Just some stuff about photography

INDEX

White on white

backing off the sliders

in Antarctica , Wednesday, October 26, 2016

For some random reason I recently stumbled across a group of photos I took in Antarctica in 2013, and which I had more or less discarded. The photos are of icebergs, and I suppose I had tried to turn them into the sort of eye candy which is more or less obligatory these days, with ominous dark skies and intense saturated blues. Easy enough to do, but not really very satisfying. I have some shots which are naturally that way, and those, I let be. These, however, I finally realised, have a lot more potential to convey something of my idea of Antarctica. I've mentioned this before, probably too often, but I find a lot of common ground in the work of Stuart Klipper, who's Antarctica photography is a million miles away from the 500px aesthetic (I'm being polite, there).

So I tried to accentuate the soft light, the feeling of mystery, and the essential whiteness of it all. Something a bit like this:

drm_20130118_3651.jpg


drm_20130118_3632.jpg


drm_20130118_3640.jpg



Actually the reason was far from random. With practically zero planning, unexpectedly I am off to Antarctica again next month, and I needed to pick up where I left off.

An Aperture + Iridient Developer workflow

Me? Stubborn?

in Apple Aperture , Thursday, July 17, 2014

The recent boat-rocking move by Apple to announce the decline and fall of Aperture has led me through several stages of anger, denial and acceptance. And it has also led me to re-evaluate my digital imaging workflow. For a while I’ve had the feeling that, technically, my photos lack a certain something, compared to other work I see published. Perhaps I’ve been rather complacent in imagining that my knowledge and skills in post-production are adequate. So this as well gave me some impetus to explore options a bit. To cut a long story short, my decision has been to adopt a solution coupling Iridient Developer with Aperture. More on this a bit later, but first a few words on the solutions I rejected.

Icons

Photoshop: I’m not anti-Adobe, and their raw decoding is generally good. However, it has some (minor) issues with Olympus files, and it can’t handle Sigma Merrill RAW. Also, I find the Camera Raw interface ugly and clumsy, and since I do this stuff for fun, well that’s a factor. I do use Photoshop very frequently, but more for my film workflow. And I’m not happy about the subscription model, even though since InDesign is an important tool for me, I’ll probably have to give in one day. For now I have Creative Suite 6, and that’s just fine.

Lightroom: Not really a contender for me. Been there, done that. It is good at many things, but pretty much everything it does something else does better. For example cataloging, which both Aperture and MediaPro do better.

CaptureOne: I own C1Pro, so it was a strong contender. But I don’t really care for the default curves it applies, and generally the GUI can be frustrating. The DAM features in v7 are very substandard, and at the same time what little interactivity there was with MediaPro in v6 has been killed off. But basically the character of the output doesn’t fit in with my objectives. I feel that C1 is optimized for the fashion industry, even if some leading landscape photographers such as Joe Cornish and Steve Gosling use it. But then they own PhaseOne backs.

DxO Optics Pro: I took a serious look at DxO following an article by Kirk Tuck. A strong point is the “DxO Lens Softness” which provides initial high quality input sharpening with no artefacts. Definitely better than Aperture. But the headline feature, lens correction, leaves me a bit dubious. For micro four thirds camera/lens combinations, rather than apply the manufacturer corrections included in the image file, DxO clearly applies its own, and the results are different. The original framing is not respected (interestingly there is significant image data outside of the frame) and to my eyes some minor distortion remains. For four thirds combinations it seems to make some weird changes too. I’m not convinced. And it doesn’t handle Sigma files. But the output is good and highly detailed. Indeed, I was on the verge of buying it when from one moment to the next the special offer pricing was removed. €269 is way too much.

So, back to Iridient Developer (ID). I’ve written about this great application before, but since Aperture has been around, it’s always been a secondary tool for me. But with the release of v2, and a host of new features, including tighter integration with Aperture, and the fact that it handles Sigma files very well indeed, it’s been getting more use. And now, finally, I’ve put a little effort into setting up a streamlined workflow.

