Saturday, June 9, 2012

When the desert is in the doldrums, shoot macro

Though I absolutely love summer, even in the desert, I find June to be the most uninspiring month for landscape photography here in Tucson.  Quickly after sunrise the sun gets bright and hot, and stays that way until sunset.  It's before our summer monsoons so there is typically not a cloud in the sky.  It's just not inspiring.  So what can a photographer do?  Shoot macro!

I feel like one can shoot macro anywhere, anytime.  Even in the heat of summer there is life about, interesting elements to inspect at close range.  For me, this is an often-overlooked genre of photography, and I am telling myself now that in order to keep shooting when in the doldrums, mount that macro lens on the camera, and the flash too, if need be (to counter that bright light).  Both my macro lens and my 430EX flash have been among the least-used tools in my kit.  There's no excuse for that.

Backlit sago palm leaves, up close
So this morning I saw that bright morning light streaming through our east-facing patio door, illuminating our sago palm, and I delayed breakfast, mounted the 100mm macro lens (with Nikon 5T closeup lens already on) onto my 20D, and mounted the camera onto a tripod, sat on the floor, and looked through the lens at the amazing glowing green textures of the back-lit palm leaves.  There is magic to be found, even in the doldrums of a desert summer.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Some LX5 explorations on the billiards table

One of the great things about the LX5 optics is the f/2.0 lens.  I am curious how much background blur I could get with the aperture wide open, given that the LX5 has a small sensor compared to a dSLR.  I know I'll continue to explore that feature, but I did an initial look on our billiards table.  In the widest angle setting, I positioned the camera very close to the number 4 ball and selectively auto-focused on that.  Below is a side-by-side comparison of f/2.0 vs. f/4.0.  The background is certainly blurrier in the f/2.0 shot, but also interesting to compare is how the number 15 ball is blurry in the f/2.0 shot, but much sharper in the f/4.0 shot.  I should have taken an f/8.0 shot, but since reading that these compact cameras suffer from diffraction blur beyond about f/4.5 I thought I'd "focus" my efforts at about f/4.0.

And just a quick comparison of the zoom range effect on viewing angle.  Note that the zoom range of the LX5 is 24 to 90 mm (35mm camera equivalent).  Obviously I was closer to the ball at the widest angle, but this image is actually also a visual comparison of the closest focusing distance between the two zoom ranges.    I set the camera down onto the table at a distance where it would not focus (giving me red warning indicators), and kept sliding the camera further away until the camera could successfully focus.  I had the macro focus switch on (on the left side of the lens) and used autofocus to selectively focus on the number "12".  Note that when focusing at the closest range possible, the background balls end up blurred at f/4.0:

In macro mode (switch on left side of lens) the closest focusing distance at wide angle is extremely close (1 cm), but when zoomed in at the longest focal length it is much larger (30 cm is the spec I saw).  One way to reduce the minimum focusing distance at longer focal length is to use a close-up lens.  I just happened to have one, a cheap Rolev +2 diopter I bought back in the early 1980's for my Olympus OM-2 camera.  It just happened to have 52mm threads that screw right on to my LX5 adapter tube.  So below is a visual comparison of the minimum focusing distance at full zoom, with and without the close-up lens:

I was concerned that the Rolev diopter, given that it is an inexpensive single-element close-up lens, would cause a degradation in image quality, but in this case I do not see an adverse effect.  I think it's worth continued explorations...

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Why I Replaced My Dear Canon G9

Scratched front element on my G9

My Canon G9 was dear to me because in my experience I found that more and more I desired, no needed really, to be a "lightweight photographer".  And the G9 made great images for me for over 4 years.  Now, not so much.  Now there are some awfully deep scratches on the front element that, in some lighting scenarios, just destroys the image quality.  When pointing into a back-lit scene, I would get resultant light spots caused by the sun's light refracting on the scratches.  For a few months I told myself that I could live with that.  But after taking the G9 as my sole camera on a backpacking trip earlier this year into the Grand Canyon and finding that the scratches also degraded the image even in overcast light, I decided I needed to do something about it.

Light spots caused by lens scratches
Light spot on black shorts, even in overcast light

My choices were to 1) buy a lens kit and ask Mark (who's handy with electronics and small parts) to replace it (cost about $50), 2) send the camera to Canon to have them replace the lens kit (cost at least $150), or 3) to look into a replacement compact camera (cost about $370).  I agonized over this decision for awhile because I am naturally a frugal person and I like to use equipment until they die and cannot be resurrected (my only dSLR is the Canon 20D, purchased in 2005 and still going strong!).  I considered option 1 until I simply could not find instructions on the Internet on how to replace the lens element yourself.  I thought there was of course risk inherent in that solution.  Option 2 was tempting, but the cost of repair was starting to approach half the cost of a new camera (thankfully, the wonders of technology are currently acting as a hedge against inflation).  So I started looking at Option 3.

