The three pillars of photography

3 pillarsI have written several times that technical innovation can be either a way to foster your creativity or could be, most of the time, a useless distraction. I don’t say I am opposed to innovation, that’s more the other way around of course, but I like to believe one should always remember the basic:

1. Subjects’ choice

Whatever the technology and the gear, and even if you know how to post process well images, you need to be creative and to have the artistic skills if you want to create “great” images. That’s not the bottom line, in my humble opinion, but I like to believe it starts here: learn to be creative, be yourself and express yourself.

2. Shooting skills

Some photographers have “the eye”, most have not. You can’t hardly learn that. Some know how to compose and when to shoot.

3. Post process and technology

Yes, never be overwhelmed by them, they are nothing but tools useful for the artist, but it sounds more important than never to know everything about the photography’s technology and how to post process images.

At the end of the day, photographers who excels at the three pillars of photography are usually admired or, at least, can produce amazing pictures. Know where you are, and in which topics you need to improve yourself!

No more reason left for buying an APS-C DSLR?

A few years ago, the main reason to buy and use DSLR where mainly the following:

Better images quality

Optical view finder
Great control of the depth of field (thanks to bigger sensor and faster lenses)
Better controls and ergonomics
Faster AF and many images per second
Access to a full photographic system of lenses, flashes and other accessories

Nowadays, thanks to enhanced sensors, mirrorless cameras, miniaturization, specialized cameras for every kind of photographers, most of these reasons have become less and less true. Of course it still makes sense for some professional photographers, of course I and many amateurs still prefer shooting with a DSLR but as a matter of fact, I like to say the main reason to still go for such a camera is: “I don’t want to compromise”. “I accept to pay a lot, to carry a heavy bunch of gear, to have several bodies and many lenses and accessories, because I will also accept to spend hours on post processes of my images. All I want is the best gear available to let me have the pictures like I want to”.

comparison full frame APS CThis means an  APS-C sized sensor (DX for Nikon) DSLR does not make sense any longer but for those who never tried beforeap one (like a Nikon D3200 which costs less, by far, than a mirrorless whereas able to make really excellent images). Frankly – I own a Nikon D7000, I don’t see the point having nowadays a DX DSLR when you are an “experienced” photographer. Full frame (FX for Nikon) cameras are becoming really affordable and are somewhere, the only consistent option for a DSLR given the present competition of great mirrorless cameras and excellent compact cameras. Back to before 2000, at this time, only such cameras existed!

It does not mean the manufacturers will stop developing lenses for DX, nor will stop releasing new cameras (Nikon refreshed its D7000 recently by the D7100), I just don’t recommend investing into a DX DSLR system. If you have one – like me – you can still use it a secondary system, or because it still works very well but the DX time, basically, sounds to be over to me. Buy FX DSLR cameras if you want no compromise, and middle format should you be able to afford it. Again, if you are on budget, a DX DSLR could be your first DSLR, but it will just be “temporary”. And don’t forget mirrorless, compacts and smartphone as complementary but “mandatory” cameras.

Nowadays, it does not really make sense to own just one camera. And certainly not a DX DSLR!

Further reading:
Why DX has no future
Full frame war
Full frame goes mainstream

Digital photography in 2013: what can come out from the end of a revolution

The digital revolution may have began around 1999 or 2000 with the first real DSLR of Nikon and Canon. Almost 15 years later, evolution will continue, every quarter great cameras, software, or new web services are released, but I am more and more believing it is the end of the digital revolution. And that’s good news for photography because we may be able to focus again at what really matters: the picture, not the technology.

Ubiquity

Cheap point and shoot cameras and smartphones are making everyone a photographer. Modern sensors and skilled engineers allow everyone to take very decent shots, should they have no knowledge of photography. Digital filters and photosharing make the pictures looking even better and available right away for those who matters to everyone. Anonymous can become very famous thanks to Instagram, much more than many legendary photography. So what? That’s fine, just the consequences of the modern digital revolution. It is time to learn living with it.