Following my discovery of DxO’s lens de-blurring, I decided to see if I could get a similar result from ID’s generous range of sharpening tools. And indeed I could. The R-L Deconvolution method, which is specifically designed to remove minor blur rather than traditionally sharpen, works extremely well. As do ID’s highly configurable Noise Reduction tools. So these two controls together give a good approximation of Aperture’s RAW Fine Tuning brick, only with noticeably better results. These then form the basis for a camera default preset. ID allows you to define default settings for each camera type you use and for each ISO level. I haven’t gone to quite that extent yet, but maybe one rainy Sunday I’ll give it a go.

Aperture, of course, does not support alternative RAW engines. There are manual workarounds to this, but they’re tedious. However ID has recently acquired a new feature which makes this much easier. Now, if I configure ID as my external editor in Aperture, and use this to open a version, Aperture as usual sends a rendered TIFF to ID. ID, however, does not open the TIFF, but looks for the associated RAW file and opens that. Then, when you’ve finished, ID overwrites Aperture’s TIFF with it’s output. Even better, if you then re-open the original in ID, the settings from the first edit are retained. Therefore you have a hybrid non-destructive / baked-in edit workflow, which is close to ideal. Obviously you end up with an extra TIFF for each image you process in this way, but disk space really isn’t an issue any more. And I don’t do this for every image I import, only for those I select to potentially publish or print. Aperture alone is more than adequate for general work.

Aperture 3

Sending an image to Iridient Developer from Aperture

Iridient Developer

Saving an edited image back to Aperture

Aperture 4

The original version and the ID-rendered TIFF stacked in Aperture. Note I add a custom metadata field to remind me that I processed this with Iridient. It would be nice to automate that.

For further editing beyond the initial RAW development you then have the choice between ID and Aperture’s RGB edit tools. Both have strong offerings: to pick one from each, Aperture’s generally ignored extended range curve tool, which together with its 32-bit architecture lets you modify the curve for values over 100% white, is very good for highlight recovery and rolling off harsh highlights. I don’t know of any other tool which can do this. Similarly, ID has a unique - in my experience - curve tool which operates on the Lab Chroma (ab) channel, allowing precise control over saturation.

Aperture 5

Aperture’s curve tool in extended mode

Aperture’s DAM tools are, in my opinion, second to none, and plenty of commenters agree with me. So having moved on from my initial furious reaction, I’ve come to cautiously give Apple the benefit of the doubt, and hope that the forthcoming migration to “Photos” might well be less traumatic than it initially appeared. Indeed it could, possibly, be as much of a paradigm buster as Aperture 1.0 was. We shall see. If I have to migrate my catalogue to a lesser tool, I’d rather do when all bridges are burned, not before. There’s no real downside in waiting. And in the meantime with this Aperture-Iridient workflow, I’m seeing appreciably better printed results.

Pity it’s only me who looks at them!

Further thoughts on Aperture’s demise

the morning after

in Apple Aperture , Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The dust is beginning to settle on the Aperture debacle, and I’ve had some time to think about it. It’s interesting to see some considered views from long term, expert Aperture bloggers. There’s a glass half full view here, and a glass half empty one here. I’d tend to say the latter was more realistic, but my glass remains ditheringly uncommitted. I’ve dusted off CaptureOne Pro 7 and Lightroom 5, and I find both competent in various ways, but both feel like downgrades from Aperture. Both are good enough, and feature some editing tools which are superior to Aperture’s (sharpening, in Lightroom, and keystone correction in both), but in general I still always come back to re-realising how good, if unassuming, Aperture actually is. The Aperture marketing team deserves to be hung, drawn and quartered. In terms of UI and DAM features, Aperture makes both look prehistoric. CaptureOne’s DAM toolset is a partial cut & paste from MediaPro, with plenty of critical bits missing. It’s a start, but general about as much use as chocolate teapot, not to mention very clunky to use. In theory CaptureOne interfaces with MediaPro. In any approaching realistic practice, it doesn’t. For example MediaPro knows nothing about CaptureOne’s variants, and CaptureOne is totally unaware of MediaPro’s hierarchic keywording. Both have a “catalog” concept, which are superficially similar but completely seperate. Basically it’s a total dog’s breakfast. The rendering of CaptureOne is quite interesting, in that it is quite unlike Aperture and Lightroom for my Olympus ORF files. CaptureOne has more saturated red tones, which are quite difficult to replicate. When evaluating CaptureOne, you do need to be aware of it’s unusual input tone curve feature, which defaults to “film standard”. In my opinion it’s better to start off with the “linear” option, at least until you get a feel for what it is doing. However, taking Olympus Viewer as a reference, Lightroom and Aperture are much closer than the CaptureOne default rendition.

