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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Photo of the Week 2014: #4 Phuket Boat Tour

Today I bring you a photo from Phuket, Thailand. This shot was taken on a boat tour to James Bond island. On the way the boat anchored at an island and we were brought into a bat cave on water rafts. I found the style of the tour really unique (at one point in time, we were given time to jump into the sea to swim).

11 mm DX, 1/2000, f/2.8, ISO 100.

It's a fresh shot for me mainly because I've not used a wide angle for a very long while. This was shot on a Tokina 11-16 II, which on DX gives an equivalent of 16.5 to 24 mm. The wide-angle distortion I get here gives the shot an amazing perspective: I'm looking up from a low point to observe the magnificent surroundings (yes, I was on a water raft).

Of course, I was lucky to capture this scene with a beautiful sky, where thin streams of clouds form patterns. Phuket has wonderful skies. This I feel is the key attractive feature of this shot. Without a wide angle, you could barely capture that much of the sky, undoubtedly.

You would have noticed that the boat isn't very sharp. I was careless enough to shoot wide open at f/2.8, because just before this I was in the pitch-dark cave. Furthermore this was shot with my new D7100 which I was not very used to. In bright daylight and when shallow depth of field is not necessary (and not evident in wide-angles anyway), I've learnt to shoot at around f/8. Nevertheless, the loss in sharpness, I suspect, is not due to the focus but more of a faulty UV filter which was insecure and hence may not have been parallel to the front element. I've had a great deal of focusing and sharpness problems in Phuket, and after I obtained a change, the problems were much less prevalent.

If you like beaches and the sea, do visit Phuket. It's a pretty nice place to visit for a holiday.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Photo of the Week 2014: #3 Sunburst

I've been on a pretty long hiatus thanks to a new hard disk that I thought crashed after I attempted to back up my Mac in preparation for Mavericks. And I really thought I lost all my recent photos, until I passed the disk to my good buddy and he said there was nothing wrong. Well, probably the few stupid things about a Mac.

I'm now going to make up for this loss, so these few days I'll spam a few posts. Do bear with me!

Today's photo is taken at Sentosa. Sunburst: a starburst with the sun.

11 mm DX, 1/15, f/22, ISO 100.

As my friends were taking the sunset above the sea behind this bush, I thought I'd try something different. I noticed this little bush with two tree trunks sticking out of it, and I found the symmetry pretty interesting. The sun also produces nice star bursts when the light shines through the gaps in the bush. Hence I composed my image as seen.

One thing that's very unfortunate is that the trees behind that were slanting out towards the sea actually ruined the symmetry. Thus when I looked at this photo after nearly a month of taking it I didn't realize what I was trying to do until a short while later.

This shot was taken using a few layers of ND filters. Of course, my ND and GND filters were not strong enough to produce a nice sun. One thing to take extra care of when using such glass (referring to the filter itself and not its material), especially common plastic ones, is to blow off all the dust regularly. Rubbing it with a piece of cloth isn't a very good idea because the plastic will get easily charged with static electricity and attract even more dust. My photo was nearly ruined by the dust particles I left on it.

A very delicate procedure when editing such photos of the sun is the white balance. For this stage of sunset where there is yet to be any glow, it's tricky to get a good balance between the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the sky. A trick would be to use graduated filters in post-processing to separate the sky from the ground. However do not overdo this as it will make the photograph look very artificial.

Lastly, the starburst. The trick is to pick a lens with an odd number of aperture blades, which should be most lenses (sorry Canon users, most Canon lenses have an even number of blades). Rounded blades do not work as well, but they are still acceptable. Then stop down to the lowest possible aperture, which in my case is f/22. Starbursts occur due to a special type of diffraction against the aperture blades. I won't bore you with physics here.

Typically starbursts are made more pronounced in post-processing by boosting clarity and contrast. And a lens flare can enhance or ruin the effect, so be sure to check your shots. Unlike sun rays through clouds, starbursts should be identifiable out of the camera, and post-processing will only enhance them. If you can't see it on the camera LCD, then something is wrong.

