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Going wide in Antarctica

a weird, but wonderful camera

in Sigma , Friday, February 19, 2021

I have written more than one post about my enthusiasm for the Sigma dp0 Quattro. Having just completed editing the series of photos I took with it in Antarctica little over a year ago, I felt like writing a bit more.

For me the dp0 plays the role of high quality digital panoramic camera, hence my describing it as the digital XPan, with a similar multi-aspect ratio, except in this case the “single frame” is actually has the same long-edge resolution as the panorama.

So, the dp0 panorama mode is a crop, but for me the fact that I get the crop (a rather unique 21:9) on screen means that I can compose in panoramic mode, rather that crop afterwards in post production, and that makes a big difference. It means I can set my creative brain to panoramic mode and not get distracted by elements outside of the composition. But it also means I can move the panoramic frame in post, which essentially gives me positive and negative shift control. Of course this is all artificial, and yes, to some extent you can do it with any camera, but there is a psychological aspect to this which makes me feel like I’m using a true panoramic camera and therefore helps me find appropriate compositions. It would be even better if Sigma introduced a firmware upgrade which allowed me to shift the frame up or down in-camera.

But apart from all the pseudo-panorama babble, what brings me back to the dp0 time and time again is the delicate colour and superfine detail that comes from the combination of the fixed 14mm lens and the Foveon sensor. I don’t really mean detail in the pixel-peeping sense: sure you zoom in to 100% and see amazing resolution. In fact you can go beyond, almost to 300% before things start to break down, but to my eyes there is something about the detail at any zoom level. It looks quite different to other digital cameras, even medium format.

The other thing about the dp0 is how light it is, especially given what it delivers. The unique shape makes it a little cumbersome to pack, not to mention a reliable attention grabber on the street, but generally it is very easy to carry around, and once you get used to its different way of doing things, quite a pleasure to use.

All of this adds up to a camera which very easily justifies its space in the very limited luggage one can carry to Antarctica, especially when sailing on a small boat.

I find that the dp0 - and indeed, the DP2 Merrill I used previously - responds very well to Antarctic light and atmospheric conditions. It excels at conveying the unreal sense of detail that you see in the landscape, where the lack of humidity and pollutants in the air allow even very distant scenes to appear crystal clear. Of course it does have drawbacks too: dynamic range is not great, and highlight clipping is generally completely irrecoverable. Highlights also clip very abruptly, which also places limitations on some types of long exposure where brighter areas can burn out in a very ugly way. Having said all that, when it works, it works like nothing else I’ve ever used.

I recently published a photo diary of dp0 shots - a mix of full frame and panoramic.  Here are a few more shots which I didn’t include there.

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To give some idea of the detail, the speck in the air to the left in the photo above is a helicopter. At 1:1 it looks like this:

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Olympus M.Zuiko ED 12-45mm f/1:4 PRO review

well, my idea of a review, that is

in Product reviews , Wednesday, July 22, 2020

So, here’s a gear review. It’s not tongue in cheek, nor is it sarcastic, but it is purely subjective, is grounded solely on my own needs and desires, and has absolutely no measurements or “tests”.

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I didn’t need the (deep breath) Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-45mm f/1:4 PRO lens. I’ve already got far too many Olympus lenses, including the near-overlapping M.Zuiko 12-40 f/2:8 PRO, and the M.Zuiko 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 EZ (“AMATEUR” I assume). And of course I don’t actually “need” any of this stuff. However I have long wished for Olympus to break out of the “high quality lenses have to be fast and heavy” mindset, and offer smaller lenses that do not compromise on quality (either optical performance or handling). To some extent they made a move towards this with the 12-100mm f/4 PRO, although nobody would describe that lens as small or light - even if relatively, it is. So, given all of this, when this 12-45 PRO was announced, I was interested.

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The new tiny 12-45 f/4 PRO versus the giant 12.40 f/2.8 PRO. Take your pick.

While the rough direction of my photography tends towards relatively exotic travel, especially the higher latitudes, clearly I don’t do that everyday. But photography is part of my everyday life, and while I don’t necessarily share much of my day to day, mundane photography, I still do it, still enjoy it, and it keeps me in practice. So, having a compact but quite nice and high-ish quality system is enticing. On the camera side, the OM-D EM5 Mkii fits the bill, but the existing 12-40mm PRO lens is a touch unbalanced on that body, especially without the various bolt-on grips and baseplates.  And the 14-42 EZ isn’t very inspiring, at least my copy isn’t, although it was probably better before it had a fairly traumatic trip around Colombia.