And so to Lightroom. I used Lightroom v1 for about a year before moving to Aperture, so I know roughly what makes it tick. Lightroom 5 seems to have had all manner of bits glued onto it, and quite a lot of random changes. Some of this good, some less so, but the overall impression remains of someone trying to build a replica of Aperture in Lego. There is far too much clutter in the UI, and far too many options, many of which are squirrelled away in unlikely locations. It’s all pretty chaotic, and doesn’t seem to have had much overall design guidance. I think that in time it could be tamed and streamlined through use of keyboard shortcuts, but even so, I’m not why “Map”, for example, gets the same prominence as “Develop”. By using this ultra-modal approach, seems to me that Adobe’s designers painted themselves into a corner very early on. However, Lightroom has two key aspects: a massive installed user base, and endless web and print resources, paid for and free, some of which are very good. It also has an iPad client - not Adobe’s Lightroom Mobile, which even the cheerleaders seem unimpressed with, but the excellent 3rd party app, Photosmith, which has similar functionality to the late lamented Pixelsync (and thanks again for murdering that, Apple. Bastards).

So on the whole, Lightroom seems to come out on top. The problem there is that I’m really not enamoured about Adobe’s subscription model. Now, maybe, for 20 years, maybe, but if my circumstances change, or when I’m retired on a pension, Adobe’s monthly tax might become a big issue.

Anyway, when it comes down to RAW editing, even if for some reason Aperture doesn’t cut it for me, there’s really no reason why I can’t continue to catalogue in Aperture and edit elsewhere. I’m aLightroomeady doing this - I sometimes use Iridient, or Photo Ninja, or Photoshop, or Sigma DPP to process photos, and manage the output in Aperture. So the big issue really is the longevity of Aperture’s DAM features.

I’ve obviously had my eye off the ball as far as the DAM market is concerned. I used to follow it closely, hoping for a modern replacement for iView, but I gave up. In the meantime a very promising looking application called Photo Supreme has emerged. Apart from it’s inherent values, it looks to me that it could act as a metadata hub, or bridge, between various applications. It can read Aperture (and Lightroom, and CaptureOne) libraries, and it seems it can spit out data which others can then import. I haven’t had time to try it yet, but I will.

In the meantime, I’m not evaluating the fullness of my glass just yet. I’ll stick with Aperture for a while at least, but with a very clear eye on keeping everything ready to export.

Aperture gets the boot

never trust a hippy. Or an MBA

in Apple Aperture , Saturday, June 28, 2014

So, Apple has admitted, in some roundabout way, that Aperture is finished. It hasn’t been announced on their website, indeed, it is still promoted and up for sale. No, somehow the news has been leaked in a very uncharacteristic way.

