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This is the photography blog for photographer and writer David Moore. He's based in Santa Fe, New Mexico but speaks with a funny accent.

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    September 25th, 2011

    I can see clearly now – Olympus VF-2 Viewfinder Review

    To update my last post on the subject, my experience with the Olympus PEN E-PL2 micro 4/3rds camera is going well. Perhaps the first thing to note is that I always have it in my bag, which is one of the main objectives.

    I’ve taken it with me on a lunchtime dog walk, and have got into the habit of sticking it in jacket pockets when heading out the door without a bag. The excellent Panasonic LUMIX G 20mm f/1.7 lens is small enough that it makes the whole thing pocketable.

    One things that was limiting my enjoyment, however, was the lack of a viewfinder.

    For me, shooting using the LCD wasn’t working for several reasons:

    • shaky arms: If you’re trying to get things composed precisely, then having the camera out at arm’s length makes it hard to make subtle adjustments. With the camera jammed into your face, that fine control is easier.
    • bad eyes: The screen’s pretty good even in bright sun, but when you’re looking at it from a distance, then most things in your field of view aren’t the screen, making it harder to see all the details you’d get with a viewfinder
    • missing focus: I tend to use the center focus point, and then recompose the image when I’ve got focus. I do this on all my cameras, partly out of habit, but mainly because I don’t trust the camera to know what I want to focus on, and I’m quicker with focus-and-recompose than I would be trying to select a particular focus point. This is much harder to do on an LCD screen
    • force of habit: I’ve been looking through viewfinders for a long time. I like it in there.

    The obvious solution was the the Olympus VF-2 electronic viewfinder, but at $230 or so, it isn’t cheap, and it does add to the bulk of the camera. So, is it worth it?

    It definitely adds a decided lump to the top of the camera.

    Like watching a movie

    It’s an electronic viewfinder so what you see is exactly what the lens is seeing (as with an SLR) but it achieves this not by using mirrors but by containing a small screen inside the eyepiece. Genius.

    In some ways it’s actually better than the optical viewfinder on a DSLR. Firstly, it more accurately shows depth of field without having to use a depth of field preview buttons (which I find never work that well anyway). Secondly, if you’ve chosen any of the Art Modes on the camera (I’m fond of the grainy black and white), the viewfinder image shows you what you’re actually going to get. So the black and white image shows as black and white.


    There is an option to display the shot you’ve just taken in the viewfinder as well, but I find that gets in the way of taking the next shot, as you obviously can’t see the live view while the replay is showing. I either set the camera to replay the last image on the main LCD (like DSLRs can do), or just switch off the replay feature entirely.You can also set it to show a range of standard information alongside the image you’re composing – aperture, ISO, shutter speed, composition grid, battery life . . .

    And for extra fun, the eyepiece tilts upwards for composing in awkward situations (or pretending you’re a submarine commander with a periscope).

    Sturdy enough

    Other reviewers have reported that since the viewfinder doesn’t actually lock (it just slides into the socket above the screen and into the flash hotshoe) it can be knocked off when you’re carrying the camera around.

    It certainly could be a more solid connection (the newer but lower-spec Olympus VF-3 has a locking mechanism), but I’ve not had a problem with it yet.

    Recommended, with a but

    Even though it does make the camera a little bit more chunky, I like the viewfinder a lot, to the point where I haven’t taken it off the camera since it arrived.

    For me, it increases the chances that I’ll get the shot I’m after, and makes the process of shooting it more enjoyable.

    It’s worth noting though, that by the time you’ve bought the camera (my EPL2 was reduced because the EP3 and EPL3 had just been released), a fast prime and the viewfinder, you’re up near Fujifilm X100 territory.

    The Fuji has a 35mm equivalent f/2 lens, a viewfinder that can switch between being optical and electronic, and looks like it came from the set of Mad Men. The PENs are smaller and more flexible (with the option of using interchangeable lenses, including mounts for some legacy option), but the Fuji’s sensor is larger, and it’s getting a lot of love.

    I’m happy with my choice, but if you think you’re going to want the viewfinder for sure, then you might want to consider the Fuji or the Sony NEXs as well, before making your decision.

    Posted on 9/25/11 | 3 comments | Filed Under: Mirrorless cameras, Reviews | read on
    September 8th, 2011

    The Curse of the Thumbnail

    How many new images did you look at today? How many of those were on websites, or on a tablet or iPhone? Probably too many to count, I’d guess.

    A few years ago we consumed our photographs mostly in physical form – a few on TV or in movies but the vast majority in newspapers, books, magazines and billboards. And most of these we saw at a pretty good size.

