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photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

Sigma sd quattro H

take it, or leave it ?

in GAS , Wednesday, June 05, 2019

A couple of months ago I finally succumbed to the temptation of buying a Sigma sd Quattro H. Ever since the camera was announced, some years ago now, it intrigued me.  As a sometimes delighted, sometimes frustrated owner of the Merrill and Quattro dp fixed-lens series, this new interchangeable lens Foveon sensor mirrorless camera seemed like something I could put to good use.  Of course, it being a Sigma, things are not as simple as they could be. The camera is indeed mirrorless, and fairly compact, but it is designed to take Sigma’s DSLR lenses. This is not totally bad news, as the recent generations of Sigma lenses have been gaining a strong reputation for Zeiss-like levels of optical performance and build quality at a quarter of the price. Unfortunately, they are not a quarter of the weight, or the bulk, and a quarter of Zeiss prices is still a lot of money.

But anyway, here I am, with a sd Quattro H body (let’s shorten that to sd-H from now on), a 35mm f1.4 Art lens, and a 24-70 f2.8 Art lens. The latter is really huge.  And now I need to be convinced all this was a good idea.

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The Sigma sd Quattro H with 24-70 f/2.8 lens next to the Olympus E-M1 with equivalent 12-40 f/2.8

I have used the Quattro dp0 quite extensively, mainly as a “panoramic” camera with the 21:9 ratio. That, together with previous Merrill dp2 & dp3 experience meant that I was not blind to the potential issues. In suitable conditions these cameras can be jaw-droppingly effective, but the range of conditions that can be reliable considered suitable is narrow, to put it mildly.

Although the usual claim by enthusiasts of these Foveon sensor cameras is of remarkable resolution (which they have, but let’s not go overboard), for me the killer feature is (and again, in the right conditions), a film-like delicacy of colour and colour transition. This can justify me packing the dp0 Quattro as special-use secondary camera, but the question is, are the results clear enough to justify the sd-H and 24-70 lens, four times heavier and bulkier?

Before following up on that, let’s just have a quick recap of what the sd-H offers. There’s a full, in-depth review at DPReview, so I’m not going to spend much time on technical stuff here. The body is very well built, and feels like it cost more than it did. It is comfortable to hold, despite its unconventional shape.  The controls are well laid out and easy to reach, although I would prefer the QS Quick Menu button to be in a similar position to that on the dp body. The menu is a paragon of good design - it’s a pity so few people will see it. The back of the camera has a typical Sigma quirk, with two screens side by side. The second, smaller one is used to display shooting parameters. And unlike the dp series, there is an electronic viewfinder, which is quite large and comfortable, but suffers from the difficulty of getting a high rate video stream from the Foveon sensor. Still, it is serviceable. Basically from an ergonomic point of view things are pretty good.  Oh, and there is an option to produce linear DNG output instead of X3F Raw files, which means you can open them directly in Lightroom, etc. Although I’m not sure I’d recommend that. Oh, and the autofocus can only be described as “****** hopeless”.

I have used the sd-H properly now on 4 outings. One to Venice, which didn’t go well, two quick trips to the local Valle Verzasca, and just recently a long weekend in Tuscany. It’s still all a bit inconclusive. I got some nice results in Verzasca, but I was very constrained by the lack of Depth of Field preview. Also the lack of an orientable screen or finder can be very restricting. Basically it’s not a lot fun using the sd-H on a tripod, but generally that is where it works best.

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this kind of detailed, softly lit scene is where the Sigma cameras do excel

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For my trip to Tuscany I went well prepared. The area is one I know extremely well (I even published a book about it) and there’s absolutely no stress to get the shot, because either I’ve already got it, or I’ll get it next time. I also made a DNG colour profile for the camera, and took along my MacBook Air to be able to do some on the spot verification.

So, I did some handheld shots, and some tripod shots, initially all in DNG, and imported them into Lightroom. I was pretty disappointed. For example, the clich├ęd shots of Tuscan poppies were just smudges, with reds either overblown to flat areas with no detail or clipped to white. Just like digital cameras 20 years ago.  A shot where the ISO crept up to 800 looked like some Chernobyl aftermath. Some shots were inexplicably soft (the 24-70 lens is stabilised, but it’s no Olympus), which I’d also noticed in Venice. And generally the resolution and sharpness was not impressive at all.

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Foveon colour at ISO 800. Ouch.

Oh, and the classic Foveon green flare made a unwelcome appearence.

