Friday, July 1, 2016

Wow: Fuji X-E1 Is Cheap Now! [And Why I Just Purchased One]

The Fujifilm X-E1 (sometimes called "Sexy One") was Fuji's second digital camera with their unique 16-megapixel APS-C X-Trans sensor. The rangerfinder-like mirrorless camera took the photography world by storm in late 2012, with high-ISO capabilities equal to many full-frame sensors, excellent dynamic range and great out-of-camera JPEGs that more resembled post-processed RAW files than typical JPEGs.

Because X-Trans sensors don't need (and don't have) an anti-aliasing filter (which blurs the image slightly to prevent moire pattern distortion), the 16-megapixel sensor produces resolution similar to 20-megapixels on a traditional Bayer sensor with an anti-aliasing filter. That's plenty of resolution for most photographers. 

And their lenses performed well above expectations, with sharpness closer to Leica and Zeiss than Nikon or Canon or (especially) Sony. Even their 18-55mm f/2.8-4 zoom lens bundled with the X-E1 was much better than any kit lens made before by anyone, with prime-lens-like sharpness and very little distortion.

While camera stores had trouble keeping up with the demand, users began to find problems with the X-E1. The camera had a number of "bugs" and left photographers with mixed feelings. Fuji made a several firmware updates to correct these problems (and Adobe eventually made improvements to their RAW X-Trans processing in Lightroom), but reputations are sometimes hard to shake.
Come To Jesus - Pasadena, California
Captured with a Sony RX100 II, which has similar resolution to the X-E1 despite more megapixels.
One year later Fuji replaced the X-E1 with the pretty much identical X-E2, which they manufactured for a couple of years, and can still be found pretty easily brand-new. The improvements between the X-E1 and the X-E2 were small (mostly auto-focus). About six months ago Fuji replaced the X-E2 with the X-E2s (the "s" apparently is an abbreviation for "same"). The changes were very minor, even smaller than the tiny changes between the X-E1 and the X-E2. For practical purposes, these three cameras are the same camera.

At the beginning of this year Fuji announced the X-Pro2, the first 24-megapixel X-Trans camera. Fuji has had a good run with their 16-megapixel X-Trans sensor, but its days are likely numbered, and it will probably be completely phased out in the next two years. Digital technology changes quickly.

It's not hard to find a used X-E1, but ones that are brand-new and still-in-the-box are not abundantly available. What I found amazing, however, is that the brand-new X-E1 cameras are dirt cheap (if you can find them). When they were first released the MSRP was $1,400 with the 18-55mm lens (when the demand was high right after it was released, some camera stores jacked up the price even higher). The new X-E2s with the 18-55mm lens will run you $1,000 today. I just paid $630 for a brand-new X-E1 (with the kit lens), including tax and shipping.

Why did I buy an X-E1? Don't I prefer small-sensor cameras? What I prefer is small cameras, and that often means having a small sensor. The X-E1 is pretty small for an APS-C camera, but it will be the largest digital camera on my shelf by a large margin.

I chose the X-E1 because:
- For some certain images I need good high-ISO capabilities (in the ISO 1600-6400 range)
- My workflow is backed up (because of my recent move) and so I need good out-of-camera JPEGs
- My budget is very limited.

For those reasons, there was no better option available. And, besides, I've been wanting to try the X-Trans sensor since it came out (I just couldn't afford it).

Why wouldn't I use my Sony RX100 II instead? It's maximum practical ISO is 1600, and that's not quite good enough for the images that I want to create. It's close enough that I could probably still get by with it, but only when captured with RAW and my workflow just can't handle that right now.

My Fuji X-E1 should arrive in the mail in a week or so. I'm very excited to get my hands on it and start capturing the images that are bouncing around inside my head. I can't wait!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Monochrome Railroad

Slow Train Coming - Promontory Summit, Utah
I've captured railroad photographs many times before. It's not my main photography genre, but it is one of the subjects that I find myself coming back to often.

I've visited a couple places in Utah since moving here that have allowed me to capture classic railroad images in black-and-white. One is the historic Ogden Union Station, which has a number of old locomotives and train cars on static display. The other is the Golden Spike National Historic Site, which does a reenactment of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad one day per week in the summer.

Places like these allow you to create images that look like they are from a time long gone. These are the type of images that the legends of photography might have made decades and decades and decades ago. They don't look like modern scenes.

