A Photographic Journey

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Think inside the frame

Having been making photos continuously for the better part of a decade or more, if you had to ask me what one single photographic skill that I ‘ve learnt that is most important in making a photo? I would say ” to think inside the frame.”  What I mean has two parts:  the first is the easy part and that is to be able to envisage the photo in your mind’s eye before you press the trigger.  To be able to put up an imaginary frame in the vista in front of you and pick the correct lens for the job, or more often is the case that I already have armed myself with a fixed focal lens, say a 35mm lens and I literally scan the scene for possible 35mm images.  Most of the time I also have a second camera on me with a telephoto so I have even more options available readily.  I am not a big fan of zoom lenses, but a zoom lens would certainly further increase your composition options, but will decrease your creative play with depth of field.

I said that this is the easy first part, because strangely enough to learn this skill didn’t require me to learn actively, it was a fairly rapid passive process.  It started with my first first fixed 35mm fixed focal lens (it could’ve easily being a 50mm lens), it was a rather weak and inexpensive Kodak point and shoot, I loved the camera so much that I stucked with it for many months.  And during this time my mind became accustomed to seeing in 35mm field of view and was able to accurately predict the results.  I would recommend anyone that asks, to try it themselves, I think it is the first step to good composition and training for the mind.

That was the first step, the second step is much harder and require lots of reading, practicing, research and examining other people’s photos.  In other words it requires thinking!  This is the thinking part of “think inside the frame.” Once you have acquire the innate ability to form the frame in your mind, it then becomes important for your mind to assess if that is a good photo opportunity or not.  To know you must know the basics of composition, how to break these rules, which lens, filter, flash or some other tool is required for the job, what are the effects you can use in post-processing to enchance the scene, have you seen examples of such or such photo in the past, will a shift in camera position improve the scene and what are the contrasts in the scene, is the scene beyond your camera’s dynamic and tonal range, what depth of field & shutter speed do you need?  All these factors must go through your mind continuously as you search the scene inside the frame in your mind’s eye.

There is no quick way to acquire this second skill quickly but it is made a little easier after learning the first skill (at least you have minimized a variable).  How I learnt was from reading from different sources a lot, learning the workflow for processing photos and critically examine other people’s photos objectively and not just to say this is nice, learn to read the photos you see and be able to understand why a photo looks good or bad.  It will only come with lots of hard work.

This process of learning reminds me of reading x-rays.  I am a veterinarian during my non-photography and non-sleeping moments and in the beginning of my veterinary career, with much less experience under my belt as I do now, when I took x-rays, I often zoom into the problem at hand, will it be a fracture or a cancer, and this can lead to missing the bigger picture.  After over a decade of practice, when I pick up a x-ray, I see the bigger picture, is the film exposed well, if not what will be limitations on contrast of the radiograph, was there any problems with the processing fluids, is the animal straight, did the settings for the exposure adequate, is there other factors that will effect the contrast of the x-ray, was the required part of the animal in the frame, aside from the obvious main problem at hand is there anything else wrong, I’ll make a mental note of even normal anatomy.  Do you see the parallels with photography?

Film formats, my take!

I mean to talk about the dimension differences when it comes to compositional framing and printing, on a most basic level film comes in either square or rectangular formats, rectangular formats are divided into many different proportions.  On another basic level is the physical size of the film and in the modern era, the size of the sensor.  Everyone has a preference and I am no different, my favorite is the square format, in the past there have been smaller square formats like those taken with the Robot cameras but nowadays, square format is ubiquitously considered to be the 6×6 format, this is a medium format size and with good lenses and fine grain film will result in a very high quality and enlargeable print.  This is my film format of choice because I think it has the most flexible framing and cropping opportunities.  When framing your photos with 6×6 you don’t have to stick to the tried and true compositional rules of thirds, you can still apply this rule but you’ll find that many of your photos can be centered.  In rectangular formats having the subject dead center is often a taboo because it leads to a static photo, that tends to be uncomfortable for viewing with the elements in the wider edge wasted.  But if you apply this to a square format, its different, even though it still lends itself to be more static having the subject in the center, there is now a symmetry with the natural square frame the keeps the photo comfortable for viewing.  This means that you have more compositional flexibility overall.  With square format you can crop the edges for portrait or landscape arrangements as necessary and still retain a large enough negative for printing, with minimal loss in quality.  It is also logical that with square format a single photo can take advantage of the whole image circle projected by the lens and this just seems right to me.  The only bad thing I can think of, is the lack of square format option for digital cameras, there are some lower resolution medium format digital backs that are square but these are expensive and nowadays a little out dated.

Having started with my favorite format, I will move on to your other options, but first I’ll like to talk about size of the film and in the case of a digital sensor, both the size and pixel density.  The size of the film you should use is mostly dependent of your end output of the image you capture, the larger the print the larger the film the better.  There are other factors like larger film/sensors allow for more cropping options, but it is obviously best to do the framing properly in the first place so you don’t have to crop.  Other factors include, the size, cost, weight of the cameras that produce the respective size images, larger formats will be less flexible and slow to use and quiet bulky and usually very slow to setup, so even if you want the best quality photo possible you may still be limited by these other factors depend on your subject matter.  For ultimate quality there is still nothing better than large format with film sizes 4×5 and up, these large setups will result in the best quality photos you can make, medium format is a compromise but will result in better portability and then there is the 135 format where its relatively cheap and in this age of better and better sensors you can get medium format like quality from a relatively light professional DSLR.  135 format is also the most flexible to use and carry around but the quality of 135 equipment is wide ranging from plastic lenses to professional lenses, it can be a minefield of poor quality lenses and cameras out there.  Size isn’t always better with 135 format there are compact point and shoots that make amazing photos especially on film.  Going back to my initial point, there is no point carry a large format camera or a professional 22MP DSLR if you never print the photos out large, for most people in this age of social apps, the most common output is online on the computer monitor and in this situation you don’t need anything better than 6 megapixels, with most cameras nowadays at 10 megapixels, even the rich amateurs amongst us should think twice about upgrading.

The most common format is 35mm and we are all used to using it, but do note that with cameras with cropped sensors there is flexibility within this format and cameras like the micro four third system are  more square compared to regular full frame 35mm with a 4×3 proportion (so using these cameras will result in slightly different compositions that can be refreshing).  But we should be talking about proportions as I have already talked about size, so lets convert 135mm film to its more simple proportions and that is 24x36mm or 6×9, this is a relatively wide format and is particularly flexible and hence it has become the standard format.  This is also the reason why 35mm (slightly wide standard lenses) lends itself to this format.  6×9 allows for landscapes to portraits and hence arise these common labels for shoot 135 film vertically and horizontally.  For most people, it is the only format choice.  In medium format half frame, 645 and 6×9 are very similar in style.  6×9 & 6×8 formats are also very close to the dimensions to the printed page with its obvious advantages of no wastage in published texts.

Then there is the panoramic formats like 6×10, 5×10, 6×12 or Hasselblad/Fujifilm X-pan format or even the dopey APS panorama format, these are specialized formats and very inflexible.  they lend themselves to horizontal landscapes, but this is only true because our visions are naturally horizontally wide.  These can be used vertically for surprising shots that need the viewer to explore by moving his or her head up and down.  Some say that if these formats are overused these formats can be a little boring, highlight the strength of the 6×9 format.  I suspect that it isn’t the fault of these formats but the fault of the photographer not using these longer formats creatively.  Most photographers shoot very stereo typical panorama shots of the horizon, no wonder this format appears more boring than it really is.  But there is always a little magic and surprising to see panoramas and it is an important trump card in an photographer’s arsenal, used creatively it reflects our natural vision the most.  135 digital photos can easily be adapted to take panoramas as well making this format even more flexible if not more clumsy to using compared with a panoramic camera.  In a pinch Tilt-shift 35mm lenses can be made to take short panoramas as well.

There are even more extreme formats with some Lomo cameras, their lenses’s quality leave a lot to be desired but some of the format options are intriguing.  So next time you consider upgrading your camera, think about getting a camera in another format, it will broaden your photography horizons!

Sand dunes on the Tibetan Plateau

Date: 26/10/2009 17:28 Camera: Leica M9 + Leica Summicron 35/2 (ver.4) Exposure: 1/250sec at f/11 Focal Length: 35mm

Tibet is full of surprises and apart from coastlines, there isn’t a geoscape that its missing, from the rain forests in the far east to the sub-alpine and alpine areas to eternal glacial ice and to this a desert landscape.  The Tibetan plateau is a place of wonder.  During my travels in Tibet, there were long periods where I was stuck in the 4WD looking out the window.  I remember when I was young in Australia and my parents and I would go on long drives in the country side, I can still feel the acute monotony of the out the car window landscape, miles and miles of flat farm land with intermittent small clumps of Eucalyptus trees.  Not so in Tibet, the vista outside the car window was beautiful and different around every corner and in every valley.  The journey to our destination was as much the destination as the destination, sort of like life really.  If I stopped the 4WD every time I saw something photo worthy out the window, we wouldn’t get very far, very fast.  I had to stop the 4WD when I saw this scene though.  It was a study in tones, the subtle tonal changes in the sand, with stark harsh shadows in the foreground and the surreal low contrast aerial perspective in the distance, and all in one photography was  just too good to miss.  It also gave the driver and guide a few minutes for a smoke and a piss.  There are huge rolling dunes on the Tibetan Plateau and the government is planting trees to stop its spread.  It is remarkable how well the M9 sensor performed.