Yes but. The 12-45 PRO lens is quite expensive, and from my point of view, hardly essential. However, when shopping at my favourite online store the other day (for mosquito repellent) I noticed a very interesting “open box” offer for the lens, some 30% off standard price. At that price I thought it was worth a go, especially right now it might be a good idea to buy up Olympus lenses while we still can.

So here it is. I’ll skip the unboxing ritual, although it is worth pointing that this lens comes with a rather nice soft cloth wrap, rather than a clumsy pouch, which could actually be useful. As opposed to all other PRO lenses (and a number of AMATEUR ones), it has no “manual focus clutch”. This is no big deal - in my opinion this is only really useful on prime lenses. I can switch to manual focus on the flick of a switch on the camera body anyway. Otherwise it is clearly a member of the PRO family, both by design and heft. Addressing the number one question, is it really that much smaller than the 12-40 PRO? Well, side by side there is less in it than you might expect. But when mounted on the EM-5 MkII, the difference is very noticeable. While the 12-40 PRO unbalances the handling (to some extent, let’s not exaggerate), the 12-45 PRO feels absolutely perfect.

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So, I bolted the the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-45mm f/1:4 PRO lens on the front of OM-D E-M5 MkII body (sorry, I seem to be drifting slightly towards the Sarcasm Sea here, I’ll try to stop it) and took it for a brief walk while waiting for a doctor’s appointment (I’m fine, thanks for asking). Unfortunately - or not, who knows - I didn’t notice that the camera was still set to use a custom colour setting I’d been playing around with, and to record in JPEG. Just as well I’m not into “tests”.

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My initial impression was just it was just seamless to use. It fits perfectly onto the E-M5, and is a really nice, flexible walk around lens. The zoom range is very useful, and it does have one special trick up its sleeve in that is has a very short minimum focus distance of 12cm at all focal lengths. This gets close to macro range. It’s sharp - at least as sharp as the 12-40 PRO - and as far as I can tell at all focal lengths, starting from wide open. Of course, wide open is “only” f/4, which some bespectacled angry geek will pop up and correct to “f/8”, but that’s part of the design. Frankly f/4 is good enough for me. I’m far more often struggling getting enough depth of field rather than complaining I’ve got too much.  Of course it could be brighter, but then it would be a 12-40 f/2.8, and, well, start at the beginning if you didn’t get the message on that yet.

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A close focussing test.  At focal length 12mm.

I’m pleased I bought this lens, although the special price had a lot to do with it. It has its own niche, and for me that will be getting glued to the front of my E-M5 MkII. This, and just maybe the 17mm f/1.8, will fit very nice into a corner of my small Domke shoulder bag, and be a perfect companion for casual photography. Which is most photography, for me.

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All photos taken around Mendrisio, Ticino, Switzerland.

 

Farewell Medium Format

and thanks for all the frames

in Film , Tuesday, July 14, 2020

It’s all change at snowhenge headquarters. I’ve recently divested myself of all medium format film cameras, but also all unessential digital stuff which I have acquired over the years. There is no question that I truly love the look of medium format film, especially Kodak Portra 400, but also Fuji 160NS and Kodak E100. But the problem is that I have never found a medium format camera that really works for me. The Bessa 667 III is a beautiful camera which works extremely well - but it has a 50mm equivalent lens, which has never been my thing.  Then there’s the Linhof 612PC. Maybe if I’d bought it 20 years ago, it would have been different, but my 4 year experiment with hasn’t yielded much. It’s a fascinating device, but it is just too cumbersome to use. A big attraction for me, coming from the XPan, was the 8mm fixed shift lens. But the problem here is that it is a positive shift. I usually need negative shift. No problem, you can turn the camera upside down - it even has a tripod socket on the top plate. But unfortunately you can’t fix the viewfinder to the bottom plate, and accessing the lens controls upside down is a recipe for disaster. In most scenarios I get into, it becomes a very unenjoyable experience. On top of that, despite the huge real estate on the body, Linhof contrived to create a design where no known Arca plate could be fitted (to be fair I don’t think removable plates existed when the camera was designed, but still…).  So I had to use a neolithic screw fitting tripod head.  And finally, unless one is very, very careful, the 612 film winding mechanism has a very nasty habit of overlapping exposures. On top of that, the 58mm lens flares badly. I hope the new owner finds it more amenable than I did - at least I sold it at a fair price.

