Lightroom Publishing Plugins

Lightroom is a tremendously powerful piece of software, but there’s no way for Adobe to satisfy all the needs of every customer. That’s where plugins come in. There are tons of plugins for giving your photos a certain look, but there are also plugins for publishing your photos. Here’s the difference between publishing and exporting, as far as I understand it:

  • Exporting saves the input picture (usually RAW format) as a JPEG after applying whatever development settings you have selected. That JPEG can be included in your collection, but it’s basically a separate file at this point. Yes, you can “stack” it with the RAW file, but that functionality is out of the scope of this post.
  • Publishing creates a JPEG as well, but Lightroom keeps track of changes to your published images and can sync changes between the published images and the RAW images in your collection.

For example, if you export 0001.raw as 0001.jpg, then upload 0001.jpg to Flickr and then delete 0001.raw, 0001.jpg will remain on Flickr. However, if you publish 0001.raw to Flickr and then delete 0001.raw, then 0001.jpg will be removed from Flickr. Other development settings can be synced with publish as well.

Your workflow may not benefit from this functionality, but I like working this way, specifically while publishing to my hard drive. This gives me the option of having a mirrored set of smaller web-friendly JPEG’s (3200px at 60% quality) that stays in sync with my collection. I can then sync that directory with my cloud service of choice without paying out the nose to host the RAW files. This mirrored set stays synced even if I go back and delete or edit a photo from 2008.

Lightroom’s publish functionality doesn’t mirror your folder structure by default, so I use the Folder Publisher plugin from Jeffrey Friedl. He offers several other “goodies” for Lightroom including several other publishing plugins. Check them out and see if you can’t make your life a little easier.

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Pentax DA 15mm f/4 Limited

The Pentax 15mm Limited is the reason I bought into the Pentax system. The news surrounding its introduction was my first exposure to the DA Limiteds and I was immediately smitten. The Sony / Minolta gear I was using at the time was fantastic optically, but build quality in the affordable lenses was lacking. At the same time, I was getting into film photography using manual focus lenses forged from a single piece of granite. Why couldn’t I have that kind of build quality and “feel” in a modern lens? Turns out I could.

Deer Nose

Pentax truly read my mind when they designed the 15mm. All of the DA Limiteds have a 49mm filter diameter, which places a size constraint on the lens designer. How to keep a 15mm lens this small? Smallish maximum aperture of f/4, screw-drive autofocus and image stabilization in the body of the camera instead of the lens. Those are all acceptable tradeoffs to anyone who’s had the pleasure of using the 15mm. The screw-on lens cap is cool, but you’d have to be crazy not to replace it with a $5 pinch style cap. The lens hood is built-in and collapsible and made of metal and so much fun to fiddle with. Image quality-wise, Pentax seemingly prioritized rendering quality above edge-to-edge sharpness. While nowhere near as soft as the Pentax 50-200, it pays to be careful about what you place at the edges of your frame when shooting at f/4. A bit of corner softness can be seen in this photo, but it’s usually nothing to worry about. Depends on the subject.

Mount Rainier

How silly of me, I’ve gone this long writing about the Pentax 15mm Limited without mentioning how good it is at shooting into the sun. Example, from Farmington, NM:

Farmington, NM

And another example from Cannon Beach, OR:

Cannon Beach, OR

This is the first lens I’d show someone who thinks sharpness or bokeh are the only lens qualities worth paying attention to. All of the Limiteds are accused of having pixie dust in them, but I think the 15mm is the best example of a lens with a “prettiness” to the way it renders that is hard to describe quantitatively.

Neglected Truck

The DA 15mm Limited is Pentax at their best. It’s not perfect, but that only makes it more appealing.

SMC Pentax DA 1:4-5.6 50-200mm ED WR

I’m not a fan of telephoto zooms in general. The good ones are big, heavy, and expensive. The cheap, small, light ones just aren’t very good. In my opinion, Pentax excels when it goes after high optical quality, high build quality, and small size at the cost of weight and sale price. That’s the formula for the Limiteds and the reason I bought a Pentax in the first place.

Big Moon

Even though I rarely enjoy using telephoto zooms, I miss not having one. I live in constant fear that I’ll see a gazelle 100 meters away and I’ll be unable to fill the frame with its face. I had the Tamron 70-300 for A-mount, and I had a lot of fun with it. Probably the best lens of the type for the money. Tamron sells the same lens for K-mount, but I wanted something smaller and weather proofier.