Cambodian monk with cat, square format

Date: 24/4/2010 3:02 Camera: Rollei 6008i2 + Carl Zeiss 60/3.5 PQ + Fuji RXP + Scanned with Epson V700 in Silverfast Pro Exposure: 1/60sec at f/4 handheld Focal Length: 60mm (6x6 format)

This photo was taken at a local cemetery in Siam Reap, Cambodia, armed with my medium format 6×6 square format camera, I was in for a treat.  6×6 square format is my format and lends to its own unique sort of composition.  No longer are you restricted to rules of thirds and now the image in front of the photographer will dictate the best composition for framing.  The photo just flows on to the frame.  There are landscape or portrait options, freeing your mind.  Here I was using slide film, knowing that I would be shooting indoors in low contrast environments.  The only challenge was fighting camera shake hand-holding a such a large and heavy camera.  As with all spontaneous portraits, you need to be quick off the mark and this fully automatic medium format camera was simply made for the job compared to a relatively slower Hasselblad manual camera.  If I was using a manual camera I am sure this image would just remain in my memory and never have made it on to film!

Half-frame cat

Date: 7/1/2010 Camera: Olympus FT Pen + Olympus Pen 42/1.2 FT + Kodak Ektar 100 + Scanned with Epson V700 in Silverfast Pro Exposure: 1/125sec at f/1.2 handheld Focal length: 42mm or approx 60mm (35mm equiv.)

Here is something you don’t see everyday, no its not my rare and beautiful cat I am talking about, nor is the hint of my left hand in the frame, its the half-frame Olympus Pen, made back around 1954, this camera was the Japanese’s answer to raising film and developing prices, a roll of 135 format film could take 74 exposures. Its actually quite like a digital camera in the sense that you don’t really care about wasting film because it just goes on and on. This little camera is actually a SLR and functions like one. The lenses are extremely sharp, they need to be for better enlargements from a half-frame. I use these lenses most often now days on my modern micro four third system (M4/3), unlike many other lenses adapted to M4/3 these lenses are small and have a nice fit. 40 years apart and they still make a great pair. No wonder so many people are camera and lens collectors. Combined with the modern extremely fine grain Kodak Ektar 100, you have enough resolution to make good enlargements. By scanning the half-frame into two frames you introduce a new form of creativity, the dual nature of the cat in slightly different positions result in a dynamism that is lacking in a single frame.

Contemplation

Date: 22/3/2010 17:17 Camera: Canon 5DMk2 + Canon EF 35/1.4 L Exposure: 1/500sec at f/1.8 Focal length: 35mm

Another photo taken in Phnom Penh street side, the weather was steamy and there were lots of people just relaxing on various jumbles of makeshift furniture.  Here is a powerful photo, with the man in the foreground in deep thought, the diagonal line drawn by the bench draws the viewer into the photo.  The lens’ shallow depth of field isolated the main subject, with classic compositional placement of objects, makes for an emotive expression of the man contemplating.

Lime grocer in Phnom Penh

Date: 22/3/2010 17:11 Camera: Canon 5DMk2 + Canon EF 35/1.4 L Exposure: 1/1600sec at f/1.8 handheld Focal length: 35mm

Photo of a lime grocer in a street market of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  The biggest impression from my first trip to Cambodia is the people, after the long struggles during the evil Khmer Rouge regime the people’s morale is high and even in poverty the mood is uniformly happy everywhere.  The Cambodian people are friendly and wasn’t photo shy, a smile from the photographer goes a long way.  I made a concerted effort to show the picture I just took on the LCD display of the camera to the subject and that would invariably elicit laughter all around.  It is important to make it easy for the next photographers to come along, so I always try to leave a happy trail.

This photo is one of my favorites of the trip, the natural spot lighting, the genuine smiles, the vibrant colors of the lime and various articles splayed about makes for a colorful photo.  This lens is probably one of my favorite and most used in the Canon stable.  It is sharp and high contrast with beautiful out of focus areas, if its the only lens I own I would be a happy man.

More Tin Hau firedragon

Date: 4/10/2009 21:06 Camera: Canon 5DMk2 + Canon 50/1.2 L Exposure: 1/800sec at f/1.2 Focal Length: 50mm

Here is a third photo from the same event, the man in the picture is holding the lure that is the way the villagers use to direct the fiery dragon, at the end of the festival the fire dragon is extinguished by returning it to the sea.  The geometric shape of the lure, made of incense makes for an interesting composition, though the handler is in the bokeh you can still feel his intensity.

More Tin Hau firedragon

Date: 4/10/2009 20:56 Camera: Canon 5DMk2 + Canon 50/1.2 L Exposure: 1/1000sec at f/1.2 Focal Length: 50mm

As you know so far, I use many systems but this setup with this lens is the fastest low light monster I own (with the exception of the equally good Canon 1D mark III), even a Leica 50/0.95 is a few stop slower if you take into account the ISO 3200  that I am using with confidence on this mobo.  Not to mention the rapid fire of the camera, even the relative slow Canon 5DMk2 can manage 3.9 fps with a much larger memory buffer than the digital Leica M9.  This photo depicts the man manning the tail, it is the most active part of the dragon and needed a new person to handle every minute as its very tiring.  As the tail is swooshed around the sparks fly!  It’s actually quite dangerous for prospective photographers!  Note that unlike the other photo, there is no faux film grain added to this photo as the grain with compete with the point sparks for the viewer’s attention.

Tin Hau firedragon

Date: 4/10/2009 20:32 Camera: Canon 5DMk2 + Canon 50/1.2 L Exposure: 1/1000sec at f/1.2 Focal Length: 50mm

Here I had the privilege of a press pass to get close and personal with the Tin Hau firedragon, it is a part of the full moon festival that occurs annually around April, but in Tin Hau, Hong Kong there is a twist to the usual dragon, its a fire dragon.  The story goes that the old fishing village that was Tin Hau had a plague, a seer advice the villagers to raise a potent fire dragon to frighten away the disease and as the myth goes it worked and it has been a tradition ever since.  The dragon itself is huge needing hundreds of volunteers to manuveor, the body core is made up of a very long roll of straw and stuck in the straw all along its long length is tens of thousands of burning incense.  It was painful to photograph as the smoke of all those incense stung the eye badly and I was weeping all the while.  The results were worth the pain though.  Here is one of my favorite photos, its composition turned out perfect with dynamic subjects this is very difficult, or should I say fortunate.  The photo retains the vital energy of its subjects and it is this dynamism that attracted me to this photo.  With all these people basically running through the scene, the high ISO, f/1.2 aperture and rapid autofocus was essential to keep the shutter speed up to capture this scene.  The gritty black and white look was added post-processing.

Be my guest: I Seen Your Voice

Upload Date: 1/7/2010 Guest Image by Cheong Lai

It is my pleasure to present to you a series of photographs by various other photographers, I’ll call it “be my guest.”  Photography is such an infinitely expressive medium and it is amazing how different people use it differently to express themselves.  Over a decade of making photos and taking voyeur pleasure in looking at others’ work and I am still surprise how fresh this hobby of mine still is.  Here I present you our first “be my guest” image by Cheong Lai, another photograher of many in Hong Kong.

Cheong Lai’s photograph description:

Photo label: I Seen Your Voice

I am happy to meet you (Eric) in this a small way and I am glad that I can share my works with you and HK Camera Life’s audience.  This is a project I started during my life at school and I call it my Self-Shooting Project.  This and other personal projects of mine are an escape from the art projects dictated my others in my workplace, where I am hired to prepare an image, I understand the instructions but I have no passion in doing other’s visions.  So I started projects like this one for my own satisfaction.  To express myself, my thoughts with no limitations.

For me expression is important, I can directly express myself through speech or through writing, but I want most to express through images.  To express my emotions, my thoughts and my loved ones.  And through images I speak louder then any words and through them I deliver my message to others.  For me being a subject in my own images is important, because the images are “me, myself, my soul”, no one can understand me and express my thoughts or emotion better than me.

So, today I pick this image I call “I seen your voice”

It’s time to express a relationship between others and me, We’ve known each other for a long time.  Even though we are not together nor can we speak to each other.  I can see the thoughts she is thinking inside.  I know her and she won’t change.  It is something I feel in my heart, it is this feeling that I express in an image and the image also makes a mark in my memories.