Technology

We have learned HDR, digital filters, advanced post processing, and much more during the last years. We can now have a small camera with a x40 zoom for less than a fraction of the price of a whole set of lenses we used to need ten years ago. Or a mirrorless, or a tiny compact taking better pictures that DSLR a few years ago. We can store and share on line so easily nowadays. Much more will come, of course, and we will have to adapt. But I am wondering whether most of the breakthrough might not be behind us. And that’s also good news. Revolutions are exciting but they distract us, when they don’t exhaust us. A necessary evil, but still an evil.

Here above an example of how my pictures have evolved in 20 years while mountaineering! Is it better or worst? It does not matter, things have changed, and dramatically to say the least.

No revolution lasts forever

Mirrorless did not change anything to this revolution even if they are great cameras and improved the revenues of major vendors. I like to say they rang the bell: this is the end. We are entering a new era. Despite being a major innovation, it does not change so much the game. And I doubt that Lytro would bring anything significant too by the way.

Same for Google+ and Facebook recent photosharing improvements. Photosharing is becoming a commodity nowadays. It may be good for every one, but it won’t change the game.

The bottom line

We are getting bored with the revolution. We can now focus again at what really matters: taking pictures. We don’t have to spend weeks testing the new stuff, we have to spend weeks focusing at creativity, photography and what we want to show to the others. It’s no more about software and hardware, it’s about life and creativity.

Many photographers have never stopped working this way, fair enough, but I like to believe they were really lost in the turmoil of this revolution. The dust is settling done, so I want to see in 2013 the new raise of great photographers, not those showing HDR on Flickr, their meal on instagram, or selfie on Facebook but those who have something to say.

Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy – Franz Kafka

About the broken feature of photosharing: discovery and explore

Whereas photosharing has become so popular for the last years, it is well known that most of the time, looking for “good photographers” – which means someone who takes pictures YOU like, has become more and more challenging. Arthur Chang has already written an excellent post about this. Curation is indeed a real challenge as the flow of new pictures is getting each month even bigger.

Some may argue they can always find good picture easily. I can’t and more important, I am struggling finding photographers I really like. That’s surprising because I am a very versatile photographer and I can like a lot of different “species” of photographers. But the reason is trivial. There are now too many pictures!

Too much information

I don’t know Arthur, but he seems to have tons of good ideas about curation of your friends’ photos. And obviously, there is some real room for improvements. I have had several times some discussions with Pictarine‘s founder similarly. There service is a great curating tool, but it still does not help with information overload, at least so far. That’s more the other way around, you are not going to miss any picture! And again, I don’t know whether my existing contacts are really so close to connecting me with the photographers I like. In theory, yes, and the only good tool I know, flexplore, is doing a really decent job. Most of the pictures are beautiful. It helps a lot to discover great pictures, but not to connect with photographers I like because a good picture does not mean you will like the work of the photographer! At the end of the day, photosharing is about people, not photography.

Most of the photosharing services are egocentric, which can be fine, fair enough. But it is not enough. When you like photography per se, not only because you need to have some people who are faving your photography just because you faved theirs, you would love browsing for more. You want to be surprised, you need emotions, you want to discover. And like said Thomas Hawk, most of the photographers’ work will stay unknown by those who would like to see it. More over, it is now so easy to engage and communicate, you would love to contact them but you can’t because there are lost in the noise of “too much pictures” and “very limited explore features”.

What a good picture means

OK there is maybe Flexplore again, but it is still very limited. So I don’t know any tool good at showing me some interesting pictures for ME, and I have no doubt someone else will not find interesting the same pictures than I do. And that’s the point. Some services have tried to quantify the aesthetic of a picture. I tried it, and I am not convinced! Other clever tools exist to auto-tag pictures and autocrop them (Which means they could quantify a lot and help you a lot). But no real “discovery & explore” tool aside from Arthur’s criteria:

  • Quantity of views
  • Quantity of actions taken
  • Quality of person who viewed or acted (based on their own accumulated algorithm results)
  • Time (recency)

I am sure this tool would need some personalization because, again, there is no way to find and absolute way to classify photographies. I can’t care less about puppies’ pictures, some would love seeing thousands of them, I respect that. Conversely, I like HDR, B&W and many other kind of pictures, some love or dislike HDR or B&W and so on.

