Saturday, October 02, 2021

Image Creation ~ "Ecosystems"

It looks like The Online Photographer may be changing the frequency of Mike's posts.  Putting food on the table is, of course, the most important thing, right?  Sounds like Mike is taking up writing.  It'll be interesting to see what he comes up with.

I have followed Mike's blog for years and I've been very happy to have learned as much as I have from reading his posts.  His insights into how digital files can be made to look good in black and white are particularly instructional.

Alas, the knowledge of what it takes to convert color into black and white, how to make very large prints from small digital files, how lens designs that influence out of focus rendition, all these things and much much more, when done properly, have been subsumed by and "baked into" the underlying software in current digital systems.

Color grading selection defaults can be set to ensure consistency from image to image.  Human perception modeling color to black and white conversion might be the very thing software is based on (and not based on simple color de-saturation).  Image stacking for noise reduction, image "up-rez"ing, and resolution improvement now can happen without us even knowing nor caring about what it takes to make the magic happen.

Over on Thom's website, he shared some thoughts on how small the standalone camera photography "ecosystem" has become.  The points he makes are, to me, quite valid and relate directly to the "baked into" comment I just made.

Back in film photography days the "ecosystem" was very large.  We had the camera and lens makers. We had the film manufacturers.  We had photo-labs and camera shops that sold chemistry for film development.  We had print paper manufacturers and companies that made enlargers and lenses for enlargers.  We had negative and print processor machines we could buy if we could afford them.  We had a gallery system and a vast book and magazine publishing engine.

The "ecosystem" was not dominated by a single manufacturer.  It couldn't be.  The "ecosystem" was simply too large.  For all its size and weight, the infrastructure each piece of the system integrated into was complete.  Everyone needed everyone else for the whole thing to work.

Today?  Things are, quite obviously, different.

Cell phone cameras have become the epicenter of a no-film, no-chemistry, low-overhead, all-electronic "ecosystem."  Cameras.  Lenses. Network connectivity.  Image sharing platforms. Communications.  Sharing.  Everything is well integrated, even down to having direct connections with the original film-era hold-overs of print making and book and magazine publishing.  The number of suppliers that it takes to create this "ecosystem" are substantially fewer than during the film era.

Several short years ago I watched as a tethered camera captured images of a fashion model along the Seine River here in Paris.  The images were edited by a small team of people on a laptop computer, color-graded on-site and posted directly to the 'net.  All in realtime.

Today I no longer see tethered cameras.  Sure, you can take just about any digital stand-alone camera and tether it to a power laptop computer, but why take on that level of overhead when you can do everything from a single device?

Everything can now be shot with a cellphone, by-passing the need for a laptop computer.  The team of people is downsized to just one or two people.  Everything is transmitted straight across the network to its destination.  The distance from idea to final results and distribution can now be incredibly short.

All this leaves me wondering what to do, if anything, with the old, traditional, stand-alone camera/optics systems?

Over a decade ago I mused that wouldn't it be interesting if someone integrated Linux as the base operating system into a camera?  Samsung tried this using the Linux derivative, Android, but the project was something of a disaster.

More recently, as in something less than ten years ago, I commented that Sony, the electronics company who should know well how to do this and how to market it, should take the Android OS, throw away the old embedded OS they currently use in their Alpha-series cameras, and create a fully networked, fully integrated, fully connected camera system.

I feel the opportunity is still there for the taking.  Except, as Thom notes, there might not be the "vision" of stand alone camera manufacturers to make the logical (to me, at least) leap into the cellphone present.

Musee des Arts et Metier ~ Paris 2021

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

RIP "Don't Take Pictures"

I'm sure everyone already knows, but "Don't Take Pictures" has shuttered its publication.  Perhaps you've read their announcement.