I hope you (Eric) and everyone can enjoy it!

More mega-pixels isn’t everything!

Date: 1/11/2009 10:21 Camera: Epson R-D1s + Leica 90/4 Macro-Elmar Exposure: 1/190sec at F/5.6 handheld Focal length: 90mm

Following up on my post of Mount Shishma Pangma, the tallest mountain solely in China, this photo taken with a 90mm lens was taken near the other photo in my previous post, but this photo was taken with a lowly six mega-pixel camera that shares the same sensor as the venerable Nikon D100, which is almost a decade old! I have blown this photo up to A3 and it looks even better in print. The details evident in this photo is simply phenomenal and it is a testament to the engineering of this old sensor and this ultra-sharp lens. It would’ve been impossible to take a photo like this in most places around the world, the mountain was actually very distant to where I was standing and usually haze would have given me an aerial perspective which leads to drab colors and low contrast, but the crystal clean air at 26,286ft in the Himalayas made it all possible.

Lesson learnt here is don’t just chase after more and more pixels, for most amateur folks its totally unnecessary and a waste of money. When you buy your next camera, ask yourself two questions: What is the most common output of the photos taken with the camera? If like most people nowadays, you share your photos solely online on a computer monitor, there is no need for a camera to have more than six mega-pixels. Its laughable since many mobiles have greater than six mega-pixel cameras! If you print small 3R type prints you can get a contact print from a six mega-pixel camera and you can get good enlargements up to A4 or even A3! Second question is does the new camera change the way you take photographs? Does it have a unique function that your other cameras don’t have, that will expand your creativity? Answer these questions and you may think twice about laying down your hard earn cash next time!

Shades of green

Date: 28/5/2010 14:31 Camera: Rollei 6008AF + Schneider 80/2 Xenotar PQ + Sinar eMotion 75 Digital Back Exposure: 1/25sec at f/4 on a tripod Focal length: 80mm (645 format with a crop factor of 1.1x)

This photo was taken at the southern tip of Hong Kong at a sea side village call Shek O, its a popular spot for budding photographers to visit, it has a very laid back atmosphere, good food and friendly locals.  The area is full of picturesque locales and the villagers of late have been painting their houses in bright primary colors.  The photo is of a freshly painted green fence.  It was taken with a medium format digital back that have a dynamic range of 12 stops and capture color with 16 bits per RGB channel, which translates to 16 thousand colors per channel compared to 4096 colors per channel of a professional Nikon body producing a 12 bit per channel NEF file.  On top of that the sensor of this professional digital back is 33 mega-pixels and resolves much more detail than its current DSLR counterparts.  What this means for this photos is a lusher greener fence with more color detail than possible with a DSLR.  All this power doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t use it wisely and produce good compositions!  In the hands of a child it’s still a toy!

Should I take the fast or slow lens?

When you already have a selection of fast and slow lenses or just considering either buying a more expensive fast or a relatively more economical slower lens of a given focal length, what factors do you have to consider?  Its more complicated than you think, but I will walk you through all the factors involved in your decision, both as to which lens to buy and which lens to take out and use.

First and foremost is the cost factor, fast lenses are invariably more expensive than their slower lens counterparts.  For example a Canon EF 24/2.8 is more than 4x cheaper than the corresponding Canon EF 24/1.4 L lens.  So if you can’t afford it, well no amount of reading is going to help you, you had better buy more lottery tickets or go and work harder.  I do have some practical advice though, for wide-angle lenses wider than 24mm it is generally not worth the expense of the faster lens, for one thing you are not going to benefit much from the better out of focus bokeh of a larger aperture, let it put it to you even more succinctly, “what are you going to do?  put the camera 12 inches in front of someone’s face so you can get better bokeh?”  The depth of field of wide-angle lenses are much deeper and I find myself stopping down my Canon EF 24/1.4 II lens to get as much depth of field as possible, as well as sharpness.  Lenses are usually sharper stopped down 2-3 stops and if you want as much resolution as possible you’ll have to step hard on the brakes of your fast lens anyway.  As usual, the slower lens will generally have better performance at smaller apertures, faster lenses have bigger and more complicated lens elements and lens element arrangement and it is more difficult to control things like distortion, vignetting, chromatic aberration and uniform sharpness across the field; a prime example is the infamous Zeiss ZM 21/4.5 lens for Leica M-mount, stopped down to f/8 or f/11 and it is probably the best performing 21mm lens for 135 format cameras ever made, it is compact, light and cost 10x less than the Leica 21/1.4 asph lens.  This Leica lens’ performance improves all the way to f/8 or f/11 but at these smaller apertures the Zeiss 21/4.5 will still out perform it.  Sure the Leica is three and a half stop faster, but how often are you going to handhold a wide-angle photo in low light situations or put the lens up a foot in front of someone’s face to take advantage of a better bokeh?  Certainly not with a wide-angle lens, unless you want an unflattering clown size nose on your subject!  So unless you really need a fast wide-angle lens for a specific purpose, I’ll say you can probably save quite a lot of money, by buying slower F/4 or greater wide-angle lenses and using a tripod in low light situations.

The existence of these fast wide angles are a relatively recent invention and it is arguably to accommodate the existence of crop sensor bodies.  So take pricey Leica 24/1.4 asph example, on the 1.3x crop body of the Leica M8 it works out to be 31.5mm, so you’ll have a handy 31.5/1.4 lens for the short-lived Leica M8.  You’ll be better serve to buy a full frame Leica M9 and the Leica 35/1.4 asph lens.  Not only does this lens have better performance, it is more compact as well.

I have already elucidated other factors in picking a fast or slow lens in the above paragraph.  Faster lenses tend to be bulkier & heavier than their slower brethren.  Slower lenses tend to perform better (or in rare cases the same) as their faster brethren at slower apertures.  The faster lens does have a trump card up its sleeves and that is you can throw subjects in the foreground or background further out of focus with the result of a more abstract and creamy blur.  This ability to isolate your subject is crucial in many sorts of photos and increases your creative options.

So to answer the question which lens, the fast or the slow one, that I take out to use today:  it depends on what sort of photos I intend to take.  For examples:  If it’s a bright sunny day out side I may select my slower but lighter to carry and better performing lens.  If  its dark and I am using film and limited with my ISO, I would bring my trusty fast lens and live with the burden.  Here is a more complicated example:  If it’s a bright sunny day and I absolute must have an abstract bokeh for a certain shot to isolate the subject, I would bring my fast lens and bring a ND filter to decrease the light reaching my sensor/film to maintain a reasonable shutter speed.  If I am not so fit, and I am going on a hike, I may choose to bring my Canon EF 24-105/4 instead of my heavier Canon 24-70/2.8 lens.

You get my drift?  I pick the right tool for the job.  It’s not arbitrary, it’s an intelligent decision based on what I intend to photograph.

To answer the question of which lens to buy, fast or slow, it depends on your budget, buy both if you can afford to.  Now that you understand that there is a niche for both lens types in different sorts of photographic conditions, you can be justified owning both.  In the last example of choosing between a Canon 24-105/4 lens or the faster and better Canon 24-70/2.8 lens, I would pick the latter lens if I can afford either and can only pick only one.  The logic here is with the latter lens you’ll have the option of stopping down the lens if you need to, the performance whilst stopped down may not be as good as the slower lens, but it would be a better compromise then losing the creativity of owning a faster lens (There are other considerations in picking between these two lenses but that is for another article, for another day.)  If you can’t afford the fast lens, needless to say, you have no choice anyhow.

Victoria Park in the wet

Date: 8/2/2009 14:32 Camera: Olympus E-P1 + Olympus 17/2.8 Pancake (M4/3) Exposure: 1/4000sec at f/2.8 Focal length: 17mm or 34mm in 35mm equivalent

I frequently use many different cameras, both large and small.  If it was a planned photo outing, I would always try to bring the best tool for the job and that usually means the camera with the best sensor.  But it is the small cameras that shine through and save the day for that impromptu and unplanned shot.  I am unlikely to have my Rollei 6008AF with me on my tram ride past Victoria Park on this rainly day and I would have miss this shot if I didn’t have my little Olympus E-P1 with me.

As the tram went pass the park, a thought flashed past my mind.  The wet green asphalt of the football grounds in the park would make a wonderful reflective surface and the interesting cloud formation would be spectacular in this otherwise a rather uninteresting scene.  I haven’t reached my destination but I jumped out of the tram anyway!  Life of a photographer!  I was wet from head to toe, but I was able to capture this photo just as the sky was clearing up.  I converted the photo to black and white to make the clouds stand out more, and left the color green in the photo to give attention to the reflections in the wet asphalt.

