Archive for the ‘Reviews etc’ Category

Lightroom Sucks?

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

PetaPixel recently published an article by wedding photographer Andy Hudson with the title Lightroom Sucks: An Open Letter to Adobe in which he goes through a number of the problems – mainly fairly minor niggles – that he has with Adobe’s Lightroom software.

I’m not an uncritical user (my wife says of anything…) and there are a lot of things I would like LR to do better, but for me it’s still the best of the bunch and seems to show some improvement with virtually every new upgrade. A recent one which made the ‘Auto’ button in the Develop module work so much better has cut down the work needed considerably, though there are some types of high contrast images it consistently gets very wrong.

There was one fairly disastrous upgrade recently, so buggy that Adobe had to replace it at short notice, but other than that I’ve had no real problems with the upgrades. I’ve tried some of the alternatives over the years and have not found anything yet that suits me better.

One big advantage for me is that for my subscription – about £10 a month – I also get the latest version of Photoshop. It isn’t a program I use a great deal now, but there are some things it can do that I need, and the old version I actually owned wasn’t always up to the job. Photoshop also gets new and improved features, though nothing in recent updates that really makes a lot of difference.

Where I am in full agreement with Hudson is that it would be good for Adobe to spend rather more time on sorting out bugs and issues and concentrate on this rather than new features. It would be good too if they could improve the speed, but I suspect any really useful improvement could only come from a complete change in the way it is written and developed, really going back to square one.

My computer which runs LR is now antique in computer terms, bought in 2011, seven years ago. It beats the minimum specification but with Windows 7, an Intel i5-2500 CPU at 3.30GHz and only 8 Gb of memory it isn’t as fast as I’d like. So sometimes I do find myself waiting a few seconds for the screen to reflect a change I’ve made.

So far, the hassle of re-installing everything on a new machine has put me off upgrading, though at some point I will have to do so. I’d expect LR to be a bit nippier when I do.

One thing that makes LR easier to bear is that I don’t rely on it to do an initial edit of the pictures I’ve taken. It is agonisingly slow at going through perhaps 500 pictures on a memory card, even with a USB 3.0 card reader. Some years ago I tried out FastPictureViewer Professional, which claims to be the fastest image viewer in town and also features:

“full color management for faithful color rendition, instant zooming to 100% and back, to check for sharpness, instant RGB histogram to evaluate the exposure, instant lost shadows / highlights view to see where the blocked-up shadows and burned-out highlights zones are located and their extent, and instant EXIF shooting data at a glance”

As well as selecting the images you want, FPV can also give your pictures a star rating that LR understands – and you can use this to select them, and you can export them either as you go through them or as a batch.

It’s software that solved the worst of my speed problems with LR – but it is Windows only. Possibly there is an equivalent for Mac users, though I doubt if it will quite match FPV, which claims to let you review up to 4,000 pictures an hour – surely enough even for the most profligate wedding photographer. And for the same money you can still get a rather faster machine using Windows than Mac. Macs have their good points, but value for money generally isn’t one.

FPV can actually do  considerably  more than I’ve suggested, including an IPTC editor and lots of other stuff – like using your camera tethered, none of which I’ve really explored, though I expect some features could save me even more time. It has become my default image viewer for almost any kind of image file. Now costing around $50 it has kept my sanity. Probably. So highly recommended – and I don’t get a penny for saying so.

I suspect some of the problems I do have with LR are ones that I could solve if I really read the on-line help and found out how to do things properly. But things have to be seriously impossible before I turn to the help.

The most annoying thing for me happens when going through a number of images to refine my selections (once imported into LR and previews have been made I don’t find this too slow) If I’ve held the arrow key down for too long (often a momentary sleep after a long day and a few glasses)  LR starts going though tens or hundreds of images after I’ve taken my finger off instead of simply moving to the next image as intended.

I’ve found no way to stop this (though it shouldn’t be too hard to change the programme to avoid) but at least it doesn’t usually move the film strip and if I click on the image I wanted to move to it will finally jump back to this. But for a minute or so there is just nothing I can do other than watch and curse.

I’d also like to be able to lock the sort order of the image. Usually I want it to be date ascending and set it to this, but after various selections and exporting etc it generally changes to some order based on these operations. Perhaps someone somewhere thought this was a good idea, but I don’t.

It would be nice also to be able to change the sort order when in the develop module, rather than have to go back to the Library module, but that’s a minor gripe.

I only suffer from a few of the problems that Hudson describes, mainly that there are sometimes a few seconds wait for the display to catch up with what I’m doing. Several I’ve yet to encounter – changing catalogues for example have never given up on me.

I do have a problem with loading images from LR to Photoshop, but the reason is not a LR problem but simply that PS is too slow to load. The simple solution is always to have PS already loaded when you want to export an image from LR.