Working with the sun is extremely tricky. We like it when the sky is cloudless so we get the full unobstructed sun. Yet, clouds dampen the rays and give you more options for a cleaner, more balanced exposure. I'd fix my shot, which has the sun too overexposed (it has to be overexposed; it's just about how much), with a big stopper, if I had one.

A final minor point: do play around with cropping; sometimes it helps concentrate the subject and remove distractions, and also adds something interesting to your photo.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Digital Fusion? Thoughts on the Nikon Df


This is the Nikon Df. Announced on 5 November 2013, this debut design took three years to develop. Its name, short for Digital Fusion, represents its fusion of "D4 image quality and lightweight mobility". Behind this, though, its true intention and appeal also lies in mimicking the design of the film camera Nikon FM2, thus achieving a fusion of old familiarity and fresh technology. It comes with a specially designed Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G lens to match the body.

The essence of what's in this body: the same 16 MP full frame sensor as the D4, the same 39-point AF system (MultiCam 4800) as the D610/D600, and an EXPEED 3 processor. And in the name of pure photography, there is no video on this camera. It is the only digital body that is compatible with non-AI lenses, due to a foldable coupling lever design.

Seeing the sudden uproar over this camera - I've seen one by Fstoppers, one by DigitalRevTV - and I thought it's a good time I share my opinions too.

Rants, rants, rants.

I was actually quite appalled to hear that Nikon took three years to develop this camera. You might have noticed that this camera is essentially just a recombination of existing camera parts encased in a new body. It's like how McDonald's decided to replace the sausage patty in the McMuffin with that from a McChicken, and launch a whole new breakfast menu item called the Chicken McMuffin. Similarly Nikon grabbed the sensor of the D4, the AF system of a D600, and threw them together into a retro-looking body. That surely wouldn't have taken three years?

Furthermore Nikon has been pretty boring recently. The last major excitement was perhaps the D7000 in 2010, and the D4 and D800 in 2012 (the D600 honestly was no excitement at all), and I highly doubt the fast rolling D3000 series and D5000 series are worth much notice to serious photographers. The Df, everyone thought, could be the next big thing for Nikon. It was, but in a wrong way, for the main attractive thing of this body was the esthetics.

I was also disappointed that Nikon removed the video mode, because even though in the name of "Pure Photography" video should be unimportant, it's always a win to have this feature at hand. Furthermore, how much space (and cost) did Nikon actually save on this body by removing a built-in microphone and a few extra ports?

Of course, I could dig into details, like the lack of a built in viewfinder cover (and how much space did that save?) or the combined card and battery slot, or the weird front wheel design, but there's really more important things to get agitated over.

But it's not so bad.

Now let's not thrash this camera flat to the ground, shall we?

Nikon marketed this camera as a lightweight camera with D4 image quality. At less than half the price of the D4, it seems like a good choice to get a pro sensor. But unless you're really seeking the identical D4 sensor, it would perhaps make more sense to throw in a few more bucks and get a D800, with a better AF system. Of course, make sure the vast 36 megapixels won't bother you.

Many reviews criticize the controls on this camera. For this, I shall compare, like all others, to another retro-style digital camera that has garnered loads of positive reviews and thumbs-ups from pros, and has also been termed unofficially the "new Leica" or the "poor man's Leica": the Fujifilm X100s. For the sake of this comparison, let's just focus on the top panel controls.

Top panel of the Fujifilm X100s.

The X100s features a shutter speed dial, an exposure compensation dial, and an aperture ring. It did away with the mode dial; how I go about using different modes is via the Auto setting on both the aperture ring and the shutter speed dial. Whichever setting I would like to have adjusted for me using metering, I will turn it to Auto. Very intuitive, yes?

Top panel of the Nikon Df.

