Ruminations Of An Aging Photographer
“To Zoom Or Not To Zoom” Dec. 9, 2017
With my wife & I about to depart on what I believe will be our sixth cruise from the west coast of the US to the Hawaiian Islands & return, one of my first thoughts is what camera gear should be taken on this kind of trip. More specifically, since I only own one camera body, what kind of lenses should I plan to take. A major factor in this dilemma is that travel with your spouse differs from outings where the objective is solely to focus (no pun intended) on making good photographs.
However, in dealing with this issue, there are basically two different types of lenses used in most photography today; they are either of a fixed focal length, usually referred to as prime lenses, or they are capable of being adjusted for different focal lengths, commonly called zoom lenses. And the reason for the quandary over which to use is that when a lens maker designs & builds a prime lens, all effort can be made to creating the best possible one for that single focal length. On the other hand, zoom lenses are a compromise, being capable of use at a wide range of focal lengths. It just isn’t possible to achieve the same kind of quality of lens design & construction for such multipurpose photography. Although, modern day zooms are now much closer to rivaling the quality of prime lenses made for the same focal lengths they embody.
Another factor to be considered, particularly for travel photography, is that these zoom lenses are almost always much larger & heavier than any of the individual prime focal length lenses they match. For example, I have an excellent, professional quality, zoom lens made by Fuji that covers the range of 16mm to 55mm in focal lengths, including all those in between. This range is just about perfect for most travel photography. I also have four separate prime lenses that range between these same focal lengths. The zoom weighs more & takes up more space in my camera bag than three of my four primes combined; the fourth prime, a 16mm, is also made to a higher standard (like the zoom) & employs more glass elements in the lens construction. This makes it a bit larger & heavier than my three other primes in this same focal length range. But this 16mm lens is still much smaller & weighs much less than the zoom.
The fairly obvious benefit of the zoom is that you don’t have to spend time fiddling with making lens changes when you want to take a photo. You can also use the zoom feature to see what the image might look like at different focal lengths, allowing for more compositional options when taking your photos. However, today’s computer editing programs all offer some kind of cropping function that works like zooming into an image. But there is no option to zoom out to enlarge your field of view after the image has been captured by the camera. So from a utility standpoint, the zoom provides more field of view choices, & eliminates the time & work of having to change lenses. This latter benefit also greatly reduces the likelihood of any dust getting into the camera & ending up on your sensor, where it will create little dark spots in your photos.
The other side of the coin is that the quality of images taken with prime lenses is more likely to be better than that taken with almost any zoom, including my very excellent one. And there is an added benefit that you will both work more slowly & more thoughtfully when you are constrained in what the camera can see & capture by virtue of its fixed focal length. I find this is very true in my own photography. Zoom lenses allow for a much faster workflow, but not always the best end result. Many amateurs follow the “spray & pray” method of taking photos, hoping that with more taken, the odds of getting a good one will improve. I have not found this to be the case in my own work; in fact, I’ve found just the opposite to be true.
And in many instances, you can zoom with your feet. You can try to move closer in or further out to achieve the best composition with a prime lens. This isn’t always possible if the surroundings or the subject matter don’t allow for it. But this re-positioning usually results in a somewhat different perspective, which also can be of benefit when trying to achieve a balanced composition. So obviously, like most things in life, there are many pros & cons when trying to decide whether to carry & use a small number of prime lenses (three or four in my case), or to employ a zoom like mine that covers the same range of focal lengths. For our impending trip, I am currently thinking that I will take either the three or four primes, & leave the larger & heftier zoom at home. In fact, it was on one of these same earlier cruises to Hawaii, with my older & much larger/heavier Nikon gear, that I made the decision that I needed to move to a smaller & more lightweight system. How quickly we forget!