Puget Sound Orcas

I didn’t feel a need for a K-mount telephoto zoom for a while because I got a manual focus Pentax M 135mm f/3.5 essentially for free. That lens doesn’t have the best reputation among Pentaxians, but I found it to be a gem. Small, fast enough, and pretty good optically. Manual focusing on a DSLR is not my favorite, but I managed some nice shots with the lens and got used to its quality for my telephoto shots. Instead of honing my skills with a quality lens, I decided I had to have a lens with autofocus and weather proofing.

Tongue Out

Enter the SMC Pentax blah blah 50-200 blah blah WR. It’s small, light, inexpensive, zoomy, autofocussy and weather proof. It’s also built well for a modern lens. I like everything about it except for the image quality. The image quality isn’t bad at all, but it’s nothing special. Furthermore, with all the convenience features like zoominess and autofocosity, I get lazy and take boring photos. Other photographers most certainly make fantastic photos with this lens, but I struggle with it.

Mount Rainier from Kent Washington

Maybe that says more about me than about the lens.

Battle of the Legends: Pentax FA 77mm Limited vs Olympus 75mm

Let’s get this out of the way first: I know these lenses were designed for different mounts, different formats and even different recording media. Still, it’s not apples to apples; it’s more like apples to pears or peaches to nectarines. The Pentax and Olympus 75-ish mm lenses are the same price, the same-ish focal length, the same maximum aperture, roughly the same size, similar build quality, and oh yeah, they both take pictures when you stick them on a camera and point them at stuff.

The Pentax FA 77mm Limited is one of the best AF lenses ever made and it has a devoted following of Pentaxians who wait year after year for Pentax to release a “full-frame” DSLR to put it on. Some Pentax fans even adapt full-frame Canon DSLR’s just to use this lens. I can’t say I understand the thinking there since Canon sells a silent-focusing 85mm f/1.8 for about half of what Pentax charges for its 77. Perhaps it’s the pixie dust. The Pentax FA Limiteds are built like no other AF lenses. They are compact, metal, and heavy. Even without taking a picture you can tell they are special. That specialness doesn’t stop once you start taking photos. The 77 is sharp from wide open and has beautiful rendering. Stop down a little and you’d be hard-pressed to find a technical flaw. I suppose I should mention that the focusing is slowish and loud, but I don’t care. Try this lens for a day and I guarantee you won’t care either.

I’m renting the Olympus 75mm, so I don’t have very much personal experience with it. It’s very new, but already has an excellent reputation. For micro 4/3, there is no AF competition for this lens. The build quality is better than any other micro 4/3 lens I’ve ever used (I’m guessing that the Voigtländers are built better). However, it’s not as well-built as the Pentax. I’m sure they are both perfectly reliable, but in terms of “feel” it’s not even close. The Pentax wins. Also, how about that size difference? I said they were close, but the Olympus is significantly bigger than the Pentax. One of the huge advantages of micro 4/3 is that the lenses are so much smaller than their APS-C or 35mm equivalents. How is it that the Pentax, which was designed for a 4x larger sensor is so much more compact than the Olympus? Ok, it’s not that much of a mystery: the Olympus has a more complicated modern design and internal, silent focusing.

I haven’t yet had time to take any “real” photos with the Olympus, but I found this comparison too interesting to pass up. I compared the Olympus 75mm on an OM-D and the Pentax 77mm on a K-7. That’s 16MP vs 14MP and 150mm vs 115mm equivalent FOV. I used contrast-detect autofocus for both cameras and took all pictures hand-held because that’s how I take most of my photos in real-life. Here are a few 1:1 comparisons for you to peruse:

The differences are small, but it’s not hard to tell the Olympus is sharper than the Pentax. Surprisingly, they both had about equal purple fringing. The Pentax is known for being pretty bad at fringing and micro 4/3 lenses are software-corrected for fringing. For me, the differences between the lenses come down to issues with their respective formats. DOF control between micro 4/3 and APS-C is essentially the same. Any difference between the two can be easily mitigated. Full-frame does offer more control of DOF but there is not yet a full-frame Pentax DSLR, so the point is moot.