Myth busting: Lens Contrast

There is often debate on many forums about the topic of lens contrast.  In this modern age of lenses, the fidelity of lens contrast is getting higher and higher.  The reason for this increase contrast is better control of flare. This flare is caused by stray light that doesn’t come from the reflected light from the objects in the scene and hence doesn’t contribute to the photographic details of the photo.  This light from high angle of incidence enter the lens through the front element and bounce around inside the lens barrel and cause reflections on the internal elements and some will reach the sensor or film and exposure the film/sensor in a random but uniform way.  This stray light causes the photograph to become lighter in color and tone overall, especially obvious in the dark areas of the photo.  Obviously there is a cost to this flare, it veils the midtones and light tones and the dark tones, as a result there is some lost in details or dynamic range all areas.  This loss in detail is less apparent in the light areas.

There are two improvements in the modern lens that impact this the most, one is the modern multi-coating on the front elements that disperses the light coming from high angles and the improve absorptive properties of the inner lining of the lens barrel.  This results in a high contrast and a greater dynamic range.  There is talk that goes around that says that the blacks are blacker, but even though this is true in an empirical sense, a better description and a more accurate description is that the blacks appear blacker because there is less flare. If you consider it in terms of the tonal curve, for any given picture, a high contrast lens with low flare will have a wider dynamic range, which is overall a good thing.  In other words:  A high contrast lens will provide more tonal information than a low contrast lens.

So why are there so many advocates for low contrast, antique lenses?  Why do photos look better sometimes with a low contrast lens?

The answer lies in the limited dynamic range of our sensors and the even more limited range of film.  If the curve is wider you will exceed the ability for the sensor/film to capture the dynamic range of the scene.  I like to think of it this way:  I sometimes use HDR techniques in processing of some photos to improve the dynamic range, the HDR photo that results have too many colors & tones for the monitor to display and you have to remap the colors to shrink the dynamic range to usable levels (within the range of the color space you’re using).  There exists very expensive HDR monitors that can exhibit this HDR photos in their original glory, but since these monitors are not in general circulation at the moment we have to limit the dynamic range.  The same thing occurs with a low contrast lenses: you essentially are compressing the dynamic range at the level of the lens by truncating the blacks in the photos, this is obviously advantageous with film where the dynamic range of the film is very low and the end result less malleable unlike a RAW file.  Traveling with this train of reason, low contrast lenses will benefit positive slide film when compared to negatives, because the dynamic range of negatives are better.

The advantage of low contrast  for modern digital sensors is dependent on the scene being photographed.  A low contrast scene like my photo of the bas-relief at Angkor Wat is low contrast to begin with, almost the whole scene is uniformly lit & in the shade and the use of low contrast lenses will make this scene look very flat.  The bas-relief will look less 3D with less pop and this will result in less impact.

For a very sunny high contrast scenes with details hidden in the shadows and much of the scene are highlights, the scene is beyond the dynamic range of the sensor and as a result of using a low contrast lens, we compress the dynamic range at the level of the lens and when balanced with the degradation of information due to flare, we may still benefit from using a low contrast lens.  So my street scene of Lhasa taken with the more nostalgic Summicron would benefit even more from a lower contrast lens.

I think that even for a medium contrast scenes, digital sensors are better off with high contrast lenses.

In the future as the dynamic range of our digital cameras improves, the need for low contrast lenses will decrease.  Even in the present, with judicious use of HDR techniques this is already true.  Will this make low contrast lenses obsolete one day?  Yes and No.  Yes for digital and forever no for film users.

Try to be different with your photos

Date: 19/3/2010 18:25 Camera: Canon 5DMk2 + Sigma 150/2.8 Macro Exposure: 1/80sec at f/2.8 on tripod Focal length: 150mm

There is an annual flower show here in Hong Kong every year during spring time, I am sure its nothing compared to those in Holland but its all we’ve and its very popular with photographers, both professional and amateur.  Tens of thousands of people with cameras in toll flock to the event every year.  I myself have been to five shows over the years and it can get pretty monotonous after a while.  The pavilions on displayed is offered by various floral organizations, embassies and government departments and as you can imagine, apart from a few exceptions, the displays tend to be similar from year to year.  It was particularly hot this year and even though I was there on day-one, many of the flowers have seen much better days after being baked under the noon sun.  In the past two years, I have made an extra effort to take photos no one would’ve thought of to take at the flower show, which is difficult when you consider how many budding photographers go through the turnstiles.  I have learnt that by challenging yourself with difficult themes, limiting your photographic potential to uniqueness, is an excellent way to sharpening your photographic eye.  The above photo is another example of looking for a natural frame, the foliage around the pond with a curious and lonesome goldfish was just perfect and not a single flower in sight!  The hour was getting late and as with many of my photos, it was taken on a tripod.  It may be a bother to carry around, I find a tripod slows me down a little and makes me think about composition, framing, lighting and contrasts of the subject more, which tend to lead to less photos but better photos.

Street photography my way.

Date: 22/10/2009 10:52 Camera: Leica M9 + Leica Summicron 35/2 (ver.4) Exposure: 1/710sec at f/8 handheld Focal Length: 35mm

Living in Hong Kong street photography is a way of life for most photographers, we have an abundance of streets if nothing else.  The the local forums here in Hong Kong are packed to the rim with budding street photographers, many are exceptionally good.  Everyone has their own theories and its the sort of thing that certainly doesn’t have any rules, I have found that spontaneity and rapid focusing the key to capturing good photos.  Discretion, speed and stealth are all very important factors here in Hong Kong as much of the population here are very photophobic, but these skills learnt here in Hong Kong is even more effective applied anywhere else.  The photo above is a piece of street life in Lhasa, Tibet.  It was unfortunate how defensive the people there were to having their photos taken, but not surprising given how many cameras were hanging around the many tourists’ necks.  I have tried many different types of camera gear in my street wanderings and many things work, but there is nothing quicker in the world of photography than a rangefinder with a wide-angle lens used with zone focusing at a smallish aperture like f/8 or f/11.  With a digital rangefinder, like the Leica M9, M8 or Epson R-D1, I can even keep the shutter speeds up with a little touch of high ISO.  With practice you can get subjects in frame without putting the camera up to the eye.  The reasonably high pixel count allows you to crop a little to make a better composition.  That is how the above photo was taken (but without cropping).  In the past when I used mainly a digital SLR, my favorite combo for street photography was very similar, a wide-angle lens set on hyperfocal distance, zone focusing is rather difficult on DSLR lenses, their DOF scale is usually too short to be accurate enough to use.  The other way that worked nicely is a little naughty, I would set a camera gear across a busy street or scene, sometimes even on a tripod with a gimbal tripod head to allow me swing the camera around quickly.  Mounted on the camera is a long lens, usually 400mm and longer.  After a patient wait of 15 minutes or so you become part of the landscape and people no longer notice you, its like magic, they think you are a surveyor on some official business.  No one in the their right mind would be using heavy gear like that just to take photos of me, most people will think.  I have taken many wonderful shots this way.  It’s a little cheeky but it gets those birding lenses out, the sun is good for fungal prevention.

Feather in space

Date: 14/5/2009 16:23 Camera: Canon 1DMk3 + Canon EF 400/5.6 L Exposure: 1/3200sec at f/8 handheld Focal length: 400mm

This “macro” was taken during a birding trip in Mai Po, Hong Kong.  I had found a good high vantage point from a tree to take photos of a few water fowl swimming past under me and as luck would have it, a helicopter flew overhead and not surprisingly frightened the birds to flight, as always I was the prepared scout as a bunch of feathers were let loose from the fleeing birds.  I snapped away as the feather that was floating down into the marsh and this was one of the magical moments that was the result.  You could imagine my surprise when I uploaded the photos into the computer.  The reflection was pitch black and the reflected fronds went in to a crazy Bokeh with the feather remaining crispy sharp.  Rendered by this wonderful prime lens like Photoshop magic, but without the computer.  I have this printed up and framed in perspex at home and it is stunning.

My tips for buying used lenses

Looking at my lens cabinets, I’ll say that about 70% of the lenses were brought used.  Like anyone sane, I much rather buy things new as it minimizes the risk associated to getting used gear, especially when it comes to lenses.  Lenses are complicated and delicate pieces of glass with mechanical parts, that have to be stored correctly, it doesn’t take much to damage a lens, so my first tip is to buy new when you can afford to.  The are a couple of valid reasons to buying used lenses; there is often a substantial discount in used gear and in many cases the lens has been discontinued, often for decades, so you’ll have no option but to buy lenses used.  Apart from risking buying damaged goods, you are also opening yourself to fraud if you buy online.  I always prefer the local option where you can check the lens out physically when possible, but there have been many occasions when the lens I am looking for is simply too rare to be found locally and I have to look abroad.  It is essential to buy only from reputable sellers overseas, in fact I usually try to restrict myself to buying things from well recognized business only and try to avoid eBay as much as possible.  Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever brought any lenses directly from eBay, lenses aren’t that hard to find from safer sources.