On the Df, the same dials exist on the camera, plus an ISO dial (this is inconsequential). And there's a small mode dial retained at the corner. This I do not mind, even though it may be confusing say looking at your shutter speed dial and forgetting that you're on aperture priority. But the complaint for this is that the dial is designed such that you have to lift the dial to turn it. And that, while preventing any accidental mode changes, is exceptionally hard to use. Bad move, Nikon. You could have used Fujifilm's ingenious method (though of course on the Nikon there's no aperture ring because that depends on the lens), or use a button+dial method like on pro bodies like the D800 and D4.

Then let's bring our attention to the one-third stop option on the Df shutter speed dial. You would observe that all the shutter speeds available on the dial are, as expected, in full stops. By selecting the one-third stop option, you are essentially back to normal DSLR operations, meaning using the back wheel to change shutter speed. On the X100s, though, for every shutter speed you select on the shutter speed dial, you can fine-tune it with the back wheel (which isn't really a wheel though). For the sake of using the camera retro-style, the X100s design definitely wins, but for practicality, it would vary from person to person. I would personally prefer the Df design, as I have the convenient option to revert back to my typical DSLR controls when I feel like it.

I've touched the Df a few times, and compared to the feeling of a retro compact X100s and a typical bulky DSLR, I can't really tell where the Df stands. Its grip denies me gripping the camera the X100s or the Nikon FM2 way, because the small bulge is obstructive. Yet when I grip it the DSLR way, it doesn't feel really safe either. But no doubt this camera is heavy and really quite big, a bit too big to be disguised as a Nikon FM2 equivalent. Though that's inconsequential. And overall it's still a decent design, just one you need to get used to.

A photographer I met in a park was actually using the Df. I asked him why. He said it renders colors better than other cameras. He owns a D4 as well, so I assume this means there is a difference. It's just like how D7100 and D5300 both runs on similar sensors and processors, but I trust the D7100 would beat the D5300 in the images it produces. In other words, it won't be the same EXPEED 3 in two different models. However I've not seen anyone else mention this benefit of the Df.

The lens is as modern as ever.

It's a 50mm f/1.8G. Don't get fooled, the aperture ring is fake. I think Nikon chose the f/1.8G lens because it after all has a balance between good optical design and price. I would have expected the f/1.8D because of the aperture ring, but this camera is pretty automated that the D would just become a G. And the f/1.8G has better optical design. And why not an f/1.4 lens? Because a so-called kit lens should not get too expensive, right? And Nikon probably thinks more expensive lens are not worth giving a new design, as fewer people will choose to buy them.

But I will personally buy the body only and get a 50mm f/1.8D, just for the fun of it!

Verdict?

I would recommend the Df to the following people:
  1. Those who really badly want a retro-style Nikon DSLR or something cool of that sort, and have the money to burn
  2. Those who really badly want a D4 but can't afford one
  3. Those who still have a good collection of ancient non-AI lens, and really badly want to use them on digital instead of selling them off
I don't think this camera is worth consideration unless you have very specific needs like those above. My attitude isn't as sarcastic as say that of Fstoppers or DRTV, but the consensus is this: this camera does not come cheap especially for what you are getting. I do not know whether Nikon will leave this camera as a standalone or continue it as a series (Df2? Dfs? Dfx?), but if any rumors of continuation were to leak out, I would wait for the upgrades. Who doesn't love a cool retro body? But I'd want to make sure what I get inside is worth as much as the classy casing. And the current Df has not convinced me that it's worth the cash more than a D800.

Some said that perhaps if you throw in a DX sensor and market it as an entry level camera, it would have been more well received. It does makes sense, like how Canon and Nikon are both coming out with colorful cameras (some of which look quite disgusting frankly). But simply with a cheaper sensor, how much cheaper can this camera be? The X100s is priced high enough to repel entry level consumers and appeal to the pros. Furthermore, full Auto and Guide modes are popular amongst consumers; those complicated dials will be redundant and certainly will scare some away. Perhaps they can retain the rough looks, but the "pure photography" elements must go away or be disguised if this were an entry level camera.