I’ve been shooting exclusively micro 4/3 lately, so going back to the K-7 was interesting. The autofocus speed was about the same between the OM-D and the K-7 with their 75mm-ish lenses attached, but the contrast-detect autofocus of the OM-D was way more accurate and repeatable than the phase-detect system in the K-7. The auto focus design of DSLR’s is inherently dependent on calibration and thus susceptible to front or back focus errors. Contrast detect focusing measures whether the actual image data is in focus. There is a speed advantage to phase-detect sensors, but that gap is closing fast. I had to switch to the glacial live-view contrast detection AF mode on the K-7 to get these samples to focus accurately. It’s not all bad news for the Pentax, though. I’ve yet to use a camera that feels better in hand and has better control placement than the K-7 (and the identical K-5, K-5II etc).

What’s most interesting to me is that the differences between the two just don’t matter much. If the lens is good enough then the variables that pop up when we are out shooting are going to dwarf any tiny differences in image quality between two excellent lenses. I threw in some shots with the Olympus 45mm as well. When you get closer to the subject to match the subject size to the 75mm shot, the DOF is roughly the same. So much unnecessary internet-blood has been spilled by people arguing over differences in DOF between different lenses and formats.

Since this is a “battle” I must now choose a winner… The winner is the Olympus, but I reserve the right to change that verdict after shooting with it in the real world (until I have to ship it back). Don’t throw your Pentax up on ebay just yet, though. The 77/1.8 is still an amazing lens that can be used to produce images with a signature look. The slightly older design of the 77/1.8 means it can’t compete on sharpness with  newer lenses, but it has just the right blend of character and technical perfection. In fact, I better stop writing about it now because I might end up changing the verdict.

Update: I removed the 100% crop comparisons with both lenses mounted on the OM-D because I messed up the manual focusing. The full images are still available for comparison, but keep in mind that the focus point is different between the two shots.

Nagel Vollenda No. 70/0

It’s been a while since I’ve had any film developed, but here are some shots from my Nagel Vollenda No. 70/0. Information on this camera is scarce, but I did find this.

nagel vollendaThe camera is 80+ years old so it’s a miracle it takes photos at all. What’s shocking is that it works quite well. I’ve had digital cameras break after 2 or 3 years, but this guy is still kicking after more than 80. Using the camera is a challenge without a tripod and a tape measure. The “viewfinder” is a metal rectangle with a smaller rectangle in front of it. Zone focusing is the name of the game here, which is German for “all of your pictures will be out of focus.” Depth of field is pretty shallow even at f/11 when using 120 film, so focusing closer than infinity is tough. I’m also uniquely terrible at estimating distance, and I’m sure others could do better.

The design and build of the camera is beautiful in a way that digital products can never match. While lacking in the solid-as-a-brick build quality of 60’s and 70’s SLR’s, the engineering is precise and much more visible than more modern cameras. There are only four choices for shutter speed, but the aperture adjustment is continuous between f/4.5 and f/32.

By any modern metric, this camera is terrible. However, using it will help put modern cameras in perspective. After using a camera like this, you can’t help but laugh when someone reviews a modern camera and complains about slow autofocus or a bit of noise at ISO6400 or the “soft” results from slow kit zooms. A camera like this can put you in touch with the past and teach you new ways to think about photography.

cannon beach

Cloud Photography Part 4: Conclusions

Finally, the epic conclusion to my cloud photography experiment.  In part 1 I laid out the details of the experiment in which I would pretend I was a photographer who had to live entirely in the cloud.  Part 2 described the particular challenges of using a cloud based operating system for handling RAW files.  In part 3 I discussed the various web-based photo editing software available today.

The world of cloud computing is moving fast.  After I wrote part 1, Apple announced iCloud and Google began selling ChromeOS laptops.  The argument could be made that cloud storage is pointless since hard drives have become so cheap, but cheap digital storage goes both ways.  If it’s cheap for you to buy one 1TB hard drive, how cheap do you think it is (per hard drive) for Google to buy 10,000 of them?  The biggest argument against cloud computing is the requirement that we hand over our trust to external entities (Google, Amazon, Apple, Dropbox, etc).  The risks of remote storage are real and Dropbox users like myself were recently given a strong reminder of that fact.  Dropbox had a small coding bug with the unfortunate effect that any password would work to log onto any account.  Whoops.  As always, the forces of security and convenience are battling each other.  Do I really need access to my entire digital life from anywhere?  Maybe not.