Always check the market for the going price of lenses before buying, don’t just go by how much the lens cost when it was new.  Don’t just check your local forum, always check prices from as many sources as you can before setting a base price that you are willing to pay.  Local forums or even eBay, especially active forums can easily be manipulated by clever sellers to make items seem more expensive than they are really worth and sometimes hype up items for a little while to make them more attractive than they really are.  Asked someone with experience for their more objective advice.

So I have organized a deal locally and have agreed on a basic price and I am meeting the seller face to face.  What do I look out for in a used lens?  First thing is to do the examination somewhere with good lighting, hard to see dings and scratches in the dark.  I start with checking if there is anything missing, in the perfect world, there should still be the box, all the original packaging, instructions, warranty card, original receipt.  I have known savvy lens owners actually sell the original advertising leaflets with the lens, this prudent move could pay off in the long run.  Obviously, none of these things are necessary to the user, but will help maintain the value of the lens in the long run.  Five years down the line and you want to sell the lens, having all these little details will make a lot of difference between an easy and quick sale at premium prices or having to wait for months for the right buyer.

Apart from the packaging the front and rear lens cap should be present and also the hood.  If you need to replace these with originals they can be hard to find or expensive to buy.  Hoods tend to wear out quicker than the lens and its condition can be telling on how rough the lens have been used.  Hoods from discontinue lenses are also difficult to replace so make sure there is a hood.

Now that everything has been accounted for, I look a the lens itself.  Start with the glass, dust off the surfaces with the blower that you brought with you and use a pen torch and look inside, first thing to look for is lens fungus, if there are any fungus on any of the elements, it should result in a massive decrease (I’ll say 75%-85% drop) in the price or just walk away.  This is probably the biggest death nail in a lens’ coffin as its just going to get worst.  If the lens was advertised with fungus and can be brought for next to nothing, then it could be okay, just two things to bear in mind:  If the infection is severe and much of the lens elements is cloudy and etched, these lenses will be useless anyway so don’t buy, but if there is just a little on an edge and it doesn’t look etched into the glass, that maybe acceptable with a discount.  The fungus can be cleaned by a technician but it often leaves a scar and the fungus will likely grow back sometime, but you may have a few years before that happens.  The other thing to bear in mind, is fungus sporulates and I will keep known lenses with fungus in a separate box away from your lenses.

Dust isn’t a problem usually, there is always going to be dust in lenses, even weather sealed ones, so no need to be too anal here.  Only if there is severe dust problems with dust clumping inside would I be concerned.  But it can usually still be cleaned easily by a technician for a moderate cost.

Large scratches or chips on the front and rear elements should be obvious and may decrease the contrast of the picture in the area affected, so the price of the lens should reflect that.  I think a 30%-50% discount to the price is appropriate to reflect the severity of the damage.  Small minute scratches, even numerous is rarely problem unless its very severe.

Shine a light on the surface of the lens at different angle to study the state of the lens coating, mild abrasions shouldn’t cause any problems but deep and large ulcers should be avoided as re-coating the lens is a very expensive procedure and will change the nature of the lens image.  There are some people that intentionally buy (often antique) lenses with severe coating wear and scratches at discount prices and get them re-coated with modern coatings.  This is one way to buy a bargain.

Another show stopper glass problem is lens separation, there are glass elements in side the lenses that should be stuck together with optical cement and if these are separating, I would walk away.  How to see it is easy:  put the lens up to an even light source, look through the lens barrel, it should be all clear, but if there is lens separation, it usually starts from the edge and move into the center and the area where there is separation will appear less transparent or grayish as it will have a different refractive index and angles.  I wouldn’t buy a lens showing separation.

Next I check the aperture blades for obvious damage.  Apertures can have a couple of problems, oil on the aperture blade is a common occurrence, it may not affect the lens’ performance immediately but it is inevitable that the oil will cause the aperture blades to stick to each other leading to a sticky aperture blade that don’t close properly.  On manual rangefinder lenses, this is easy to check as its all mechanical but on autofocus lenses it isn’t as obvious and to stop down the aperture blades you will need to bring a camera to check.  With autofocus lenses I will press the DOF preview button and look through both the front element and the viewfinder to check for uneven lighting throughout the field, if there is a problem the lens should be discounted by %15-20.  This problem is fixable but it can get expensive.  If there is oil on the shutter, make time and get it clean before it gets worst.

I then rattle the lens gently to see if there is anything loose, if it is rattling it will mean that it needs a look at by an expert and extra cost.  But if everthing else seems fine that it is rarely a show stopper and should be fixable.  I would take %10 off the price.

The next thing I check is how smooth is the focusing, with manual lenses, rotate the focus knob and feel for stiffness, stiffness is sometime cause by dirt getting into the gear and often just needs a quick clean and lubrication that is a cheap fix.  Looseness or unevenness can usually be adjusted by a technician at extra cost.  With autofocus lenses there is a lot more that can go wrong, I usually switch the lens to manual and put it through its whole zoom range, as with manual lenses stiffness is usually easy fix but looseness is more involved so I would ask for a discount if its loose.  If the zoom action is damage you may feel some resistance while manually operating the zoom and the zoom action may get stuck at either end of the zoom range, this is usually an expensive repair job.  Turn it back on to autofocus and focus at various distances including close and infinity to make sure it drives well and can focus at all the distances.

The last thing I do is check the body barrel condition, look at the filter ring first, it is usually the first thing that hits the ground or get scratched, if it is damage, see if you can still screw a filter onto it.  I then check the rest of the barrel for signs of wear which should be reflected in the price.  I usually check the screws on the body and base to see if they are worn, I will be very suspicious of a lens if it has worn screws which means that the lens have been opened up.  If whatever problem it had was fixed, why is he selling it to you?  For auto-focus lenses remember to check the pins that are used to communicate with the camera body, make sure they are not damaged and not rusty.

In the case of autofocus lenses, if the various buttons are functioning and is not too loose.  If a crucial button is very loose it may mean an expensive repair, so talk down the price to cover the cost.

Lamma Sunset

Date: 11/4/2009 17:56 Camera: Canon 5DMk2 + Canon EF 24-70 L Exposure: 1/8000sec at f/2.8 handheld Focal Length: 40mm

This photo was taken on Lamma Island, Hong Kong after a long hike around the island.  I came upon this magical scene and immediately saw the potential of the Tim Burton inspired tree.  I thought: here was a scene straight out of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.  I took a series of snaps, some focused to infinity some like this one was focused on the tree which threw the clouds into cotton ball Bokeh masses, the extreme vignetting was added post-processing for a telescopic effect which further directed the viewers attention and with the faux film grain made the sky look like a Chinese silk screen.  The settings on the camera were intentional to get the tree in a harshly sharp silhouette that strongly contrasted against the fluffy sky.  This was my favorite shot ever taken with the Canon EF 24-70 L lens, which has never been one of my favorites, but this shot has help much to change my mind.

Tallest mountain in China.

Date: 1/11/2009 11:28 Camera: Leica M9 + Zeiss ZM 18/4 Exposure: 1/180sec at f/4.0 on a tripod Focal length: 18mm

In the background the snow capped mountain is Mount Shishma Pangma (also referred to as Mt Xixabangma), with an altitude of 26,286ft. it is the highest mountain solely in Tibet, China.  There are 7 other mountains that share boarder between Nepal or Kashmir that are taller.  This photo was taken in Autumn where the fir trees and birch trees meet above 3000m, this sub-alpine region is the home of dwarf rhododendrons that are budding in the foreground.  The ground has began to warm and the moss ground on rocks is thriving.  the clash of colors, the deep blue of the high UV sky and the warm colors of the foliage make for a beautiful display of vibrant colors rarely seen elsewhere in nature apart from coral reefs.  Even with the ultra-wide angle lens, I still used hyperfocal distance focusing to ensure sharpness from the foreground all the way to the background.  There was a break in the tradition of the rule of thirds here, as I didn’t know what was better, the sky or the ground, both were equally stunning.

Bas relief sculpture at Angkor Wat

Date: 24/3/2010 16:56 Camera: Canon 5DMk2 + Canon EF 24/1.4 L II Exposure: 1/6sec at f/11 on a tripod

The bas relief sculpture on the walls of Angkor Wat is nothing short of remarkable, I highly recommend doing some research before going so you understand the stories behind the bas relief more, I would allot more time to study these sculptures while you are there.  The story behind the bas relief starts on the eastern wall of the complex from the right hand side and go counter clockwise around the whole complex, it is a story about a war between demonic deities and Gods.  The condition of the relief are in remarkable condition given their age and is a testament to the enduring craftsmanship of the ancient Khmer.  This photo was taken in a rather dark and very narrow corner around the inner sanctum of the complex, its secluded position meant some protection from the elements and the deeper contours of the engraving remains and is more evident.  The narrow confines made it difficult to take a photo, but with some tripod balancing act  on the rubble and a wide angle lens I was able to capture this low contrast scene in stark relief.  The small aperture on a wide angle lens made sure that the foreground and the background was in sharp focus.  The original monotone nature of the rocks have been made vibrant not with post-processing but the multi-color hues of the lichen that has made its living for centuries off these forgotten women.