    Now, we get most of our images through the internet, and a lot of them we see are very small, at least initially. This is the curse of the thumbnail.

    Read Simple

    When we look at a page of thumbnails, some are obviously easier to ‘read’ at a small size than others. The simpler the image, the more it makes sense to us when we can’t see much detail. So simple images with tight crops, strong contrast and bold colors stand out. More complex composition and subtle palettes tend to get lost at this size.

    Here’s a page from Flickr’s Explore section recently – my grab is reduce from actual size, so the effect is even greater, but which images are the most immediately compelling? For me, it’s the doll and the railway tracks. I can clearly discern what they’re about.

    Some make almost no sense at all seen at this size – the bottom right dusty mechanical thing, for example.

    So we gravitate towards the images we think we understand. This is a natural response when we don’t have enough detail to work out what we’re looking at – nobody likes to be confused.

    When we click on the thumbnail we can understand, there’s often not that much more to explore when we get to the larger version. Being a simple image isn’t necessarily a bad thing – if that’s what you wanted to say and the image achieves this, then that’s fine.

    But what if the photographer wanted to say something that took a bit more explaining? By jumping on the thumbnails of the simpler images, we’re often missing fantastic images.

    Here’s a grab from my Flickr contacts recently:

    From this selection, I might choose one of the concert images to look at larger. But I’d be tempted to skip over the black and white one second from the left on the top row,  because I can’t make it out at that size. Which would be a shame, as it’s a fantastic night time view of Mount Rushmore.

    Similarly this is one of my favorite images from this summer (in thumbnail format):

    Taken at my daughter’s ‘wizarding camp’ (they made their own cloaks, hats, spell books, wands and rings), it just doesn’t read well as a thumbnail.

    But viewed large (as it is below), there’s enough detail for your eye to move around the shot, with the face of the girl on the right being the key element, contrasting with the ordered lines of the rest of the kids facing the other way. Compositionally, it’s not brilliant, but it rewards spending a little time with it.

    If you’re as good as Jeff Ascough, however, with great composition that balances elements and leads the eye, seeing patterns as people move through a wedding, then your images really shine under careful examination of large versions. But seen among a bunch of other thumbnails, you might pass over them.

    Trouble begins at home

    To counter this, photographers are increasingly displaying their images as large as they can online. 1000 pixels wide is not uncommon in photo blogs (such as one of my new favourites Shoot Tokyo), and portfolios often include full-screen slideshow options.

    The increasingly popular photosharing site 500px uses much larger thumbnails than Flickr (which has a real whiff of a dead man walking at the moment). But as long as there are web pages, there’ll be small online images, which do some of our images a disservice.

    But the problem starts before the images even make it to the computer. We’re all so used to reviewing our images first using the small LCDs on the back of our digital cameras, and these have the same drawbacks as online thumbnails. Simple close-ups read better at that size than more complex compositions.

    We like the reassurance that we’re on the right lines as we shoot, but when we respond positively to images that look good on the back of a camera, we (subconsciously I’m sure for most of us) gravitate towards taking those type of shots in the first place.

    Think wide and deep

    When I started shooting portraits, my first response was definitely like this – get in tight to the face, blur the background and be done with it. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, except if it’s your only approach.

    Now I consciously try and look for compositions that show more of the subject and more of their environment. These often take more time to frame correctly – there’s a thin line between distracting clutter and evocative surroundings – and of course the subject’s face is smaller in the frame.

    It’s harder to tell if these are working just by looking at the LCD after I’ve taken the image, but of course photographers for decades didn’t have this luxury and had to wait until they got back to the darkroom to see what they’d got. They had to see the shot in their mind before they made the image, rather than just trying a bunch of stuff and seeing that it looked like immediately afterwards.

    We would do well to follow this approach. Slowing down when we shoot, visualizing shots in advance, instead of being led solely by the instant feedback from the LCD. We should start thinking a little wider in our compositions, and a little deeper when it comes to evaluating both our images, and other people’s when we see them online. Let’s lift the curse of the thumbnail.

    Posted on 9/8/11 | no comments; | Filed Under: Tips/Tutorials | read on
    August 29th, 2011

    Photographing a Santa Fe Bar Mitzvah Party

    A little while ago, I was happy to be asked to photograph a Bar Mitzvah party for a young man named Sam (pictured above),  held upstairs at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. I’d done a headshot session for Sam before, and it was nice to see him and his parents again, especially on such a happy occasion.