We’d all like every piece of software to work better, but I do feel that Hudson is going a little over the top. Though perhaps I’ve just been luckier than some, and I do wonder if Mac users may have more problems.

At the bottom of the article is a poll – and I voted ‘I use it and it’s ok’, which turned out at that point to be the majority view.

Thank you for voting!
I use it and it’s perfect 5.95% (155 votes)
I use it and it’s okay 37.12% (967 votes)
I use it and it’s bad 25.87% (674 votes)
I use it and it’s horrible 11.67% (304 votes)
I switched to something else 14.4% (375 votes)
I’ve never used it 4.99% (130 votes)

I think it would be fairer to discount the votes of those who are not current users, which on the results below would leave 2097 votes. Of these, 1122 thought it OK or perfect (53.5%), which is a rather low satisfaction figure, and ought to worry Adobe. Of course those who are happy with LR are probably rather less likely to read to the end of the post and less likely to vote than those who are dissatisfied.

Fuji Freeze

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

I like Fuji cameras and have quite a set of them, along with the lenses, but can’t bring myself to rely on them. With Nikon I seldom get let down; sometimes I may have a problem getting focus (I think my telephoto zoom needs a little attention) but generally they do what I tell them to when I want them to.

The Fuji’s have great image quality – nice lenses and are around half the size and weight. I’d love to use them all the time, but they make me miss too many pictures. With the kind of work I do, every fraction of a second sometimes counts, and they are often just too slow.

I was sitting drinking a coffee with a photographer friend outside a cafe next to a demonstration a couple of months ago, and he asks me whether I thought it would be a good idea for him to get a Fuji XT1 or XT2. I had to say no, and to show him why I picked up the Nikon D810 from the cafe table, brought it to my eye and pressed the shutter. It took a picture immediately.

Do the same with my XT1 and what would happen? Probably nothing, or at least nothing for a second or so, perhaps even longer, by which time the picture might well have disappeared.

I did it for real  couple of weeks ago, with my Fuji XE3, in many ways the nicest of the Fuji’s I’ve owned.  After which I made this post on a Fuji facebook site:

Fuji Freeze hits again.

I saw what I thought would be a great picture yesterday, moved into position, raised the Fuji X-E3 camera to my eye, framed and pressed the button.

Nothing happened. Nothing at all. Pressed again, ditto. Several times before it eventually realised it was a camera and took a picture. But by then it was too late.The woman had turned away, the inflatable dog she was holding fallen to the ground, the kid who was staring at me had decided his feet were more interesting… No picture.

The ‘Fuji Freeze’ had hit again. I’ve seldom noticed it with the X-E3 before now, though with the XT1 I’d got into the habit of turning the camera off and on again before trying to take a picture if I’d left the camera without using it for more than a few seconds.

With the Nikons I can pick up the camera, press the button and it just works. Why can’t Fuji be like that?

As you might expect, there was a range of responses, some more rational than others. Some people had obviously had similar experiences to me, while others were clearly in denial.

Reading the comments, I thought a little more about the problem went back to the manual, and found there at least a partial explanation. Fuji mirrorless cameras (and this may apply to other marques)  do not really have a ‘sleep’ mode. The manual, under ‘Auto Power Off’ states that that the camera turns off automatically after the selected time – unless you choose OFF.

Of course not quite everything is off, as the camera has to check now and then for a shutter press or half-press, so some circuitry is active, just not that connected with taking pictures. I suspect the circuit that keeps going to do this only checks perhaps every second or two. Which would account for the sometimes very annoying wait before the camera starts up – and why it can be noticeably slower than turning the camera off and on again. Coming up from off takes under a second on the XT3.

The manual says if you select ‘OFF’ for this, you have to turn the camera off manually.And it also says ‘shorter times increase battery life’. I find I had ‘1 minute’ selected, which clearly isn’t long enough for the way I want to work.The longest time setting is 5 minutes which might be enough for this not to be a real nuisance. Changing the setting to OFF ought to be better, but I already often get through 3 batteries in a session and the camera back seems to get very hot after a few minutes if you leave it on.

If I’m correct, Fuji could solve the problem by simply decreasing the time interval between the checks for the button press to a small fraction of a second. Only Fuji would know if this is a matter of hardware or firmware in their cameras.

However, the problem that I had was a longer delay than I can reproduce through testing with different settings of ‘Auto Power Off’. So I think it is some intermittent fault – and one that some others also seem to suffer from.

DSLRs generally have a fast enough time from power off to first picture that is too short to notice, and approaches zero if the camera is left turned on. The battery drain on leaving the camera turned on is small.

The Fuji X-E3 does pretty well from power off to first picture, at around 0.7s, apparently significantly better than most mirrorless cameras. But if you want truly instant response every time you need a DSLR.

