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photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

Photokina Fallout

GAStrology time again

in GAS , Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The recent avalanche of new camera announcements (albeit most of them vague promises for 2019) have once again stirred up doubt and Gear Acquisition Syndrome. As a committed and long term user of Micro Four Thirds, and Four Thirds before that, I might be wondering if all this rush towards “full frame” somehow invalidates my photography. It’s a stupid reaction, but not uncommon, and let’s face it, I’m just me against the relentless onslaught of marketing and Internet pseudo-peer pressure. Every telegraph pole out there has a raven perched on it, croaking “Micro Four Thirds is dead, nevermore!”.

I have to confess some of the offerings look tempting. The Nikon Z7 seems pretty nice in theory - I saw one in the flesh yesterday, alongside the Olympus E-M1.2 and Lumix G9 MFT cameras, and the Nikon looks about the same size as the Olympus and actually smaller than the Lumix, despite housing a sensor that’s twice the size. Then again, boy is that Nikon ugly! And not even in a quirky way.

The standard defence of MFT would be that the cameras and especially lenses are smaller and lighter. Well, although there are smaller and lighter variants in the MFT world, honestly if you want reasonably fast, weather sealed lenses, and a rugged body, in many cases you may wonder if the smaller, lighter bit starts to get a bit marginal.

I’m not so bothered, in general, about “image quality”, whatever that means. Generally any modern camera is good enough for everything except very special cases. But nevertheless, recently I have been starting to get frustrated with a certain lack of resolution of high frequency detail in the far distance. Close up, there’s no problem, the Olympus body/lens combinations can deliver all the resolution I’ll ever need. I can understand that MFT might impose too many limitations on, say, outdoor portrait or wedding photographers, but for my mixed urban/landscape stuff, generally it’s not the limiting factor. I rarely need to go over ISO 1600, indeed I’m not that often over 200, and I tend to be scaling for more depth of field, not less.

Anyway, to try to get a handle on the realities of the situation, I decided to make a small series of prints from Olympus files (all 16 Mpix) at the largest size my printer offers, A2. And, frankly, they worked out just fine. They stand up very well to high quality scans from 120 format film, and in some respects to Sigma Foveon files. Honestly, I can’t see me ever needing to print bigger - I have no actual use even for A2. If ever I did, I’m sure I can find professional printers who can go up to A1.

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A2 Prints from Olympus 16Mpix files

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Detail of above A2 Prints

I then started to think about a couple of future trips I have planned, which involve flights with very restricted weight limits. That’s when the apparently marginal weight advantage of MFT starts to kick in. For example, the marvellous 12-100 f/4 lens is practically on a par with any Olympus prime, even the f/1.2 series, and at a push could work as the sole lens for most trips. It weighs 560g, and with Dual IS offers unbelievable stabilisation. There is a 24-120 f/4 Nikon lens that weighs 710g and has less range (yes, I know all about depth of field, but for me this is at best irrelevant, at worst a downside). If we move up to the equally fabulous Olympus 40-150 f/2.8, which weighs 760g, then the closest Nikon I can find is the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, which weighs 1.5kg and is significantly more expensive and bigger. It’s at this longer end that the MFT weight advantage really kicks in. And if you’re willing to compromise a bit on aperture, then you can find very good MFT lenses that hardly register on the scales.

Certainly “full frame” sensors have an attraction and certain advantages in noise threshold, dynamic range, and resolution. But frankly, these advantages are often not much different from trivial. I’ll take the possibility of carrying an extra 150mm of focal length reach over a 0.5db increase in dynamic range.

Olympus didn’t announce ANYTHING at Photokina, which was another sign that the sky is falling on them, apparently. Well, it might not be the best news for Olympus, as new product drives sales (I suppose), but it’s fine by me: I’ve pretty much got everything I need - although that 300mm lens is sort of tempting. I don’t even have the latest body, the E-M1.2 - it doesn’t really offer me anything over my E-M5.2 or E-M1.1, and it’s noticeably bulkier. What I would like to see Olympus work on, personally, is a range of optically excellent medium aperture primes, along the lines of Leica Elmarits, and a high-end medium aperture medium zoom, within the 14-35mm range. But then again, the “low end” lenses they already offer in this range are really far from poor.

So, in summary, the grass is actually a perfectly nice hue of green on my side of the fence, and I’m sticking to it. I did vaguely hint at the one Photokina announcement that really did have me clutching my wallet: the L-Mount alliance. The thought of a full frame Sigma Foveon camera interchangeable with Leica and Panasonic bodies, all three taking each other’s lenses is really interesting news. Certainly not a solution for weight-constrained trips, but otherwise, I can see this paired with my Olympus kit as the ultimate solution - for me.