    It was a great evening, with a lovely setting up on the terrace of the Center, and a mixture of Sam’s school friends and older family friends and relatives as guests.

    Photographing parties events like this is nerve-wracking to a degree, and being there as a professional is very different from just firing off some images as a guest.

    There’s an obligation to get good shots of everyone there if it’s a small enough party (as this was) while also trying to get excellent shots of the key folks and key moments. Sometimes it’s the little details or less than crucial events that really tell the story of the party, so you have to look out for those too. And not get in people’s way, while they’re enjoying themselves.

    On the other hand, it’s an honour to be invited into people’s special occasions, and the guests tend to be in a good mood and looking good, and are very tolerant of a photographer they don’t know milling about.

    It’s hard work, but I was happy with the results I got, and more importantly, so were Sam and his parents.

    Posted on 8/29/11 | no comments; | Filed Under: Children's portraits, News | read on
    August 21st, 2011

    The PEN is mightier than the point-and-shoot

    So I’m now the proud owner of an Olympus E-PL2 – one of the well-regarded Olympus EP PEN series. My experience lugging the big lad around Legoland was a step too far.

    Despite only being released in January, the E-PL2 (which I’ll just call the EPL2 from now on to save on hyphens) is now on the virtual scrap-heap, having been superseded by the new E-P3. Which is why I got such a good price on it – with the kit lens I got it for $500 (from Amazon), while the E-P3 with the same lens is $900 (if you can find it at the moment).

    (Technically, the E-P3 replaces the older E-P2, but the EPL2 was released in between these two, and so while it was supposed to be the less-impressive kid brother of the EP series cameras, it performs better than the (at the time) more expensive EP-2. You can get the EP-2 for around $500 too, which is nominally a bigger saving, but the EPL2 is a better camera, so I think that’s the one to get between the two old versions).

    It lacks some of the things the new camera has – notably the touchscreen that lets you point to focus, faster autofocus all around, higher max ISO, and better movie capabilities – but interestingly DxO tests actually give the EPL2 better image quality results than its successors. Its results aren’t too far off the Canon Rebel XT body I bought as my first digital SLR five years ago. Impressive how far we’ve come technologically in a few short years.

    I’d take an E-P3 if someone gave me, but the price difference between the two made the EPL2 an easy choice, especially as I was planning on using the camera as a more casual, walk around device than my main shooter.

    And for that it does really well. It’s small, but not tiny – you can’t stick it in a trouser pocket (especially with the kit 14-42mm lens (which comes out at 28 – 84mm equivalent). but it’s certainly lighter and more manageable than my workhorse 5D Mark II with any lens attached.

    What’s this Micro 4/3rds format anyway?

    Jointly developed by Olympus and Panasonic (the lenses each make for the format are interchangeable across the manufacturers), the aim of this format is to put a pretty good-sized sensor into a smaller body, with smaller but interchangeable lenses.

    These cameras work well for people moving up from point and shoots, looking for more quality and more control (although there are the usual Scene modes and auto-everything as options). But they also work for more experienced photographers like me, who don’t want to lug a chunky DLSR around all the time but can be demanding about performance.

    A lot of the size reduction over DSLRs comes from not having a mirror system to project the image you’re intending to take into a viewfinder. Instead you either use the LCD screen (as most point and shoots do), or an electronic viewfinder which actually contains a small screen that displays what the lens is seeing. (For that reason these type of cameras are sometimes described using the clunky acronym EVIL – for Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lens).

    The $1200 Fujifilm X100 has recently got a ton of attention for doing most of this, and by all accounts it’s nice to use and delivers good quality (and looks gorgeous), but if you don’t like the 35mm equivalent focal length, then you’re out of luck (making it EV, but not EVIL, I guess) as it only comes with one lens.

    But the Micro 4/3rds format offers a good range of interchangeable lenses that work with all the M4/3rds cameras. There are wide primes, long zooms and even adaptors for a range of old-school legacy lenses from Voigtlander, Leica, Olympus and other brands – most of them you’ll have to focus manually.

    As well as the kit lens, I got the well-regarded Panasonic LUMIX 20mm f/1.7 to create a more portable low-light monster. Especially with the in-camera stabilization, I’ve got sharp shots of (still) subjects hand-held at 1/4 second, which is insane, and something my 5D II can’t match with most my lenses.

    It was really pretty dark at this point, but the Oly and the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 kept on trucking without having to jack up the ISO too much.

