About this Blog

Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Lightbulb Effect - February Drakensberg Workshop

Photography like any art requires practice. A lot of it. Then some more just for fun. Musicians continue practicing even after they have reached a level of game that prompts the public to pronounce them masters of their art. Photography is no different. I’m used to seeing the utter frustration in some student’s faces as they try to get a technique right, see a scene in a certain way. Usually the results are less than perfect. It’s how the photographic student deals with that frustration that matters. Do you give up and sell all your equipment while in a huff…or do you plod on, working again and again at the same technique until it finally clicks.

A case in point is my new attempts at interval time videos. The first results have been abysmal. Worse than. I’ve made rookie errors that people would expect a professional photographer not to make. But I’m not going to give up. If anything, it’s made me more determined to succeed. This is a technique I want to not only learn, but perfect (thankfully I don’t have any clients asking for it just yet). 

It’s with some satisfaction that I could see light bulbs going off for some of the students this weekend in the Drakensberg. I’m fortunate that most of the students on the monthly Drakensberg tour are people that I have already met at the Thanda workshop at the beginning of the month (the Berg workshop is a side operation that I am sub-contracted to teach by African Impact – the same group that organize and run the Thanda Photography workshop). This means that I have the luxury of being able to refine techniques with the students with a two week interval between workshops. Questions fly and mistakes are rife in the first workshop. By the end of the Berg trip though, there are less simple questions, or the questions that arise are more complicated and more considered. This is a success for me. It means that the photographers are thinking about what they are doing when they depress the shutter. It’s amazing how few photographers are capable of doing just that…thinking before they release the shutter. The result was a set of image that we looked at last night of which a number were quite simply, breathtaking.

Practice makes perfect. The joy of photography is that you never stop practicing. A photographer who becomes complacent in their art, is also a photographer who stops learning and starts stagnating. A student who doesn’t realize this should consider another hobby or profession. I will never know enough, I always want to learn more.

A little bit of housework as well (need to get my mind back into gear after a brilliant weekend in the mountains. There was perfect weather for once - although I am currently writing this sitting at Witsieshoek in the middle of a cloud). There is one more space available for this coming weekend’s workshop on flower photography. Please contact me asap if you would like to take part. New workshop will also be posted within the next two weeks, so keep an eye on the website workshop page and in the Photo Writing for updates.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Megapixel Madness - Thoughts on the D800

A number of students have asked me my opinion of the long rumored and finally announced (two weeks ago) Nikon D800. So here are some of thoughts, keystroke to screen so to speak.

First off, let me get this off my chest. I think I love the camera, on paper at any rate, as precious few people have actually seen it in the metal. Will I rush off and pre-order the new megapixel champion. No! The D800 is a fabulous upgrade to the D700 and makes a mockery of the resolving power of the D3x. Better yet, it probably has the same low-light abilities of the D7000 (which are pretty darn good - not D3s quality, but good and way above average nonetheless). This is still better than the D3x which has appalling low light capabilities. It even has a faster frame rate than the D3x, better metering and faster autofocus (not to mention a pop-up-flash). All this for substantially less than half the price of Nikon's aging flagship (maybe that moniker should pass on to the D4, but the D3x is currently still being sold and has not been discontinued). So why not rush out and buy it as soon as it hits the shelves. For a start, and to be honest, I simply don't have the money that some internet writers seem to have to be able to afford every new toy. More importantly though, I don't need it. If the average photographer who is yearning for this camera admits it to themselves, they don't need it either.

This is not to say that people shouldn't go and buy the D800 (more sales means more R and D, which means more and better cameras for lower prices down the line). But evaluate the reasoning first. The D700 is still an amazing camera. The D3x is still phenomenal. The equipment we had last year is so good that the camera is no longer the weakest link in the image capture process (neither is it the lens, the software, or the tripod...so what does that leave us with?)

Let's think about all those megapixels. Having more is not necessarily a bad thing, but why do we need them. If it's to have more room to crop, then we either have the wrong lens or are being lazy in the image capture process (it was Robert Capa who said, "if it's not good enough - you are not close enough"....being able to crop doesn't change that).  If you are going to dish out for all those megapixels be prepared to buy more cards and a new computer. When I moved from the D700 to the D3x my entire workflow had to be reevaluated due to the size of the files and sluggishness of my computer. I've only just caught up and I've had the D3x since 2010.

Will I lust after the D800. Most certainly. Will I own one? More than likely, but only after my current equipment gives up the ghost by hurtling down a mountain, drowning in a river, or simply dying from overuse. I know pros who are still shooing on D2x's and Canon EOS 1Ds (the original 11mp ones). their work still looks great. A number of professional landscape photographers are still using the original Canon 5D (and we are now waiting for the mkIII to emerge). New kit is not going to make a better photographer out of anybody. Leran to use your current kit to it's optimum, and if it still hold you back, then and only then buy a newer body. As it is, my suspicion if anybody was being held back by the D3x they would have bought a medium format digital.