 

Been a long time comin’

Linhof 612 PC in da house!

in GAS , Monday, June 12, 2017

Back in December 2000 I was traveling around New Zealand, with my new XPan, and new girlfriend. I’ve still got them both. I’d been eyeing the XPan for a few years, but up until earlier that year I couldn’t afford it. However, an upturn in my fortunes allowed me to buy the camera and full set of lenses. I was pretty much smitten by the XPan, and still am, but little did I know that I was about to get a serious case of grass is always greener syndrome.

At some point during the trip I picked up a book of landscape photography by NZ photographer Andris Apse. The luscious, classic panoramic photography within its pages is exactly what I was into at the time. Reading the introduction, I was quite surprised to discover the existence of something called a “Linhof Technorama”, and even more by Apse’s reasoning that the relatively restricted 6x12 field of view was the sweet spot. His photographs provided (and continue to provide) strong justification for this. Suddenly I had doubts about my XPan.

However, on returning home to Switzerland, I investigated a little more, and both the price, and the challenges inherent in using the Linhof convinced me that the XPan was good enough for me. Naturally I then went and did something totally irrational and bought a Hasselblad ArcBody, which first, uses a square format which I never really got on with, and second, makes the Linhof look like a Point & Shoot. Looking back, I really regret not buying a Technorama 612 at 2001 prices.

Over the years my interest in the Linhof waxed and waned, and I continued using the XPan. Indeed, I even destroyed my original copy and had to buy a new one. But I also discovered the rather unique feature of the Linhof, its “permanent shift” lenses. This seemed to adress a shortcoming I’d always felt that the XPan suffers from, which is the need to vertically center the horizon to avoid obvious distortion. This isn’t always a problem, but in some situations it is a bit of a showstopper. The “permanently” part of “permanent shift” gave some food for thought, but still, it was nagging at me.

Anyway. I’ve got one. After years of lurking on eBay, finally one came up at a reasonable price, sold by an actual working photographer as opposed to some anonymous combine in South Korea or Japan (seems about 75% of the production run ended up in South Korea. Perhaps they throw them at the Norks), and just down the road in Milano. It’s an original model (not a PCII) with 65mm lens. It’s not so easy working out the vintage of Linhof 612s, as there seem to be quite a lot of minor variations over time, but I suppose this one must date back to the late 1980s. In any case, it was built to last, and it certainly has. I’ll write some more about what I’ve been able to work out about the production history of the Linhof 612, since I can’t actually find this anywhere else.

I did have an option of buying a brand new PCII from Linhof, with, apparently, the very last production 58mm lens in the factory, but the price, which has inflated way over inflation over the last decade, was just too high. Having said that, a German eBay seller is/was offering a new PCII kit for around €10’000, which really is ridiculous. Sadly it seems that Linhofs have gained the same attraction to collectors as Leicas these days. Ten or so years ago, the same kit would retail at about €5’000, which is already quite enough for a fully mechanical camera with no lightmeter. Then again, people pay more for a Leica M-A and lens.

The build quality of the Linhof is awe-inspring though. Not so much built like a tank, more like carved out of a tank. And it’s not just a box. It has a high precision film transport, and a series of interlocks which by and large stop you doing anything stupid. For example, you can’t remove the lens when the dark slide isn’t inserted. It’s simple, but extremely well designed. It makes the Lomography Belair look very, very stupid.

I’ve got 3 developed rolls from the camera so far, so 18 frames, and operationally speaking it seems fine. I did repeat 3 shots because I was convinced I’d left the lens cap on - I hadn’t. I took one shot by accident, when I had the shutter lock off. And so far, inevitably, it’s my favourite.

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“Honour thy mistake as a hidden intention” - Linhof 612, Portra 400

Finally, my Plustek OpticFilm 120 has got something to really get its teeth into. I realised pretty quickly that scanning at 5300dpi wasn’t a terribly good idea. A print from such a file at 300dpi would cover half my house. The Schneider 65mm lens seems pretty sharp, although I’m slightly unsure if it focussing correctly at infinity. I’ll need a few more disciplined shots to be sure. So far it’s mostly handheld!

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Receiver - Linhof 612, Portra 400

Well, I’m sure I’ll be posting more about this. I’ve been waiting 16 years to get my hands on this camera, and I fully intend to enjoy it.