Leaving a mirrorless camera switched on rapidly depletes the battery, and the best way to work with the X-E3 and other Fuji cameras is to turn them off manually after each series of exposures, and get into the habit of turning the camera on every time you want to take a picture.  That way you are less likely to be disappointed.

Not Quite Déjà-vu

Thursday, July 19th, 2018

This morning I took a look at the front page of Café Royal Books, a small independent publishing house based in Southport, England originally set up in 2005 by Craig Atkinson as a “way to disseminate drawings and photographs, in multiple, affordably, quickly, and internationally without relying on ‘the gallery’“.

Since 2012, Café Royal Books has published at least weekly an ongoing series of publications presenting mainly ‘British Documentary Photography since 1960’. As he says on the site:

“This type of work has historically been neglected, in the UK and overseas by major institutions. It is often neglected by the photographer too, possibly because there has been no outlet, as such, for it.”

The publications usually present a series of images by a single photographer on a single project. It may be the work from a single event or representing a much longer project.  CRB has produced some larger works, but these weekly publications are generally between 24 and 40 pages, more a zine than a book, with the aim of building up a comprehensive survey of the area of work. Some photographers are represented by quite a few such volumes, in some cases more than 20, while others have preferred to stop at a single issue.

Atkinson keeps down costs, wanting to keep the issues affordable – currently £6 each for most.  You can get every title (except the special editions etc) with a 60 issue subscription – roughly the annual output – and there are also limited editions in a boxed set of 100 books every 100th title aimed “at public collections, so the books remain accessible.”

Among the photographers who have already had issues published are some very well-known names – including Martin Parr, Jo Spence, Daniel Meadows, Brian Griffin, David Hurn, Victor Sloan, Chris Killp, Paul Trevor and others, but some of the best books are by people you may well never have heard of.

The three most recent titles are Diane Bush — The Brits, England in the 1970s,
Ian MacDonald — Greatham Creek 1969–1974 and Janine Wiedel — Chainmaking: The Black Country West Midlands 1977, each worth a look, and you can page through them on the web site. Another recent title is John Benton-Harris — The English, where I have to declare an interest, as I helped John translate his ideas into digital form. It’s a great introduction to the work of this photographer who came to London to photograph Churchill’s funeral and stayed here as one of our most perceptive observers – and was also largely responsible for the seminal 1985 Barbican show ‘American Images 1945-80‘, providing most of the ideas and contacts and doing much of the legwork for which others were rather better at taking most of the credit.

But the déjà-vu? It came on the back cover of a book by another US visitor to this country, Diane Bush, who was here from 1969 for ten years, becoming a part of the Exit Photography Group with Paul Trevor and Nicholas Battye which produced ‘Down Wapping‘. On the back cover of her ‘The Brits, England in the 1970s’ was a picture of a car parked in front of a fence, using the reflections of that fence. It isn’t the same car nor I think the same fence, nor quite the same treatment, but I immediately thought of my picture when I saw hers.


Parked car, Vauxhall, Lambeth, 1978 – Peter Marshall

I don’t think there is much possibility that I had seen her picture when I took mine, but have a nagging suspicion that somewhere, by some photographer, is a similar image that we both had seen before making our pictures.
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My London Diary : London Photos : Hull : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated, are taken by and copyright of Peter Marshall, and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

To order prints or reproduce images

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Chiswick House and Gardens

Saturday, June 30th, 2018

I’m not sure that the London Borough of Hounslow’s tourist industry needs encouragement, though despite having one of the world’s busiest airports (and if our current government gets its way having managed to pass a vote on its expansion, one that will certainly be, despite all promises, busier, noisier and more polluting if an extra runway actually gets build) on its doorstep it doesn’t seem to be a major tourist attraction. Most are only too keen to get away from the LB Hounslow as fast as they can, by tube, taxi or expensive train.

But there certainly are parts worth a visit. Some houses – Chiswick House, Syon and Osterley and areas of housing; a splendid piece of riverside, a few interesting small museums including Hogarth’s House. And quite a few parks with points of interest, the finest of which is perhaps the grounds of Chiswick House. And these gardens are free to visit, open all the year round.

I grew up a few miles away and visited the gardens here a few time when young, brought by my father, a keen gardener, who always carried a pair of scissors in his pocket to take the occasional cutting when no-one was looking, and when near home, some seeds of the decorative giant thistle echinops to scatter in any likely looking bare patch of ground because they were so good for the bees he kept.

Then I think the gardens were overgrown, and the giant conservatory dilapidated, but both have now been much restores. The huge greenhouse – which people always said was built by Joseph Paxton of Chatworth and Crystal Palace fame (he was a gardener and not a footballer) but wasn’t – was really built by mistake. It was built in 1812-13 to the designs of Samuel Ware and was then the longest ever, at 2 feet over a 100 yards. The 6th Duke of Devonshire was then owner of the house and ordered it to put his camellia collection in. These plants, which grow wild in much of south-east Asia, became a great craze at the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries, selling for high prices and making fortunes for some nurseries.  Some have survived from back then and are now very rare.