But, what the D800 does offer is D3x quality for a lower price. If I didn't own a D3x I would no doubt be checking my bank statements very carefully and working out whether I could afford a D800. Having owned the D3x (which I adore) and with the wonderful gift of hindsight that it has afforded, I wouldn't be as excited about the prospect of more megapixels. But that's because I have owned the D3x. If I hadn't I would still believe that I needed more resolving power (don't get me wrong, I really appreciate the extra resolution of the D3x to the D700, I just know now that I didn't actually 'NEED' it).

If you have US$3000 knocking about and you already own a beautiful set of the very best lenses and can afford to travel on top of the cost of the camera, then definitely, pre-order one and smile. You will be happy with this new camera. You'll love it. I'm sure that I will be recommending it to every well-heeled photographer I come across (after I have actually seen it and played with it that is). But $3000 goes a long way to improving your kit in other ways. Lenses, that tripod that you know you really should be thinking about getting, a better flash system, or how about actually going somewhere to use that lovely gear that you own.

In a nutshell, Nikon have brought out a superb set of cameras in the last few months (the D4 is by accounts astounding and the new 1 system is proving to be just what the financial doctor ordered for Nikon), and there apparently more to come. The D800 is going to be stellar camera. I look forward to owning one someday, but it won't be next month.

Update - 1st July 2013

A year and a half after originally writing this article, I have now become the owner of a D800. To put it in a nutshell, I am extraordinarily impressed with the camera. The resolution is phenomenal, although it has taken me a little longer to get used to the very different colour rendition to that of my D3x. User Interface is also a little different with the movie record button in the most idiotic position possible (exactly the same spot as hte previous generation Mode button).

However, as amazing as the camera is, I still hold with what I wrote originally. Unless, you really need it, the difference in the majority of images one creates is going to be hard to notice. I'm fairly sure that if I were to present an A3 image created by my D3x and one created by the D800, only the most critical of viewers would discern any difference (and no, this wouldn't be from shoddy technique, it would be from knowing the D3x intimately). Larger than A3 and the D800 will probably hold its own...I think. It's something I'll no doubt be testing soon.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thanda Workshop - Dealing With Frustration

It's not ideal to start a post about a workshop with the title, "Dealing with frustration", but that's just what the students and I found ourselves having to contend with this month. That's not to say that nothing went right...but a lot of the time plans that were made fell apart due to weather, itinerant animals and so forth.

Weather...readers of this site know by now that I have an obsession with the meteorological conundrums that present themselves to photographers. Our landscape shoot at thanda requires a half hour to 40 minute drive to reach a point on "King's Land" that has this amazing 360 degree frield of view of the surrounding reserve and community lands (not to mention an unrivaled, if difficult to photograph, view of the Lebombo Mountains to the east). Sure 40 minutes is nothing. As it is I've had frustrating trips that are a good 2 hours or more to find myself unable to take photographs (okay thap's a poor excuse - you can ALWAYS capture photographs). It's a little different on a workshop though when you are trying to get images with which to teach with (still a poor excuse, but hey, I am human after-all).

So the landscape shoot was a bit of a downer. No problem, we'll wake up extra early and try a different location for sunrise. Except the following day arrives and said location is plug in the middle of a cloud...as is just about every other half-decent landscape point on the reserve. Great, we'll do some really moody portraits of wildlife in the mist...except where the heck as every single animal on the reserve disappeared to (we passed a well hidden Nyala male after about an hour and a half of driving, causing our guide to cynically joke that we do have game on the reserve after-all).

Frustration tends to happen a lot when you are out shooting. On commercial shoots it can be a real killer. I find it difficult to contain my despondency from a client when this happens (this is not a good thing). The problem is I know that the image could have been better. I have to remind myself that the client doesn't know that. I let this slip accidentally in front of a good client the other day. thankfully he commented to me later in on the multi-day shoot that he enjoyed working with me because of my high level of perfectionism (my wife would say pedantic). The point is that if I'd let this slip to another client it could have meant the last time I work with them...regardless of what the images came out like.