The cloud, it turns out, is best in moderation.  Placing all of your data in the cloud and relying on web-based tools to process that data can be just as restrictive as working 100% locally.  I ran into one difficulty after another trying to remain cloud-only.  For now, I’d say I’m fully committed to working on my desktop computer with Lightroom.  If you do want to try living in the cloud, here are some things I’d recommend to make things as painless as possible:

  • Work with JPEGs.  Work out what camera settings you like and learn to live with them.  Set the contrast and sharpening low to give you more latitude when editing the JPEGs later.
  • Do as much editing, deleting, and processing as you can before uploading your photos to the cloud.  Google+ has the best photo gallery I’ve seen yet, but it still sucks at quickly going through a lot of photos and deleting the uglies.
  • Watch the terms of service.  This depends on how Serious with a capital “S” you are about your photos, but be careful not to give your rights away as soon as you upload photos to the cloud.
Next, I’ll go through just how much cloud is in my photographic life now.
  • Editing, processing, and exporting is done on my desktop using Lightroom with RAW files.
  • RAW files and full-size JPEGs are backed up locally and to an online backup service not optimized for photos or sharing
  • Large web-sized JPEGs are uploaded to Picasa for personal use, to flickr for sharing, or to this blog for whatever it is I do here.
  • This gives me access to the backups from anywhere and a nice collection of shareable photos that can be embedded in forums, blogs, or wherever with ease.
Ok, how’d the photos turn out?  Below are my favorite 10.  The results were acceptable, but as I said I’m not a convert.  Maybe in 5 years I’ll try again.  Or maybe I won’t have a choice…

Cloud Photography Part 3: Post Processing

This is part 3 of my epic investigation into cloud computing for photographers.  Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

As mentioned in part 2, I was unable to find a web-based photo editor that supports raw files and the size limits for all the editors prohibit the use of 16-bit TIFF files.  After wrestling the files into JPEG format in Jolicloud, I was ready to apply some post-processing.  The post-processing I’m talking about includes basic things like exposure, contrast, saturation, sharpening and cropping.

All of Them

Every single web app I tried lagged so far behind Lightroom and GIMP in terms of processing speed, feature set and file compatibility that I can’t recommend any of them as your primary photo editor.  None of them work well as part of a multi-file workflow.  If you choose to edit photos this way, you’re looking at a one-at-a-time painfully slow process.  Also, the results I got were kind of ugly.  A big part of that comes from trying to work with JPEGs instead of raw files.  However, editing a JPEG with GIMP seems to yield better results than any of the web apps.  All of the web apps I tried were free.  Big plus.

Adobe Photoshop Express

Adobe is the big dog here and I was excited to use their editor.  They clearly have the upper hand when it comes to photo manipulation software and I think that Adobe Lightroom is the best piece of software (not just photo software) I’ve ever used.  Don’t worry about any bias towards Adobe though, because I think Flash and Reader are just plain awful.

What did I think of Photoshop Express?  I don’t know.  It’s got 2GB of free space, which is good.  However, it crashed every time I tried to load a file, which is bad.  I tried Chrome and Firefox and a couple different files, but nothing worked.

Let’s recap:

  • Pros:
    • Free
    • 2GB of storage
  • Cons:
    • Didn’t work at all

Picnik

Picnik is mostly free and it’s integrated well into Picasa, Google’s online photo gallery.  The integration with Picasa makes Picnik the best web app by far in terms of workflow.  Also, Picasa now offers unlimited space for photos that are 2048 pixels or smaller.  Not good for backups, but great for online photo sharing and small prints.

First, the good.  The interface is easy to use and includes enough control for small edits.  I also like that you can export the results directly into your Picasa gallery with the option to overwrite your original file or create a new file.

On the negative side, Picnik is constantly bugging you to sign up for the premium non-free version which gives you more control and a few more presets for Lomo-ish effects.  The free version gives you controls for exposure and compensation with a few finer controls for shadows and highlights, sharpness, and “local contrast.”  Unfortunately, adjust any of the sliders more than just a bit and you’re going to end up with a muddy mess of a file.  Also, “local contrast” is a checkbox and not a slider.  Checking it makes your photo ugly.  Unchecking it restores your photo back to normal.

Overall I found it pretty difficult to get decent results out of Picnik, but the direct integration with Picasa is worth a lot.

