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True Colours

roses are blue, violets are green

in Post-processing , Friday, April 23, 2021

Colour is a funny thing.  Online forums and photo geek sites are full of self-appointed experts droning on about “color science” and generally talking total rubbish. For a start colour perception is both physically and culturally subjective. Our eyes are all slightly different, and our brains process signals in slightly different ways. The naming of colours is subjective in various ways. What I call dark orange somebody else might call red. And the colour I see with my eyes is often different to the colour I see on my camera or computer screen. And let’s not even get into prints.

So, buying a Hasselblad X1DII because it captures “more accurate colour” was possibly not the best idea I’ve ever had. Of course, Hasselblad has its vaunted “Hasselblad Natural Colour Solution”, which “was developed for serious users who demand the utmost colour accuracy”. But accurate in which sense? Maybe to a reference colour chart, which is all well and good, but it doesn’t help me much if I’m partially colour blind (I don’t believe I am, but who knows?)

Generally I don’t have too much issue with colour accuracy. In fact I’m more concerned with colour gradation. But there is one area which has always intrigued me, which is how cameras see flower colour.

Way back I had big issues trying to photograph poppies with my Olympus E-1, reported in one of my earlier posts on this site. Over time I’ve noticed that colours that to me visually are in the pink to magenta range come out blue. Some shades of yellow, such as wild primula, come out almost white.

So, I thought I’d do a little test on my thriving wisteria. To my eyes, the flowers are shades of lilac and purple, with some white and yellow tints. But on screen, in photographs they tend to come out more blue. So, I thought I’d see what the Hasselblad Natural Colour Solution would make of this. I lined the X1DII up on a firm tripod, then switching it for the 3 other cameras I use, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mk3, the Ricoh GR II, and the Sigma dp0. I used the 45mm f/3.5 lens on the X1DII, and the 17mm f/1.2 on the Olympus, these both closely approximating 35mm in reference terms. The GR has a fixed lens approximating 28mm, and the Sigma’s lens approximates 21mm.  I’m only really interested in colour here.  So, I loaded all 4 into CaptureOne, with minimal processing (the Sigma and Hasselblad images were converted to 16 bit TIFF via their respective proprietary applications. For the Ricoh and Sigma I tweaked zoom levels to get a rough match.

Wisteria test

Top row: Ricoh, Sigma. Bottom row: Olympus, Hasselblad

Well, the results are a bit disturbing. Of course you can’t really see a lot here, but from my subjective standpoint the best of the bunch at rendering the flower colours is actually the Olympus. The Hasselblad is close, but particularly in lighter areas in shifts towards blue (see on the left, and top right). The Ricoh is not bad, but a little under-saturated. The Sigma is in a world of its own, although if you look a detail rather than colour, it makes things a little awkward for the Hasselblad.

Maybe my eye/brain combination has some trouble distinguishing certain shades of blue? I don’t know, but on this unscientific and very specific sample, the Hasselblad Natural Colour Solution doesn’t score a home run.

 

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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Drm 20161203 DP0Q0601
Drm 20200118 P0Q1001
Drm 20200120 P0Q1045 1
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Drm 20200123 P0Q1095
Drm 20200123 P0Q1104

 

 

 

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.

IMG 5741

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.

 

 

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.

 

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