We are still far – well at least as far as I can know – given how poor the existing libraries are able to quantify the aesthetic of a picture and also because auto-tagging is still at its infancy. But for sure there is here a fantastic subject for brave and talented entrepreneurs… In the meantime, I would love seeing Pictarine and Arthur’s project helping me on my urgent need for good pictures!

Digital photography needs a clear back up strategy

Some people can lose all their digital work in a few minutes, that’s still very rare. More frequent, your hard drive can crash, any time, without notice. At the end of the day, our digital assets are just becoming so important we cannot live without a clear back-up strategy. For a photographer, it cannot be more important.

The risks

You can’t have everything just in the clouds, that’s too dangerous. Without being paranoiac, services can shut down, someone can steal your password and delete your files, and maybe more important, it is good to keep control on your assets.

That said, the main risk today is still a hard drive crash. So it is very dangerous not to back-up your work on at least another source.

A robbery could make you loosing all your hard drive, but if you have one in another locations.

The constraints

Back-up is boring, sometimes even painful, but always time consuming, and can cost significantly. It is like going to the dentist. No one likes that, but we have to.

Defining the minimum back-up strategy

My “minimum” back-up strategy is to store my digital assets on:

  1. a desktop (or a laptop) hard drive,
  2. the cloud thanks to Google drive (or dropbox, or skydrive),
  3. another hard drive.

Actually, I am also using a second hard drive, not located in my apartment. I am using it only once per year. It is not so redundant as I don’t have any pass word on my desktop (I don’t need one). So I can see a scenario, unlikely of course, where I could lose everything during a robbery. Thanks to this second hard drive not in the same place, that’s look impossible.

Pricing

For less than 100 € you can buy a 1 To Hard drive disk. That’s a very cheap way to be sure your photography won’t disappear.

Clouds services are not that cheap. Google drive will cost you 100 € per year to store 200 Mo, so that’s way more expensive than buying a hard drive! But very flexible, and you can have access to your images from any device, anywhere on Earth. That said, it is not a very cheap way to back-up your images, but it is not only a back-up service, though. Dropbox is even twice as expensive than Google, and for photography back-up, does not bring something else imho. Box can be expensive if you have just a couple of hundreds of megabytes, but is becoming very competitive for storage above 500 Mo.

The bottom line

Keep it simple. But do it.

It has become very affordable to secure all your digital assets, don’t miss this chance… and be sure your data are resilient to most of the threats.

The missing compacts

I am positively impressed by the quality and the numbers of new products released in 2012, and the compact cameras are becoming even much better. However, I am still missing a few ones:

The wide-angle compact

There are not really any small compact 16-35 mm (Eq. Full-frame), which is very sad because that would be a great zoom for a tiny and fully manual camera. A small sensor – I mean smaller than mirrorless or DSLR, would mean a bigger depth of field which is often even something you may look for such a length. Of course, it should be fast enough to let you both shooting action / low light pictures and play – at least a little bit – with the depth of field. It should be in the range 200 g / Canon S100 size and weight.

Why it is still missing: building a compact wide-angle and retractable zoom is not trivial. And it is not flexible enough for the mainstream. Too bad, this one would rock. I would have it always with me…

The RAW/manual underwater camera

Whereas you will find over half a dozen of outdoors cameras, none can shoot RAW – so far – and their controls are really those of basic point and shoot. If you want those features, you have to buy an expensive high end compact camera, and an underwater case also very expensive, which makes you camera not compact any longer by the way!

Why it is still missing: I see no reason. Just a missed opportunity which should end soon, hopefully.

Hybrid VF for a small compact

Whereas you may find terrific view finders (VF) on mirrorless / big compact cameras (Fuji X100, Fuji X-Pro 1, Sony NEX-7), there are no small compact with VF and the big compacts which have some (Fuji X-10, G-1X) have very basic ones. We need a small compact with a great VF!