I used an LG G4 to capture these photographs. A cell phone is a perfectly good photographic tool, just as long the photographer is also capable. I used Google's Snapseed to post-process the RAW files right on my phone.
Railroad Circles - Ogden, Utah
Steam Locomotive Wheels - Ogden, Utah
General Motors Fuel Gauge - Ogden, Utah
And Stop - Ogden, Utah
Steam Power - Ogden, Utah
No. 119 - Promontory Summit, Utah
The Man In Black - Promontory Point, Utah
Old West Steam - Promontory Summit, Utah
A Train In 1869 - Promontory Summit, Utah
Old West Handshake - Promontory Summit, Utah
Golden Spike Ceremonies - Promontory Summit, Utah
Hammering The Last Spike - Promontory Summit, Utah

Monday, June 27, 2016

Image Quality vs. Viewing Size

Stars Above Sharps Hallow - Morgan, Utah
LG G4 @ ISO 1000.
I received a surprising amount of positive feedback to my ISO 1000 night image captured with an LG G4. High ISO and tiny sensors don't mix well, and image quality noticeably suffers. ISO 1000 is above the practical high-ISO limit of the G4, and so the image is especially noisy. And because of the amount of noise reduction applied, it's also a bit soft.

For many viewers none of that mattered.

I think some people simply overlooked it. No one will notice an image's flaws as much as the photographer. I know every imperfection very well because I'm the one who created the photograph. You might not look closely enough to even spot them. You might appreciate the image for what it is and move on fast enough to miss the things that you don't really care about.

I think for a large number of people, it has more to do with the viewing size than anything else.

You are seeing the image, either on your tiny cell phone screen or a bit larger computer monitor, only a few inches by a few inches big. It's probably not much bigger than a dollar bill, and maybe it's significantly smaller than that. And your eyes are likely 18" to 24" away from the screen. You are viewing a small image from a distance. It's harder to see the flaws.

Here's the interesting thing: the larger an image is, the further away it will be viewed. We do this naturally without even thinking about it--it's subconscious. If you print something big, people will automatically move further away to see it. They can't take it all in if they are standing close.

In some cases, like at some art galleries and exhibits, people are purposefully placed close to the images to force them to view them closely. They want you to appreciate the fine details. And in your home, you might put a picture on your hallway wall where the viewer can't step back, which forces them to view it closely. Typically, people will only look closely if they have to look closely. Otherwise, the natural instinct is to move back (and the larger the image, the further away people will stand to view it).

If you have a flawed image, like Stars Above Sharps Hallow, which has some serious image quality issues, don't force your viewers to see it close up. Display it in such a way that they'll view it from a distance--that's what they'll subconsciously want to do, anyway.

Of course there are "pixel-peepers" who want to study images up close. They are often more concerned with image quality than the message of the image. I think that most photographers are pixel-peepers (especially to their own images) and most non-photographers are not. If your audience is largely made up of pixel-peepers, they are more likely to notice flaws.

The point here is that you can have poor image quality and still have a good image. Ansel Adams said, "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept." The concept matters more than the image quality. Obviously you want both a sharp concept and a sharp image. But if you can't have both, it's better to have a sharp concept than a sharp image.

People--especially non-photographers--care much less about image quality than you think they do. And very few look as closely at your photographs as you imagine they do. You notice the flaws, they don't. So it's alright if your photographs have flaws, just make sure your concepts don't.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Astrophotography With A Phone - LG G4 & High ISO

Stars Above Sharps Hallow - Morgan, Utah
ISO 1000, f/1.8, 30 Seconds, LG G4.
Astrophotography with a cell phone? Sounds impossible. But is it?

I got a phone adapter for my tripod, and I thought to try it out photographing stars. Utah has some of the best sky for astrophotography because once you get away from the towns and cities, there is almost no light pollution. Astrophotography requires a dark sky in order to really capture the stars.

My new LG G4 has manual controls, including up to 30 seconds exposure, and can save in RAW. I knew that high-ISO is not a strong point for the G4 because of its tiny sensor, but thought to give this a try anyway.

After finding a dark spot, I set the phone on the tripod and got the settings in order: ISO 1000, 30 seconds exposure, and manual focus to infinity. The aperture is permanently set to f/1.8, but that's a good f-stop for this kind of photography. I didn't worry about white balance because that's easily adjusted in post-processing. I also set the self-timer to three seconds just to avoid any camera shake.

Once the shutter was open, I used an LED flashlight to "light paint" the foreground hill. It was dark and would have been almost entirely black if I had not done this.

The results? Mediocre. But better than I would have guessed.

The LG G4 has a practical high-ISO limit of ISO 600, which is quite good considering that the camera has 16 megapixels stuffed onto a tiny 1/2.6" sensor. Going above ISO 600 is going to produce less-than-stellar results. ISO 1000 is the highest you'd ever want to go with this camera, and the digital noise at this ISO is too much for my tastes.

A long exposure, however, adds even more noise because the sensor gets hot. Most digital cameras offer long-exposure noise reduction to compensate, but not the G4. So you have noise on top of noise.

I post-processed the RAW file using Alien Skin Exposure X. It was a tough balancing act between noise reduction and sharpness. I think the largest that this photograph could be printed is 8" x 12" and that may be pushing it. For internet viewing it's alright.