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Carry that weight

but not quite so much

in GAS , Sunday, November 06, 2016

A couple of years ago, I went off for a 5 week trip around Argentinian Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, fitting in a 12-day cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula. Apart from the fact the the photos from that trip, in particular those from the Argentinian part, are still languishing neglected in my archives, one thing that keeps nagging at me is the ridiculous amount of gear I burdened myself with. I've whined quite a lot it here - here, and here, for example. I should have known better.

So, with a sort-of repeat experience coming up at the end of the month, have I learned my lesson ? Well, perhaps. I've worked out that even neglecting things like filters, batteries, film, and all the other paraphernalia, in December 2012 I set off with a backpack weighing over 10kg. And actually, I also had a Domke shoulder bag with a Ricoh GRD4, but I was relieved of this by a helpful Argentinian in Buenos Aires. This time, largely thanks to the Olympus Micro Four Thirds system, and swapping the Sigma Dp0 for the Hasselblad XPan set, I have a very similar set, but weighing under 7kg. It's still noticeable, but manageable. The difference between the Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds sets is a significant contribution:

Camera weights


The range of focal lengths is a bit different. I left the 4/3 7-14 f/4 lens at home last time, because it was just impossible. But the m4/3 version is much lighter (and faster). What I am missing in my 2016 packing list is a long telephoto. In 2013 I took a non-mirrorless E-System kit with me, and the fabulous Zuiko Digital 150mm f2/0. Attaching this to a 2x convertor turned it into a 300m f/4, a pretty powerful tool. Coincidentally, Olympus now sells a very highly rated 300m f/4 for Micro Four Thirds. Forgetting the cost for a moment, this weighs in at 1.2kg, only 100g lighter than the old ZD 150. My Lightroom catalog tells me that in 2013, out of a total of 1108 photos taken in the Antarctic, only 89 were taken with this cumbersome and restrictive 150mm. However, those 89 include several of my favourites. But anyway the conclusive point is that there is no room in my backpack for a 300mm lens, so I'll just have to be more creative with what I've got. And anyway, I'm not really a dedicated wildlife photographer, so a 300mm prime lens really would be a little extravagant.

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A pretty psychedelic penguin, rather an extreme shot taken with the Zuiko 150mm f/2 wide open



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And a somewhat psychotic penguin. This time with the 150mm f/2 tele-converted to a 300mm f/2



Very recently Olympus introduced a new lens, a 12-100mm constant f/4 zoom, which would be really ideal for travel like this. The 12-40mm f2/8 is really excellent, but it is a little restricted in range, and a 12-100 would really help to avoid a lot of lens swapping, which in typically Antarctic Peninsula weather is really no bad thing. The new Olympus camera, the E-M1 Mk II, would also bring a lot of benefits. Unfortunately neither of these will apparently be available until 2 days before I return. Not being a Famous Photoblogger, there's no chance of getting my hands on them. Oh well, what I've got will work just fine.

Actually, weight is less of an issue this time, as the trip basically consists of a glorified taxi ride into (hopefully) the Weddell Sea, but still, it counts. One issue is of course ever stricter carry-on baggage restrictions, so that too needs to be taken into account, but there is also the point that too much gear can drastically interfere with photography.

Hopefully I won't end up whining so much this time.


 

A Tale of Two (new) Bags

hipper than thou?

in GAS , Wednesday, June 01, 2016

A quick Google search on the phrase “photographers can never have enough bags” astonishingly yields only 56 results. Astonishingly, because I’m sure I see at least one a week on my forays across a pretty limited part of the blogosphere.  However, slightly less constrained searches immediately give counts heading into several thousand, so that’s a bit reassuring.

While I certainly have enough bags, none of them ever turn out to be particularly satisfying. I have a need for two, possibly three bags. The first would be an everyday bag which can accommodate both work stuff and a smallish camera (Olympus PEN-size at most), but ideally could instead carry a full “street” kit.  The second would be a day hiking backpack, which can carry a workable “landscape” kit, as well as extra clothes, rain jacket, food, etc. Finally, a nice to have but rarely needed third would be a dedicated hiking backpack with full “kitchen sink” capacity.  I have no need for trolley bags, Pelican cases, etc.