I suspect my father took a few cuttings as usual, and there may still today be some from here surviving in some of the gardens in Hounslow he looked after, though the better of these are now long covered with flats.

It was probably the high prices that made people want to molly-coddle them, or perhaps just ignorance. They grow in their native soils in greater extremes of weather than we see in England, and just a few days earlier I had seen one in a front garden not far from our home with its flowers covered by snow. Though conservatories like this one would have been pleasant places to sit and walk and view your collection of plants, so perhaps the roof and heating were more for the benefit of people rather than plants.

And if you are not a gardener and wouldn’t know a camellia from a chrysanthemum, you will almost certainly have some familiarity with the drink made from the dried leaves of one variety of camellia. We call it ‘tea’.

The rest of the gardens were really the start of a new movement in garden design, the first “natural” garden in what became known as the ‘English Landscape Movement’, designed by William Kent for Lord Burlington, who also had the house built to his own designed, aided by Kent and copying the work from various Italian buildings, particularly those of Palladio.  The house was built in 1726-9 but work went on with gardens for some years. Although the gardens may be natural they contain many unnatural features of classical origin, the house and gardens representing Burlington’s attempt to create a Roman villa situated in a symbolic Roman garden.

Photographers will of course recognise them as they featured in several fine pictures by Bill Brandt, and of course many other photographers including Edwin Smith.  I’ve made a few pictures there in the past, but make no claims for these hurried snaps taken on a dull and wet day on an outing with others who were keen to get back to the car.

Both house and gardens are worth a visit, and the gardens and conservatory have been well restored (doubtless thanks to idiots buying lottery tickets.) There is a charge of entry to the house which is run by English Heritage, but the gardens are free. There is also a newly opened restaurant in which we had lunch, but I’d recommend a riverside walk from here to one of the Hammersmith pubs for a proper meal. You could also visit (on a Thursday or Saturday aftenoon) the small William Morris Society museum on Hammersmith Mall, and if sufficiently organised to book in advance, take the fascinating guided tour of Emery Walker’s house in Hammersmith Terrace.

Chiswick House Gardens

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There are no adverts on this site and it receives no sponsorship, and I like to keep it that way. But it does take a considerable amount of my time and thought, and if you enjoy reading it, a small donation – perhaps the cost of a beer – would be appreciated.

My London Diary : London Photos : Hull : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated, are taken by and copyright of Peter Marshall, and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

To order prints or reproduce images

________________________________________________________

Lange & Winship at the Barbican

Monday, June 18th, 2018

Opening shortly at the Barbican is ‘Dorothea Lange / Vanessa Winship – A photography double bill‘, with Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing showing together with Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds in the Art Gallery there from 22 June —2 September 2018, presenting the work of two photographers I greatly admire.

I’ve several times printed a copy of Lange’s best-known picture, ‘Migrant Mother‘ from the high-quality large Tiff file that I years ago downloaded from the Library of Congress, and have written on several occasions about this and other works such as her ‘White Angel Breadline‘ from 1933 which prompted her career as a documentary photographer.

The show apparently has a large section on this work, and you can read more about it and see the some variants on a page at the Library of Congress, where you can see all her work for the FSA (a search using the term ‘Lange, Dorothea’ yields over 4000 items, though not all are photographs), and find more about various shows of her work. On the Library of Congress they reproduce Lange’s own story about how she made the picture, written for Popular Photography in 1960:

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

But apparently Florence (Owens) Thompson, the woman in the picture saw it differently, according to her grandson’s recollection (I think recorded in Anne Whiston Spirn’s book on Lange Daring to Look, and mentioned in my 2008 post on that)

 “a well-dressed woman jumped out of a smart newish car and started taking pictures, getting closer with each shot. Florence decide to ignore her.

After taking the pictures, Lange is said to have told Florence who she was and that she was working for the Farm Security Administration and to have promised that the pictures would not be published. Next day they made the front page of all the newspapers.”

Lange gave a long interview to Richard Doud in 1964, a year before her death. You can hear 12 seconds of her voice and read the lengthy transcript  in the Smithsonian Oral History Collection.

Some brief biographical details I wrote almost 20 years ago about Lange may be of interest:

Dorothea Lange was born in New Jersey. She gave up training to be a teacher to become a photographer, working part-time in the portrait studio of Arnold Genthe before studying with Clarence White.

She moved to California, meeting Imogen Cunningham and opening her own portrait studio. In the early 1930s she began to take pictures of people suffering from the effects of the Depression, such as the ‘White Angel Breadline‘ in San Francisco in 1933.

