Sunday, 29 January 2012

Change in the air

Two cameras with the same size sensors, and 100mm lenses.
Anyone who reads the photo blogs can't help be struck by a feeling of "all change". I regularly scan the blogs by a number of photographers whose work I admire, and who, at the time I came across them, all used digital SLRs. If they are in any sense representative, the sands are shifting.

I was struck by the reactions to the recent announcements of the Nikon D4 and Canon 1DX. These are the new top of the range paparazzi and sports shooters dream machines: full frame, plenty of megapixels, see-in-the-dark sensitivity, high-quality video, blah blah blah. Joe McNally has given the D4 a terrific review and has shown both in pictures and video that this is a device that can deliver in spades. I've no doubt that both D4 and 1DX will do exactly what their manufacturers claim. The collective saliva glands of the professional users should be on full gush. And yet....

There seems to be a disproportionation going on. For instance, Kirk Tuck's businessman's conscience got to him and he cancelled his order for a 1DX and decided to spend the money on marketing instead. Meanwhile he is now using smaller system cameras (Nikon 1 series and Micro 4/3) for some of his professional jobs. Similarly, Thom Hogan makes the point that the smaller system cameras deliver the kind of image quality that got professional work published not very long ago, but without the burden of carrying huge size and weight. Carl Weese on TOP demonstrates that micro-4/3 cameras can yield images capable of being printed at least as big as I'll need in the immediate future.

On the other hand, David Hobby has gone in the other direction and decided that digital medium format suits his needs for image quality, without the requirement to machine gun the subject. Digital medium format has long been a mainstay of Lula, and Mark Dubuvoy has just published a very nice essay making the point that even with smallish output, medium format is likely to beat smaller formats every time for quality.

So maybe, things really are changing. Where digital SLR's reigned recently, the small system cameras are an alternative with the real benefit of small size and weight. And medium format retains an unchallenged appeal for those who really need the ultimate in quality (if you don't have to ask the price).

All this prompted me to get out my OM2n from the box it lives in, at the back of a cupboard. At the moment, it comes out a couple of times a year for me to run a few rolls of B&W film through; and then I put it away again when my jaw sags at the price per frame of developed film. 

Putting it up against my recently acquired D700 made my jaw drop as well. How have we got into this situation? The D700 is a monster by comparison. A brilliant camera, vastly more capable in pretty much every respect than the OM2n, but just a monster in size.

When I bought my OM2n in the early 80s, I chose it because I knew I was going to the Himalayas fairly soon after and wanted something small and light to carry. At that time, the prevailing design theme was to make small, light, robust cameras for serious photographers: Nikon FM/FE, Pentax MX/ME, OM1-4 etc. But with the advent of digital, the idea of the small, lightweight, robust serious camera seems to have got lost. The sensor in the D700 is the same size as that in the film cameras I've listed here. The D300 is another "serious" camera, but with a smaller sensor, and still about the same size and weight as the D700 (well, a bit lighter but not much). Why do they have to be so big? I'm not picking on Nikon alone: Canon and Sony's full frame cameras are pretty similar in size.

The other reason that all this comes to mind is that at New Year I went for another potter in the Embankment area with a bunch of Leica Luggers. I borrowed my friend’s M4 with a 50mm Summicron. Smaller, lighter and more discrete than the D700. But then again, my film days are mostly (even if not entirely) over.

Nevertheless, the D700 seems to me to be inescapable. Wonderful image quality, reliable and fast focusing with the ability to accurately track the subject. Somehow, I can't see myself with a Nikon V1 attached to the end of the 200-400 mm zoom at Fairford. For the moment, for me, the digital SLR remains the essential minimum.

But with the advent of the compact system cameras (Sony NEX, micro-4/3, Nikon V1) things are changing. Not full frame sensors yet, but maybe one day. The Leica M9 is a lovely compact full frame mirrorless camera, but unfortunately, I have to ask the price. Now, it may have a small sensor, but how about the rumored OM-D?

The joy of EXIF. Part 3: EXIFtool

EXIFtool is a free piece of software that can be run as a command-line tool, or a GUI is available. I use it as a command-line tool through the MacOSX Terminal app, and, as I'll demonstrate below, send the output from it through standard text processing tools to generate files of data that can be interpreted for drawing wider lessons.