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the classic Foveon green flare

But then… when I got home, I opened the same images on my desktop computer, which has a fully calibrated Eizo monitor attached to it, and there a rather different picture emerged (literally!). The overblown reds turned out to actually hold detail. The softness in some cases turned out not to be so soft. Some of the poppy field shots turned out ok. And the photos which I took in X3F format are technically not so catastrophic. So the lesson there is that perhaps my 2011 MacBook Air is not the best tool for evaluating image quality.

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Foveon colour at ISO 200. A bit better.

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Hardly a portfolio shot, but technically this one worked ok.

Since there was quite a lot of mountain bike touring involved on this trip, I didn’t limit myself to the Sigma. I also took my Olympus E-M5ii, with my old and travel worn 14-42EZ pancake zoom. This, unlike the sd-H, could happily travel in my backpack. Oh, the shots show a somewhat alarming softness on the right bottom corner, but if you don’t look too closely, the combination actually works pretty well.  Of course, putting a “proper” lens on the Olympus narrows the gap quite a lot, making me question the sd-H even more.

When quickly reviewing photos to illustrate this post, I noticed some shots taken in previous years in Tuscany using the dp0. That camera has a smaller sensor than the sd-H (APS-C rather than APS-H), but a fixed precisely matched (and ultra wide) lens. And even as thumbnails, the shots just pop off the screen. I expected the sd-H, with Art lenses, to have the same effect, but so far, it doesn’t. I’m not quite ready to put it on eBay, but as it stands at the moment it could not justify its place in my camera bag on a real trip.  I guess we still need to work on our relationship.

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This is beginning to get there.

 

 

My photos suck

...and I don’t care

in General Rants , Wednesday, April 10, 2019

From the vast amount of stuff I’ve read about photography, I can really only come to one conclusion: my own photography is basically worthless.  My take away from Landscape Photography pundits is that to have any worth, photos have to have some deep and mystical connection to the natural world. A photo of a tree is not of a tree, it is a representation of the photographer’s relationship with the landscape. Well, in my case, the photo is actually of a tree, and the reason I made it is because for whatever reason I liked the tree. There’s no message in there, there’s no whispered pseudo-religious revelation. There probably isn’t even any “pin sharpness”.

In the past few days I’ve been editing my latest haul of photos of Venice. Some are geometrically interesting, some have nice colours - some have both geometry and colour - and a few have people in them. Almost all are technically more than competent. All are, unfortunately, totally soulless. I’m not going to kid myself, they may look nice in “Lights Out” mode in Lightroom on a black background, but they have zero artistic or cultural value. They do not in any way communicate the emotions I feel when wandering around the outer zones of Cannaregio or the Giudecca. In the cold light of self-analysis, they’re worthless.

As for the technical side, well, actually, I think they’re ok, but perhaps I really don’t know. I’ve read about all this stuff on DPReview and countless blogs, but when I set the slider to 0 I still can’t see this infamous “noise” in the shadows, or all this (lack of) dynamic range. I guess I just don’t have the skill to see it.

I might once have aspired to reaching some sort of higher level of vision or something, but I got stuck at the snapshot stage, and that’s all their is too it.  There are so many other ageing white male engineer-types trying to pretend they have an artistic side by buying camera gear - some of them call themselves Fine Art Photographers, especially if they’re American - that I just got lost in the crowd.

This realisation that I really not any good at any kind of artistic expression has crept up slowly on me, so it isn’t much of a surprise. I’ve known about it for some time. It also impacts on wider things, sometimes in a good way. For example when thinking about places to travel to or go on vacation, these days I don’t start wondering about what gear to take, or how to get “the good light”.  I just go with the flow - I might take some snaps, I might not, but I don’t feel bad about not being that guy wandering the streets with 20kg of camera tech strapped to his back.

At the same time I’m getting more and more weary with all the photography chatter in Twitter and everywhere else. I’m not the only one who can’t take a meaningful photograph, but I seem to be the only one who realises it. Even more, I’m fed up to the back teeth of people who are convince that a totally dull photograph becomes a work of genius because it was shot on film (or even better, expired film).

So, does this mean I’m giving it all up? No, I like taking photos. But I’m not going to keep stressing myself reading all this stuff about how I should “take it to the next level”, “find a a philosophical basis for what I do”, make a rock be “more than a rock” or all the rest of the depressing psychobabble. I’m certainly not going to dive in some kind of ersatz conceptual art.  Vacations will be vacations, not “photo tours”. I’m just going to take (hopefully) pretty pictures of things and juxtapositions that grab my attention or resonate somehow, enjoy the process of doing so, and enjoy looking at them. And I’ll publish a few here on my website too, just in case they give a few fleeting microseconds of pleasure to others.