So that’s it - apart from the Hasselblad XPan, I’m out of film.

This does actually carry on with what I wrote in an earlier post: “what is dawning on me is that by and large for me shooting film is mainly about finding something to point the camera at, whereas shooting digital is about wanting the photo”. I’m more sure than ever that this is the case for me.

But it’s not even just film. I’ve also sold off my Sigma sd-H, with its lead-lined lenses. It can produce great results, but again, it is very cumbersome, and it only works in very specific lighting situations. I never found a niche for it. My idea was that it would extend the scope offered by my Quattro dp0, but in the end it didn’t: it doesn’t offer the portability of dp0, and the Art lenses, while excellent, are not as good as the dp fixed lenses. So the dp0 stays, but the sd-H is gone. So all that remains is a two-body Olympus OM-D setup, with a generous number of lenses. Oh, and the Ricoh GR, which earns its keep.

All this sell-off (which went very well, and very painlessly via ricardo.ch rather than eBay) has generated a quite reasonable pile of cash. I have imposed a rule on myself that by and large I’m spend no new money on camera gear.  New has to be paid for by old. In this case, the cash hasn’t sat around for long, and my latest acquisition, which I’ve been dithering about for years, has just been delivered and is waiting to be opened. It’s by some margin the most I’ve ever spent on camera gear (the record so far is probably the XPan, which with all lenses must have come to around €4000).

But more on that some other time.

 

The Atlas Athlete backpack

recommended by leading penguins

in Product reviews , Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Over the years I’ve written a fair few articles on camera bags. It’s a given that no self-respecting photographer can ever have too many bags. Well, for me the search for the as-close-to-perfect bag seems to be at an end. I’m not claiming that I have found a single bag that suits every occasion, but I have found 3 which pretty much cover everything. Two of these, I’ve had for a while: for casual, city and similar use, the Domke F803. For fully dedicated core photography, the Mindshift Backlight 23L. I’m not going to discuss those here, but rather the final piece of the puzzle, the hybrid trekking/photo Atlas Athlete backpack.

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Introducing my guest reviewer, a big fan of Atlas backpacks.

I’ve been using the Atlas backpack for almost exactly one year. It has come on several major trips (Madeira, Patagonia, Antarctica) and plenty of minor outings. There are a lot of great things about this backpack, but for me the outstanding points are the extreme comfort and the chameleon-like configurability. It is designed first and foremost as a trekking backpack. It has an aluminium frame (removable, just), and an extremely well designed harness and belt. In fact the Atlas Athlete can be ordered in several sizes and with different belt types to best suit your body measurements. And it fits like a glove.

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My guest reviewer checks out the harness

Well, so what, you might say, there are plenty of excellent trekking backpacks out there. And indeed there are, but the Atlas Athlete is also designed from a photographer’s point of view. It’s also true that there are plenty of vendors making similar claims, but where they emphasise all the gimmicks, from “packing modules” through to revolving sections, the photography aspect of the Atlas Athlete has been conceived with the same tight focus on practical usefulness as the bag itself.

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The Atlas Athlete with the camera compartment in expanded configuration. It holds two Olympus E-M1 bodies, one with grip, three Pro lenses, including the 40-150 f2.8 zoom, two teleconverters, and a filter pack.

The camera section is accessed through the back of the pack and is fixed in place. It has the usual velcro attached flexible dividers, which in this case are well, rather than excessively padded. The closest thing the bag has to a gimmick is the push-down/pull-up flap which reduces the size of the camera section, to about two thirds of the full size. Actually this turns out no to be a gimmick at all, but rather to be pretty useful in practice. The configuration you can see above uses the full space. For long walks I usually take a reduced amount of camera gear, so I pull the flap to make more space for other items. Even then, I can easily fit in an Olympus E-M1 body and two Pro lenses. The only slightly negative point I would make is that the compartment is a touch shallow.

Apart from the camera compartment, the Atlas Athlete has plenty of space. One of the main selling points is that it is very expandable. With the compression straps released, it expands out to 30 litres. With them tightened, it shrinks to 5 litres, and a 7 inch profile which easily fits into the overhead locker of a small commuter airliner. Uncompressed, the main space extends down the bottom of the bag, in front of the camera compartment. On the front of the camera compartment there is a concealed laptop holder, which easily accommodates my 13” MacBook Pro.  The top lid has a plethora of pockets which swallow surprising amounts of gadgetry.