EXIF tool generates plain text files that contain the metadata. Here is an example. One of my raw files (in this case _AJB2756.NEF) can be examined using EXIF tool as follows (note that the % symbol represents the command prompt):

%exiftool _AJB2756.NEF >exif.txt

The resulting file, exif.txt, contains a long list of data. Among these are the basic camera and exposure details: in addition, lots of other stuff that you might not expect to be in there as well is revealed. For example, the camera serial number, the type of lens, as well as data that I have embedded in the file in the process of ingesting raw files from my CompactFlash card onto my hard disk. Here’s a (very) abbreviated look:

ExifTool Version Number         : 8.55
File Name                       : _AJB2756.NEF
Make                            : NIKON CORPORATION
Camera Model Name               : NIKON D300
Usage Terms                     : For consideration only, no reproduction without prior written permission
Rating                          : 3
Exposure Time                   : 1/100
F Number                        : 11.0
Exposure Program                : Aperture-priority AE
ISO                             : 200
Create Date                     : 2010:05:16 10:14:04
Exposure Compensation           : +1/3
Focal Length                    : 50.0 mm
Quality                         : RAW
Lens ID                         : AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G IF-ED

So, we’ve immediately got all the basic shooting details – exposure, lens etc. Even the star rating I applied to this image on first pass through ViewNX is revealed.

EXIFtool in batch
But how to learn from this? One of the things about EXIF tool that makes it so useful is that it runs in batch mode. This means it can extract the metadata from a large number of files at once. To extract meaning from the resulting pile of data, it is necessary to do a little bit of mining. Fortunately, since the data comes out as plain text, it is possible to use basic text processing tools to extract any piece of information you want.

Errr... here’s where it gets geeky. It involves Unix-style text processing. So, if you have a folder full of raw images (in my case Nikon NEF files), you might type the following at the command prompt:

%exiftool *.NEF >exif.txt

This generates a plain text file that can be read by Windows Notepad or Apple’s TextEdit etc. But this will probably generate more than you want to go through by hand. So the thing to do is to pick out lines that define relevant information in each image file, by directing the output through a word finder program (e.g. egrep) instead.

A trivial example might be to find out which lenses you use most when travelling, to help make a choice when next going away. For example, only one of the lenses I took with me to Cornwall earlier this year has Nikon's AF-S focusing, so I could search for AF-S using the tool egrep, and then find out how many instances of AF-S were reported by EXIFtool.

%exiftool *.NEF | egrep  AF-S | wc -l

But this simply duplicates what can be done more easily in Lightroom (see my previous piece).

Nevertheless, taking this approach, it's possible to search much further than Lightroom does at present. For instance,there are unique identifiers in the EXIF for each lens. Combining egrep and sed processes in a single line of commands, it is easy to get a listing of the actual focal lengths used (see note at bottom for the actual lines used) with any individual lens. If you feel the need to take this level of analysis further, the data can then go into something like Excel to look at how often ranges of focal lengths are used.

Analysis of the way I use the 18-70mm zoom reveals that I use focal lengths throughout the range, but with a strong bias towards the wide end.Not only that, but analysing the 10-20mm data suggests I like to use the range around 16-20mm a lot. Perhaps not surprising when my favoured very wide angle prime on film was 24mm (equivalent to 16mm on DX).

So why am I writing about this now? 

As I posted previously, I’ve just become the proud owner of a used D700. But that comes with a demand on lenses: the 18-70mm lens I have as a standard zoom on the D300 is a DX lens, and, although it will work on a D700, only yields a 5 MP image. So what to get as the standard zoom on the D700? I kind of know this instinctively anyway, but the closest fit to the way I use lenses is the 24-120mm f4 VR Nikkor. Bloody expensive though. But at least I have good reason for thinking I'd be likely make good use of it.

exiftool *.NEF |egrep "AF-S DX" -B 170 | egrep "^Focal Length  " | sed s/"Focal Length  *: "//g | sed s/" mm"//g >18-70.txt

exiftool *.NEF |egrep "HSM" -B 170 | egrep "^Focal Length  " | sed s/"Focal Length  *: "//g | sed s/" mm"//g >10-20.txt

(And yes, I'm sure that real Unix experts can come up with something much more economical to write and efficient to use, but this worked for me. But if you know of simpler and better code, please feel free to add a comment. Thanks.)

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The joy of EXIF. Part 2: learning about the way you take pictures

There are a number of ways to access the data embedded in your own RAW files: you don’t just have to use a web browser to access data. Lightroom is brilliant EXIF browser, among all the other things it does. The other wonderful tool I’ll mention later is EXIFtool by Phil Harvey.

Lightroom lets you display the metadata from any directory of images. In grid view, just activate Metadata and Attribute.

