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photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

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 ?

 

A catalog for Sigma Files

Just some geeky tech stuff…

in Sigma , Saturday, June 16, 2018

As a long term user of Sigma fixed-lens cameras (I was going to say “compact” but then glanced at the dp0 Quattro on my desk) one of the most frustrating things is the difficulty with browsing photos on disk. Sigma’s Raw formats are read by very few applications, and although Quattro cameras now support DNG, which makes life easier, this comes with the drawback of not being able to use Sigma Photo Pro (SPP) for raw processing. Many would say that was a plus, but in my opinion, the combined effect of the latest version of Adobe Lightroom’s poor rendering of the DNGs, and the big step forward Sigma have taken with Photo Pro v6.6 sways the balance towards proprietary X3F files. Honestly, if you’re going to go to all the trouble involved in using a Sigma camera, it seems pretty nuts to settle for arguably sub-optimal output.

So, I needed a solution. SPP’s file browser is truly dreadful. It has no facility for marking folders as favourites, it cannot peek inside a folder to see if it has no Sigma Raw files and thus exclude it, it has no standard metadata features, etc etc. It’s a real pain.

There aren’t many alternatives: my standard tool for cataloging outside of Lightroom is MediaPro, which I use for mainly for film scans these days, but in the past I used for everything. I’ve probably been using it in various incarnations for 20 years or more. The last significant update to MediaPro was under its original owner, iView, to version 3. That was in 2004 if I remember correctly. Since then it has been owned by Microsoft, then PhaseOne, and has benefited from almost no functional development. PhaseOne’s last effort, “MediaPro SE” brought only OS compatibility (supposedly) and alignment with CaptureOne.  MediaPro SE still has quaint menu items such as “Backup to CD-ROM”. So, the chances of MediaPro supporting X3F files are in the snowstorm in hell category.

But there is one last chance: iDimager Systems PhotoSupreme (PSU). I’ve been trying to get to grips with PSU for a while. Generally I found it a very frustrating experience. PSU has a bizarre User Interface, at least for one coming to it from an application like MediaPro, or indeed Lightroom. For me Version 3 was also alarmingly unstable - you do not want an application that you invest a lot of effort into to trash it’s database too often - and at times extremely sluggish. But it could read X3F files and extract the embedded JPG. And it had a lot of other promising but infuriating features. Nevertheless MediaPro was still more elegant and intuitive, after all the years of neglect. So I set PSU aside and struggled on with SPP’s browser.

Then came PSU Version 4. I was dubious at first, the upgrade price of some $100 seemed pretty steep, and I wasn’t that optimistic. But eventually I took the plunge, and so far, it’s working out pretty well.  With PSU, I can now import X3F files, catalog them, organise them, smoothly review in anything up to full screen, and compare several files using the Light Table. What’s more, with one click I can send them directly to Sigma Photo Pro. And after I process them in SPP, I can import the TIFs into PSU and bind them with their source X3F into Version Sets (basically what Lightroom calls Stacks, only more like Aperture’s stacks, without Lightroom’s bone-headed limitations). 

Here are a few screenshots to illustrate the various steps:

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A selection of X3F thumbnails in PhotoSupreme

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X3F thumbnails shown in PhotoSupreme’s Light table mode

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Full size image shown in PhotoSupreme

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Sigma Photo Pro in PSU - click to open the selected image in SPP

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selected image in Sigma Photo Pro

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Stacked / Versioned X3F and SPP-exported TIFF in PSU

PSU Version 4 also has a reworked UI, which makes it considerably easier to get to grips with its modus operandi. It still has some rough edges though, and the developer (iDimager Systems is a one-man show, as far as I know) would do well to hire a User Experience consultant. Although to be fair probably that would not be commercially realistic. But all in all it works, and it has some very nice features, apart from the powerful Versions concept. For example, it can apply quite impressive approximate renderings to Raw files processed in Lightroom, CaptureOne and DxO PhotoLab. On the downside, it really is very inadequately documented.

But in any case, for me at least it is a really liberating experience to be able to use extensive Digital Asset Management tools on my Sigma X3F Raw files. I very much work with sets of photos, not individual shots, and the editing process (in the traditional sense) is actually more important to me than editing (in the digital photography sense). So PhotoSupreme is well worth the money, and the still fairly steep learning curve.

 

Sigma DP0 Firmware 2.0

old toy becomes new toy

in Sigma , Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The recent very welcome and generous firmware update (2.0.1) for Sigma’s DP Quattro cameras has added several new dimensions to working with the output. The update brings two major new features:

  • DNG Output
  • SFD (Super Fine Definition mode)

Of the two, DNG is probably the most significant: it means that it is no longer necessary to use Sigma Photo Pro to process raw images.  They can now be opened directly in various DNG compatible applications. I’ve tried Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, Photo Mechanic, Alien Skin Exposure, Iridient Developer. They all work fine. This is a huge boost to workflow, and opens up Sigma Quattro cameras to all those put off by having to use Sigma Photo Pro (which, by the way, is actually nowhere as awful as the internet echo chamber would have you believe).