Nobody should be surprised by this. If Apple is consistent about anything, it is in dropping products or complete product lines without any second though for its customer’s investments. But with Aperture, it’s worse. Much worse. With Aperture, it’s customers are not just financially invested, but also creatively invested. This is the drawback of both non-destructive editing and proprietary digits asset management: you need to be able to trust that the software supplier you depend on is committed to long-term support. It was always a risky bet with Apple, and now it has proven to be the case. Apple is focused purely on short-term gain in increasingly dumbed-down disposable consumer electronics, and is fundamentally an untrustworthy partner. It is telling that the company has made no formal statement on its website, and shown absolutely no concern at all for its customers’ plight, and instead offers the insulting idea that it’s a fair swap to lose years of work for some rubbish piece of iCrap gloss in “the Cloud”. And in some cases, those customer’s entire business model rested on trusting Apple as a reliable partner.

I’m pretty sure that within the Aperture team there are people who well realise just how badly customers have been let down, but with Apple’s corporate Iron Curtain firmly in place, we’ll never know. And for the rest, from Tim Cook and all his anonymous MBA cohorts, we’re collateral damage. Long term I suspect it will be their loss.

So what went wrong ? When Aperture hit the market in 2005 it was unexpected and revolutionary. It was also a massive resource hog, and expensive - $599 - and that didn’t help it gain early market share. People assumed it was a Photoshop rival, and perhaps even Steve Jobs did too, with his antipathy towards Adobe, but it wasn’t. It was something completely new, an application designed specifically for the needs of photographers in the digital age. Looking at it as a Photoshop rival obscured the real marvel of Aperture, its photo management and cataloging tools. There’s still nothing to beat it on that front, in fact as far as I know, nothing even comes close.  Then there was the non-modal UI, which some people had (and still do have) a really hard time getting their heads around.  Basically, with Aperture, you choose the context to work in (Project, Album, Book, Website, Light table, Print) and all editing and management tools are available at all times. This is quite the reverse to all other applications, including Lightroom, where the workflow is firmly object(photo)-centric.

Aperture 2

This is a key and unique feature in Aperture: here, as I lay out a selection of images on a light table, perhaps to plan a print series, I can tweak each photo’s settings in-situ as I work. The UI is completely non-modal. Were it not for the Apple Iron Curtain, whoever devised this would be celebrated in the design community. And no, it wasn’t Jonny bloody Ive. Or indeed St Steve.

So Apple had a fantastic application on their hands. But apart from high profile launch events, they essentially put no effort at all into explaining it, or marketing it. When Adobe brought out their rival application, Lightroom, which was certainly a major step forward from Photoshop for digital photo workflow, but much, much less imaginative and ambitious than Aperture, they rolled out the full force of their marketing tools, including getting legions of industry stars and opinion-formers on board, they kept up contact between engineers and users - hell, we even knew who the key engineers were - and they maintained open Beta programs for each new version. Aperture, crippled by general Apple arrogance towards customers, had no chance. The few opinion-formers they got on board seemed to be used solely as marketing mouthpieces, whereas Adobe avoided the whole control-freakery scene. As time went on, Lightroom got caught up in the Adobe bean counters insistence on yearly upgrade fees, and so started to acquire bloat and useless features, without much improvement to the core application. Also, anybody coming to Lightroom from Aperture cannot help but feel manacled by the step-by-step workflow, which reminds me of the 1990s UI “room” concepts championed by Kai Krause. Nothing like Aperture’s unconstrained creativity. Lightroom felt like an engineer’s idea of what photographers wanted. Aperture felt like a photographer’s invention which could maybe do with a touch more engineering input, especially at version 1.

But essentially Aperture was completely out of place in Apple’s product line-up. A deep, non-glitzy application that demanded, but rewarded, serious commitment on the behalf of its users. Certainly no iOS or AppStore fluff. Indeed, although the Iron Curtain lets out no whispers, I really wonder if Aperture’s genesis lies outside of Apple, much like Final Cut. Perhaps Aperture also was initially a Macromedia project, and therefore might even share some DNA with Lightroom. Pure speculation, and I guess we’ll never know. Or care.

So now what ?