"Dear Readers,

Don’t Take Pictures will cease publication on September 1, 2021. When we launched in the fall of 2013, my Editor’s Letter explained the magazine’s mission as a space to celebrate the thoughtful, creative act of making photographic art. The following year, we launched online to include more timely features about the photographic community. We found that our online and print components needed one another in order to survive. 
The world has changed a lot since 2013 and our consumption of print media has evolved as well. In print, our writers and designers spent six months diving deep into the issue’s theme and each artist’s work. Without the distractions of a screen, our readers were encouraged to focus on photography on paper. Online publishing has changed as well. It is time to rethink the purpose of a magazine in the age of social media. For all that is gained by the ability to find photographers with a few clicks of a mouse, much of the grandeur and magic of their artwork is lost when viewed in slideshows, as thumbnails, or as part of an infinite stream of images. The demands of the internet era require a churning of content that is both unfeasible for Don’t Take Pictures’ staff and antithetical to our mission.
The decision to close Don’t Take Pictures was difficult, but its ending should not be mourned—change is not a bad thing. As the art world continues to evolve, our team is constantly rethinking how best to engage with photography in print and digital spaces. We are very proud of our past eight years, 16 beautifully designed print issues, and hundreds of online articles that exemplified what Don’t Take Pictures is about—great photography and great writing. We would like to extended a special thanks to the 90 artists we were honored to feature in print. 
Readers whose print subscriptions included an issue this September have been refunded. The Don’t Take Pictures website will remain online as an archive and resource for the foreseeable future, with all previous issues available as PDFs. It has been an absolute honor to share the work of emerging photographers and arts writers in print and online for the past eight years. We appreciate everyone who read our articles online, engaged with us on social media, or read Don’t Take Pictures in print.
Kat Kiernan, Editor-in-Chief

I feel at the bottom of all this is an important point. The purpose of a photograph has changed dramatically in recent time. How we consume images, how we look at them, why we look at them, and what they mean to us has little relation to how we engaged images just a decade ago.

This is why I've scaled back my online presence. I now have just this blog and my Flickr page.  That's it. Nothing more.

Us older folk who tend to "remember when" are dying off. Photography had its day in the sun. Now the experience of image making is, for me, reduced to sharing what I still find interesting and pleasurable. I do this regardless of if there is an audience or a group of photographers I can share with, or not. 

Someday I may feel differently, but for now, that is how it is. 


Château de Fontainebleau ~ 2021

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Super Resolution ~ research

Super Resolution, where you take a small image and increase its spacial dimensions and try to retain as much detail as possible, has been an interesting topic for photographers over the years.

Google recently published something related to two different approaches.  

They used an artificial intelligence to learn and then apply results.  

 "...diffusion models, originally proposed in 2015, have seen a recent revival in interest due to their training stability and their promising sample quality results on image and audio generation. Thus, they offer potentially favorable trade-offs compared to other types of deep generative models. Diffusion models work by corrupting the training data by progressively adding Gaussian noise, slowly wiping out details in the data until it becomes pure noise, and then training a neural network to reverse this corruption process. Running this reversed corruption process synthesizes data from pure noise by gradually denoising it until a clean sample is produced. This synthesis procedure can be interpreted as an optimization algorithm that follows the gradient of the data density to produce likely samples..."

I wonder how well it might work for amateur and professional photographers?  Perhaps we'll get a chance to see some day.

Château de Fontainebleau ~ 2021

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The size of things...

The older the I get the more important the size and weight of camera gear has become.

In fact, there was a time about seven years ago when I started doing push ups to build up my arms.  The Canon 5D MkII and 7D cameras owned then, along with two or three L-glass lenses were becoming too much for me to carry for a long time.  I would come back from a la traversee de Paris event exhausted.

One of the conversations folks were having online at the time was how nice it would be to have a full frame digital camera that had dimensions and weight similar to the old Canon AE-1.  If I remember correctly, Canon was saying they considered that to be the "perfect" camera size.  I can't recall their reasoning, but looking at the 1D and 1Ds I wondered why they felt they had to make those cameras so huge.

Not too long after I bought a new Sony A6000.  At first I didn't use it much as I thought the full frame Canon 5D _must_ have better image quality than the smaller APS-C A6000.  I caught on to the truth soon enough.  Sony sensors were and are nothing short of brilliant and I soon sold all my Canon gear.

I'm not sure why I thought about this recently.  Perhaps it has to do with the sizes of the Nikon and Canon mirrorless offerings.  They're still quite large and I wondered why that could be?

In any event, I thought I'd put down sizes and weights just to compare various cameras, new and old.  So, starting with the shortest base-length camera body and ending with the longest -

*Sony NEX-5T - 111mm x 59mm x 39mm - 329grams with 16mm f/2.8 pancake lens

*Sony NEX-5T - 111mm x 59mm x 39mm - 392grams with 16-50mm kit lens

*Sony NEX-5T - 111mm x 59mm x 39mm - 421grams with 30mm Sigma EX DN lens

*Sony A6000 - 120mm x 67mm x 45mm - 468grams with kit lens

*Sony A7 - 127mm x 94mm x 48mm - 769grams with kit lens

Nikon Z7 - 134mm x 101mm x 68mm - 1175grams with kit lens

Leica M4 - 138mm x 77mm x 38mm - 550grams body only

Canon R5 - 138mm x 97mm x 88mm - 738grams body, battery, CF card

Canon AE-1 - 141mm x 87mm x 47mm - 590grams body only

*Sony cameras were weighed with batteries and memory cards.