Starting with the first category, I do own a Domke F803, which is actually great, and I use it a lot - or at least I used to. But it is too small to carry a laptop, so fails the “every day” criteria.  But as a small discrete camera satchel, it is unequalled in my opinion.  I’ve been through various non-camera messenger bags, but none have really worked or lasted long. And a few years ago I received a gift of the highly lauded ONA Brixton messenger bag: this, for me, is a disaster. Heavy, inflexible, uncomfortable, with front pockets so tight they’re practically useless. And the canvas has weathered horribly in rain, becoming stiff and shiny, unlike the Domke which weathers beautifully with age. Sorry, but ONA is hipster rubbish in my experience.

In category two I’ve never really found much to beat the modest Kata 467. Unfortunately, a nasty little thief in Bogota agreed with me, so I don’t have it any more. And Kata was bought out by Manfrotto, and their evolution of the 467 doesn’t excite me. I bought a LowePro Rover Pro 35L AW a few years back, but it’s just a mess of straps and weird pockets with this removable camera pod thingy which takes up far too much space. I’ve hardly ever used it.

In category three, I have a LowePro ProTrekker 300 AW which is fine, but a little heavy and cumbersome.  I tried replacing it with a ThinkTank Airport Commuter, but this was a total disaster: the removable waist strap (a feature looking for a requirement if ever there was one) removed itself in an Argentinian 737 overhead locker, and the removable tripod straps (there’s theme there) did the same thing a few weeks later. Never used it since. So, possibly I do have enough bags - but not the right ones.

Which brings us to these two:

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on my left, the $270 WANDRD PRVKE, on my right, the $219 Peak Design Everyday Messenger. Ouch. That’s $489!

This general dissatisfaction with bags, and the apparent inability of mainstream manufacturers to come up with anything really good has left an opportunity in the market. Also, LowePro, Manfrotto, Tamrac et al don’t really seem to have responded to the trend of camera downsizing. Their bags are always quoted as “fitting x DSLRs with x lenses” - sure, that would mean x CSCs with x lenses, but they’d be rattling around in a pointlessly large bag. I’m still not convinced that anyone really caters for this, specifically, but certain smaller manufacturers are trying to offer more focused design, along with less geeky styling, and hipster lifestyle trimmings. For example Peak Design, and WNDRD.

I bought Peak Design’s Everyday Messenger in February, and WNDRD’s PRVKE pack a few weeks back. My reactions so far are a little mixed.

I’ve been using the Peak Design Everyday Messenger almost everyday since I bought it. I take it to work everyday, with at minimum an iPad, sunglasses and a small camera, but sometimes also a 15” laptop, notebook, various accessories, etc. It’s been on various flights, I’ve used it in Hamburg and in Tuscany as a travel camera bag. I’ve carried by hand, over the shoulder, and while cycling.  I can sum my feelings for this bag up quite easily: it is by far the best messenger-style bag I’ve ever used, and I can’t see me ever wanting to change.  At $220 it isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it.  And you could throw in one of their excellent camera straps while you’re at it.

The Everyday Messenger was designed in collaboration with photographer Trey Ratcliffe.  His photography doesn’t do much for me personally, but he sure knows how to specify a bag. The bag has got a zillion features, but they’re ALL useful and well thought out. Very unusually for a messenger bag, it is also designed to carry a tripod, and my Gitzo Traveller fits just fine. Other great touches include the quick access zipper on the top, and the dedicated, separate iPad sleeve. It also survives torrential rain quite happily. 

On the downside, I will say that it is showing some faint signs of wear, in particular on the excellent, seatbelt material strap, but hopefully it will be long lasting. And there is just a touch of “hipster cool, obligatory beard stuff” about both the company and the bag, but not so much that it goes from background embarrassing to irritatingly contrived.  Which brings us to…

...the WANDRD (pronounced “Wandered”) PRVKE (pronounced “Provoke”) backpack. Well, the names are a bad start. It would be hard to come up with anything more irritatingly contrived, or indeed bloody stupid. It’s a pity their budget for vowels was so restricted, or possibly the beards filter them out? But anyway, the basic premise sounds good - “We are passionate photographers, travellers, commuters, creators, and explorers, and we needed a pack that could keep up with our adventurous lifestyle. But we also wanted it to look incredible, and the perfect combination of style and function wasn’t out there, so we decided to make it”. Honestly, I don’t need it to look incredible, I actually need it to look unremarkable. And in fact, the PRVKE is, in my opinion, more anonymous than the Everyday Messenger.  It certainly doesn’t scream “camera bag”. So that’s a plus point.

Anyway, having been searching for a long time, and with an approaching deadline, and with the only alternative i could see, the F-Stop Loka, looking to be permanent vapourware, I decided to risk the not inconsequential $270 and order it from the US.