You can read more about the features on the Atlas website, but the key factor, for me, is that it is supremely comfortable, even fully loaded.  Hiking long sections of narrow, humid Madeira levadas or the Torres del Paine W trail was absolutely no problem at all with this backpack. And it was equally at home fully loaded with camera gear on treks ashore in Antarctica, or rattling around on the bottom of a zodiac.  Oh, and did I mention hardwearing?

Of course, you can get trendier stuff from Peak Design and their Kickstarter imitators, if you value form over function. I’ve made that mistake so you don’t have to. Bottom line, for a hybrid trekking/photo backpack, you’d be hard pushed to find a better candidate than the Atlas Athlete.  And yes, it does come in a more stealthy colour, but the bright yellow works for me!

Guest Review Comments

Yeah, ok, it’s not the worst, but they could work on the taste a bit. Regurgitated krill would be nice!

 

Doubling down

and moving out

in Photography , Saturday, December 28, 2019

The frequency at which I updating this site recently hardly justifies the hosting fees, or indeed all the work I put into upgrading it some months back. This reflects my currently diminished interest in “engaging with the community”, where more and more I’m finding that an audience of 1 is all I need.  There’s nothing world changing or meme generating about my photography, so it would only be counterproductive, and probably depressing, to fish for likes and whatnot.  Although you’re more than welcome to boost my ego on Flickr.

Another brake on my visible creativity is my processing, in both a computing as well as a mental sense, of the too vast haul I brought back from Greenland in September. The problem there is that the overall quality is too high. It was really difficult to cull the stragglers when a very high proportion of the photos was pretty good, even if I say so myself. And to a reasonable extent I avoided repetition and taking “just in case” shots. This is problematic because I don’t have to time to edit thousands of photos, and I already have a significant backlog. On top of that, I’ve been busy planning another imminent trip, once again Deep South to Antarctica, with an Hors d‘Oeuvre of Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia. I’m kind of telling myself that the Patagonia leg will be focused on trekking, with at most a little vacation photography, but we all know where that ends up.

Which brings me finally to the point. My last few, far between posts have pretty much been about gear, and so is this one. After quite a lot of thought and dithering, I have decided to redouble my reliance on micro four thirds gear, and in particular Olympus. There is a significant advantage in polar regions to having two cameras, generally one with a wide angle lens and one with a telephoto, so I have replaced my older E-M1 (which did fine in Greenland) with a second E-M1 Mark II. How do I explain this extravagance? Well, lucky me, I work in a Swiss Bank, so I’m insanely rich, darling (well, really less rich than insane). And considerably more truthfully, the fact that the Mark I and Mark II have different batteries means more weight and bulk to carry, and the slightly different control and menu layouts are annoying.  The new Mark II came with a free grip from Olympus, which is also useful in Antarctica. And both, together with a set of Pro zooms covering a wide focal range, snugly fit into the camera bay of my fabulous Atlas backpack, which is perfect for trekking. So there we have it.

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I expect the Sigma dp0 will come along too, although my objective of keeping weight down to 20kg + 8kg backpack for a 30 day trip is under quite some strain.

Regarding the Olympus stuff, I‘ve mentioned the mushy far distance effect which I dislike a few times. Actually I‘ve looked at raw files from other cameras, including medium format, and seen pretty much the same thing, it just sets in at a greater distance or higher frequency. Probably another aspect of the same root cause is a plasticky look which sets in on surfaces like exposed rock in certain circumstances. Processing software has an effect on both of these behaviours - I find Adobe Lightroom / Camera Raw to be the least bad. Interestingly the Sigma cameras seem to be free of these effects, as does film, so maybe it is a Bayer filter thing, but these systems have their own drawbacks.

Mush

This is what I mean by “mushy”.  This is a 1:1 screenshot, probably further damaged by compression, but maybe it shows what I mean.

Finally, does any of that make an iota of difference between a good photo or a bad photo? Of course not. But it can be annoying.

So, my objective now is to take as few photos as I possibly can, and to try to be aware of and work around the limitations of my gear. Oh, and to put a memory card in.

** I was hoping to fit in a “my favourite shots of the year” before heading off, but I ended up spending the time unpacking and repacking everything again.  I’m a hopeless traveller.

 

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