A quick glance at the list re-confirms for me that Sony continues to meet my lightest/smallest camera goals. 


Lens Stories ~ Sony 70-350mm G-Master

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Sony NEX-7 back button focus setup

Here is how I setup the back button focus on a Sony NEX7.

Menu -> Setup -> Custom Key Settings -> AF/MF Control

Menu -> Camera -> AF/MF Select -> Manual Focus

Menu -> Setup -> AF/MF Control -> Hold

Menu -> Setup -> Function Settings -> Function Settings 1 -> Focus Settings (though I really don't use this one at all)


I like using this setup for nearly all situations when using this NEX.  The only problem with the Sony NEX-7 AF system is that it is slow compared with the Sony A6000.  If memory serves, the 7's AF system is contrast detect and not phase lock.

For this reason I tend assign the heavy lifting for motorsports activities to the A6000.  I quite happily use, on the other hand, the NEX-7 in low stress, slow change situations, such as travel. 

Eze ~ in B&W ~ 2021

Monday, July 26, 2021

Sony A6000 back button focus setup

I see that I need to document for future reference how I set my Sony A6000 to back button focus.  I have reached the age where I forget things.

The whole "back button focus" interest started when I found the camera would select something of stronger contrast in the background to focus on when the subject was smooth and of lower overall contrast.  

For example, when I photograph cars they tend to be smooth, broad areas that the AF system might have trouble locking onto when something in the background is so much easier for it to acquire.

Diving into the menu system...

  • AEL button ~ AF On
  • AEL w/ shutter ~ Off
  • Pre-AF ~ Off
  • AF w/ shutter ~ Off
  • Lock-On AF ~ Off

Then I set the AF system to the smallest center point.  The "wide" and "center" selections are too broad and things in the background might be selected instead of the precise thing I want.  Hence the selection of an AF "point".

When I want to focus, I press the AEL button on the back of the camera.  There is no AF when I press the shutter release.

The usage steps are -
  • Place the center "point" over the thing I want precise focus on
  • Press the AEL button on the back of the camera and watch for when the "point" bracket outlines turn green, then release the AEL button
  • Recompose the scene as needed
  • Press the shutter release

I like this approach when using AF lenses.  It is a way of emulating the point of focus of a manual lens without the hassle of toggling the magnifier, focusing, then turning the magnifier off before re-composition.

Once I got into the habit of using back button focus on certain subjects, I found it was easiest for me to simply use this approach for nearly everything.  It makes me think a moment or two about what I want in best focus before hitting the shutter release.


Senlis ~ 2021

Sunday, July 18, 2021

New vs Old ~ a little experience

Readers likely by now know how much of a nut I am about optics and minutia and details and things that really don't seem to matter to normal people.  

Certainly I've learned a lot over the years by poking and prodding at the subject, including that well designed optics are a result of balancing trade-offs. However, explanations of these trade-offs are all too often are missing from the marketing literature.  It seems as if there is a distinct disconnect between engineering and marketing.  

Helpful descriptions like what makes a good portrait lens are very rare.  In fact, I only know of one document that a manufacturer produced that guided users.  That was with the specialized Kodak Portrait lenses.

More normally interested parties are left to sort things out for themselves.  

A good example of this is Nikon's famous 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor-P.  It was commonly accepted that it is a wonderful optic, but no one could tell you _why_.  The marketing literature of the day is woefully lacking in explaining the unique property of that lens.  

It is only relatively recently with Nikon's 1000 and 1 Nights lens history series that we learn the designers controlled the under-corrected spherical aberrations behind the point of focus.  Here is how Nikon now explains it.

"... The lens also has characteristics of spherical aberration and coma. Basically close-range aberration variation is small, but at portrait distances the correction for aberration seems to be slightly insufficient. The insufficiency as far as spherical aberration in particular is what makes defocus background appeared beautiful. The aberration balance has been calculated carefully for use in portraits. When the aperture is open contrast is good, and delineation is soft..."

That, right there, is why that 105mm lens is so gorgeous. 

Being left to sort things out for myself, with years, experience, and patience, I think I've hit upon the things that make a lens interesting to me.  Resolution is a given.  As it turns out that is probably the easiest quality to design into a lens.  Even sub-$100 kit lenses are "sharp."

Field flatness is not all that important to me, unless, as in the case of the Nikon Nikkor 35-105mm f/3.5-4.5 zoom, the field curvature is extreme.  There is also the case of the Zhongyi LensTurbo II focal reducer with, with certain lenses, such as the Nikon Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 Ai, introduces an obvious amount of curvature to the field.  Other than that, field curvature is just one of those things to think about in specialized applications, such a document photography where a flat field might be helpful.