If Nikon improves on the Df, perhaps I would consider it for my FX upgrade. Otherwise, I'd stick to X100s as my dream retro camera. Or play with an actual FM2 for one-tenth the price.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reverse Motion

My first post on video! I bring you a very cool piece of production featured on Chase Jarvis' blog, a video by Messe Kopp. It's a very straightforward technique, yet difficult to execute and produces stunning results.

The first one here is the intended result, which Kopp entitled "Forward". The effects really seem magical until you actually realize what's going on.


There is also the original footage, which shows the guy walking in reverse. Observe the coordination required, and how the guy struggles to stay on path while trying to look natural.



This technique, called reverse motion, is a common technique used in video production.  For instance, we sometimes see it used in scenes where actors or objects defy gravity, or when people suck water out of a container placed a distance away. These are merely short scenes in the full length of the video; it's extremely tough to execute reverse motion for a few minutes and have the whole video be based on this concept. Of course, it's super cheap as opposed to paying for machines and animation to do the effects instead. Kudos to Messe Kopp for bringing us this inspiring work!

Do check out Chase Jarvis' original post on this video. And also visit Messe Kopp's YouTube Channel.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Photo of the Week 2014: #2 Timeless

A photographer's nightmare is to have insufficient disk space left on the computer. I could barely run my usual apps, let alone transfer new photos in or use Lightroom (yes, I use Lightroom, and someday I'll explain to you why I chose it for the bulk of my editing) or Photoshop. So I couldn't get any new photos out for you today.

Instead, I bring you a photo I took more than two years ago. It was one of the first few shots that helped me pave the way towards full manual control of my camera, and also a SOOC (Straight Out Of Camera) shot. Back then, I didn't believe in post processing. I felt that post processing is cheating. A true photographer, I thought, should be able to get whatever he wants using what the camera can offer and with mastery of the camera controls, and deliver SOOC. Truth is, the camera processor is essentially doing post processing. The sensor captures the RAW image, and the processor will interpret the RAW signals to produce the photo the camera feels you're trying to obtain (and of course compress it to JPEG). So post processing (on the computer) is essentially doing the interpretation manually, which in other words is eliminating automation by the camera processor. That's actually less cheating, isn't it?

Not to say that every photo must be post processed; sometimes the camera interprets your photos very well and you can just leave it as that. So the rule of thumb is: it doesn't matter how you get your photo, as long as you get it. Of course, there's a fine line between an impressive photograph and an impressive art work so keep that in mind if you're going to do some extensive Photoshopping.

So here's today's photo, entitled Timeless.

18 mm DX, 1'', f/10, ISO 100.

Admittedly this was no impressive shot. The light came from a warm tungsten lamp, and (if I remember correctly) I tried to angle it to give it a nice shadow but only to realize that at that particular angle the light will not illuminate the face of the clock. And I couldn't lower the lamp too much or it'll illuminate the background, which I want in pitch darkness. This was the best compromise I could obtain (Or was it the best?).

What's interesting about this shot is actually the subject, a clock with no hands. This is actually a mechanical clock from Ikea, one that my dad bought for the fun but broke under my sister's somewhat abusive handling. I really loved this object like this, for I feel it sends a very interesting message about time. Unfortunately the clock now is nowhere to be found, so this is effectively the only photo I have of it.

Timeless. This little mechanical device dictates our daily lives literally down to the second; I always wonder what will happen if one day the world spins without clocks. Will we still care about time? What will we use to gauge the stages of the day? (the sun?) What will it feel like to live in a world that is timeless?

This photo would have been produced better with a better angle and a different lighting. A looming shadow on the ground would perhaps do the job, and perhaps having the legs exposed would make the picture look more complete. I wouldn't do much in post processing though, mainly because half the picture is black. The only edit I may do to this would be to turn it into black and white, though I would have preferred to have some blurred objects in the background.

Unfortunately it'll take me some time to find something similar (effectively to find a pretty vintage clock and tear out the hands). I suppose that's why it's so important to know how to get your shot as perfect as possible, because for anything at all (not just referring to the streets or sports or the fast moving sort of thing), you'll never know whether it'll be the same again the next time you need it. Cool life principle man.