 

Hardware

well it’s more interesting than photography…

in GAS , Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A couple of months ago I had two blog posts playing around in my head, on the twin topics of “Software” and “Hardware”. “Software” got published, and here, belatedly, is “Hardware”.  I know: gear isn’t important, it isn’t interesting and it has nothing to do with Art, or indeed Photography. But, hey, it sure gets clicks.

The idea really is to get this stuff behind me once and for all. To choose a solution on both fronts that I’m comfortable with, and from then on just do the photography stuff. I might still browse through gear reviews and those crazy, crazy forums on the train or wherever, but only at a distance. And actually, on the Software side it seems to be working. I did have a bit of a glitch a month or so back, when my faithful Epson 3800 printer finally decided to throw a hissy fit. I replaced it with an Epson P800, and thanks to my investment in ImagePrint, it just slotted in and was immediately productive. In the past it would have taken me weeks, months even to get to grips with a new printer, but with ImagePrint handling everything it is completely seamless.

So, printing, that’s kind of halfway between hardware and software. The real hardware is the glitzy black boxes covered with dials and knobs with big tubes sticking out the front. Since I got into digital, I’ve been a faithful (or maybe lazy) Olympus user. My current “default” camera is an Olympus E-M5 MkII which I actually bought on impulse at a crazy low ex-demo price as a backup to take to Antarctica.  By the time I returned it had become my main camera, and although the shutter count is still some way short of my near-retired E-M1, I’m sure if I could record how long I’d carried both for, the E-M5 would win easily.

My last major outing with the E-M5 was to Madeira, where I was seriously surprised by the wealth of photographic potential. I had just the E-M5 with the 12-100 lens with me, having taken a fairly casual approach. What I sorely missed was a polariser, but still, the combination generally worked very well.  Where it did fall down is on something I’ve noticed before: distant fine detail, especially in vegetation, has a tendency to turn into an unsightly mush, which is noticeable even at A4 print sizes - well, it is to me, anyway. This impression has been confirmed to me by an acquaintance who is a professional Olympus user, and just has to be considered to be a limitation of the relatively small sensor and low-ish 16Mpix resolution. But it really only strikes in very particular circumstances - for example in urban photography I never notice it.  But anyway, this leaves an itch when it comes to some types of landscape photography.  Other than that, the Olympus m43 system fits me just fine. The lenses are just superb, and the bulk / weight, or lack of both, are very welcome.

But still, I wanted a “high quality” solution.  I’ve been seriously toying with the idea of Medium Format mirrorless, the Hasselblad X1 or Fuji GFX.  I briefly tried out the GFX and felt that it was a very nice camera, even if I prefer the aesthetics of the Hasselblad.  But the prices ... especially of the lenses ... I really cannot justify. If I was a professional, maybe, or even if I was a good enough photographer to do either justice, but I’m neither of these, so no. I’d rather spend the money on a trip to Greenland, but since I don’t actually have that kind of disposable income anyway, that’s not an option either.

But there’s another option lurking, which any readers of my past writings on gear might well see coming: Sigma. I’ve been dithering about this for ages, and typically, the death sentence of the Sigma SA lens mount and associated cameras bought about by Sigma joining an alliance with Leica and Panasonic was just the trigger I needed to grab a Sigma sd H Quattro while I still could. I’ve been a strong fan of Sigma cameras since the DP2 Merrill, and have got some very satisfying results from the ultra wide angle dp0 Quattro. But these are fixed lens cameras and rather specialist. The sd is a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, albeit one compromised (in some senses) by taking Sigma SA mount lenses designed for DSLRs.  The Sigma Art lenses are optically fantastic, on a par with the best Olympus can do, but O.M.G are they huge and heavy.  Initially I got the 35mm f1.4 Art, and supplemented it with the 24-70mm f2.8 Art.  I doubt I’ll be adding to the collection.  Being used to micro Four Thirds (or even non-micro Four Thirds), and indeed Sigma “compacts”, I’d largely forgotten about camera weight. The Sigma sd H itself isn’t heavy, but add a lens to it, and it takes me back to the nightmare days of my Canon T90 with solid lead telephoto lens bolted on the front. It’s going to have to really produce the goods to stay off the shelf.

