better to focus better! However, FocusFixer does a pretty good job of patching things up. The obvious question is can FocusFixer do things that cannot be done with Photoshop, or with other tools ? My answer is a qualified "yes" - qualified because I'm no Photoshop guru, and because I don't know all the tools on the market. Certainly I could not reproduce FocusFixer's results using Unsharp Mask (USM). With USM it was much harder to control detail, and edge artefacts and haloes become a real problem. The closest tool is perhaps the Creative Sharpener component of PhotoKit. This has a similar effect to FocusFixer, but is not so good at pulling out detail - at least not in my hands. On the other hand, it is suggested that FocusFixer used at very low Deblur settings might make a useful capture sharpening tool, but so far I see no reason to stop using PhotoKit for this task.

Downsides

There is room for improvement in FocusFixer. First, the preview is too small, or should at least be resizable. Secondly, the quality of the preview seems less good than the applied filter. Third, the product could do with a nicely written user manual - the ReadMe is a bit skimpy for a product of this price (although I'm not saying it is overpriced). Finally, the registration process is a pain in the neck. I'm not against companies protecting their rights, but in my case at least the process was needlessly complex and lengthy. Apparently Fixer Labs were suffering badly from piracy, and were compelled to protect themselves in this way. I'm still amazed by the all too common attitude that "copying" software is not theft - even amongst some software professionals. I do commend the license which allows non-simultaneous deployment on several computers owned by the customer, which is becoming a growing practice.

Conclusion

What Fixer Labs have tried to do is to bring to market a tool designed to do exactly what sharpening tool vendors claim cannot be done - fix out of focus pictures. The current version seems to do a pretty good job, and although I would not use it to replace other sharpening products, as a new tool in my digital workflow it is most welcome. FocusFixer costs $57 - for the same price, you can buy FixerBundle, which includes three other plugins, NoiseFixer, ShadowFixer, and TrueBlur. Fixer Labs also have released a resizing plug-in, Size Fixer, which I'm looking forward to trying when the Mac version is released. More information from the Fixer Labs web site.
 
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