Well, Aperture is still working, and Apple has committed to maintenance support for at least one further OS X iteration. But the end is irrevocable, and that means that any work expended from now on in Aperture is wasted. There’s much talk of migrating to Lightroom, or whatever, but let’s be clear: you can migrate your metadata - ratings, stars, keywords - but that’s it. You cannot migrate any develop settings, or your whole library structure, your projects, albums, smart albums, light tables, books, etc. You might be able to migrate your keyword hierarchies, which for power users is a big deal. Certainly you can migrate these to Media Pro. I have 51,225 photos in Aperture. If I were to set aside the time to recreate all the non-destructive edits in Lightroom, I might as well give up photography.

So what are the alternatives ? I’ve tried most of them: my mainstream history goes something like this: Olympus Studio -> Adobe Camera RAW 1.0 -> CaptureOne 3.6 -> Iridient Raw Developer -> Lightroom 1 -> Aperture 2 -> Aperture 3. Along the way I’ve tried out pretty much all other options available on the Mac At present I use Aperture 3 for everything, except for Sigma Merrill files which I develop in Iridient Developer (which has indeed recently become much closer integrated with Aperture).  Prior to Lightroom, indeed prior to digital, I used what was called iView MediaPro, and is now called PhaseOne MediaPro, to catalog and manage my library. I’ve carried on using it for scanned files and Sigma files alongside Aperture, and I still consider a great tool. Indeed, many years ago I speculated that a merger between CaptureOne and MediaPro would be a combination to beat. Eventually PhaseOne did acquire MediaPro, but frankly they haven’t done a lot with it.

To replace Aperture 3 we need to consider two aspects (at least). RAW development, and Digital Asset Management. There are only two real options which cover both parts. Lightroom, which is fully integrated, and CaptureOne/MediaPro, which is more like a bunch of bits flying roughly in the same direction. Although I have no particular axe to grind with Adobe, and indeed have used (and paid for) Photoshop since v2.0, InDesign since v1.0 (and Pagemaker before that, indeed before Adobe acquired it), and a whole host of other Adobe apps, I just don’t find Lightroom very inspiring. But I can’t deny that it does the job, and is probably the sensible choice. CaptureOne, on the other hand, seems to be more driven by photographers than marketing, and v7 has a management component which clearly inherits conceptually from MediaPro, although just how C1 and MediaPro are supposed to be “integrated” still puzzles me. CaptureOne went through a very bad patch after v3.x. Version 4 was very late, all-new and something of a disaster. But now at v7 it seems to have matured.

I guess in the coming weeks, I’ll try the latest versions of both on a small library and make my choice based on what I actually see, which is how I came to choose Aperture. Ill write more about this in the coming days / weeks, maybe.

But what about Apple? I’ve been an Apple customer for over 20 years. I bought my first Mac (a Powerbook Duo) on a university discount scheme. I’ve never been a fanboy, although I got close to it in the dark years of the 1990s, and I’ve always seen pros and cons to buying Apple. These days it’s more through inertia and have a considerable investment in software and peripherals that I stick with Apple. And on the whole, indeed it does “just work”. In Management Powerpoint Bullshit speak, companies talk of being in a stakeholder, partnership relationship with their customers. Apple are not. Apple, in 2014, see customers purely as cash machines. Their total wall of secrecy and refusal to engage - and it was not always so, not by a long way - makes them, as a company, amoral and totally untrustworthy. Unfortunately the whole industry is going that way. We’re a long, long way from the Revolution In The Valley.

RAW revisited, yet again

Boost is your enemy

in Apple Aperture , Thursday, November 01, 2012

I’ve recently gone through another of my periodic obsessions with testing RAW converters. My default choice remains Apple Aperture, partly because I’m committed it’s excellent organisation and management tools. However, there is no reason why I cannot use Aperture to manage my images while carrying out the RAW conversion in another application. Indeed, as I wrote a few weeks ago, I’ve recently started using Photo Ninja. I’ve also been using Iridient RAW Developer for many years, and indeed I’ve just paid what I think is the first ever upgrade fee they’ve requested. The new arrival of Capture One Pro 7 and DXO Optics Pro 8 also tempted me to give them a spin. Capture One was my first choice ages ago, when they were at version 3. They screwed up badly with version 4 and lost me - first to Iridient, then to Lightroom 1. And when, with version 2, Aperture became a realistic choice, I switched from Lightroom and I’ve stayed there ever since.