The following year she met sociologist Paul Taylor who she was to marry (after divorcing her first husband, painter Maynard Dixon) and began to work for various Government projects, most notably the Farm Security Adminstration.

Her career was interupted by illness for almost ten years from 1945, following this she travelled extensively around the world with her husband before settling down to photograph things ‘close at hand‘ around her home and family.

One single picture she took for the FSA stands as an icon of the depression. ‘Migrant Mother‘ shows a mother looking worried into the distance, as if wondering what future there is for her. One child lies sleeping on her lap, two older children frame her, turned away from the photographer with their heads bowed. Lange recorded that the mother was aged 32 with 7 children; they were migrant pea-pickers but the harvest had been ruined by frost so there was no work. They had already sold the tyres from their car for food and were now living in it, keeping alive on wild birds the children caught.

Surprisingly the article in yesterdays Observer, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing review – a visionary whose camera never lied by Laura Cumming fails to even mention that the show is on together with Winship’s, though possibly this was made clear elsewhere in the print edition. I’ve long been a fan of Vanessa Winship, and have several times mentioned her work here (I think this is the 15th.)

The best of these posts is I think  Sweet Nothings – Vanessa Winship written in 2009 which included a couple of her portraits from Turkey.  In a more recent post, I quoted from Sean O’Hagan’s blog in The Guardian:

“From Mississippi to the Black Sea, Winship’s poetic, masterful photographs show how hard it is for people to belong … so why don’t British galleries acknowledge her as this large Madrid retrospective does? She deserves it”

At the time I commented: “Though I’m afraid the explanation is unfortunately rather simple. She is a real photographer, and there is no major British gallery with a real interest in photography.” It is great to see her work acknowledged at last in the Barbican show.

 

Reviews and Real Life

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

Before I buy a new camera, I always spend a long time reading through the various reviews available on the web, both the highly detailed ones such as those by Digital Photography Review and those by photographers who have spent some weeks actually working with the cameras and give a more personal evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses.

Of course they have there uses, and are certainly a lot more reliable than the opinions posted as reviews by some popular Internet figures or those user comments collected on some sites. Most internet reviews are not worth the bits they are written with – which come more or less free.

While it’s relatively easy to get the technical details right – it usually just means transferring them from the manufacturer’s data sheet – what is usually more important in practice is how the camera and user interact. Harder to quantify or even describe, and something that in the end is very individual.

I currently use two Nikon bodies, a D810 and a D750, and the differences in specifications are not great. The D810 is heavier and has better weather protection, and the shutter sounds smoother – and of course it costs rather more. The placement of buttons on the backs are different and the D750 lacks a separate ‘OK’ button, using instead the centre of the four-way controller. It’s a minor nuisance.

The D810 produces larger files, but normally those from the D750 are perfectly adequate and the D810 merely serve to fill up your backups faster. I do prefer the larger files for my panoramic work, where the D810 also scores with tilt indicators for up and down as well as for left and right. But apart from the relatively small increase in image size, the image quality is more or less the same.

The two most significant differences for me are actually things I’ve never seen pointed out in reviews. On the D810 it is possible to lock the aperture (and I think shutter speed) when using the camera on a manual setting. This means you can decide you want to work at – for example – 1/500th f8 and you can do so, allowing the camera to alter the ISO to give correct exposure – if possible on its auto-ISO setting. Unless you choose an aperture and shutter combination which is outside the range you have set for auto-ISO but with a little photographic nous this is unlikely.

You can use the same technique with the D750, but there appears to be no way to lock the aperture or shutter speed in manual mode. Whichever you leave on the primary command dial (in my case aperture) gets readily knocked around as you (or at least I) use the camera. The command dial doesn’t have sufficient resistance to movement for a clumsy fumble-finger like me, and I can suddenly find that I’ve taken a few frames at f45 rather than the f8 I’d intended, which can easily result in considerable underexposure even if I’ve set a maximum ISO of 12,800.

I’ve tried various ways to counter this. The most successful seems to be to tape over the command dial, but then sometimes you do want to change aperture, and have to peel back the tape which then often falls off and gets lost. The black masking tape I used also gets uncomfortably sticky.

My latest attempt to ameliorate the problem has been to reverse the direction of travel of the aperture control, which hopefully will mean that I get f4 instead of f45 when things go pear-shaped. Since I normally work with a wide angle at f5.6 or f8 this will only mean a two stop difference so perhaps less of a problem, and the depth of field with a wide angle will usually still be sufficeint. I’ll also reduce the maximum ISO when using the technique, perhaps to ISO3200 so the risk of overexposure will be less. It’s only very special conditions that need a higher value.