    Look, no viewfinder

    Some other micro-4/3rds cameras sport viewfinders, but for the PEN series they’re an optional (and expensive extra). But the electronic viewfinder actually shows you what your image will be like (black and white, for example if you’ve selected that art mode, or with the correct depth of field if you’re shooting wide open).

    Forget the size, look at the sensor size

    The solid image quality is largely down to the size of the sensor. At 13 x 17.3mm it’s not too far from the APS-C size in most consumer and prosumer DSLRs at 14.9 x 22.3mm – for comparison, the Canon G-series high-end point and shoots have sensors that measure 5.6 x 7.5mm – less than a fifth of the area.

    Other smaller cameras have 12MP, but that file size is derived from the smaller sensors, compromising image quality, especially at higher ISOs.

    Using it in real life

    All this information might explain why it’s a good choice on paper, but what’s it like actually using the EPL2?

    After nearly a week of shooting with it, mainly at relaxed social occasions rather than going out specifically to shoot, I can say I really like it, and I’m pleasantly surprised at the image quality.

    This camera works brilliantly for casual situations like this, where photography isn’t your main objective but you’d like to have a good enough camera with you just in case. It’s small, light and unobtrusive. Especially if you compose using the LCD, it looks pretty much the same as a whole bunch of consumer point and shoots, so doesn’t attract the same sort of attention as a 5D Mark II with an L-series zoom on it. And you can drop another lens in your pocket and be ready for anything.

    I mainly shoot in Aperture Priority, and I’ve customized the controls so I can adjust aperture, ISO, exposure compensation, focus point and face detection all very easily. I normally shoot with a single centre focus point (a throwback to my days using the Canon 5D, where only the centre point is reliable). This means I normally focus and then recompose, and I’m fine with that.

    But with the accurate face detection enabled, that’s often faster, and so it’s nice to have that option when I’m photography my daughter, for example. It also allows you to shoot with the camera well away from your eyes and still be pretty confident you’ll get the focus you want. There’s very little shutter lag, and a usable but not super speedy burst mode.

    Getting the focus right in this shot with my camera above my head would be tricky without the good face recognition feature in the E-PL2

    Composing and shooting via the LCD gives me a bit less confidence I’m getting the shot I want, after so long using a viewfinder. But when I review the shots, it seems I’ve got what I was looking for most of the time.

    Wolf in sheep’s clothing

    When I was taking some shots of the great band (Felix y Los Gatos) playing on the Plaza during the week, it seemed like I was just another local or tourist with a point and shoot, which was fine. But with the fast Panasonic prime attached, I was getting a nice narrow depth of field, and some reasonable shutter speeds even as it got dark.

    It’s perfect for street photography (not that I do much), especially if you set it to zone focus manually (i.e set a aperture than creates a wide depth of field so you know that, say, everything from 4 to 15 feet is in focus). The bright LCD and dazzling small blue power light on the top might give you away though, so perhaps a black Sharpie and the electronic viewfinder’s a good combinations for situations when you want to be particularly stealthy.

    How I learned to stop worrying and love JPGs

    To keep everything simple and relaxed, I’m trying out shooting JPGs, so I’m not tempted to do any processing on images that are taken more for fun than business.

    The camera supports RAW and there’s even some RAW + JPG options that I could use, but the appeal of just shooting and being done is pretty strong for me. I’ll let you know if I stick with this plan, but the Oly JPGs come out pretty well.

    Conclusion

    I’m really enjoying the little Oly, and while I’m sure the new E-P3 and forthcoming E-PL3 offer better performance (especially focussing), If you’re looking for a good deal the E-PL2 is worth looking at. The money you save over the new versions could be put towards the view-finder or a nice prime like the Panasonic 20mm that I got, or the apparently very nice (but pricey) Olympus M. Zuiko 12mm f/2.0.

    Finally, I’d like to thank (and point you to) two resources that were really valuable while I was trying to figure out which smaller camera to get. Kirk Tuck, a photographer in Austin, Texas has a great blog that often covers Micro 4/3rds cameras, and Steve Huff is also well-informed and interesting on Leicas, Olympuses (Olympi?) and other non-DLSR stuff. Both well worth following if you’re interested in this area of photography.

    Posted on 8/21/11 | 8 comments | Filed Under: Mirrorless cameras, Reviews | read on
    August 15th, 2011

    Scientists at play – photographing the q-bio conference

    I was delighted to be booked to photograph an evening of the q-bio conference in Santa Fe this weekend.

    Held at St John’s College, but organized by the Center for Non-Linear Studies at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the event explores cellular information processing and ‘is intended to advance predictive modeling of cellular regulation’ – (no, I don’t really know what that is either, but everyone there obviously did).