Why it is still missing: it is obviously a technical challenge but I mean, what Sony did with the NEX-7 proves it is not infeasible… At this time, it looked impossible to have such a big sensor and a VF into such a small body. The other reason: cameras manufacturers have obviously a stupid problem with VF and try to avoid them as soon as possible. They may add a lot to the total costs whereas many photographers can’t care less about them. But we need this model…

Conclusion

The market looks still very conservative. There is room for niche markets. The manufacturer able to make money on them, would proves its dedication to photography and will make his brand much stronger.

And you, what kind of compact cameras do you miss?

Vices and virtues of extension tubes

Before buying a set of extension tubes, I have done my homework but I did not find so easily the information I was looking for. This article intends to answer the questions unresolved before I decided to buy them despite some grey zones. The main questions were the following:

- What can we expect from them?
– Who are the manufacturers and why chose one rather another?
– Advantages and constraints of extension tubes,
– Comparison with teleconverters,
– Real life feedback.

I have written my tests and conclusions into a pdf document “Extension tubes“, the analysis was too long to be posted as a blog entry. I have indeed read several articles, translated some which where not written in English and made my own tests.

And I came to several interesting conclusions:

Conclusions

Extension tubes don’t really work with wide-angle, that’s too bad, and it means you need a fish-eye when you want both a wide-angle and a very close focus (indeed some fish-eye can really focus as close a few centimetres from the front lens).

Extension tubes are not for beginners. For those on a budget, they are options not more expensive and more versatile (short focal macro lens, used if necessary).

Extension tubes work actually very well with long focal lenses (above 100 mm typically) either with macro lenses to get even closer, or with non macro lenses to shoot action macro, with reproduction ratio around 1:2 and not 1:1, fair enough but at f/2.8 if not f/2.0 when used with fast lenses.

Plastic made extension tubes (most of them) are not rigid, and therefore not really done for real reproduction purposes. However, when handling the camera with one hand and the lens with the other, they are still usable with heavy lens (at least as heavy as 2 kg).

The final word

Extension tubes are great accessories, not so expensive, but not versatile and only useful in specific conditions. I recommend buying a set and trying them to understand how each photographer can use them the best way possible for their photographies.

 

Here above the comparison of a 35 mm DX, the same lens with the whole set of tubes, and a 105 macro with the whole set of tubes. You will find more examples in my pdf document “Extension tubes“.

My 2 cents about the recent best compact cameras

You want a small camera but you know what you are doing and demand the best: great image quality, great controls, total management of ISO/aperture/speed. The cameras makers like you, no doubt we are a kind of cash cow for them. New cameras are released every quarter and you have the choice: Fuji X-10, Canon S100, Canon G1-X, Sony RX100, Samsung EX2F, Panasonic LX-7  and I am sure I may miss one or two more.

The Fuji and the Samsung are quite stable when it comes to the zoom aperture, from f/1.4 to f/2.8. But for the others, it is highly variable. From a f/1.8 or f/2.8 to f/4.9 if not f/5.9. I understand why, but it does not make sense to me: like many enthusiasts or Pro,I am not used shooting with lens over f/4 if not f/2.8 or even f/1.4 and between f/1.4 and f/5.9 there are over 3 EV (three stops), which is really a lot. That’s the price for a bigger sensor. it may be a marketing clue, but for a photographer, it is more than an issue, it is a non sense. The Fuji and the Samsung look to me far more consistent. I prefer to sacrifice a little bit of image quality which is nowadays outstanding by the way with so many sensors, than using aperture I am not used to in terms of EV and depth of field, and which ruins the advantage of a bigger sensor (disclaimer: I have a Canon S100, a great little jewel, but with a stupid zoom at f/5.9 to its maximum).

The Fuji X-10 is actually a compromise to the X-1 Pro: not really pocketable, a great camera not so small and with some true limitations (an OVF better than many, but not sufficient either). The G1-X is too big too. It seems to be a compromise to Canon new mirrorless cameras.

About Controls

Controls are usually OK but not terrific. they are rarely if never 3 dials for the 3 main controls (ISO, aperture, speed) and the body’s controls are hardly customizable, whereas there are no two skilled photographers having the same controls requirements. Cameras makers still think too much “product” whereas they should think “plateform” for any high end camera, compact or DSLR or mirrorless.