The thing is, whatever the interwebs and pundits proclaim, there isn’t really a best RAW converter (although there are some appalling products best not mentioned). They’re just different, a bit like film stocks were different. Even with all settings on zero, they give remarkably varying interpretations of white balance, colour and tone. And in fact it isn’t always that easy - or even possible - to get a basic, standard gamma conversion. Iridient seems to do it, and Aperture can be convinced to do so if you zero all the sliders in RAW Fine Tuning (especially Boost! Boost is - often - your enemy). It seems that DXO’s “neutral” setting does something reasonable. Photo Ninja really doesn’t do neutral, but that’s fine, it has a very different philosophy. CaptureOne, dunno, got bored trying, and I never touch Lightroom these days, for totally irrational reasons. And then there’s also the manufacturer’s software to consider, which we might assume is a good baseline. In my case, that’s Olympus Viewer, which is far from the worst out there, but I’m still glad I don’t depend on it.

ApertureDefFlat

Above is an example of Aperture’s default setting for the Olympus E-5 (right) and a “neutral” setting (left). In my experience the neutral setting is often the better starting point, especially when you want to work on shadows and highlights. Aperture’s default can easily blow perfectly good highlights. However the default is - initially - far more flattering and attractive. And sometimes it’s just fine, so long as you’re in control of the choices, not the software.

Here’s a screen shot from Aperture’s browser of a bunch of different interpretations of a RAW file, where I’ve tried, at least some extent, to get similar results, initially driven by Photo Ninja’s interpretation.

Raw variants

From left to right: Aperture, Photo Ninja, Olympus Viewer, Iridient

None of these are essentially good or bad. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve, what your aesthetic is, and how many comments you’re trying to get on Flickbook. And probably some applications work better for certain cameras than others. But what is interesting is to examine some of the differences in rendering. Photo Ninja, for example does a remarkable job at tonal separation in shadows, and enhancing micro-contrast. DXO, when it’s co-operating, delivers fantastic sharpening. Aperture, remarkably enough, does a great job on noise reduction, an area where it is frequently maligned (actually it seems that what it is good at is not amplifying noise). Iridient can squeeze out ultimate detail, but it needs careful application of its 4 different sharpening algorithms. As for default looks, the scale ranges between Iridient’s subdued approach and Photo Ninja’s “all knobs on 11” blast. Both can be good.

It’s interesting how many people seem to want their RAW converter to replicate the in-camera JPG. Am I the only one who sees a bit of a logic breakdown there ?

But… the really interesting thing is that the more I look at all these different results, the more I learn about how to replicate them in my primary tool, Aperture. There are some things which Aperture is really not top-notch at, in particular sharpening. However, sharpening can be applied using a plug-in, or via Photoshop. Aperture has some truly fantastic tint and colour correction tools, and it’s overall mode-less, photo-centric workflow is, in my opinion, way ahead of anything else on the market. Nobody else comes close.

Perhaps Apple might now react to the deluge of new releases from its competitors. Aperture 3 is now really ancient in Internet Years, and it could do with a few improvements. Better lens correction, much better sharpening, print tools which are actually designed to support how photographers work (setting a fixed output resolution and size, and sharpening at that setting, for example). But really there’s not that much wrong with it. Anyway, we won’t know until an update is released, if ever. I don’t think Apple’s obsessive secrecy is doing it much good in this particular market.

What I do think is important is that you pick an application and really, really learn to make it do what you want. It’s amazing that people will agonise over expensive lenses, massive amounts of megapixels, etc, and then allow some anonymous computer programmer’s idea of a default setting to dictate the look of their photos.

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