I usually try to be ignorant of the latest and greatest in camera technology because I don't want to find myself tempted by what I "need" to have.  But I started looking at what is out there now, and I found myself zeroing in on the Canon S100.  I was attracted to the compact size, smaller than my G9, and the wide angle capability of 24mm equivalent (compared to G9's 35mm equivalent widest angle).  I have often wished for a wider viewing angle on my G9 so 24mm would be great!  So I wrote up a list of G9 features vs. S100 so I could lay out for myself the additional capability I would get with a new camera (aside from images not marred from lens scratches, of course).  When I started reading reviews, however, some of the blush of the S100 started to diminish as I read about poor battery life.  When I am in the back-country I don't want to be plagued with that.

Then I wondered what Darwin Wiggett (who turned me on to the Canon G9) was using as a compact camera these days.  He did upgrade to a G11 then I gather has since adopted a more minimalist stance and has gotten rid of any extraneous camera gear, including his G11.  But his wife, Samantha, who is also a photographer, found herself choosing a Panasonic DMC-LX5 as her compact run-around camera (I guess they actually share the LX5).  Hmm...I remember when I was looking into a compact camera back in 2008 I was considering I think it was the LX2 at the time.  But what's this LX5 about?

Well, upon further study into the LX5 I decided it was the camera for me.  Though a tiny bit bigger than the S100 (though still lighter and about the same size as the G9), it has some advantages over the S100:  longer battery life, wider aperture at maximum zoom (f/3.3), greater range of exposure compensation (+3ev), and still has the wonderfully appealing 24mm equivalent at it's widest angle.  Oh, and it has a nice solid lens cap to protect that big beautiful Leica lens!

My new baby
So now I'm a proud owner of an LX5, and I intend to use it quite extensively.  And hopefully take better care of it than I did my Canon G9!

P.S.  If you care to see more photos from that Grand Canyon backpack, I wrote a trip report here.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Time to Update My Post-Processing Toolbox

My eyes have recently been opened to the potential powers of modern-day image post-processing tools and methods.  Since 2005 when I received Photoshop Elements 2.0 (included with my Canon 20D purchase) I've pretty much stuck with my usual post-processing workflow and have not really evolved with the times.  With my archaic methods, my ability to deal with images taken in difficult lighting (such as when the foreground is shaded or dark compared to a very bright background) was very limited.  My version of Elements was too old to even be able to use Adobe Camera Raw (ACR).

So I've been reading up and what people are using today, and I downloaded a trial of the latest Photoshop Elements 10 and have been playing with that, and learning about the included ACR.  I have also been reading online about HDR, and downloaded a free trial of Photomatix.

Three Post-Processing Options
The three images above are the results of my explorations into this new software on a RAW image that was taken in difficult lighting.  My husband and I were sitting in the shade, having a beer, on a bright sunny late-afternoon in Tucson.  The foreground was very dark, yet the background elements and sky were very bright.

The left-most image is a result of adjustments using ACR and PSE 10.  In ACR I was able to lighten the foreground considerably using the "Fill Light" slider.  I also tweaked the "Vibrance" slider to the right to deepen the blues and yellows in the image.

I then thought I'd generate 3 TIFF files, adjusting the exposure of each in ACR (-2ev, 0ev, and +2ev), and blending them together.  This is known as "pseudo-HDR", because the source file of the HDR processing is a single RAW image.  In the above comparison, the middle image is a result of Photoshop Elements "Photomerge Exposure Merge" capability (new since PSE 8), and the right-most image is a result from my trial of Photomatix Pro.  In Photomatix, I started with the default setting of the Details Enhancer, then tweaked the sliders and knobs until I was satisfied.  There are so many sliders and buttons with this tool, it seems like it would take quite a bit of experimentation to get satisfactory results.  The results can get pretty wild with Photomatix.

So in looking at the comparison, all are much better than I could have gotten with Photoshop Elements 2, but I can't help but appreciate how much the beer bottle "glows" in the Photomatix version.  I've experimented with other images in my Photomatix trial, including bracketed exposures, and this glowing effect seems characteristic of the software.  It's pretty neat, if not realistic.  In a sense, since I am predominantly a nature photographer, I have in general been preferring the greater realism I can achieve with ACR and PSE10, whether I make the fill light/recover adjustments in ACR, or I merge multiple exposures using Photomerge.  

But I have to admit, for man-made objects, the results from Photomatix are pretty cool.