Surprisingly, most of the bloggers and journalists insist on the image quality rather than the consistency of the body to a given user’s profile and don’t focus well at how critical the controls can be in a shooting. Either because they are too much geeks, or because that’s their readers which are too much geeks. But I may say they could educate us better!

The Panasonic LX-7 seems to be an exception: a missed oppotunity. They really worked well at improving the controls, but the job look unfinished to me. No flip-out display, a somewhat chunky camera, tiny and not customizable buttons, only 2 dials, and one does not seem to be customizable. Panasonic LX has failed so far to bring outstanding controls on their great bodies, they seem to confirm, sadly, this tradition.

The bottom line

High end compact cameras are great as a second camera for skilled DSLR owners. They cannot compete for lenses’ focal above typically 75-80 mm (FX equivalent), which is the minimum for a portrait focal but should not opened above f/2.8 too. I have owned compacts starting at 28 mm or 24 mm and believe me the 4 mm are a real difference. Such cameras should always start at 24 mm (FX equivalent). Controls are paramount and should include 3 dials customizable + typically at least 2 Fn buttons also customizable. They should be truly pocketable (e.g. like the S100) and it is OK if they can shoot only at say 800 ISO JPG / 1600 RAW, I mean it is not their primary role to excel at very high iso, as long as they are still good within this range. A flip-out display is a must, that’s a clear requirement. There are much more requirements but they are usually fulfilled yet. The Samsung EX2F looks to me to be the best match so far. Let’s see what the tests will say… and whether or not the public will agree with me! If so, the (stupid) race for “the bigger sensor in the smaller body and too bad if the zoom is at f/5.9″ will at last be over.

Updated in October 2012: unfortunately, the ring around the lens is just ergonomic, and not a control ring like in the Canon S100 and the Sony DSC RX100. The handling appears to be not so good too. So I can’t find any winner! Canon S100/110 is really great but suffers from a stupid f/5.9 telezoon. Same issue for the bigger and better Sony DSC RX100. Both don’t have the great flip-out display of the Samsung.

I am certainly not a Samsung fan boy, but again this company understands what a user case means and seems to focus more at that than either Sony who believe still in marketing gadgets, or Nikon and Canon, my preferred brands, who look so obsolete so often or at least not capable to sacrifice their cash cow for a long term vision.

Some thoughts about the future of photostreaming

Photostreams are now just a commodity for any social service, and has improved dramatically for the last months. Facebook and Flickr recent improvements may be two obvious examples. Let’s list first some trends in 2012:

Bigger is better
That’s obvious: the experience improves with the picture size and photostreams are now able to display much bigger pictures.

Adjust to your screen size
Services like Flickr allow you to see a given picture of a stream, by clicking it, at the maximum size possible. Cool.

Endless stream
That’s also obvious, we hate clicking on “next page please”, and, freaking consumers that we are all like to see as many pictures as possible in the shortest time frame available.

Mosaic and no blank space please
Similarly, photostreams are now more and more mosaics without any blank space between pictures. That’s sound obvious nowadays, but that’s something actually recent. However, how and if you must crop pictures to display the stream is something yet not so clear:

Square crop
Square crop has become very popular, but for some, like Flickr, who are still preferring a justified streaming. Unlike some, I am not a fan of square crop, even if I do understand its usefulness, and to be more specific, for mobile device.

Present limitations
I understand my pictures must be cropped, but right now, it is far from being ideal. And browsing my Google Picasa albums with front page badly square cropped is just depressing for a photographer. Intelligent cropping tools are now starting to be available, so hopefully, this will improve soon.

Another problem with streaming is actually the search. We mainly browse mainly by either “time” or “tags”. This experience can be really frustrating, as pictures are now counted by billions, and you don’t want to see most of them for many reasons. Actually, it is becoming a real challenge to find the kind of pictures you are looking for. The trend – more and more pictures taken every year – will make the search experience on pictures more and more frustrating without some dramatic innovations.