The second annoying difference is when using an FX lens in 1.2x or DX mode, which is a cheap way of effectively getting a longer telephoto. On the D810 there is a well-hidden way to get the viewfinder to display a greyed out area around the actual image, so that details outside the frame are visible but it is very clear they will not be recorded.

Quite why this should be obtained by setting Custom Setting a6 AF Point Illumination to OFF is a mystery only known to an inner circle of Nikon Illuminati, who may also be able to tell you (though they may have to kill you afterwards) why the equivalent CS a5 does not give the same effect on the D750.

Of course you do get a viewfinder frame to show the reduced image area. But as I can tell you from too frequent experience, it isn’t always easily noticed. It wouldn’t matter if it were not for the D750 to occasionally decide to spontaneously change the image area. It is possible to map the change to one of the function buttons or pressing the command dials, which could easily lead to such a mysterious event, but I’ve certainly never done so.

Modern cameras are simply too complicated, giving too many options. Both these cameras have instruction manuals with over 500 pages and there are just too many interdependencies, with one setting affecting another. Back in the old days you could just pick up almost any camera and just use it. Perhaps it’s time for a campaign for real cameras that real people can use. Or are they called phones?

American History of American Photography

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018

Only Part 1 of Marc Falzon‘s short survey of the history of American photography is currently available (and featured in PDN Pulse), but it’s 8 minutes offers an interesting introduction to the subject, dealing with it through 3 key curatorial figures, Alfred Stieglitz, Minor White and John Szarkowski (part one only deals with Stieglitz) and a few key photographers.

Among those photographers, so far only Timothy O’Sullivan and Walker Evans have been the only to have been looked at in any depth, with a passing mention of a few others.

It’s an introduction that tries to demonstrate what is peculiarly American about American photography and makes some interesting points, while of course minimising or neglecting much European work of the era.

Where it descends to the ridiculous is in suggesting that photographers such as Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson were somehow the product of American advances in the medium and the influence of Stieglitz. What influence there was clearly flowed the other way.

It wasn’t the school around Stieglitz that motivated Walker Evans – except in a reaction which dismissed it as well as the newer modernism of photographers such as Paul Strand, but the vernacular photography of the many unknown American photographers – and the work of Atget which was brought to New York by Berenice Abbott and Julien Levy.

What I find most annoying about this video is however the way that the photographs are shown, generally starting zoomed into a detail and wandering around the image, with only at best a fleeting glimpse of the image as a whole. Framing is so intrinsic to our medium and we need to see and study pictures in their entirety – perhaps occasionally zooming in to view significant details.

Peak Design Fault?

Friday, January 19th, 2018

Last year I needed a new camera strap. Well no, really I didn’t but one of my straps had broken and I found myself walking around holding one of my two cameras in my hand all afternoon. I couldn’t really complain about the strap breaking as it was probably over 20 years old having seen out the life of at least half a dozen cameras. Each of which had come in a box with a strap inside, most of which are probably somewhere in my loft.

But I seldom use the straps that come ‘free’ with the camera, and certainly not for the cameras I work with. Most of them must have added at least 50p to the overall cost of the package, and tend to feel like that. My favourite neck strap for a heavy DSLR (though I started using them with SLRs) is still the Optech Pro Strap with its nice wide neoprene cushioning which means you hardly feel the weight – and once I started using this I no longer had an aching neck at the end of the day’s work.

But good though it is, you can’t really use two of them at the same time – though they do sell special rigs for the purpose, a double sling and a dual harness – I really didn’t like the look of these. Functional they doubtless are, but there was something about having to be strapped into a rig that didn’t appeal to me.

So I looked around for alternatives and read the reviews. Some straps were clearly for the fashion conscious, to go with expensive leather cases (and I never before realised how expensive these could be) and it was easy to dismiss these. Others had the kind of narrow belting that slowly beheads you from behind as you work, but there were a few that seemed worth a try, and in particular the Peak Design Slide. This would keep my second camera at my side, well out of the way of the one on my Optech strap carried high on my chest, but enable me to quickly bring it up to my eye. So I ordered one, and have been using it for quite a while now, and am generally fairly pleased with it.

The strap attaches a little differently to a normal neck strap with special short quick-release anchors which are left in place on the camera. The web site and packaging shows these fitting directly onto the lug on the camera body, and while this was never going to work with the anchors that came with my slide, the latest design has thinner and stronger cords which can be pulled through the hole with a strong thread, It is a neater solution than using the normal split rings supplied with the camera, and avoids any possible damage to the camera body. You can also buy extra anchors making it a ten-second job to switch the strap from one camera to another, and it is equally fast to change from the Slide to a wrist strap from the Peak Design range.

There are two ‘quick adjustment’ sliders on the slide, to allow rapid adjustment of the length of the strap, and it is about these – or at least one of these – that I find Peak Design’s design at fault. They show a diagram with the rear adjust being used for “long term adjustment based on body type and preference” while the front adjuster is designed for “quick adjust”. But the two adjusters are identical and neither has a lock.