“Photo Editing with Fuji X” Nov. 30, 2017
In my last discussion of my path to using the Fuji X mirrorless camera system, I mentioned that they have employed some amazing new features. Again, the two most noteworthy are: (i) their creation of a hybrid viewfinder, allowing both optical & electronic views of subject matter through a single viewfinder; & (ii) their creation of an electronic sensor that is a departure from all others being used in the digital photo industry today. While the former innovation has received nothing but favorable reaction & praise, the same cannot be said for the latter. So this is what I want to talk a bit about in this article, this new Fuji X-Trans sensor (as it is called), & the requirements that it imposes for photo editing.
As described previously, the new sensor adopts a radically different layout or distribution of the red, green & blue photosites that are used to record the colors & intensity of light that is passed through the lens & shutter mechanisms to the sensor. Digital sensors basically perform the job done previously by film, with film using plastic strips with a coating or emulsion that contains microscopically small, but very light sensitive, silver halide crystals. However, this realignment of these digital RGB photosites by Fuji on its sensor not only created many benefits in terms of image quality, it also imposed a major headache for the various manufacturers of the software used for editing digital images. Apparently the algorithms required to be used to interpret & convert these X-Trans files were devilishly difficult to create.
Initially only Fuji’s own software could be used to interpret & convert their digital photos, so that they then could be edited using most other photo software programs. But after some time & considerable effort, the major players in the world of creating photo editing software were able to overcome most of the obstacles created by this new X-Trans formulary. Unfortunately though, their results were not always up to the same level of image quality being achieved with the older standard digital sensors. There were complaints of Fuji X skin tones looking “waxy” & not natural, & smearing of green details in outdoor or landscape photos (e.g., grasses & tree foliage). But I think, at least in terms of my own experience & demands, that this has largely been overcome. I don’t see these issues in my landscape or outdoor travel images, but perhaps if I was a serious portrait photographer, I might not be quite so sanguine about it.
There is one area where I still have some concern, & it has to do with how a photographer works with the two basic forms of image files created by either the DSLR cameras from folks like Nikon & Cannon, or the more advanced mirrorless ones from folks like Fuji, Sony & Leica. These camera systems record in either one of, or both of two different file types: either JPEG or RAW. The JPEG file is an effort by the camera not only to record your image, but also to make certain important corrections or adjustments to it & reduce the file size. The result is that when looked at on your home computer screen (after downloading from the camera), it is a usable image. It can be printed or posted on the net, or any number of other things. Alternatively, the RAW file is essentially a digital negative. This file has every bit of detail remaining in it that the camera recorded, & is without any corrections or adjustments of any kind. This RAW file is also a significantly larger one, as the JPEG has been compressed & made smaller for ease of handling & storage (resulting in, among other things, data loss).
However, whether a given photographer uses any one or the other of these two files types is a matter of choice. Many times the smaller JPEG file will be more than adequate for the intended use. But most professional & serious amateur photographers probably are more inclined to rely upon using the RAW file. The reasons for this are complex as well as numerous; but it kind of boils down to the simple fact that there is more information in a RAW file to be used in post processing. For example, many images that come out looking either over or under exposed in a JPEG can be adjusted in their RAW versions in post processing to retrieve much of the detail that appears lost in the extremely white or black areas of the image. And you simply may not agree with how the camera’s JPEG engine has reproduced your photo, either because it is not exactly how you remember it, or you may wish to modify it in some fashion to correspond to what you were trying to capture. I will admit that in my case, because my camera has this ability, I usually record both a JPEG & a RAW file on separate chips (most cameras don’t have this feature). Then if it was really just a snapshot that I took, the JPEG may suffice; but if I had something more serious in mind, I will always look to the RAW file as my starting point.