    Some photographers see these kind of jobs as a bit dull – the photos matter to the organizers and attendees, but they’re not that exciting to the photographer. I don’t agree.

    My natural curiosity and my willingness to explore what you can produce under specific constraints always makes me look forward to the shoot. If you think you’re going to get just ordinary images, then you probably will, but if you’re open to trying things, and genuinely interested in what’s going on, then you’ll do better.

    The organizers wanted photographs of the biologists enjoying pizza and beer after the daytime sessions, then heading in to take part in the evening events.

    These included a brilliant talk (complete with songs) by iconoclastic Israeli scientist Uri Alon, who gave a compelling account of the need to acknowledge the subjective and emotional side to life as a researcher.

    You don't expect a guitar in a science lecture, but Uri Alon's not the average scientist

    And then the attendees broke out into the poster sessions, where their fellow delegates put up posters outlining their projects and then discuss them long into the night.

    The organizers used the images as part of a slideshow at the banquet held on the final evening of the conference, and will use them in print and online publicity for next year’s event.

    One of the joys of being a photographer is being invited into a world you’d normally never venture into to. This is what drew me to print journalism – just for a little while, you get to explore what other people’s lives are like, and try to understand things enough to tell an interesting and accurate story about it. The same is true with photography.

    Attendees talking through and debating their projects with other delegates in 'poster sessions'

    Posted on 8/15/11 | 1 comment | Filed Under: News, Santa Fe | read on
    August 3rd, 2011

    When the best camera is the wrong camera

    Next time, I'll follow her lead and just bring the point and shoot

    Every now and again someone who sees some of my work tells me, ‘Your pictures are really good, you must have a really good camera.”

    I know they mean well, but it’s a bit like telling Lionel Messi that his football boots must cost a lot, or a chef that she must have a really good stove.

    Most of the time, it’s not about the gear, it’s about the intent and skill with which it’s used. You could put me in a Formula 1 car but I’m not going to set any lap records around the Nürburgring.

    The right tool for the job

    I’m just back from a week’s vacation in California with the family. I took hundreds of photographs, almost exclusively with the intent of helping me remember the good time we were having. I had no time or inclination to get more serious than that, and it shows in the pictures. I like lots of them, but I don’t think they’re anything special.

    I used my 5D Mark II and the 24-105mm f/4L. It’s a great combination – I recently shot a whole feature assignment for a magazine with it – but it was massive overkill for family shots in Legoland.

    By the end of the second day of lugging it around, I would gladly have swapped it for a Canon G12, Panasonic Lumix LX5 or a bunch of other decent point-and-shoots. The images would have been more than good enough and my back would have thanked me.

    I’m not going print my family shots very large, the light was bright and so long as I shot RAW I could easily make any minor processing adjustments. Given my intentions and constraints, a smaller camera would have worked a lot better. I might not have been able to shoot in burst mode to get decent images of my wife and daughter as they sped by on a roller coaster, but that’s about the only concession I would have had to make.

    If I’m taking my time and am serious about the images I’m working on (especially if someone’s paying me), or if the environment is tricky in some way, then I’ll follow Samuel Jackson’s advice in Jackie Brown: ‘The Canon 5D Mark II – the very best there is. When you absolutely positively gotta kill every image in the room, except no substitute.’ (at least I think that’s what he said, more or less).

    But you don’t need such firepower a lot of the time, and the camera’s not going to create great images if the person behind it isn’t really trying.

    So yes, I do have a really good camera, but I still take bad pictures with it. And I take much better pictures with a less good camera – some of my favorite images were taken with my old Rebel XT and the plasticky 50mm f/1.8, and I love some of my iPhone shots.

    Where’s the Un-Suck button?

    The takeaway from this is two-fold. Firstly, a good camera isn’t going to get you good images by itself. I know this sounds obvious, but I also know how long I’ve spent poring over camera and lens reviews, when I could have been taking photos with the camera I already have, or learning something from a good e-Book (this one on black and white processing is great, by the way).

    The second conclusion is that (fortunately), the things that will get you good images don’t cost very much – intention, time, practice, experience, patience, thought.

    Canon and Nikon don’t sell those, just like there’s no Unsuck button in Photoshop, and they do take effort to acquire but they’re light, cross-platform and you always have them with you.

    But sometimes you’re just taking photos of your kid like a normal civilian; and that’s OK too.

     

    Posted on 8/3/11 | 2 comments | Filed Under: Personal, Tips/Tutorials | read on
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