photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

So many photos

and so many more photos

in General Rants , Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A couple of weeks ago, Kirk Tuck wrote a blog post entitled “What do you do with all the photos you take?”.  It was a very good question. Kirk, it seems - SPOILER ALERT - deletes a significant number of his before they even get on a computer. I probably should do the same, but I don’t. I have got an awfully large number of digital photos, and a whole lot more on processed film. Actually, my Lightroom catalogue, which goes back to 2004, more or less, as of today has 74’702, which I suspect is actually not so many, especially as 50’000 of those are test photos of ducks. But even so I can’t keep up. I continually take new photos, and the projects I have in mind for the previous batch get overwhelmed as I sift through the newer ones, which in turn get overwhelmed by their successors.

I have several projects I’ve actually started, apart from all the ones in my head. One is a fairly straightforward book of Antarctic photography - I’ve even written the text for it. Another is a rather more eccentric concept for a series on Venice.  I’ve got the raw material for this stuff, I’ve got the ideas, but I haven’t got the time, or the ability to focus. And then I had an actually quite well planned and executed harvest of photos of Madeira’s levadas, which I absolutely love, but that’s still sitting on the virtual shelf. I’d get onto that only I have some stuff from the Lauterbrunnen valley from last week which got in the way.  And so it goes. The problem is that I suspect that the part of all this which I most enjoy is taking the photos - well that and shopping for gear. I suppose I have some vague idea of a long enjoyable retirement when I’ll sort it all out - but actually, a retirement spent sitting in front of a computer, waiting for the final shutdown…is maybe not the best idea.

As I was saying, the problem is focus. I also have a lot of material to write about. It’s mostly in my head. I suppose I might manage to publish more frequently if I thought that anybody except me is actually reading this stuff, but pretty much nobody is, so it may just as well stay in my head. I’m not complaining - Kirk Tuck’s Visual Science Lab blog is a whole lot more appealing than mine, and deservedly popular.  Item: he publishes a lot of gorgeous photos of equally gorgeous women. I don’t. Item: he writes extensively about endless buying fabulous camera gear allowing his readers to enjoy vicariously whatever his latest craze is, and to justify to themselves their own spending sprees. I don’t. I sometimes write about gear of very marginal interest to 99.99% of the gear audience, from a very eccentric angle. And always the same gear. Don’t come to me to fix your buyer’s remorse. Item: Kirk runs a successful photography business. I don’t. Item: Kirk has time for (a) at least one hugely interesting photowalk every day, (b) to maintain an extensive fitness program, (c) to write long and interesting blog posts, (d) to run his aforementioned successful business, (e) to have what appears to be a health and happy family life, (f) etc.  Well, I suppose I do too, but actually mostly I procrastinate and read Kirk’s blog.

And I’m forever veering wildly off topic.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll delete all the test photos of ducks from 2005. And publish a set from Trümmelbachfälle. Or maybe I’ll just go out and take some more photos.

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Your time’s up, duck



Snow what? Snow where?

what’s in a name?

in General Rants , Thursday, June 13, 2019

I registered the domain name “” around June 2001. Although I had been running my own website since around 1997, this was supposed to be a step in a more ambitious direction.  The choice of the name “snowhenge” was a bit backwards looking, referring to an incident in the past where my somewhat strange sense of humour had been deployed. I don’t think I intended to be particularly meaningful at the time, although the initial site design had a strong “snowhenge” theme. Rather, it was fairly typical bit of misdirection.

When I walked away from Antarctic research and science in general, somewhat in disgust, I expected that polar regions were firmly in the past. Even though my involvement in research did eventually drag on for a few more years due to unfinished commitments, in my head I’d moved on. Well, more or less. In 1999, having already decided I need a major change of direction, I spent 3 weeks trekking in Eastern Greenland, back when it still had ice. A major motivation for that was wanting to rediscover the unique soft evening light which had enraptured me in the Antarctic. Photographically it was a disaster, as my camera’s exposure meter malfunctioned without me realising it, and my travel zoom lens fell apart. Actually at that point I didn’t have much of a clue what I was doing, and photography was not my main objective. My objective was to find a quiet place to sit on the rocks and gaze at icebergs. It probably still is.

Greenland 02

Greenland, 1999

From then onwards there was little real connection to snow, or polar regions at all on I got much more into photography, but this was concentrated on areas adjacent to my my new home in Ticino.  There was a glimmer of a return when I embarked on a bit of an Iceland obsession from 2004 onwards (my first visit in 1999 having for some reason made no impression on me), but still, there was no real direct justification for my web site’s title.

But eventually things turned around. In 2010 I visited Svalbard with a private expedition of 10 people, and then finally in 2013 returned to Antarctic as a tourist, with a somewhat unexpected follow-up in 2016. This, along with beginning to write quite a lot more about the Antarctic, seemed to indicate that I was finally making thematic sense.  But recently I’ve noticed that the home page barely mentions anything polar, and I’m beginning to wonder if maybe it is time for an identity shift. Actually the URL points here too, perhaps I should make it the primary name. Then perhaps people will not visit expecting to find a Snowhenge and immediately turn away disappointed.  Or maybe they do that because there’s not much to see anyway…  I’m certainly no Influencer!

I have to confess that I have another Antarctic trip lined up for early next year, something a bit different this time, which will leave me utterly penniless (but maybe also with a new sense of direction). But then again, I’m equally enthralled with other places, most recently Madeira. So I guess will remain what it seems to have always been, a testimonial to my chronic appetite for digression.


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 clichéd 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.

Sdh green flare

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.



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 ?

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