That’s why I am sure, or at least I hope, that many new intelligent tools will be soon available. There are many ways to find what you are looking for and that’s how photostreaming may evolve: you can already give an aesthetic number to a picture. That’s very arguable, though. But I prefer from far missing some good pictures because the tool miscalculated their aesthetic value and browsing only “nice” pictures than browsing tons of uninteresting pictures for me. Yes, interestingness is really something photostreams are taking care of in a very basic way so far. Other tools are now providing a context to pictures, trying to avoid not only the tagging tasks, but providing some semantic to a picture to let people browsing it the way we want.

On top of this, there are now many ways to push your content to different channels and one person can post a picture to many streams. So services like Pictarine look to me a great way to display photostreaming by person. This dimensions does matter too. Search & display by people is really something still at its infancy for photostreaming. But let’s go a little bit further, I would love being able to look after a kind of photographer. Right now, finding new photographers that you like is a challenge, as we have all very different tastes. And photography has become so popular, there is no such thing than discovering new skilled photographers lost in armies of photographers you can’t care less about. Anyway, tha’ts something else I would discuss in another post.

Conclusion: how to handle an exponential volume of pictures?
So to make a long story short, the main challenge of photostreaming, in the future, would be to take care of “volume”. I believe that several business will be extremely successful if they will be able to improve the photostreaming experience of users. Welcome to a digital world of billions and billions of pictures… and counting.

I don’t mind the performances, controls suck

New DSLR, new mirrorless, new high end compact, new point and shoot, new smartphone. Every week will start with some good news with photographer. Sensors’ capabilities are now outstanding in low light, in high contrasts for landscapes, and for depth of colours for portraits. Other cameras’ performances are also always improving in terms of Autofocus, how fast the camera will shoot, and much more.

This does not matter so much to me

Cameras’ manufacturers are following the herd, that’s a marketing law. We, users, are supposed to be mostly early adopters and geeks. But we are not that much, we may even be deceit by this character. We are just photographer. Performances are right now really impressive, I will always need better ones, but that’s not the point. Manufacturers have forgotten the basics.

Three dials or nothing

It looks so trivial to me, I just don’t know why I am writing this: photography is first and foremost about f/, speed and ISO. That’s it. Shoot RAW if you don’t want to bother with anything less, and shoot JPG and take care of WB (White balance), DR (Dynamic range) and so on. But photography is mostly about these three parameters. Why can’t we change them so easily? Why these damned menus? (I know the answer…). When you are using programs, Av or Tv (Aperture / Speed priority), you still need the 3rd dial for correcting exposure. When you have shot a few times, let’s say a few dozens of thousands, more or less, sometimes much much less, you know the bias of your exposure, you also still need the ISO choice and the variable parameter. 3 dials or nothing. Period. How many cameras comply with this basics? Not so many.

Much more complex ?

But it is not that simple. There is also the AF mode, the WB, and much more. You will find hardly photographers shooting the same way. However, most of the cameras are still mostly products, not what I am calling photo platform with heavy customization capabilities. That’s a real pain because we are not the same, and we need to customize our control. We need customized display on buttons to remember what they are used for, we need much more “custom modes” (u1, u2 modes or C or whatever the name), we need to get control. Some manufactures are masquerading the past years, like Fuji, in a rather sensible way, what has been done before, which was not that stupid but which is already just obsolete. It was indeed stupid to remove the f/ control from directly the lens. Some are saying it was a way to build cheaper lens, but photography is not a cheap hobby, so that’s a wrong answer. However, I am very rarely impressed by controls efficiency of new cameras.

Few innovations, at the end of the day or too much to forget the basics?

There is obviously some common belief. New high end cameras are a plebiscite, mostly because of old fashioned controls and incredible performances. But it does not matter. I want a bigger view finder, I want my three dials back, I want great lenses, I want my customised controls. Nothing else really matter – at least that would not be missed.

Which camera manufacturer will not listen to the usual suspects, and will focus at what photographers really need? This blog might sound arrogant, fair enough, give me my three dials back (like in the Sony NEX-7 but for DSLR please), give me my great lenses back (not like the NEX-7!). Don’t forget my AF controls, my custom modes, my customized buttons, not just one or two, but all of them somewhere, don’t charge me 40% more for getting a bigger sensor I don’t need or a new lens line which bring nothing but a higher price and I will again accept that I am just an arrogant blogger.