So dealing with frustration is a big part of working as a photographer. the light is not always right. The models might not be behaving quite the way they should. The weather is misbehaving as per usual. Maybe the moment has already happened and we are simple too late to capture it. Grin and bear it and learn to work with lemons. My frustration on the commercial shoot, despite my foolishly commenting on it, still bore some decent images for the job. Our mutual frustration on the workshop meant that we got more time to hang out together - which is never a bad thing. So my resolve from the experience is basically to keep my trap shut and keep shooting. There's always something to shoot. Always some way to win the client over...and if life doesn't give you a leopard...then create a damn good portrait of an impala.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Emerging Trends

 The move to video

Two of the more exciting introductions in the last 3 months are the late 2011 announcement of the Canon 1Dx (to ship in March 2012) and the January announcement of the Nikon D4 (to ship in February 2012). Although both cameras have brought further refinement to stills shooting, it is in the attention to video capability that that the manufacturers have concentrated and possibly even excelled. Although Nikon was the first to introduce video to a DSLR (with the Nikon D90) Canon carved the way into professional cinematography and filming with the Canon 5Dmkii (now an established favourite among indie movie makers who want the flexibility of a system camera, the shallow depth of field of 35mm film but without the cost of an Arri or Red Scarlet). Canon are betting squarely on continued revenue from the film industry with the introduction of the C-300 and attendant EOS lenses that are designed purely for film (moving pictures, as opposed to silver halide).

Nikon were late off the bat, but the now realized D4 is, biases aside, the more compelling camera when pitched against the Canon 1Dx (at least on paper as neither camera is commercially available as yet, although a number of professionals, including Joe McNally, involved in the creation of the D4 brochure have spoken openly about the camera). Neither camera is designed purely for the still’s shooter, although no still’s shooter would be disappointed with either beast. In reality, if you are shooting with a Canon 1D mkiv, 1Ds mkiii, 5D or Nikon D3s, D3x or even D700, these new cameras are not going to improve your photography or make creating images significantly easier. The 15% resolution jump in the D4 (from the 12mp D3) is nice, but not massively significant. As it is the Canon 1Dx represents a pixel reduction from the 5D or 1Ds. No, neither of these cameras has landscape or even fashion as it’s intended audience. Both are supposedly low-light monsters and most significantly, video cameras capable of producing cine quality at a fraction of the cost of the traditional digital cine solutions (Red Scarlet for instance).

What is interesting in all this is the traditional camera design that is still adhered to. Canon’s C-300 boldly steps away from this, but the D4 sticks to the control layout of a current modern DSLR. Oddly, Nikon even highlighted the inefficiencies’ of the design by showing various D4 cine rigs at PMA – all with after market, subsidiary designed cages and accessories for making video capture possible with a DSLR. To be fair, the camera should merely be considered the body of a system in much the same way that the Red Scarlet would be bolted into a cage with large electronic viewfinder, pull-focus wheels etc. etc.

At any rate. Video is here to stay, and has become a dominant part of the digital market with the big two camera manufactures squarely placing their flags in this camp. Still’s photographers haven’t lost out. They had it close to nirvana in the first place. But videographers are definitely the one’s smiling right now.

The Mirror-less Flood

Of all the announcements over PMA and prior, the one that got my heart thumping was Fujifilm’s XPro-1 mirrorless camera. Mirrorless, as originally introduced by Panasonic and Olympus is essentially the attempt to cram DSLR quality into smaller, almost compact camera sized cameras. Some of the manufacturers have almost gotten this right. Consider the diminutive Nikon V1 and J1 cameras. The lack of a viewfinder is almost ubiquitous among the growing number of mirrorless cameras. All except the largely welcomed Sony NEX-7 (only now becoming available after being announced mid-way through 2011), the Nikon V1 and now the Fuji XPro-1.

Mirrorless is an odd category in that the camera manufacturers don’t seem to know where to aim it. Nikon aimed their entrant toward the compact owner wanting something more than a compact can offer, but without the complexity of a DSLR. They did this for good reason when one considers the entrance of the now capable camera-phones. Panasonic and Olympus have aimed all over the place, never really getting it spot on. Sony have betted high and low as well, but getting it a touch closer to ‘right on the money’ when targeting their NEX-7 to enthusiast and professional photographers. An enthusiast wants direct camera control, a viewfinder and to some extent customization options on the camera. The NEX-7 delivers in spades and has a 24.5mp sensor to boot. Personally I think Sony have overstretched on the resolution as the optics are unlikely to deliver to the absolute requirements of the sensor (IMHO). I think Nikon and Canon got it right with the Full Frame 16 and 18mp respectively for the cameras mentioned above.

But mirrorless isn’t necessarily selling more cameras. These cameras are being bought, but at the expense of DSLR sales, and to a small extent advanced compact cameras. I think we’re at the crest of a wave with mirrorless. It’s a nice package, but it will become a niche camera type in the next few years. It’s not going to go away by any means, but will be less volatile to the camera industry as a whole than has been the case over the last two years.

Still, the XPro-1 made my mouth water. This is the poor-man’s Leica! All metal construction, an optical viewfinder – with on demand electronic viewfinder capabilities – razor sharp prime lenses, a soon to be released Leica M adapter, control-layout ala traditional rangefinder, and a new non-bayer pattern 16mp CMOS sensor that promises a resolution equivalent to a 5Dmkii (thanks to the 6x6 colour array that does away with the need for an anti-alias filter). Fuji are going to be without stock in a matter of days after it becomes available. They have betted on the niche market and unique properties that mirrorless affords. They bet right I suspect.