Egyptian style elephant

Date: 22/3/2010 16:59 Camera: Canon 1DMk3 + Sigma 150/2.8 Macro Exposure: 1/800sec at f/2.8 Focal Length: 150mm

This photo was taken at a park adjacent to Wat Lang Ka in the center of Phnom Penh, this elephant has been a part of the local urban landscape for over ten years and is something of a celebrity in Downtown Phnom Penh.  The photo depicts the elephants’ cranial aspects like those found in Egyptian wall reliefs sculpture.  The body of the elephant is acting as a frame in the photo holding up three sides.  The elephant is wearing sandals due to an injured paw, caused by wear on the hard concrete roads.  You can tell this Cambodian elephant apart from its African counterpart from their much smaller ears.  Elephants in the wilds of Cambodia are endangered and those in captivity are also diminishing in numbers.  Elephant handling in Cambodia is an ancient art that is also in danger of extinction, these handlers are call Phnong, who traditionally use domesticated elephants for clearing trees for land cultivation, but as the value of the elephant increase with tourism, many Phnong are selling these elephants to large companies for use as transports around tourist sites like Angkor Wat.

Rangefinder vs digital SLR

Rangefinder versus DSLR is a debate that has been raging for as long as the first film SLR cameras came out and there is no doubt that the battle fought over the last twenty years have shown that the DSLR has come out top dog. Lucky for me I don’t really have to make the choice, I would much rather have both as they both serve a different niche in my camera arsenal. But if I had to go with one and only one camera, it would undoubtedly be the DSLR. Their versatility is just unrivaled at the moment. (I think the mirror-less digital camera will probably outclass the DSLR in the future, but only time will tell there.) With a DSLR I can use it for every situation I can imagine and I think it would be easier to list the things that the rangefinder is lacking.

The rangefinder isn’t good at macro photography, fast subjects such as children, pets, birds., super-telephotography such as wildlife & birds, digital rangefinders are less reliable than their DSLR counterparts and not weatherproof. The latest DSLR sensors are simply heads and shoulders ahead of the Leica M9, M8 or the Epson R-D1, especially if you factor in the cost of a digital rangefinder. No autofocus can be a big disadvantage in many situations. The 100% accurate viewfinder of the professional DSLR and being able to see filter affects directly is also a boon for any photographer. The battery life, metering and high ISO performance of the latest crops of DSLR is nothing short of amazing.

So why bother with a rangefinder at all?

For me there are several reasons, I love the vast quantities of quality and nostalgic lens options available for the rangefinder, especially for the Leica M and LTM mounts, a similar thing can also be said about Nikon rangefinder cameras. These lenses produce a dazzling array of signatures and you can spend a whole life in exploration.  Rangefinders are also very compact compared to professional or semi-professional DSLR, which means they are much easier to carry around. A camera that is left at home isn’t going to take any good photos. For some there is also a level of prestige and pride in using a Leica camera and even though this isn’t a rational reason, it doesn’t make it any less valid in this materialistic and capitalistic world. The other advantages of the rangefinder are the quiet shutters of the older film Leica cameras and the bright and always visible viewfinders that isn’t blocked by a flipping mirror and allows for peripheral vision. The lightness and ergonomics and low vibration of the rangefinder can often mean less camera shake, so a photo can still be taken at lower ISO.

So each to their own and in my camera life I can’t see myself being handicapped with having to make the choice!

Film or digital that is the question.

Coming from an extensive background of using film for almost twenty years, I can be as bias as the next man. I have used the common film formats extensively, such as 135, 120 and even 4×5 sheet film. I have used the finest grain slide film to the modern wonder negative films like Kodak Ektar 100. I am enamored with the film options that are available today, they are of such quality and value compared to the distant past, I think film is far from dead but currently having a sort of renaissance. The options are less than when there were no digital option, but by and large the options that are available are technically superior to that of the past.

To cut a long story short, digital especially 135 format digital has surpassed 135 film format but a fair way. Even with a drum scan you would be hard press to compare it with most semi-professional DSLR output. The dynamic range of the digital sensor well surpasses that of film, capturing color more accurately and giving you a file that so much more malleable. Not to mention cutting your running costs and greatly simplifier your workflow. There are now very few areas of photography where film is absolutely necessary. The only situations I can think of where film is still a necessity are architectural shots for architectural projects where many firms still request 4×5 film outputs of me and a few exclusive online stock photo companies. But for the most part, newbies can take photographs happily for the rest of their lives without touching a single roll of film. So why bother with using messy film at all?

On the large end of the scale, 4×5 film scanned on a drum scanner will still out resolute even a 50 mega pixel digital back, not to mention using film even bigger than 4×5 inches. So at this end of the spectrum current 2010 consumer digital technology hasn’t quite caught up. I own a betterlight scanner digital back for my 4×5 setup that is 133 mega pixel and its resolution is astonishing and its color reproduction is the best I have ever seen but its bulk and slow scan times still keep film well in the running. In the medium format range the entry cost of a digital back can be very excessive for the serious amateur and using a home scanner, will it be a Nikon or Minolta dedicated film scanner or an Epson V700 flatbed scanner will produce a pretty good enlargeable images. Most medium format digital back in excess of 30 mega pixel will have the resolution edge over their film counter part not to mention better color reproduction. The downside of medium format digital backs are you’re dependent on batteries and they are much more bulky to use in the field. Reliability is also going to be a factor.

At the small end of the scale, 135 film although has been beating soundly isn’t quite ready to quit. You can emulated much of the grain and color affect of film digitally, but there is a kind of nostalgic value when using a film that simply can’t be replaced by using a modern digital camera & digital post-processing. The level of concentration and thought required when using film can be meditative and the satisfaction of a beautiful print, slide projected onto a wall or a good negative scanned into a computer can’t be understated. I have said elsewhere that it is this satisfaction of the photographer towards his or her work that is the primal essence of a good photograph. (This is probably why I love my Epson R-D1s so much, it has manage to retain some of these film camera shooting qualities with the convenience of digital.)

Of course then there are many wonderful cameras and lenses that don’t have a digital counterpart as yet and these beautiful antiques would be wasted if film was to die. Looking at my camera cabinet, I would be extremely sad to see my Rolleicord or Yashica Twin-lens-reflex camera, or my Olympus pen ft, or my Hasselblad Xpan II, or my Leica iiig, CL, M3, M6TTL, M7, or my Minolta CLE, or my Hexanon RF and my many film point & shoots become just icons of the past. I doubt that I am alone in my sentiments and I suspect the multitudes of film camera lovers won’t ever let it happen.

Don’t forget the Lens Hood!

It is infuriating to see people on the street not use a lens hood or even worst, bring it out and put it on backwards.  The lens hood is an essential part of a lens, it shades the front element from stray light that don’t result in any details on the sensor or film.  This useless light just bounces around the inside of the lens and some make it onto the sensor to expose it.  Causing flare.  The whole picture looks lighter in color/shade and loses contrast.  This lost in contrast is no good as because you lose information as the stray light overrides light that is carrying information.

Any strong light will cause this flare and it doesn’t have to be the sun, even incandescent lighting can cause problems.

Most lenses come with the corresponding lens hood and in cases where it doesn’t, it should be factored in to the cost of the lens, as it is essential part of the lens’ design.  Most Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Olympus, Panasonic or Leica lenses come with an appropriate hood, but there are some Zeiss-M mount lenses and Voigtlander M-mount lenses that comes with an inadequate hood or none at all.

Many medium format and all large format lenses don’t come with a hood and it can be a very expensive optional extra.  When using my large format lenses, I use a special dark cloth (it’s the option Ebony dark cloth) that extends over the lens and acts as a universal hood.

Shading the front element is very important and it becomes much more difficult if you are using 100mm filters from Lee, Cokin or Singh Ray.  The enlarged and uncoated surface area of these square or rectangular filters are very prone to flare.  Lee has some special bellow hoods with build in filter holders but I find using a large board (usually a A4 grey card) to block the sun manually quite effective.  The Lee bellow hoods limit the number of filters you can use.  You can get a tripod alligator clip that can hold the shade for you as well.   (This clip can hold your macro subject still as well)  Here is a link to the clip I use:  Plamp

Which lens should I buy first?

Here is an eternal question, one of the few that is inevitably asked by any perspective photographer.  At least those that invest in a camera with interchangeable lenses.

This is a topic that applies to all camera systems, rangefinder or single lens reflex.  I will be making comments on 35mm cameras only, as those of you that have medium format cameras would’ve already made this decision years ago.

The first question to ask if you just invested in a DSLR is should I buy a zoom lens or fixed focal length lens (or prime lens).  My recommendation nowadays is invariably a fixed focal lens.  Of course if you just brought your first rangefinder camera, then you have no choice but to get a fixed focal lens and you can skip the next couple of paragraphs.