The consequence of this is that whenever I use the strap for any length of time, both adjusters end up at the bottom and the camera gets to hang rather closer to my knees than my waist, which is something of a nuisance. Yes, it is ease and quick to adjust, but when I’m busy working the last thing I should need to do is to fiddle with my camera strap. I want to firmly set the maximum length of the strap around 6 inches shorter but Peak provide no way to do this.

They rightly say that the strap resists a sharp pull without changing length, but somehow – perhaps by being knocked by my camera bag or just by the normal movements of my legs and body and the sliding up to my eye to take pictures which cause them to slowly creep, the adjusters inevitably work their way down.

My part solution to this problem involves using a safety pin which prevents movement of the rear adjuster, but a fudge like that shouldn’t be necessary with a high price product like this, and safety pins do sometimes come undone. When I’m sure I know exactly the length I want I’ll perhaps put a few stitches in.

It wouldn’t be difficult to design a rear adjuster than locked more firmly in place, and keeping the current front adjust would retain the quick adjustment that is a part of the design philosophy. A quick Google shows me I’m not the only one with this problem, and people have written to the support page asking how they can prevent it happening. They get told it is a part of the design, but like me I’m sure the questioners regard it as a design fault.

So while I’m generally happy with this, and have just bought another Peak Design product, a wrist strap (Cuff) for my newly acquired Fuji X-E3 (a detailed review here), it does seem to me that the company should perhaps stop spitting in the face of customers and rethink on that rear adjuster.

More about the X-T3 later. I’ve been quite excited about it, as it seems to have fixed most of the niggles I’ve had with previous Fuji-X cameras. It seems far more responsive than the X-T1, focusing faster with all my lenses and not yet leaving me waiting when I want to take a picture. I’ve just sent the X-T1 in for repair – again – so I can’t directly compare the two, and I’m still working my way through the manual – some settings are rather hard to find and understand – but the only thing I’ve found less impressive so far is the slightly smaller viewfinder. I suppose the big difference is the fixed back, but if you can live without that then I think the X-E3 is the best in the current Fuji range. Of course an upgrade to the X-T2 is rumoured for later in the year, so things may change.

So far as straps are concerned, if you only carry one camera and are still using the neck strap that came in the box, I’d highly recommend the relatively small cost of an Optech Pro, which will almost certainly get rid of those neck pains and headaches at the end of a long day at work. But I’ve grown to like using a sling strap with the camera resting on my right hip as an even more functional and relaxing way to carry a camera. If you are above average height (or girth?) the Peak Design Slide may be the right length for you, but until they fix the creep problem for the rear adjuster I’d hesitate to recommend it for those of average and below size. There are many other sling straps available at a wide range of cost – from around £2 to £150 – including one that looks very similar to the Peak at around a tenth of the cost though clearly without the same quality of finish and probably of materials. I’d hesitate before entrusting a camera and lens costing £2000 or more to some of them.

Something completely different?

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Most new cameras that are announced are pretty much the same as our old ones, though the marketing guys would like us all to get all excited about a few more mega-pixels or slightly faster autofocus and other minor improvements, many of which we will never use. And often we fall for it and spend our cash on the latest model, hoping it will in some way revolutionize our picture-making.

Of course all these improvements do add up over time. The Nikon D810 I now use is significantly better in so many ways than my first digital SLR, the D100 in 2002, with its small, dim, viewfinder and its 6Mp sensor. But by the time they brought out the D200 or D300, Nikon had more or less sorted out the major issues, though they tempted me with full frame in 2008 and I upgraded to the D700 the following year. Nikon had actually said for some years that we didn’t need to have full-frame for digital cameras, and essentially they were correct for pretty much all I do – the main advantage is a little more light into the viewfinder, though often I work in DX format as I like being able to view outside the frame – an advantage the Nikon marketing department keep quiet about.

Incidentally, this is a feature that works better on the D810 (and 800) than on the D750. With the D750 you see the viewfinder frame, but it is easier to ignore, especially in the heat of the moment when what you see gets exciting, and I’ve several times framed and taken what I think would have been a great image, only to find later that I’d actually lost half of it and only taken the central part. With the D810 there is some esoteric combination of custom settings (don’t ask me – search in your manual) which allows you to grey out the non-image area of the viewfinder. You can still see the area outside the picture, but it’s very obvious it isn’t a part of the picture.

But there haven’t really been any great advances. I’d still be using the D700 if it hadn’t gone legs up after a little over 520,000 exposures (not bad as it was only rated for 150,000.) It does have a few other minor faults, but it’s still sitting on my desk waiting for me to bother to get an estimate for repair, though I’m convinced it will be beyond economic – along with my 16-35mm f4 lens.