And with RAW files almost every camera maker has, for reasons not very clear, determined to have their own special version. So the first obstacle faced by every software editing program out there is to convert these camera-specific RAW files into a format that can be used for editing & printing. And it is in this area of conversion that the Fuji RAW files don’t always come out the same for all of the editors that exist. Over time they have all become quite good at converting X-Trans, but there are still many small nuances that remain. In my editing, I primarily rely upon Adobe Lightroom & Adobe Photoshop – probably the gold standard in photo editing programs (in my opinion). But there are many others out there now which are also quite excellent, offering most of what Adobe does, & in some cases even more. So right now I’m kind of on the fence, looking at some third party software to use solely for conversion of my Fuji RAW files, & then probably continue with the use of one or both of the Adobe programs for basic or advanced editing. It probably would be a whole lot easier if there weren’t so darn many options out there – if it were ice cream, I could happily say, “just give me chocolate”!
“Mirror, Mirror, in the Camera?” Nov. 20, 2017
This continues from where I left off, in my shift from using a DSLR camera to a mirrorless one. I had previously noted my surprise & joy to discover that the folks at Fuji had produced the exact mirrorless camera for which I was looking. At least, I was pretty certain this was the case when I became an early adapter to using their new, & quite revolutionary, Fuji X100 (I mistakenly hyphenated the name in my prior article). The most unique thing about the camera was the introduction of a hybrid viewfinder; this offers both optical & electronic viewing options thru the same eye piece. For many photographers, you are not seeing the subjects of your images in their most natural & accurate way unless you’re viewing them through glass optics, sans any electronic gimmickry. For one thing, electronic images simply lack the dynamic range (i.e., levels of detail between the darkest & brightest portions of the image) that you can perceive with glass optics. This is particularly the case when you are working in poorly lit, dark & shadowy environments or at night.
But an equally revolutionary feature of the Fuji X100 was a complete departure from the traditional design of its sensor. In digital, the electronic sensor has replaced film as the means for capturing light on the medium used to reproduce an image seen through the camera’s lens. The engineers at Fuji devised a completely different array of the light-gathering photosites (or pixels) that are on the sensor. Digital images are composed of pixels, which get their data for light intensity & color from the millions of photosites that are located on a sensor. However, use of this new Fuji “X-Trans” sensor has produced about the same amount of debate as that which still exists over film versus digital. I guess the best thing to say about this is that there are advantages & disadvantages with both – new Fuji sensor or old one, film or digital. But I particularly liked the way that this Fuji camera recorded very bright & vivid colors.
So I worked with this X100 for well over a year before I began to really miss the flexibility & functionality offered by the use of lenses of different focal lengths (wide angle, telephoto, etc.). Fuji must have read my mind, as they had also come out with a slightly larger mirrorless camera called the X-Pro1; and it had the same hybrid viewfinder & X-Trans sensor, but allowed for the usage of interchangeable lenses. As the nomenclature suggests, this offering was marketed for use by professional or serious amateur folks. And they generally need or want to use differing focal lengths in their work. Also accompanying this camera was a choice of three small but excellent prime lenses: a not-too-wide angle, a stunning standard focal length, & a short telephoto. These three lenses were just the beginning of a production by Fuji of some of the finest lenses being made for any camera. I think they come closer than any manufacturer to rivaling the legendary glass hand-made by Leica. But this should really not come as a surprise, as Fuji has years & years of experience in making extremely high quality lenses used in motion pictures & television, as well as advanced optics for the military & NASA (Leica lenses cost more than many cars, but these Fuji ones cost more than many houses!).