Aviary HTML5 Image Editor

HTML5 gets talked up constantly on the web, so I was excited to try this one too.  This editor seemed more like a proof of concept than a full-fledged application.  The exposure controls were way too simple.  Also, they did nothing.  Something was broken and none of the adjustments showed up on the photo.

Aviary Phoenix Image Editor

Phoenix is Aviary’s Photoshop-esque editor and was my personal favorite.  The interface was great and the feature set was incredibly powerful.  With patience and skill I’m sure you can achieve some great results.

Two things kept Phoenix from being my editor of choice for this experiment.  First, it’s JPEG-only.  Yes, all the other apps were JPEG only also, but the Phoenix editor is so powerful that it’s begging to be used with a raw file.  All that power is wasted on the measly 8 bits of a JPEG file.  The second reason is a lack of workflow integration.  You can upload multiple images to Aviary, but it’s hardly a full-featured gallery or photo-sharing site.

The Winner

In the end, Picnik won out, but not because it was the best.  Every single web app I tested was crippled by a lack of raw support.  There’s only so much you can do to a JPEG, so you might as well use the software that’s quickest and easiest to access.  Aviary has a complete suite of web-based image editing apps and they should be applauded for what they’ve created.  However, for my purposes, it just wasn’t worth the hassle of leaving the Picasa bubble.

There was a lot of frustration, but it was fun trying out these web apps.  It’s good to challenge our beliefs from time to time and to learn what’s out there.  I now have a better feel for the state of the art in cloud computing for photographers.  Everything I tried here was free, so I recommend giving some of them a shot and seeing what you can come up with.  Coming up next is the thrilling conclusion where I’ll share the photos that I dragged through the mud just to get them on the cloud.

Cloud Photography Part 2: Jolicloud

This is a continuation of my experiment in cloud computing as it relates to photography.  Read part 1 here.

Cloud computing is moving forward at an astonishing pace and one of its benefits is operating system independence.  If your operating system can access the internet, then you can play in the cloud.  The purpose of this experiment is to determine the viability of a “cloud only” approach to photography.  That is why I am using Joli OS for this experiment.  It was designed specifically for maximizing interaction with the cloud and minimizing local computing.  Also, I just wanted to play around with Jolicloud for the fun of it.

Installation

Trying Jolicloud is easy.  You can create an account and use it right from your browser.  After setting everything up, you can download and install Joli OS right beside your current operating system.  Setting up your computer with two different operating systems (i.e. Windows and Joli OS) is called dual booting.  In the past, dual booting could be nightmarish, but it has become fairly simple.  Just run the Joli OS installer and after a reboot, you’ll be ready to go.  When you power up your computer, you’ll see a choice between Joli OS and Windows with a timer counting down from 10 seconds.  Unfortunately, the Joli OS installer defaults your OS choice to Joli OS, but that can be fixed with a bit of searching.

Setup

Once booted, you create a device password  and you can login with the account you created in your browser.  All of the apps you installed will be there along with a few other settings like connections to Dropbox or Google Docs.  In addition to the apps you set up in your browser, there are a few local apps and access to your local storage including all the files on your Windows partition.  There are tons of limitations to using Jolicloud imposed by the cloud-only approach, but there are advantages as well.  A big advantage is that all it takes is one click to install apps and they are ready instantly.  Of course “installing” an “app” basically amounts to no more than adding a bookmark with an icon to your desktop.  Below is a screenshot of how I set up my desktop.  I took the background photo while on an airplane and I find it to be nice and literal.

Updates

Since all of your apps run on the web they are all automatically up to date.  Any data that needs to be synced locally is taken care of when you first log in.  Updates of the OS itself are done in the background.  Living with a computer that you don’t have to worry about updating is a huge advantage of the Jolicloud approach.

First Impressions

I knew before I even tried Jolicloud that it wouldn’t work as my primary OS.  That’s fine though, because it’s not intended for that purpose…yet.  It’s intended for use on netbooks, laptops, or computers “up to 10 years old.”  After installing Joli OS on at least one device, you are awarded with a “recycler” badge assuming that you revived an ancient computer from its dusty grave.  Not so in my case, but it’s a nice thought and if I had an old computer lying around I’d certainly try using Joli OS to revive it.  Of course my primary computer is a 4-year-old desktop, so maybe it’s already ancient.