When you’ve accumulated a bunch of gear, it is quite nice to know what actually works for you, and what is just surplus. This is particularly important when packing for a trip. Lightroom lets you look back at any folder (perhaps the pictures from another trip) and identify which lenses you used most. Here is the data for my use of the D300 during Wonky Horizons long weekend in Cornwall last year.
LR metadata display (note that under the Camera heading is an unknown camera. Actually, I used the D300 for all the pictures I took. But some of the other programmes I used in post-processing stripped out the metadata) 

Clearly, I get good use out of all the lenses I took. But how many of them yielded images I bothered to give a star rating?*
Metadata plus Attribute
Just looking for images that ended up labelled 3* or 5* showed I liked a lot of images from the Sigma 10-20mm, and the 18-70mm, 60mm micro and 105mm AF-DC Nikkors. But the 80-400 Nikkor? A waste of energy to lug around. Can safely save effort and leave at home next time.

This is simply an astonishing benefit of the digital age. I can’t think of any way of doing something similar with film.


* I use star ratings a lot when making a first pass selection from a shoot for editing. Mine is basically a yes/no system, which is then refined further. I open the pictures in Nikon’s ViewNX first: this is a fast free viewer that treats NEFs as native files and shows them quickly. Going through them I mark the ones for further consideration with 3*. Subsequently, this can be refined to 5* or 0* is required. Items for immediate deletion get marked in red, and deleted in batch at the end of the first scrutiny. So anything worthwhile ends up labelled with 3* or 5*. (Mostly, I just leave the rating at 3* - usually there at too few good ones to need further refining). The good thing is that the * ratings are read by both Lightroom and Bridge, so I rate in ViewNX first, and then usually develop in Lightroom. (Lightroom itself is far too slow on my laptop as a browser for first pass rating).

The joy of EXIF. Part 1: EXIF for learning

Metadata -- data about data *
Digital photographs contain a lot of information embedded within them that you can’t normally see. The data remains invisible unless revealed by the use of tools available in specialist programmes (including Photoshop) or via plug-ins available for web browsers. My impression is that most normal photographers don't care much about this, even though they may vaguely be aware that items like exposure data are embedded in their digital files. But any photographer can find good uses for the masses of data that is available both in their own files and those that other photographers post on the Internet.

What is Metadata? Digital photos use file formats described as exchangeable image file formats -- otherwise known as EXIF. Within the EXIF is a pile of data which records information about the camera, lens, ISO, aperture, shutter speed and much, much more. These "data about the image data" are the metadata. It is possible for a photographer to add their own details to the metadata, to provide contact details and copyright ownership etc.

This all sounds fairly technical and geeky, so why should any normal photographer care? One simple answer is that it is a great learning tool.

Tools for Web browsers: learning from others
The current web browsers have plug-ins or add-ins that allow you to reveal data in the EXIF for images posted on the Internet. Perhaps the most widely used is Opanda IExif, a plug-in available for both Internet Explorer and Firefox under Windows (unfortunately, at the time of writing, Opanda IExif is incompatible with Firefox 9). Firefox also has other add-ons that are available on the Mac as well as Windows, including EXIF viewer and Fxif.

It is often very informative to look at the metadata that other photographers leave embedded in images posted on web forums and the like. For example, when I was trying to learn a bit about aviation photography, I was curious to know things like shutter speeds for getting propellers to look like they are rotating, or focal lengths to get a distant aircraft nicely framed. By looking at the EXIF data in really good examples of aviation photographs, I could see what tended to work well. Correspondingly, it's often useful to look at crummy examples to learn where things can go wrong. As always, it is vital to use your own judgement about what is successful or hopeless when trying to learn good and bad points of technique in this way. Just because any photographer has used a particular method, does not mean it is good!
Piper Supercub at Headcorn

Here is an example of one of my own. This picture of a Piper Supercub was taken at Headcorn, a small but busy airfield just up the way. When possible, I always like to try to get a sense of motion when I'm photographing an aircraft, by using a lowish shutter speed to give nice motion blur to the background. What I learned early on from looking at other peoples’ images is that you have to go down to quite low shutter speeds, particularly with older aircraft, to get decent background blurring. The EXIF data embedded in this one says I used 1/80 second: this gets the effect I was after. Having said that, I should point out that it was taken with a focal length of 160 mm on a crop-sensor camera: the "keeper rate" goes down exponentially with increasing focal length, especially when getting up to around 400mm.

In any case, you can apply this idea to any area of photography. Perhaps next time you see an interesting photo, it might be worth looking at the EXIF data – there might be something there to learn.


*I was talking to the final year Biochemistry students a while ago about writing up their research projects. I can't remember why, but something I said provoked one of them to say "You are such a geek!" To be called a geek by a scientist is quite something -- I think this post will simply confirm it.