My initial impression was not particularly good. For a start, for $270, I would like to have a slightly better user guide. Yes, there is a card providing a link to an online PDF, but that is a masterpiece of prioritising bleeding edge design over clarity. Pretty much all reviews mention that getting the bag setup is not easy.  The PRVKE has endless zips, pouches, netting, straps, extra straps, and so on. Some of these are clearly useful, the others not so obviously. Camera gear fits into a removable (oh dear) “camera cube”. Actually installing this cube is not straightforward, and in my opinion it doesn’t fit all that easily. And worse than that, saying that camera gear “fits” is perhaps pushing it. Rather, camera gear can be shoved in, especially when accessing the top part of the cube, which is partially concealed by the top edge of the opening in the pack itself. The cube can be configured to allow access from a side flap, but as others have noted, this needs to be used with care to stop expensive items falling out.  The dividers are not padded - an approach taken also by Peak Design for the Everyday Messenger, and by ThinkTank, and personally I think this is fine. But they provide insufficient configuration flexibility for the cube layout, and all in all, my impression is that for such a (relatively) large bag, the amount of camera gear you can fit in to the dedicated space is pretty small. You could get more into the considerably smaller, much cheaper (but waaaay less hip) Kata 467.

This is the essential problem I have with the PRVKE - I expect a $270 camera pack to have a little more thought put into the lead mission of carrying camera gear. There are some other niggles: it’s advertised as having “magnetic latching” handles on top. Well, the magnets are far too weak to do the job: the handles just don’t stay together. Compared with the Everyday Messenger’s brilliant magnet-assisted latch, this is a bit pathetic. The doubtless detachable waist strap is not to my liking. There is a rain hood provided, in a pouch at the base of the pack, which is very nice, but unfortunately it tends to fight for space with the camera cube. It is very similar to those in Think Tank bags, effectively a narrow belt which helps to stabilise the pack, but not to shift weight onto the hips.  Great, no doubt, for motorbikes, not so good for hikers. And in fact, in essence this pack does seem to be more designed to for bikers than anybody else. Which is fine, but possibly it should be more highlighted in the marketing.

I’m probably sounding very negative about the PRVKE. I am being quite hard on it, but I have 270 reasons to be so. I haven’t really put it through its paces yet, so we shall see if it grows on me.  But if I didn’t have all the endless complexities of Swiss customs to deal with, I’d probably take up WANDRD’s 30 day return offer.

In summary, both of these bags are high on (life)style, and skinny flat whites, and beards. Both where also Kickstarter funded, and both have plenty of rave 5 star reviews by people who don’t appear to have used them. But while Peak Design show that you can be hip and produce highly functional gear at the same time, I’m not convinced that WANDRD have worked out how to do that.  The PRVKE is nevertheless lined up for a trip to Iceland in July, so if I change my mind, I’ll be sure to let you know.

 

 

Eccentric or More Eccentric ?

widescreen addiction

in GAS , Thursday, May 19, 2016

I’m still trying to convince myself I don’t want a Linhof 612, even though I have my eye on a very nice looking one which I can almost afford.

The thing is, it’s a purely mechanical camera. There is no preview of focussing. No metering. It’s just a (extremely high precision-engineered) box with a (breathtakingly gorgeous) lens on the front. It’s heavy, a pain to use, and has this intriguing but rather eccentric 8mm fixed shift.

And I have a Sigma Dp0, which is not only a pain to use, looks plain weird, and draws attention like bears to honey.  But it has auto focus, a screen (just about), and doesn’t need the film processing or scanning steps - albeit it does need Sigma Photo Pro, which rather evens the score.  And it has a (breathtakingly gorgeous) lens on the front.

This is what the Dp0 can do:

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Not bad - almost Ektachrome-like.  The ratio here is 21:9, which is actually shown on the screen, allowing exact composition. Of course you can crop any image any way you want, but that doesn’t work for me.  I need to see what I’m doing, and I need my composition to be preserved in the file. The Dp0 / Sigma Photo Pro combination does both.

If I’d shot this with a Linhof, I’d probably have framed it like this (although the lens field of view would be a little different, but I think the Dp0 17mm lens corresponds roughly to a Linhof 58mm)

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Of course, had I shot it on a Linhof I’d probably have got the exposure and the focussing wrong. And then Silverfast and / or my scanner would have crashed trying to deal with the huge file.

Common sense says Sigma - and given how unlikely that sounds, in the general scheme of things, it says all I really need to know about the sense of buying a Linhof 612 in 2016…

 
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