What pleased me the most however was that this new camera & initial lens offerings were still small & lightweight enough to be considered a rangefinder like system, particularly so with the hybrid optical viewfinder. Unfortunately, however, over time Fuji also introduced other larger cameras styled more DSLR like, & began offering much larger & heavier lenses to go along with these new cameras. My interest, however, was to continue working with a rangefinder like camera system with smaller, more manageable lenses. And like many photographers, I had always marveled first at the film, & then the digital rangefinder cameras made by Leica. Also their lenses are considered by many to be the world’s best - small in size but of unsurpassed quality. It is not surprising that some of the most well known photographers have chosen to use Leica – folks like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, William Eggleston, Annie Liebovitz, & many, many more. I had long coveted a Leica camera & lens, going back to my days with film. Thus, I reasoned, if I was ever going to have one, I’d better get on with it before I became too old to use it. So I literally sold or traded in all of my Fuji gear for a new, slightly less expensive Leica camera that had just been introduced. It was called the Leica Q, looking exactly like their top of the line M cameras, but with a fixed rather than an interchangeable lens & an electronic viewfinder. Well, it operated slicker than any Swiss watch ever made, & I just left it sitting out on my desk so that every day I could either pick it up & shoot, or simply admire its beauty.
Like many love affairs, mine with the Leica Q was not destined to last forever. While the construction & quality of the camera & attached lens was superior to that of my Fuji gear, the output was just not the same. It was not bad or unacceptable in any manner, but it was just different. My wife even commented on what had happened to those vivid colors she had been seeing in my work. The technical term would be that it simply “rendered images in a slightly more muted & softer fashion”. But I had come to so like the brighter & more “contrasty” images I had previously obtained with my Fuji gear, such that I really could not adjust to what I was seeing with the Leica. As fate would have it, on an online Fuji forum, I happened upon a fellow in Dallas who had all the Fuji gear (brand new in most cases) that I had previously owned, & he was looking to trade it for a Leica Q like mine! We exchanged detailed listings & photos, & he was planning to fly out to Los Angeles on business; so we agreed to meet half way between L.A. & the Palm Springs area (where I live), & did a person-to-person examination of our respective gear, & then agreed to make the exchange.
So I am now back shooting with a Fuji X-Pro2 (a much improved successor to the one I had earlier), with a collection of seven separate lenses to go with it. Some of these lenses are larger than I would like, but what they are capable of producing definitely makes up for the added size & weight penalty. And there are four lenses in my kit that are very rangefinder like in size, weight & functionality. This gives me quite enough to satisfy my RF itch, but when I want or need something that is more wide angle or a longer reaching telephoto lens, I have three other perfect lenses to do that job, including a professional grade, medium zoom that is probably one of Fuji’s finest. So having come full circle, I am now quite content simply to work with the camera body & lenses that I have; I am no longer a victim of what photographers call “GAS”, or gear acquisition syndrome. Or am I just recovering from this gear addiction, & could slip back very readily? I guess only time will tell!
“Mirror, Mirror, in the Camera?” Nov. 13, 2017
In my recent (& also first ever) blog article on my photography website, I briefly outlined my evolution in the world of digital photography, ultimately resulting in my use of some of the extremely popular DSLR cameras (e.g., Nikon, Canon). Here is how these digital counterparts to their original film-based, single lens reflex systems work (quoting from a Google source):
“Light travels through the lens, then to a mirror that alternates to send the image to either a viewfinder or the image sensor. The traditional alternative would be to have a viewfinder with its own lens, hence the term ‘single lens’ for this design. By using only one lens, the viewfinder of a DSLR presents an image that will not differ substantially from what is captured by the camera’s sensor. A DSLR differs from non-reflex single-lens digital cameras in that the viewfinder presents a direct optical view through the lens, rather than being captured by the camera's image sensor and displayed by a digital screen.”
What all this entails though is the use of a moveable mirror behind the camera’s lens, which reflects an image through a multi-sided prism or pair of mirrors, onto the electronic screen on the rear of the camera. However, when the button is pushed triggering the shutter operation, the mirror has to move up & out of the way for the lens system to be able to pass the image to the electronic sensor located on the back plate of the camera. This generally requires a fairly large & heavy camera to be able to house this complex & bulky mechanism. However, these camera designs are enormously successful, & are widely used by most professionals & serious amateurs like me. But these large camera bodies are also matched with equally large & heavy lenses, particularly in the full frame versions of them.