... And in with the (old) new

A pigeon for an audience. Nikon D700, 105mm AF DC at f2

 My four-year-old D300 has developed a major fault. It started at RIAT last year: the mirror occasionally began to stick up, especially during bursts in continuous high-speed mode. Not a big issue at the time, because it was only very intermittent.

After RIAT, I took it into Fixation who diagnosed a problem with the sequencer unit. They recommended replacing it, along with the shutter since at 110,000 shutter actuations it was getting to the point where they see those shutters failing. But adding together the price of the new sequencer and shutter units, together with a set of seals, labour and VAT made the D300 look like a car with 110,000 miles on it. So the question was – an expensive repair or a new model?

The Duxford Autumn Air Show in October saw the sequencer problem getting worse – to the point where the camera became more or less unusable in burst mode. In fact, I got sufficiently few pictures that are worthwhile from that Duxford show I've not bothered posting any on Pbase.

And over Christmas, doing some family portraits – not in burst mode – the problem get worse still. Every third exposure the mirror locked up, requiring a fairly complex reset going via live view and switching the camera off and on again.

In effect, I was without a camera. Decision time.

Nikon Rumours has been carrying increasingly detailed previews (allegedly) of the successor to the D700, the D800. Now, I have been very interested in the idea of the D700 or its successor, because I believe that the time is right to move on to a full frame sensor (more on that later). But, the D800 is forecast to be 36 megapixels and to cost the best part of £3000.

A taste for loose boots

It's quite rare for me to print larger than 18" x 12", so 36 megapixels is a complete waste on me. And for £3000 I'd rather take the family on holiday. As much as I would like more megapixels, in practise as long as I can get a pin sharp 18" x 12" print, I'm happy. The D300 gave me those just fine, so 12 megapixels does me. (Not only that, but for the projects I’m planning over the next 3-5 years, I will be presenting mounted prints at no more than 20" x 16" – so the reality is that I won't be printing most of my  important stuff at more than 15 inches on the long side, which is pretty much the exact size that a D700 image gives at 300ppi). So, the long and the short of it is that for a full frame camera, a D700 would give me sufficient pixels, 1 to 2 stops of better ISO performance than the D300 and the ability to use the majority of my lenses as they were intended for a sensor size equivalent to a 35mm negative.

Let me just amplify those last points, as they are the reasons I want to go full frame. The D300 is a wonderful camera – no doubt about it. I never got colour prints from 35mm film as good as I've got from the D300: (lack of) skill of the operator, no doubt, but for sharpness, colour and tonality I’ll take a D300 every time. Not only that but it is possible to get a decent size print from 1600 ISO. And the focusing is excellent, as is the general build quality and weatherproofing. But, like any artefact of human enterprise, it has its limitations. 1600 ISO is about as high as I normally like to go, 2500 in emergency. I've done quite a number of night shoots over the last few years: they are great fun and I am going to be doing more (next one in March). When a helicopter is hovering by hangar light (like this or this), the sensitivity of the camera is at a premium. In general terms, for this kind of shot, doubling (or better) the ISO-availability would probably double the success rate.

The other point is lenses.  In all, I have more lenses for full frame (FX) sensors than I do for crop (DX) sensors. Two of my favourite lenses are the 35mm F2 AF-D and 105 mm F2 AF DC lenses. Although these are older designs, they're small, fast and lightweight. The 105 mm, in particular, is probably the sharpest lens I own, along with the 60 mm micro-Nikkor. For many years on film these two were my go-to focal lengths, with my Olympus Zuiko 35 mm f 2.8 and 100mm f2.8 primes. I kind of "see" with these focal lengths. The D300 has a crop sensor (1.5 times factor), so the 35mm makes a nice "normal" lens, but does not give me the angle of view I tend to favour for street work. Similarly 150 mm equivalent is quite limiting for portraits, and doesn’t suit me for street work. I'll have more to say about lens choices in a  future blog piece.
Blackfriars Bridge
Anyhow, the point of this rambling is that I made a decision that I wanted to go for a D700 at this point rather than spend the money repairing the D300. (When I can afford it, fixing the D300 is also on the list).

So, I found a used D700 advertised at a reputable London dealer at a good price. It had being used fairly heavily but had a new shutter and new seals, so should keep going a good long time. Not only that, but the asking price was less than used D700's in recent eBay auctions. So, I succumbed to temptation and bought the thing.