So far, I think I like the idea of Jolicloud more than I actually like using it.  I like how lightweight it is, but it’s hard to get past that it’s really just a desktop with a browser and some links.  Responsiveness is a mixed bag.  Apps come up quickly, but web apps just don’t run as smoothly as native software.  Growing up with computers that run native software and maybe pull a few things off of the web makes adjusting to the cloud-only approach a little difficult.  Let me elaborate.

Getting Photos from the Camera to the Cloud

On a phone, getting photos from the camera to the cloud is easy.  On a computer with a full OS such as Mac, Windows, or Linux: also easy.  Using Joli OS: not easy.  The laptop I was using has a built-in SD reader, but when I plugged in my SD card nothing happened.  After some searching online, I found out that memory cards and USB devices work “sometimes” in Joli OS.  I tried removing and reinserting the card several more times with no luck.  Now what?  Warning: this might get a bit Linuxy.

Since Joli OS is really just a stripped-down version of Linux, it comes with access to a terminal which can be used to actually do things.  There is a normal terminal available with user-level access or root terminal with device-level access.  Guess which one I had to use to get the SD card to work…  Yup, the root terminal.  I used the following commands to do the equivalent of importing photos using Lightroom or Picasa:

mount -a (provides access to the SD card)

mkdir /home/bryan/Pictures/[folder name] (for each destination folder I wanted to copy photos into)

cp /dev/a/DCIM/[folder name]/* /pictures/[destination folder]/* (copies every file from the source folder on the SD card to the destination folder on the computer.  Must be done for each folder being imported from or to)

Great.  Now I’ve got the files on my laptop’s hard drive.  The problem with this approach is it requires root-level access and that only works if you are using a computer that you own.  What happens when you try to do this on a hotel computer or your school computer?  I guess you better hope they’re not running Joli OS.

Working with RAW files (*.DNG)

Adobe’s DNG files are the closest thing to a standard for RAW files.  Support for them is great… on desktop software sold by Adobe.  I couldn’t find a single web app (paid or free) that provides support for processing RAW files of any format.  Some supported TIFF files, but upload limits and obscene file sizes conspire to ruin that option.  One of the few local apps available in the Joli OS apps directory is GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program).  The GIMP is a fantastic piece of software available for free on multiple platforms, but it doesn’t natively support RAW files.  Luckily there are plugins available help the GIMP process RAW files.  Unfortunately, none of them were available from the Joli OS apps directory.  Back to the terminal again…

The best RAW plugin I found is called UFRaw.  It has a graphical user interface (GUI) for one-by-one processing, but it also has command line support for batch processing.  It’s no Lightroom, but it will do.  Installing it required the following command:

sudo apt-get install gimp-ufraw

Once installed, all I had to do was double-click my files and they would open in the UFRaw GUI where I could edit them in all their 16-bit glory.  Unfortunately, it takes a while to load each file and what do I do with the duds?  Also, UFRaw is a native app and the purpose of this experiment is to test out web apps.  I decided to give up the fine-tuned control and I asked UFRaw to automatically spit out a bunch of JPEGs for me to upload and process in the cloud.  Throwing away all of those extra bits is painful, but the cloud made me do it.  I used this command to batch process my DNG files using the default exposure settings:

ufraw-batch –exposure=auto –out-type=jpeg /home/bryan/Pictures/[folder name]/*.DNG

It took about 15 minutes to make it through about 150 pictures, but it chugged along quietly in the background.  When the conversion was done, I used the Picasa app (really just a link to picasaweb.google.com) to upload the resulting JPEGs.

It was disappointing not to be able to edit RAW files in the cloud.  If anyone has a recommendation for a site where this can be done, please let me know in the comments.

Jolicloud Conclusions

I wanted to like Jolicloud, but in the end I just don’t think it’s for me.  There’s still a lot to like, but not enough for me to consider using Joli OS as my primary operating system.  The Jolicloud developers should be applauded for taking an open, forward-thinking approach to OS design.  Jolicloud’s goal of resurrecting old computers is fantastic and I could recommend Joli OS for an old computer, a netbook, or a tablet without reservation.  On a current desktop or laptop however, it just feels like a waste of computing power.  The workarounds required for doing a basic operation like grabbing pictures from my camera shouldn’t be necessary.