Ironically, despite my current recommendation the first lens I brought for my Canon 5D Mark II was the Canon EF 24-70/2.8 L Zoom Lens, it wasn’t a poor choice, in fact it was a very reputable Zoom Lens with relatively good performance as Zoom Lenses go, it is a lens in the stable of many professional photographers for its performance & versatility.   What I didn’t know then that I know now, is that no zoom can match the quality of an equally priced fixed focal length lens.  I discovered this fact to my chagrin when I purchased my first fixed focal lens, the Canon EF 35/1.4 L, boy was I freaked out when I first saw the photos.  The sharpness and resolution of the fix focal lens just blew my zoom away and the creative option of a fast lens was something I would fall in love with.

The 24-70/2.8 Zoom Lens was an excellent first lens choice, as its performance peaked between 35mm & 50mm which means it covers the standard focal lengths well, with still the wide 24mm option and the tele 70mm option when needed.  (All zoom lenses have a certain focal length where its performance peaks and it is usually not the extreme ends, in this case 24mm and 70mm, but somewhere in between)

I still own my 24-70/2.8 L Zoom Lens, its flexibility is still useful on certain occasions where changing lenses and carrying two cameras isn’t practical.  But If I only have one camera and one lens, it would be my Canon 5D Mark II and that very EF 35/1.4 lens.

This leads me to the second thing to consider (the first if you are using a rangefinder), and that is which focal length to choose first.  My recommendation is 35mm for any full frame camera, this focal length is slightly wide and more flexible than 50mm as your first lens in its application.  There are many advocates for 50mm as your first lens, it is a personal choice and many of my favorite photos I’ve taken were with a 50mm lens.  You can’t really go wrong with either, but 35mm is no doubt more flexible and that is why it is the more common focal length lens on point and shoot cameras.

The reason to buy a lens between 35mm and 50mm is because these are considered standard focal lengths, as oppose to wide-angle or telephoto lenses.  Standard focal length lenses closely emulate our normal field of vision and are the most useful lens for general photography.  Most photographers will tell you that 80% or more of their photos were taken with either a 35mm or 50mm lens and there is good reason for this.

Also fortunate is that these standard prime lenses are the kit lens that comes with many cameras or if brought separately they are the cheapest and most often the sharpest lens in any system’s lens range.  Standard focal length lenses are easier to make, with simpler builds and hence cheaper.

Remember to take into account the crop factor of your camera if it has one, so for EF-S cameras like the Canon 450, you need to multiply the lens’ focal length by 1.6x to get effective 35mm focal dimensions, in other words you’ll need to purchase a 21mm lens (x1.6 = 35mm).  Here you’ll strike some problems with DSLR with crop sensors, you will find that 21mm fast prime lenses are inordinately expensive and not as good as standard 35mm fast prime lenses.  You will probably have to compromise and buy a EF-S or AF-S zoom lens that cover 35mm and 50mm, for example Canon EF-S 17-55/2.8 or the Nikon AF-S 17-35/2.8.  The problem with these lenses are as mentioned lesser performance compared to primes and their relatively slower apertures.  I would consider F/2, F/1.4 as fast but F/2.8 is a little pedestrian.

For full frame Canon, Nikon or other DSLR, your default choices are your brand lenses as these retain autofocus and are good enough quality. There are Zeiss made versions in Canon or Nikon Mounts, the ZE or ZF 35/2 biogon which is a fine lens, but you will lose autofocus which I think is too costly a loss for a standard focal length that you use all the time.

For a full frame m-mount rangefinder camera, like the Leica M6, Bessa R2A or the Leica M9, there are many many options too numerous to list, these cameras can fit virtually hundreds upon hundreds of lenses build since the 1950s. Lenses that I can safely recommend with almost zero risk of regret are the various Summicron 35/2, the six lens element version is probably the most cost effective and the Voigtlander 35/1.4, 35/2.5 or the discountinued 35/1.7 ultron and the Zeiss ZM T* 35/2 Biogon are all very fine choice.

For micro 4/3 cameras like the Olympus EP-1 the Olympus 17mm prime lens or the Panasonic 20mm prime lens are both a good start (I like the Panasonic better as it has better optics in this specific case).  The Panasonic m4/3 lenses works fine on the Olympus m4/3 body.

For the Leica M8 with a 1.3x crop factor I recommend getting the Voigtlander 28/2 or a Summicron 35/2 (whichever version that suits your budget, the 6 element version is good value, but the 7 element is my favorite, but the newer lenses with aspherical elements are good for digital as well but pricey. ) as fine first lenses.  There exists Leica 28/2, 24/1.4 & 21/1.4 lenses, but I can’t recommend these due to their relative cost and size on the camera.  Size may not be an issue with everyone, so I recommend trying these out in a store on the camera before laying down funds.  For me any lens that blocks the viewfinder is a big minus.  If you can afford a M8 and 21/1.4  lens, you are much better off with a M9 and 35/1.4 asph lens.  Another disadvantage of using a 21mm or 24mm on the M8 is the need for an external viewfinder which can decrease the spontaneity of your shots.

For the Epson R-D1 with a 1.5x crop factor sensor, I will stray from my recommendations a little bit, I have brought a Zeiss 25/2.8, Various 21mm lenses for my R-D1s but none have given me the fast prime lens feel I am looking for.  My recommendation is a Voigtlander 28/2 lens or any fast 35mm lens, the latter becomes a little too tele for my tastes but makes a great portrait lens.  Once again using any lenses aside from a 28/35/50mm will require an external viewfinder which is cumbersome.  Those lucky not to wear glasses, have the option to use a 25mm lens instead using the whole viewfinder as an estimate of the view, with the caveat that 25mm lenses are F/2.8 or slower usually.

There are some who will advocate a wide angle lens or even a telefocal lens, but they are in the vast minority.

Another question to consider is the speed of the lens, or the widest aperture the lens can be used.  Speed comes with an associated cost and in most situations size and weight as well.  Also fast lenses tend to perform not as good as the slower lenses at slower apertures.  In the world of digital ISO, where using an ISO 800 or more doesn’t degrade your photo too drastically, the need for ultra fast lenses has lessened, the lost in quality using a fast lens wide open doesn’t quite equate to the increase noise at using high digital ISO.  So extremely fast lenses like F/1.0 or F/0.95 which cost a monumental amounts of money is relegate for specialty functions, like shooting in the dark with unique bokehs (background blur).  I contest that a F/2 lens is often sufficient with a good quality F/1.4 lens as slightly better.  I have found f/2.8 or f/4 standard (35mm or 50mm) prime lenses as too pedestrian and lack creativity of faster lenses that allow you to throw the background further out of focus.

My digital SLR choice

As with most people my first foray to become a more serious photographer was with my decision to purchase my first Digital SLR (DSLR), my first DSLR was back in 2002 when I spent a boat load of money on a Nikon D100, it was a pretty expensive 6 Megapixel DSLR back then, it was a camera I loved, but as with most things digital it has been surpassed many fold since.  Surprisingly it was still functioning normally when I sold it a couple of years ago.

Surprisingly it was a good camera and produced wonderful photos for all the time I had it for.  6 Megapixel is more than enough for internet display and if it were not for the need to print large prints, I would have saved a whole load of money and stuck to it.  Of course it was a camera with 9-year-old technology, its ISO performance was very average compare to even the small sensors of the micro 4/3 (m4/3) system and new cameras have better tonal and dynamic range and response times, but it was adequate for my needs for 6 years.

During those 6 years, I wasn’t as intensive with photography and camera life as I am now and my photographic productivity was low.  It did help me learn about the basics of photography and the instant feedback was a boon to my education compared to the film SLR cameras I had before.

An interesting lesson learnt here is, that 6 megapixel is more than enough if you are just showing off stuff online and view your photos on a computer screen mostly.  Surprising 6 Megapixel prints up to A4 can be outstanding and quite adequate enlarged up to A3.

The spirit of this camera still lives on in my Epson R-D1s, the first ever digital rangefinder camera, this camera shares the same sensor as the Nikon D100 and produces similar files but with a different set of lenses.

I will not be reviewing my Nikon D100 since I doubt anyone in their right mind would still buy such a camera.

Three years ago I was  faced with the decision to buy a replacement DSLR and refresh my interest in photography, I first budgeted to spend on a semi-pro or professional camera body around US$2700 excluding lenses, so this rule out the top end professional bodies such as the Canon 1Ds Mark III or the Nikon D3.  I had also ruled out other brands of DSLRs such as Pentax, Olympus or the then fledgling Sony, because of the simple fact that 90% of the market is dominated buy the two Japanese giants and that means accessories and used lenses will be more abundant and to take advantage of their economy of scale as they usually have the best technology at any one time.