Although people rave about the resolution of the Sigma Foveon sensor, rightly so, my attraction is more to the crystalline clarity and luminance of the photos it produces.  It’s as close to film as I’ve ever seen from a digital camera - indeed much closer than any other. The colour output has a similar character to Kodak Portra, although unfortunately with a dynamic range more like Fuji Velvia.  But in the right circumstances, both the Merrill and Quattro variants of the sensor really sing.

So there we have it - Olympus m43 for general use, Sigma sd H and dp0 for when I need something a little different. I decided to take the sd H, with the 24-70 lens, along with the E-M5 and 12-100 lens for a short trip to Venice last week, thinking I might dedicate a little bit of time to some side by side testing.  Of course I could do side by side testing in our back garden, but I actually need interesting subjects to motivate me to “test”, and our garden, welcoming as it is, doesn’t really qualify, especially not at this time of year.

It all went wrong. Of course it did. The 24-70 lens arrived at the last moment, so I decided to take advantage of an hour between trains to try it out at Milan Central station, and to review the files on the way to Venice.  Then in Venice I took it out in the late afternoon to just do some more familiarisation shots.  The battery ran out at about 70 shots, probably because it wasn’t fully charged to begin with, but also because the lens has an optical stabiliser, which doubtless sucks up power. No problem, I just reached into my pocket to swap in the spare battery, only to realise that I’d bought the dp0 spare, not the sd, and they’re very different.  And of course I’d brought the dp0 charger as well. So the wonder-camera turned into a temporary very heavy doorstop.

Not haven taken any really challenging shots, or indeed been all that careful, and no comparison shots at all, I don’t have much to base an opinion of the sd H in an urban setting on, but to be frank, what I do see doesn’t really blow me away.  It’s early days yet, but I have a nasty feeling that the perfectly matched fixed lenses of the Sigma dp series play a bigger role than I’d realised.  I did, however, take a few landscape shots in December when I first got the camera, and they were promising. We shall see.

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Venice, by Sigma sd H Quattro with Sigma Art 24-70mm f2.8 lens

The kind of embarrassing thing though is that I also had my Ricoh GR II with me, and due to the lack of power for the Sigma, and also an unfortunate accident with the E-M5, it got pressed into service far more than I expected. And not only did I really enjoy using it, but the “image quality” is actually quite breathtaking. Of course I already knew this.  Waaaay back towards the end of the last century it was the original film GR1 which shocked me into realising what a difference a great lens can make, and the descendants of that camera have maintained the tradition of optical excellence. In fact, I’m loathe to say this, but the GR, at least at 28mm, may be every bit as good as the Sigma. Ouch.

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Venice, by Ricoh GR II with Ricoh 18.3mm f2.8 lens

The Olympus E-M5 did its job efficiently and reliably, and I certainly enjoyed using it.  It doesn’t quite have the wow factor of it’s two companions, but it provides a far greater degree of flexibility than either, and remains my no 1 choice.  Unfortunately, on a night time shot, I was carrying it on my Gitzo Traveller tripod, and the assembly holding the ballhead to the centre column fell apart just as I was heading home.  The E-M5 hit the paving stones - well the 12-100 lens did so first - rather abruptly. The mount on the lens was visibly skewed and the lens was unusable. Fortunately there was no other visible damage, and the camera seems fine.  The lens has gone off to Olympus for repair, and I’ve ordered a new centre column from Gitzo through gritted teeth. I do sometimes - ok, often - wonder just how much Gitzo actually really deserve their reputation.

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Venice, by Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with Olympus m.Zuiko 12-100mm f4.0 lens

So, that’s the hardware story.  I did cast around a little, I looked at the new Nikons, I even looked at Panasonic, but finally I decided that Olympus backed up with Sigma and Ricoh are a pretty good comfort zone.  Actually, if only Ricoh could expand their philosophy to a somewhat wider range (yes I know about Pentax, but no thanks) I could be very happy with just that. The Sigma sd H may turn out to be a big, heavy mistake. But the dp0 is a gem.

Oh, and about film cameras? Yes, well, they’re all sitting on a shelf, along with a drawer full of film. I haven’t used a film camera since last September, and right now I feel absolutely no urge to do so again.  Things may change, but I may, just possibly, finally be done with film.  Anybody want to buy an XPan ?