· Cell Phones and Connectivity.

In the last two years running the most used DSLR for images uploaded to Flickr was the Nikon D90 SLR camera (just overtaken in the last month by the Canon EOS 5Dmkii). The most used imaging device, and it outstripped the D90 by a significant margin, was the Apple iPhone 4. This is more than a trend, this is the future. The average picture-taking individual is not an enthusiast photographer. She or he is an individual who wants to take snap-shots and share them with friends and family instantly via the internet, or cloud as it’s starting to be referred to as. The new iPhone 4s has an 8mp camera and over 5000 individual photography related applications that enable the phone to be more successful as a camera than most consumer compact cameras, with the added advantage of instant connectivity to send an image anywhere in the world, so long as there is reception.

A number of writers have commented on the enthusiast’s desire for an iPhone type camera that has interchangeable lenses. Imagine an iPhone with a docking station that accepts F or EOS mount lenses for instance (there are already artists’ concepts and impressions on the net). The phone, which nowadays is really more like a small computer, becomes the brain of the camera, while the lens and an imaging sensor ‘sees’ the light. The phone is responsible for electronic shutter, exposure metering, picture style and so forth. Because of the open platform nature of the iPhone, it wouldn’t be long before apps existed that allow everything from advanced video capture through to interval timer shooting, creative exposure control and whatever else some programmer can imagine. As it is my wife’s Blackberry with its 5mp image shoots images that are comparable to those shot with an older generation Canon EOS 350D (okay, limited depth of field obviously suffers, but blown up to A5, even A4, the BB holds its own, certainly enough so that the average consumer would prefer to carry the phone rather than the camera).

In this vein Polaroid’s announcement of the SC1630 (why on earth do they insist on a nomenclature that no one will remember!?!?), the world’s first Android HD Smart Camera is a harbinger of things to come. It doesn’t look good, certainly not the design gestalt of Apple, but it introduces a smart phone’s operating system to a camera. Sadly for Polaroid they may be the first, but they will not be the most significant player. If Apple decides to enter the fray, the traditional camera manufacturers will have to scramble fast because it will be the death knell for the compact camera. This is why Nikon did well with their V1 camera. It offers more than the combination of camera and phone can in terms of imaging ability, at least for the time being.

It seems we are about to enter the period of photography 2.0. It’s interesting that despite the imminent move to a connected photography, designs that garner the most attention are the ones that hark back to the days of film and of all-mechanical cameras (as Thom Hogen puts it, there was nothing wrong with the camera design in the first place). If you own a camera of the last two generations and you are wanting to do stills rather than film, then don’t get worried about another mortgage to afford the latest D4 or 1Dx. You don’t need it. If you’re a videographer though I’d sit up and start counting pennies.

A last announcement that makes some small ripples if not gentle waves is the Canon G1x (‘x’ is the current black), a ‘near APS sized sensor’ (in reality closer to 4/3rds) in the now familiar Canon G-line body. With the cresting trend towards mirrorless this is a poor attempt at separating compacts from the cell-phone camera tsunami. There is little point in buying this camera when there are better mirrorless options available. If you want a compact camera, buy an iPhone 4s or a Blackberry Torch as they are better at more things than a simple compact and you’ll have your camera on you at all times (and be able to listen to Nickelback’s ‘The Photograph’ at the same time :-)).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Visiting Trend Town

Cape Town is one of those funny places that I can never decide whether I love or not. It's beautiful, don't for a second think that I don't realise that. Therein lies part of the problem. It's stunningly beautiful. Even the people are beautiful! I've just gotten back from a shoot where I was to photograph a couple of hotels and the interiors of some of their bathrooms (the Westin and the One and Only in particular). I loved it. Great trip. But it got me thinking about the Mother City once more. Each time I go there I get mixed feelings about the place. This time around it was all positive. The weather worked, the light was great and we managed to get off with a good set of images. But I have also been there when the weather is awful, the populace as welcoming as the French to their British guests, the traffic terrible and the beautiful mountain non-existent (not so much having a 'table-cloth' of cloud as being enveloped in it entirely).

It's what you make of a place as to whether you enjoy it there or not. just watch out for those cities that have a bi-polar disorder. Cape Town is one of them. One second you love it, the next it's hell on earth (albeit a soggy, cold, windy one). This time round Cape Town smiled on us and the weather was wonderful. 

I'll be writing shortly about the making of the first image. It's an example of why it is important to be patient. I wasn't, and the result was an unnecessary amount of time in Photoshop when another 5 minutes wait would have meant a shot that was ready to go almost immediately (to add a spoiler...I got impatient waiting for the streetlights to light up and left).