Speaking from the perspective of the present, things have changed in the camera world and these second tier DSLR camera companies such as Sony, Pentax and Olympus are more mature now with better products, they are becoming a more viable choice than before.  Although I have made my choice in systems, which I am stuck with now because of a rather sizeable investment.  I am more curious than ever in the lenses offered by these second tier companies and will probably try some of them in the future.

So back to the past, I was face with a tough decision between Nikon and Canon, I knew at the time that the Nikons have better wide angle lens choices (which is still the case today) and Canon had arguably better super-teles which was going to be useful if I develop a liking for bird photography (not much mammalian wildlife photography to be had here in Hong Kong!).  I liked the menu system of the more familiar Nikon cameras which also tend to have more customisable options.  In the end I went with Canon.  The reason being between the two full frame options at the time the Nikon D700 and the Canon 5D Mark II (5D2), the latter offered 22 mega pixels with the same picture quality as the much touted Canon 1Ds Mark III.  I knew I wanted to print large prints and the extra pixels made the difference for me.  I actually think that the Nikon D700 is a better camera overall, with its much better autofocus and its infamous wide-angle zooms.  But the decision was made and I haven’t regretted ever since.  I don’t think either camera I would have regretted buying.

I am writing about this here and so early is because I will be reviewing lots of Canon gear.  But, my camera life isn’t Canon-centric, not at all.  I think those readers that are Nikon-philes will not be lefted out, as I think my decision processes are valid no matter which system I was using and not to mention that most of my gear is not Canon, but other systems.

When I am asked which major Japanese brand is better, I answer that both the major players are perfectly acceptable options.  It just depends on your budget, your needs and the choice of cameras at the time you’re buying.  If my budget was more I probably would have gone with the Professional Nikon D3 body at the time.  Such is camera life.

As long as I am on the topic, I have since acquired a Canon 1D Mark III body for its much improved autofocus for photography of fast-moving objects, still using the many Canon lenses that I own.  I also got a really cheap, next to nothing Canon D350 for pinhole photography & for use with the Lensbaby lenses.

Preface to my equipment reviews

Before buying any piece of pricey equipment, it is recommended to do thorough research before laying down your hard earned money.  For me this research in to camera equipment is part of the fun of photography and through this research I often learn more about what I am buying.  For this my camera life, I am going to do reviews of various bits of equipment that I have used in my camera life, but I think more importantly I am going walk the reader through how I made up my mind to select that piece of equipment.  There is a saying that goes:  “if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, you’ll feed him for a lifetime” , so what i plan to do is to teach you how I select which gear to buy.

The gear that I ended up selecting to buy and keep may not be what is best for you.  Every one has a different circumstance that leads up to different decisions.  To understand the choices I make, you must understand my situation and circumstances behind my choice.  My circumstances are, like much in life, dynamic and ever-changing.  My circumstance five years ago is certainly very different to my situation now.  But there has always been an underlying theme to my purchases, I usually buy things from a user’s perspective and I am fairly price conscious.  I also understand that good camera equipment could potentially last a life time, so on occasion where I think it important, I’ll pay the premium to own something that I can use for years and years.  So reliability, quality control, support and workmanship is also a factor.

Aside from the more practical world of cameras, there is also a world of collecting.  I think most readers would be only interested in what is practical but there are those in the minority that are interested more in the equipment’s collectablilty.  A collectable item invariably becomes more and more unaffordable as time goes on and so with only rare exception, my philosophy here is to buy what I need to make my photographic vision come true and not to buy some antique for the sake of treasuring its rarity.  For those buying their first DSLR camera, you may not know of this collecting world, but it’s there.

So for my future reviews of equipment I am going to walk you through my decision process as closely as possible.  I am going to separate reviews into three subgroups:  mini-reviews where I am just glossing over my experiences with the piece of equipment and in effect summarising what I felt about when using that particular piece of equipment, these reviews will be opinionated and only partially objective at best and hence I will restrict these reviews to stuff I actually use day-to-day rather than making grandiose passing comments on pieces of equipment I don’t own or rarely use.  There will be comprehensive reviews where I try to be objective as possible and going over every aspect that is important to me.  Then there will be comparison reviews where I compare similar products highlighting differences and each’s strength and weaknesses.

The scope of items for review is actually quite enormous, as I own many different systems, from common DSLR to rangefinder, medium format and large format…  So this is probably going to take years to review the equipment I actually own, not to mention any new gear in the future.  I am going to jump around a bit, I am hoping this site will be an enjoyable read, that surprises the reader with each visit, rather than being a dry infomercial that some other sites tend to become over time.

In time I hope what I write here will accumulate to become a review reference for those interested in the gear that I own.

One advantage of reviewing from Hong Kong is the small size of our geography means that there is a inordinate concentration of exotic gear here, when I run out of gear to write about or feel up to it, I will start reviewing and interviewing others with their own views on their gear and more about other people’s camera life.

Who’s the kid?

Date: 23/3/2010 2:05pm Camera & Lens: Canon 1DMk3 + Sigma 150/2.8 Macro, Focal Length: 150mm Exposure: 1/2000sec at F/2.8

I wasn’t sure what was the best way to start this new journey into my camera life, so I figure I will start with the boy depicted in the header.  The picture is that of a boy on the streets of Cambodia.  It isn’t even a particularly technically proficient photo, its taken in harsh sunlight, the boy is squinting, its actually a crop of a poorly composed picture to improve composition.  But what I’ve learnt above all about photography is that a good photo is comprised many elements, but the most important is that the subject is significant to the me the photographer.  So a snapshot done by a mother of her precious child is as important and satisfying to her as it was for Ansel Adams to take photos of wild America.  This photo has significance for me because it brings back a happy memory.

A friend and I arrived at Ankor Thom near Siem Reap in the heat of the noon day sun, not the best time to explore, nor to take photographs but sometimes when traveling with a time limit you don’t always have the luxury to take photos during dawn and dusk, so you make do with what you’ve got.  We trekked through the ruins of Ankor Thom and this boy followed us from the car, we didn’t know what he was about as he clearly didn’t understand any English so we initially ignored him.  As we were exploring the boy would tug our sleeves and point to interesting markings and areas in the ruins, so what we have here was an impromptu and unasked for guide.  We continued to explore the ruins and it was sweltering hot and there weren’t many photo worthy scenes, so after a hour and a half or so, we were glad to be heading back to the air-conditioned car.  We decided to get the driver to pick us up from under the shade of a large tree instead of walking all the way to the car with our heavy gear.  It was time for us to say bye to the little boy that silently have been following us for all that time.

I don’t usually give money to street urchins, but he was different, he actually gave us a service.  So breaking with tradition we gave the boy US$1.00.  What we didn’t expect was the joy that one dollar brought to him.  It was an unforgettable experience to see this boy joyously skipping away from us, waving that dollar in the air like it was a winning lottery ticket down his imaginary yellow brick road.

This photo and the header reminds me that it is the joy that we bring into another’s life that makes life worth living.  It is through photography that I have captured a fleeting moment in time to forever help refresh my failing memory.

Welcome to HK Camera Life.

A passion for photography have lead me down the strange path over the years, an unpredictable path that have meandered from being a snapshooter with my very basic Kodak P&S in the eighties, to my very first serious foray into my camera life with the purchase of my first DSLR in 2002 with my Nikon D100 and then an organic and hyperbolic growth in camera equipment from there, with forays in the past decade into all types of cameras, such as the Canon EOS system, Hasselblad Xpan, Leica and its wonderful lenses, Rollei 6008 system, Ebony 4×5 and the large format world, the dimunitive Olympus Pen FT and is modern M4/3 counterpart the E-P1 and many more.  This expedition into the camera world has not been aimless, I have not lost sight that the camera is just a tool to self-expression and it is with this compass direction that I explore the camera world.  I seek cameras that gives me a new way to express my visual world on the screen and paper, so my collection of cameras have few duplicates in function and form.  I choose cameras that allows me to photograph differently, will it be a different format, lens availability, specialized functions, a different viewfinder and a myriad of other functions that make each camera unique.

My camera life doesn’t start nor end with gear, far from it, it has been a tour d’force through all aspects of photography, such as camera and photography history and philosophy, the many books and references I’ve read, the high tech world of photo editing to the low tech world of film developing, the difficult process of getting the perfect print and the most important part…  the process of taking the photo itself.  The more I learn about photography, the more I realize that photography is much more than just taking a satisfying photo, at its simplest it is, but the scientist in me wants to learn more, to master what I learn.  And it is this trip to master photography that I have embarked upon, that is never ending, with an unknowable final destination that I will never reach but through this site I hope to share the journey with you.

I hope to share with you my camera life so far, the many experiences I have gained and to compile the research that I have done in this field and show you the remains of its digestion, and to show you the reader a single possible photographic path that you can take.   I want to show you all the detours I took in my photographic journey to reach where I am now.  The journey continues still and I hope to share my new discoveries in this, a camera life.

Eric Lai

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