I chose initially to work with a number of Nikon DSLR cameras, & collected a variety of prime & telephoto lenses for them. I will admit that I was entirely pleased with what they were able to do, but eventually found the size & weight to be a burden for my aging frame. On one particular vacation, where I spent every day lugging my camera bag with the DSLR & three lenses, I made the decision that I needed to explore some of the alternative systems that I had been reading about. In particular, I started looking at those designs that had eliminated the mirrors or prisms, which resulted in much smaller & lighter weight cameras. As a consequence of this, they also have equally smaller & lighter weight lenses. Such cameras have come to be called “mirrorless” to differentiate them from the DSLR’s. However, the capabilities of these mirrorless systems are not diminished at all, offering both full frame or cropped sensor alternatives (just like the DSLR’s), & with the same quality & capabilities of their sensors (e.g., megapixel ratings & resolution).
I decided I wanted to switch to a system that would be as close to what I had been using as possible. Without getting into the details of the many mirrorless alternatives that there were, it looked like the Sony, Fuji & Leica brands were the most likely candidates to fulfill my needs. Sony & Leica had both full frame & cropped sensor cameras, while Fuji offered only cropped sensor – but the very same sensor size & design that I had been using with my last Nikon DSLR. And Fuji had just released what turned out to be an almost revolutionary little camera called the X-100 that employed this sensor technology with a fixed lens that was a 35mm equivalent. My 35mm lens on my Nikon had become my favorite all-purpose lens, so this seemed like a natural. As an aside, back in the days of the early film SLR cameras, they almost all came with a lens that was either 35mm or 50mm in focal length, as these come pretty close to seeing the world & capturing images in the same way that is managed by our eyes. In camera parlance, our eyes are about 40mm in terms of their focal length equivalence.
My time & experience with this Fuji X-100 left me no doubt that I had discovered an excellent alternative to what I had been doing with my DSLR’s. It was a joy to work with this outstanding little camera, & easy to have with you almost all of the time without the necessity of a camera bag & multiple lenses. What I most enjoyed about this particular little gem was its hybrid viewfinder. Fuji devised a way to have a purely optical viewfinder with a rangefinder styled manual focus, & even a very fast autofocus capability. But built into this viewfinder was an electronic viewfinder option, where with the click of a switch, you have a view of the subject that is provided by, & identical to what will be recorded on the sensor – in effect a TV type picture of your image, even able to display moving subjects with very little noticeable lag.
Years ago, my first efforts at photography were made using rangefinder type of film cameras, as this was long before the single lens reflex (SLR) was invented. I worked initially with a fixed lens Voigtlander, with a bellows design; then I moved into using Pentax cameras with their interchangeable lenses. It wasn’t until some time in the late 1980’s that I shifted to using an SLR type of film camera. But this was also the period of time when my work limited the free time that I had to do photography. So it was mostly just keeping up with family activities & recording our travels when I did have some vacation time, which was infrequent & of short durations. But my history & experiences fully prepared me to immediately appreciate what Fuji had created with its X-100 camera & fixed 35mm lens. I could have been quite happy to use only this camera for my work as a photographer after I retired. Very possibly, I not only could have, but should have done so – but I didn’t! And as they say, that is the rest of the story. Part Two of this article will allow me to share what followed in my transformation as a serious hobbyist photographer.
“The Origins of a Website”; Nov. 5, 2017
Having been initially quite opposed to this new world order of social media, I have avoided involvement with almost any kind of it since the very beginning. For example, I’m not a fan of Twitter, where it seems many folks can express everything they know about a subject in 140 characters. And I’ve avoided Facebook, where it appears that friends chat incessantly with each other online. But while probably not a complete Druid, I'm still not quite certain why I decided to develop an online digital website to house my photographic images. I probably would not have done so if not for the encouragement of my wife (a gifted docent at our local art museum) & some of her professional artist & photographer friends. And now I even have a Facebook account & belong to my high school class group; though I am still trying to figure out how to make decisions about “friending” people I don't know from Adam, just because they claim to be friends of folks who I do know. I am now beginning to see how Zuckerberg pulled this off, getting so many of the people around the world to ask to become friends of total strangers based solely on the fact they claim to know someone the “asker” might know - a bit of a Ponzi scheme I think.