 

La Magliasina

going with the flow

in Photography in Ticino , Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Magliasina is a short, scrappy, torrential river which emerges on the slopes of Monte Gradiccioli in the Malcantone region of Ticino, and 15km later drains into Lake Lugano. At its mouth, it marks the boundary between the villages of Caslano, and of Magliaso, where I live, and which gave the name to the river.

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For most of its length it is hidden from sight at the foot of a deserted, steep sided narrow valley. There are a few crossing points where bridges have been built to allow paths to join the two sides of the valley, but mainly the river is heard, not seen.  I’ve been exploring it bit by bit for quite some time. I’ve largely moved on from the more easily accessible spots and, based on large scale topographic maps tried to work out where there might be interesting hideaways. Although such spots might sometimes be approached by following deserted, disappearing paths, reaching them almost always involves some serious off-piste traversing.

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Sometimes I strike gold, sometimes not, but more than once I’ve ended up with more of a scramble on my hands than I bargained for. In a few cases I’ve been forced to question my sanity. In some parts the valley side is very steep, and the soil is unstable. It also tends to be covered in vicious undergrowth in summer, and treacherous rotting tree trunks and branches all year round.  If photos were graded by the physical difficulty in taking them, I’d have quite a portfolio by now.

Throttle

In the lower reaches the valley is much broader, but even more strangled by undergrowth. Now and again I come across signs that in earlier times, the area was actually inhabited, partly farmed, and the river was a focal point. Today few people seem to realise it even exists.  Oh, there are rock pools here and there which are clearly the treasured secrets of teenagers looking for a summer hideaway.  And there are a few easily accessed and popular areas such as the Maglio del Malcantone, but largely the river keeps well away from view.

Overflow

It’s become a bit of an obsession, but unlike my other obsessions, it is within walking distance of my front door. So far I’m continuing to make new discoveries, and there are more to be found. For example, the ruins of a 100 year old hydroelectric plant lurk somewhere in the woods. I think I know where, but it’s a stretch I haven’t explored yet. And I haven’t started on the high upstream section.

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Probably it isn’t all that sensible to go off exploring like this on my own, but nobody seems interested. Every now and again I am reminded that while Switzerland is a very safe place from a society point of view, nature here can be pretty bloody dangerous. I should probably invest in a rope. And a loud whistle.

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You can see more, if you want, in my Magliasina album on Flickr.

 

Glacier, by Ragnar Axelsson

ice age

in Book Reviews , Wednesday, January 30, 2019

“Glacier” is the title of what must be the magnum opus of Icelandic photographer Ragnar Axelsson, also known as Rax. Previously his published photography has been more orientated towards environmental portraiture and reportage, through acclaimed books such as “Faces of the North” and “Last Days of the Arctic”, but “Glacier” is pure landscape. It isn’t picture postcard landscape though - far from it. Glacier is a vast collection of aerial photography of Iceland’s ice fields.

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For the greater part the photography discards any sense of scale and proportion, and presents a near abstract, otherworldly view. Photographing in black and white further removes any easy connection to reality, and emphasises even further the quite unbelievable forms shaped by the forces on the ice. The net effect is captivating. Far from being a set of exercises in graphic composition, the emotional impact is remarkable, encompassing everything from fascination to - in the case of some of the volcano shots - terror.

In much of his previous work, Rax did not seem to place an undue emphasis on technical quality, at least not to the extent of discarding photos for purely technical reasons, but here, the precision and clarity is impressive, and indeed important. The fact that as far as I know most were taken from a pretty unstable light aircraft makes them all the more impressive.

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That it is aerial photography may put some off, but this is emphatically not some “Iceland viewed from the sky” kitsch. It is more like a distant relative of Edward Burtynsky’s work, and equally affecting.

Obviously I highly recommend losing yourself in “Glacier” for a few hours. It is one of the best photobooks I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot. But I am going to leave off with a minor rant:

Clearly there is an environmental message as well as an aesthetic dimension underlying “Glacier”. I have absolutely no problem with that. But then, why deliver the book wrapped up in a pointless plastic wrapper, with a plastic “Glacier” sticker attached to it, both of which need to be ripped off and thrown away ? Yes, it protects the integrity of the (gorgeous) design concept, but in doing so it totally undermines the message. I am so, so fed up of the torrents of plastic running through this and every household every day. I appreciate it isn’t easy to find a solution, but if it was easy, we wouldn’t have such a major problem. Did the idea of recyclable paper outer wrapper occur to the book designer, I wonder ?

 

 

 
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