Other lens "faults" such as chromatic aberration can now be corrected in image processing software.

Which leaves me with the aforementioned spherical aberration.  When a designer deliberately uses this form of aberration in a lens, it can help lead to "creamy" smooth out of focus rendition.  This, I've come to learn, is what Nikon carefully considered in their manual focus lens designs.  I'm thinking of the fabulous 85mm f/1.8 H/H.C./K and famous 105mm f/2.5 P lenses, as well as, perhaps surprisingly, Nikon's 75-150mm f/3.5 and Nikkor 100-300mm f/5.6 AiS optics.

As I said, it can take time to sort out which properties might matter to you.  This is why I'm pretty sure why Leica once advised that photographers use a lens for a year before deciding if they liked it or not.   

Et voila! this is how I settled on Nikon lenses.  I've been using them consistently for many years after having used Canon lenses for even longer.

I recently picked up an attractively priced very low "mileage" (less than 800 clicks on the shutter) Sony A7 to use with a rather too big a stack of Nikkor manual focus lenses that I have.  Since I'd convinced myself that I'd find no better out of focus rendition than with these lenses, wouldn't it be nice to be able to use them without a focal reducer to get in the way of things?

Lens Portrait ~ 2021

~ Stack of Nikkors ~
Too many choices?
Worse, I've added two lenses
to this stack since the photo
was made.

Shortly afterward, in search of a lens that I could take on our travels and that was demonstrably better than the Sony APS-C mirrorless kit lenses, I bought off that auction site an inexpensively priced Zeiss 16-70mm f/4 OSS ZA.

The Zeiss has a very very small mark on the front glass.  It's really difficult to see the defect and it might only be a rub on the coating as the glass looks to be OK.  The lens has proved to be a good choice, being well constructed and pleasingly sharp and all that.  

However, I hadn't taken it as "seriously" as I do the Nikkors. The new to me Zeiss lens remained "just another lens." 

In fact, just the other day I enthused over a beat-up Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/4 Ai and its out of focus rendition.  So many project possibilities came to mind and I was excited to haul this thing into the wild to make a few images with it.

An opportunity to photograph a music group plopped into my lap and I wanted to confirm which lens(es) I would use.  Wanting the most flexible solution for this studio photoshoot I thought perhaps I should use the 16-70mm ZA.  And I'd better check things out beforehand.  As "beautiful out of focus" references I used my 85mm and 105mm Nikkors to compare them with the new to me Zeiss ZA.

I didn't expect much out of the Zeiss for out of focus rendition.  I'd read, for instance, that Zeiss' 24-70mm f/4 lens for full frame Sony cameras had "busy" out of focus rendition.  Could the little ZA lens really be any different?

... er... yes... I was in for a little surprise... and I like good surprises... so yipee!!!  Looking at the results at 70mm f/4 with the smaller APS-C 16-70mm Zeiss forced me to evolve my thoughts on the subject.  

Take a look at the following images, and as always, click on and enlarge them to 100percent.  Pay particular attention to the lettering/numbering around the inside front ring as well as the out of focus qualities of the rear cap.


Nikon Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 (Xenotar version) ~ Lens Stories

Nikon Nikkor (Xenotar version) 105mm f/2.5
photographed with
Sony A6000 - ISO100
Zeiss 16-70mm f/4 ZA OSS

Lens Stories ~ Nikon Nikkor-P 105mm f/2.5
Nikon Nikkor (Xenotar version) 105mm f/2.5
photographed with
Sony A7 - ISO50
Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/4 Ai

The differences are rather subtle between the images.  Yet to my eyes the Zeiss is "smoother" in the out of focus regions than the Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/4.  The "edges" rendered with the ZA lens are "rounder."  

Don't get me wrong.  The Micro-Nikkor is quite wonderful and I'm certainly not in any hurry to kick it to the curb. It's just that the Zeiss does something that I find "special."

To continue my little exploration I took a look at the out of focus rendition with subject matter a couple meters from the lens and at other focal lengths across the Zeiss' zoom range.  What I found with the closeups at 70mm holds true when photographing at greater distance.  This Zeiss' out of focus rendition is "smooth" nearly everywhere and at nearly all focal lengths.

It turns out the 16-70mm f/4 ZA OSS is actually a very nice lens.  Whoever designed it really put effort into it to get so many details "right."

What a find, eh?


Lens Stories ~ 16-70mm Zeiss ZA OSS 
Sony NEX-7
Zeiss 16-70mm f/4 ZA OSS
Which is not much bigger
than the same camera with
Sony's 18-55mm kit lens.