But I digress. This website portfolio came about due to my acceptance of the fact that even though I am not a professional photographer, have no formal schooling in its art, & have a relatively short time in grade (i.e., experience), I might occasionally still create something that is worthwhile to be seen by family, friends & maybe even strangers that might be in the social media world that would care to take a look (though I have to admit that this last part scares me the most - - I mean family & most good friends will say they like your work whether they really do so or not; but total strangers - - I don't think so). But I sallied forth, & soon discovered that a web site entails web design & building, which is even more difficult than, say, trying to learn Chinese or Arabic overnight. However, I quickly discovered that there are countless varieties of software programs or apps that will assist neophytes like me in web construction.
I explored a number of these that would work on my Mac computer. My objective was to find something where knowledge of HTML, CSS or XML languages, or coding of any kind would not be required. I had just about made the decision to proceed with one of them (EverWeb 1.9 by Rage Software) when I discovered that the Adobe software folks had something called Adobe Portfolio that could be used with much less fuss & bother. The only thing required was a subscription to one of their Creative Cloud plans that included their Lightroom photo management & editing program. It just so happened that I had recently converted from owning older versions of both Lightroom & Photoshop to their photographer’s monthly subscription cloud based model for the latest versions of these two essential photo editing programs. I might add that I made this Creative Cloud conversion while kicking & screaming all the way. But that could be the subject of a separate blog article.
What I found when I opened up Adobe Portfolio on their website (myportfolio.com) was a very slick looking interface with the typical degree of sophistication & completeness for which Adobe is known. The friendly buttons almost draw you in to start working away, almost before you have any idea what you are going to do with it. The first step is to evaluate & try to understand the construct of a number of templates that are offered for use. The issue here is photographers may have very different needs than videographers or graphic artists for example. This software is designed to be used for a whole host of different types of creative content. But it is pretty easy to dive into the various template options, where live, partly finished examples are available to be viewed. So it is not too difficult to sort out those that seem the most practical for use in creating a photography portfolio.
The interface is relatively user friendly but not totally intuitive by any means – but then what software really is? Thus I went onto the Adobe website to see if I could find any of their countless video tutorials that would lead me down the path to final website creation. Surprisingly I could find nothing, not even something from my favorite online tutor, Julianne Kost, an Adobe evangelist par excellence. There is also nothing in print that I could find on Amazon or Kindle either. However a couple of decent third party-created YouTube videos were found that I used for the basics of navigating & using this portfolio planner. Adobe has also done quite a bit of the work in terms of: (a) anticipating the need for interface mechanics (e.g., domain name, a landing page, search optimization, & other site options like going offline for rework or repair & the inclusion of logos, links to external pages & social media connections); & (b) establishing a very flexible methodology for constructing the actual containers as well as the content of a website (e.g., suggesting a home page, image galleries, about me page, contact or comment page, a blog, etc.). And you are not limited only to the form of the templates, as they are but tools to be used in working out your own actual design & appearance. But for me at least, a lot of it was really just learning by doing, & then redoing when it wasn’t working like it should. Ultimately though I ended up with what I think is a reasonable facsimile of a straight forward website for the housing of my image portfolio. And as it is version 1.0, it is a work in progress; I’m sure it will entail a good bit more work to keep it updated, supplemented & hopefully improved. Stay tuned for v.2.0 of my photography portfolio website further on down the road!
And thank you for taking the time to visit my website & for viewing this first article in what I plan will be at least a weekly addition to my blog, which I’ve just this day included in my website (both as to the blog & this first article).