Over the years I’ve read about several new cameras that claimed to be truly revolutionary, and the latest is the Light L16. When I first read about it around a year ago I was frankly a disbeliever, and certainly not convinced enough to risk the thousand dollars or so to back the campaign and get an early camera. The video on its web site explains the concept, with 16 lenses with focal length equivalents of 28 to 150mm, using 10 of them each time you take a picture and digitally combining their images. They promise this will give ‘DLSR quality’ equivalent to using 28 to 150mm lenses from a package the size of a rather fat smartphone.

The camera will produce 52Mp images and will enable you to choose focus and depth of field after taking the picture. I remain more than a little sceptical, but cameras should soon be going out to those who pre-ordered and are expected be on sale to the rest of us towards the end of the year. If it lives up to their expectations, they may be correct in their claim it will be the most significant advance in camera technology since the first Leica. Just a shame they don’t have a wide-angle version!

Fuji X-Trans blues

Saturday, March 11th, 2017

I’ve been testing Fuji-X cameras for some years now, hoping that I would find a lighter alternative to my Nikons, but never quite feeling I could make the break.

It started with the X100. A lovely camera in many ways, but one that had me tearing out my hair when so many times I pressed the shutter release – and nothing happened. It was (and is) a camera with a habit of going into a deep sleep, and the fastest way to revive it is to switch off and start again. By which time the picture had often vanished. And then there was the battery life…

Had it been small enough to fit into a pocket I might have continued to use it, but it was too big to be a compact camera, and not really flexible enough for many uses. The X-Pro1 was bigger and heavier, but I quite liked it, at least with a limited range of fixed lenses. The optical viewfinder was fine, but the electronic one not great. And I still felt I was carrying a lot of camera and lenses for a fairly limited system. I still get it out and use it occasionally, but not often, and not for long.

The X-E2 was a little smaller and lighter – and let me use the zoom lenses with an almost OK electronic viewfinder. But autofocus was often too slow. But its a camera I still use occasionally when I want to carry two cameras.

The best of those I own is the XT1. A better viewfinder and faster focus – though it is a bit larger than the X-E2. But it has too many quirks. Last time I used it, although I’d set the camera to save RAW files, a number of them came out as jpegs, and with some lenses it adds around 35 magenta to the images, while other lenses give correct colour. And like the others, it eats up batteries.

By now I’ve a considerable investment in Fuji-X lenses, but largely use the Fuji system as a camera for when I’m not working. When things get serious, the Nikons come out again. The weight difference is still there, though the Nikon always seems to last a full day on  a single battery, whereas I carry a bag with 4 spares for the Fuji, and sometimes need them all.

I’m wondering now whether the XT20 will be the solution to most of the problems I have with Fuji, but perhaps it’s a false hope and I should cut my losses and sell off all the Fuji gear I have.

Fuj-X has a strong following on the web, often showing what seems to me missionary zeal. I’ve never felt that the Fuji Image quality was inherently better than that I get from Nikon, and if I do get equivalent quality, then its down to lenses. When quality and size matters the Nikon D750 and D810 are still ahead with their full-frame sensors.

Fuji makes great play of the advantages of their X-Trans sensors, but while this may have some advantages, it also has its problems. The study in PetaPixel, X-Trans vs Bayer Sensors: Fantastic Claims and How to Test Them debunks those claims and makes clear that the publicity about the X-Trans sensor is just that, publicity, and that the different filter pattern has no real advantages – and indeed slightly lets the cameras down. Though of course the the differences are small and insignificant for all normal purposes.

Fuji’s latest camera announcements are, as usual, tempting. Reviewers and Fuji evangelists are generally waxing lyrical over the X-T20 and also the X100F as well as the rather too large and considerably too expensive (for me) GFX. My son, still a loyal user of the original X100, is thinking about updating, but for the moment I’m keeping my hand in my pocket.

I still remember with some bitterness the Leica M8, given glowing write-ups by some of the world’s greatest photographers as well as reviews that made it seem a near perfect machine, the digital camera that all of us who had once been bitten by the Leica bug would die for. Enough to persuade me to invest the ridiculous amount that it cost, only to find it was virtually unusable, at least for colour – and needed a special filter on every lens. Of course, Leicas have improved since then, and with every new model people have said that they’ve got it right now. And the M10 does look tempting…

Back in the real world (a decent Leica outfit with a few new lenses would cost what I live on for a year) those new Fujis do look tempting, but I’ll wait and see how others get on with them before making a decision. Or perhaps get out that old Leica M2 and go back to using film. It’s still a fine machine, working smoothly despite being 60 years old last time I tried it out. Later models never quite matched the feel of using it, though they did add a few useful things. And photographers made and sold the only thing it really lacked, a rewind lever.