On top of this, you can now use software such as XRite ColorChecker to create customer camera profiles to use in compatible applications.

SFD is a bit more esoteric. SFD mode combines 7 standard frames automatically shot at different exposures to obtain a single file with extended shadow and highlight detail, and lower noise. Basically an auto-HDR, but thankfully without the kitsch. Unlike, say, Olympus in-camera HDR, here all individual frames are saved as RAW and can be selected, discarded, or individually edited in Sigma Photo Pro, if you wish to go too that level of detail (no DNG here).  I’d read some pretty negative opinions of SFD from Sigma SD Quattro owners, so I was curious but not all that excited.

So, yesterday evening I went out to grab a few shows to try all this stuff out. Please note this was just a “kick the tyres” sort of thing, in a context of taking photos that I might actually be interested in, not “testing”, taking a million shots of the pot plant, brick wall, or cat nearest to the couch.

DNG output

The addition of DNG output makes a huge potential difference to workflow enhancement. The question is, what, if anything, are we losing? There are a lot of drawbacks to using Sigma Foveon cameras, but there are also two big plusses, resolution, and colour character. Compromising on either of those arguably makes using the cameras pointless. So, using a frame which is not far off a torture test, with deep shadow and bright highlights, not to mention abundant, potentially troublesome green tones, let’s dive in.

I’ve taken two identical shots, one recorded to X3F file, and the other to DNG. I have processed the X3F file in Sigma Photo Pro (SPP) using “Auto” settings - I don’t usually use Auto, but here it seemed to make sense, as I assume something similar must happen internally in-camera to create RGB data for the DNG file. I’ve opened the DNG file in Lightroom, on default settings, but changed the camera profile to Standard to match SPP. Here are the full frames, compared in Lightroom Library module.

Sd0 dng compare 1

X3F on the left, DNG on the right

Ok, you’re not going to be able to tell much from these, but the idea is to get an overall feel. The colour in the DNG file seems a little muted compared to the X3F. We’ll look at that a bit later.

The top left corner of the shot is a bit troublesome - again, we’ll look at this when discussing the SFD mode, but let’s see how X3F and DNG compare.

Dp0 compare dng tl

Top left crop, DNG version

Dp0 compare x3f tl

Top left crop, X3F version

Well, there are some minor differences, but nothing I’d personally lose sleep over. What gets interesting is looking at the potential for colour calibration.  Using the XRite Colorchecker Passport, a made a quick Lightroom profile for the SD0.

Sd0 dng colour profile

Left, custom profile, right, Sigma standard

The difference there is quite clear. I’m not yet entirely sure I prefer the custom profile version, but I think it is probably more accurate. Personally I actually like the somewhat muted saturation that the Sigma standard profile gives, but well, it’s certainly opening up a whole new dimension. It will be interesting to compare a Sigma custom profiled shot of an identical scene shot with another camera.

Lightroom actually has all the built-in SPP colour modes as profiles under calibration. I assume these come in with the DNG. If Adobe had actually put some effort into actively supporting Sigma Quattro cameras, I think we’d have heard about it.

As I said above, I’m not all that unenthusiastic about SPP, but even so, there are a lot of good arguments for using DNG, and so far, I don’t see any significant drawbacks. The out of camera DNGs are huge - about 110Mb to the 60-ish Mb of a corresponding X3F, but apparently running them through Adobe DNG converter shrinks them with no adverse side effects. I haven’t tried it yet.

SFD Mode

A couple of shots here demonstrate the usefulness of SFD mode. Unfortunately I was in a bit of a hurry, and the location I was shooting from was a bit precarious, so I wasn’t very careful about details and the non-SFD version is shot a f/4.5, so the background is not sharp.  Note that this sort of shot, where there is moving water, is not supposed to work in SFD mode.  I found it to work fairly well. The significant thing here is the highlights, in the patches of bright water. The SFD mode has yielded a lot more highlight detail.

DP0Q0671 x3i 2 full

Full scene, SFD mode

Now, two close ups of the two modes.

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Close up, standard mode (auto exposure)

DP0Q0671 x3i crop

Close up, SFD mode

Note, the white balance is different in SFD mode. It was actually much cooler, but I made a rough adjustment in Photoshop. The differences in sharpness are irrelevant, as mentioned above, they are down to to wide an aperture on the non-SFD shot. However, what is significant is the extra detail in the bright water patches in the SFD shot. In the non-SFD shot they are completely blown.  Also, note, from this example, the SFD rendering of blurred water is comparable to the non-SFD. However, at the edge of the full frame, there was some minor leaf movement, and there artefacts do show up. Sometimes they will be acceptable, sometimes not. Indeed, I took a different SFD shot with moving water, and in that case some of the patterns were a bit weird.  But it looks like it could be useful, in some situations.