Here are two more images captured with the LG G4 that same night, post-processed using Google's Snapseed:
Night In Weber Canyon - Mountain Green, UtahISO 1000, f/1.8, 30 Seconds, LG G4.
Nighttime In Sharps Hallow - Morgan, UtahISO 1000, f/1.8, 30 Seconds, LG G4.
As you can see, Snapseed didn't do a great job with these images. I've been impressed with Snapseed otherwise, I just don't think it had a lot to work with here. The LG G4 just doesn't produce good files at ISO 1000.

Amazingly, it's possible to do astrophotography with a cell phone, and the LG G4 is one of the best options for this. But it's not really all that practical, as the mediocre results make you wish that you'd used a better camera--one with better high-ISO capabilities. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

News: Hasselblad Introduces The X1D - First Mirrorless Medium-Format Digital Camera

Hasselblad has just announced a new camera: the 50-megapixel mirrorless medium-format X1D. They also announced two lenses to go with it, since the camera has a unique mounting system: a 45mm f/3.5 and a 90mm f/4.5. The camera will cost $9,000 for just the body, or a kit with both lenses will cost $14,000.

The camera is small for medium-format, but it's not small. It's larger than many full-frame cameras.

50-megapixels is a lot of resolution, but not necessarily for medium-format. In fact, you can find that much resolution in a couple of full-frame cameras. Even my old Nokia Lumia 1020 cell phone has almost that much resolution. Resolution is resolution, no matter the sensor size.
The Closed Road - Fish Camp, California
This is what 40-megapixels look like.
What a larger sensor gives you is a larger dynamic range and better high-ISO capabilities. But with advances in digital technologies, this has become less and less true--the advantage is not nearly as big as it used to be even just five years ago.

Besides that, as street photographer Eric Kim said, more megapixels equals more problems. More money. Bulkier gear. More storage. Slower software. And very few people actually need any more than 16-megapixels, so most of the resolution is wasted.

That's not to say that the Hasselblad X1D is a bad camera. In fact, it's probably a really good camera. But at a price tag that's similar to a used car, it's not a good value. But Hasselblad has never been known for it's value.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Move To Utah With A Camera In Hand - Part 3: Arizona To Utah

Northbound On Interstate 17 - Flagstaff, Utah

This update is long overdue. I've been in Utah for a little while now. So let me get right to this.

After saying goodbye to family, we left Phoenix in the morning and found ourselves in Flagstaff for lunch. After that we headed north on U.S. Highway 89. This was the first time that either of us had ever traveled this route.

The pine trees quickly gave way to a more desolate landscape. Vegetation became almost as scarce as the population. This is a vast and lonely place. Yet it is extraordinary beautiful, with interesting features and subtle surprises.
San Francisco Peaks - Flagstaff, Arizona
We didn't make many stops. Most of the photographs in this post were captured while driving--one hand on the wheel and the other on the camera. We were moving, not vacationing.

One stop we did make was at Navajo Bridge at Marble Canyon. This is near Lee's Ferry. This site is worth stopping if you ever find yourself in the area. It's like a small Grand Canyon that you can walk out over.

We arrived at our hotel in Cedar City, Utah, just as the sun dipped below the horizon. This was a long day of driving. I would have loved to have stopped more often for picture-taking, but that would have made this day even longer.

All of these photographs were captured using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS40 as JPEGs. Why? Because I needed an easy travel camera for quick snaps. Because I knew I wouldn't have time to edit RAW files. This camera did just what I needed it to.
Shadow Stripes - Flagstaff, Arizona
Driving North On Highway 89 - Flagstaff, Arizona
Mountains In The Mirror - Flagstaff, Arizona
View On A Lonely Drive - Flagstaff, Arizona
Dry Grass Hill - Flagstaff, Arizona
Northbound On U.S. 89 - Flagstaff, Arizona
Sign & Cows - Gray Mountain, Arizona
Cows & Distant Desert Mountains - Gray Mountain, Arizona
Fence & Distant Desert Mountains - Gray Mountain, Arizona
Love Mountain Life - Gray Mountain, Arizona
Trading Post - Gray Mountain, Arizona
Old Gas Station Ceiling - Gray Mountain, Arizona
Anasazi Inn - Gray Mountain, Arizona
Regular Unleaded Pool - Gray Mountain, Arizona
Thrift Way - Gray Mountain, Arizona
Yellow Mop Bucket - Gray Mountain, Arizona
Highway 89A - Bitter Springs, Arizona
Monochrome Desert Mountains - Bitter Springs, Arizona
Navajo Bridge Over Marble Canyon - Marble Canyon, Arizona
Cliff & Cloud - Marble Canyon, Arizona
Mountains, Cliffs & Canyon - Marble Canyon, Arizona
Colorado River & Red Cliff - Marble Canyon, Arizona
Red Hills - Marble Canyon, Arizona
House Rocks - Marble Canyon, Arizona
Monochrome Hills - Kaibab, Arizona
Cliffs Behind Trees - Colorado City, Arizona
Orange Hill - Hurricane, Utah
Check back soon for the final installment!