I took the D700 for a walk along the Embankment in London, to try to get a feel for how it works. In the end, I walked all the way from Lambeth Bridge along the South Bank to London Bridge and the Borough Market. It is always pleasurable to walk along there, as we have noted on this blog before, but especially with some new gear in hand.

January sun
I just pottered along taking touristy photographs (well, actually mostly photographs of the tourists). To my surprise and delight, the 105 mm was wonderful walk around lens. In fact, I was so enjoying this lens that I left the 35mm mostly unused until I got into the Borough Market, where the confined spaces made it my preference.

Taking a break, Borough Market, D700 and 35mm f2 AF-D
Opening up the files at home, they were lovely. Very sharp, and extraordinarily smooth. Everything, in fact, the D700 is supposed to be. Most of the reviews put the D700 at 1 to 2 stops more sensitive than the D300. I reckon it is the least two stops better in practical terms. Just looking at the ISO 6400 images, I would not hesitate to use that sensitivity on a night shoot to try to capture a wobbly hovering helicopter. Not only that, but there's loads of highlight detail to be recovered. As part of trying it out, I was deliberately exposing some images to push the highlights as far as I could. There are some images where brightly illuminated buildings across the other side of the river looked like they were completely blown on the camera's screen, but in Lightroom or Capture NX 2 there's a surprising amount of highlight detail to be recovered. Again, this is very much in line with the reviews, and completely lives up to my expectations.

Perhaps the biggest downside of the D700 is the fact that the 12 megapixels being spread over a larger area do not give the effective magnification multiplier that the crop sensor does with telephoto work. It would be very nice to have the D300 back in action for the start of the next airshow season. But I can't help feeling that they are additional possibilities in other ways that are opened up by the D700 will keep me more than happy.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The coffee habit

Coffee and the machine that made it. (Nikon D300, 60mm micro Nikkor)
Before going out to commit photography on the streets, it helps to have a nice cup of coffee. If I'm in a cafe that does a particularly good one, I've got into a daft habit of taking a picture of it as the first [coffee and photo] of the day. All of a sudden I've realised I have a bit of a collection of cups of coffee.

I didn't think anyone else would do this - but apparently they do. Astoundingly, a simple search for "cup of coffee" on Flickr brings up over 84,000 hits. As they say on the interwebs "You are not alone".

So, I thought I'd post a couple of my own favourites. The one at the start of this post represents my favourite cup of the stuff from 2011, made for me by Falstaff with his shiny new ubermachine. Truly a joy.

Here's a couple of more historical ones.

Lanciano, Italy, 2006. (Nikon D70, 17-70mm zoom)
London, 2007. Cafe Vergnano, Charing Cross Road.  (Leica M7, Summicron 35mm f2, Tri-X).
 Unfortunately, you can see I enjoyed this last one so much that I never photographed it before it had gone.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Anthony's 2011 favourites

Some pictures I like, and have enjoyed making, in 2011

Following on from Phil's post, I thought I'd put up some pictures that I like and that I've enjoyed making this year. It will be a bit redundant in the sense that a number of these appear elsewhere in this blog, but it is nice to bring some things together. I'll try and group the pictures under a couple of general headings - people and planes - that cover some long term interests, as well some some experimenting and practice I've enjoyed.

- Street shooting in London, both with Phil and Martin, and with Falstaff. One of my very long term interests, that no doubt I'll carry on with in 2012.

Covent Garden, July 2011.
Oxford St, October 2011
Oxford St, October 2011
Skater boy. Southbank, London. August 2011.
- I had more fun this year photographing aircraft then ever before, largely because this was the first year I got to go photoflying. Agh! I've found the most expensive hobby I could possibly have, short of owning a Spitfire of my own. It was such an amazing experience that I have to do it again, however hard the bank account protests. Since I've blogged about that fairly extensively, just one from that here, plus a couple of other events that I've enjoyed a lot. I've put together some more of my favourite aviation pictures from 2011 in a gallery over on Pbase.

Departing Danes. Jan 2011.
Smoke and Burners. FIAT, Fairford, July 2011.
Flying with Scat VII
- One of the great pleasures of photography for me is the endless possibilities to try out new things. I've already blogged about focus stacking, working on off-camera flash, and long lens bird photography. I won't fill up any more space here with them, as I don't think any of them rate as my very favourite shots of the year. But whatever, I'll be taking every opportunity I get over the coming year to challenge myself by trying new stuff.

I've done one more shoot this year, on the 30th Dec in London with Falstaff and the Leica Luggers (how about that for the name of a band :-) ?). Since that was on film, I've no idea how the pictures will come out till they're developed, so I reserve the right to add to this retrospectively!

Happy New Year for 2012.