Note, I didn’t encounter any of the processing time nightmares broadcast on the forums. On my computer, Sigma Photo Pro 6.5.3 took under 2 minutes to process an SFD set (.XFI file). That seems reasonable to me.

A second example was aimed more at shadow detail. The full frame is below (in this case I was more interested in shadow detail).

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Looking in detail at the debris in shadow in the lower left:

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Close up, standard mode (auto exposure)

DP0Q0659 X3i crop

Close up, SFD mode

I would say that is pretty conclusive.

However, the highlights (sky patches, top left) are blown in both cases. The sky was completely overcast, so that is fine, however the loss of detail in the foliage isn’t so impressive. Here the SFD version does a better job, but neither is brilliant. An extreme case, maybe, but also just one of the Foveon sensor’s weak points.

Drm SIGMA dp0 Quattro DP0Q0658 tr2

Close up, top left, standard mode (auto exposure)

DP0Q0659 X3i tl

Close up, top left, SFD mode

I’m not sure how much I might end up using SFD mode. I would imagine it is more generally useful for static subjects in controlled, indoor conditions, but from this very brief trial, it does seem more useful for outdoors photography than I expected. Anyway, I’m certainly not going to complain.

Thanks very much to Sigma for this update - they don’t really get a lot of publicity, but I doubt there is a company today more dedicated to making great photography equipment at reasonable prices. And they just keep improving.

 

 

 

Sigma stuff for sale

High Res, Low Price

in Site Admin , Wednesday, March 08, 2017

SORRY, NOW ALL SOLD As explained here, I'm having a bit of a clearout, and offering various bits and pieces of Sigma gear for sale at JAW-DROPPING prices.

Everything here is used, but in good condition and full working order. There are some minor marks, but nothing has been dropped or badly handled. If it was damaged, I wouldn't sell it, I'm just not that guy. Everything was bought new, by me, through official importers.

I'm located in Switzerland, which is not in the EU. For EU customers, I can easily send by (registered) Italian post - which is perfectly reliable, whatever prejudice may say. Otherwise I can send worldwide by Swiss parcel post or by DHL (but DHL is very expensive here for private customers). Within Switzerland, I will cover the cost. Otherwise, we can negotiate. From previous sales I have satisfied customers from USA to New Zealand and China.


All prices are given in Swiss Francs (CHF), which are more or less 1:1 EUR and USD. Rounding errors can be negotiated. I've tried to keep the prices fair, and low. Generally I would request payment on receipt of goods by PayPal.

Anyway, here's the stuff.

1. Sigma DP-2 Merrill



Sigma DP-2M with original packaging and accessories including 2 batteries, with following extras:

- Sigma lens shade
- Sigma VF-21 Optical Viewfinder
- JLM grip / baseplate (see review here)

sale1703 - 8

sale1703 - 9

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Asking Price: CHF 400

2. Sigma DP-3 Merrill



Sigma DP-3M with original packaging (USA version, this was bought from B&H) and accessories including 2 batteries, with following extras:

- Sigma lens shade
- Voigtländer 75mm Optical Viewfinder perfectly adapted for DP3M

sale1703 - 10

sale1703 - 11

sale1703 - 12

Asking Price: CHF 400

SPECIAL OFFER



Both cameras together, with a total of SIX Sigma BP41 batteries for CHF 700.
 

New Panoramics

from horizon to horizon

in Photography , Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Wide format, or "panoramic" photography for me has been synonymous with film and my Hasselblad XPan, since the turn of the century. Well, it seems, no more. On my recent trip to Iceland, for the first time, it stayed at home, and its usurper, the Sigma DP0, came instead. And I really enjoyed using it. You'll find all sorts of opinions and views all over the darker corners of the photo-net droning on about how awful it is, but I ignored all that stuff and just used it. Once you get into the groove, it's really fun to use. The weird shape makes total sense when holding it, and it's a great conversation starter (if you like conversations that start with "what the hell is that!?").

These little renditions below don't really do justice to the jaw-dropping impact of the detail and delicacy seen on a print or big screen, but they go somewhere, I hope, to explaining why the unconventional approach and, er, idiosyncratic software is worth the trouble. Speaking of which, maybe I'm just lucky, but unlike for certain well known pundits, Sigma's PhotoPro software is 100% rock solid for me. I can't remember the last time it crashed, if ever.

But anyway, it's all about the photos, not the gadgetry, and I'm pretty happy with this set.


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So... anybody want to buy an XPan ?
 

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