Joli OS is a great netbook operating system and I would definitely use it over Windows 7 or XP on a netbook or tablet, but I don’t own a netbook or tablet.  It was fun trying it out and it was free, but I didn’t miss it too much when I went back to using Windows 7.

Tune in next time for Cloud Photography Part 3: Image Editing.

Cloud Photography

I’ve recently developed an interest in cloud computing.  As this is a photography blog, I’ve decided to perform an experiment to see whether it’s worth our time for photographers to move to The Cloud.  First, what is cloud computing?  The goal of cloud computing is to provide users with constant access to their software and data from anywhere using any device.  You’re probably already a part of the cloud just by using web-based email.  Your emails sit on a server “in the cloud” and you can get access to them from anywhere with a browser.  Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are the big players in the cloud computing arena, offering lots of free or cheap storage.  Microsoft and Google both offer an entire suite of free office software that runs entirely in your browser.  It’s up to the user to decide whether it’s worth trusting one of these companies with their data in exchange for a lot of convenience.  Convenience that lasts only as long as a constant internet connection is maintained.  Trade-offs abound.

What does this have to do with photography?
Just as there are office apps that run in the browser, there are also photo-editing apps.  Are these apps as good as their desktop counterparts?  That’s what I aim to find out.

What are the benefits of cloud computing to photographers?

  • Persistent backups
  • Instant sharing with clients, friends and family
  • No need for 5 TB hard drives and supercomputers
  • Access to photos and software from anywhere – edit photos from the computer in the hotel lobby or at grandma’s house

And the drawbacks?

  • Software choice
  • Cost – large storage plans can get pricey while good hardware keeps getting cheaper
  • RAW processing – see software choice
  • Trust – forced to trust that Microoglesoftazon will keep your data safe and private
  • Internet connection is mandatory
  • Calibration – colors on different devices vary wildly

Jolicloud
Using Windows or Linux or OSX will make it too easy to cheat and use familiar desktop tools.  Therefore, I will be using Joli OS, the installed version of Jolicloud.  Jolicloud is a free operating system based on Ubuntu Linux that can run entirely in a browser.  When installed on a computer, Joli OS is essentially just a big browser window.  There are some apps that run locally such as GIMP, but for the most part everything it runs must be a webapp.  Joli OS provides some local storage space, but I am going to treat it as a temporary place to store my data before flinging it up into the cloud.

The Experiment
I want to see what it takes to get a batch of RAW files from my camera processed and stored in the cloud using only Joli OS running on a laptop.  The only rule is that I must do the entire process from either Joli OS or a browser.  I’ll document my frustrations and my successes on this blog.  Whatever my conclusion turns out to be, I know I’ll learn a lot along the way.

Pentax ME

This isn’t a full-on camera review (not that any of my “reviews” are), but just a discussion of the pros and cons of automation.  I ran a roll of film through a Pentax ME recently and had a bunch of problems that I wouldn’t have had with a camera that has manual exposure controls (or with a digital camera…).  All of the pictures in this post were taken with a Pentax ME, a Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7 lens and Fujifilm Superia 100 film.  The lens and the film pass with flying colors, but the camera was frustrating.

"Hello, I'd like to store my self here please."

First, some background.  Prior to automated exposure settings all SLR cameras had controls for aperture, shutter speed, and focus.  After automation became all the rage (and it still is), SLR cameras had anywhere from full manual control to no manual controls.  Today’s DSLR’s thankfully have lots of manual control with the added bonus of fully automated modes and instant feedback.  The Pentax ME lands towards the fully automated end of the spectrum.  It has manual focus and aperture settings, but shutter speed is completely controlled by the camera.

New Beetle never understood why he wasn't as cool as Old Beetle. Prius was ignored by both of them.

This is the problem.  When the meter in the ME is working correctly, it’s a fine and easy to use camera.  However, my meter was acting wonky and there was nothing I could do about it.  Exposure compensation only works if the metered value is consistent.  I almost always work in aperture priority mode on cameras that offer it, but I need some way of choosing the shutter speed if the brains in the camera aren’t working right. On occasion my brain works right and it wants to pick shutter speeds!

Some cars are art...
...and some cars have art on them

I have to cut the ME some slack because it’s over 30 years old and who knows what the condition of it’s battery is?  I love the form factor and the build-quality, but I don’t feel like depending on a 30+ year-old meter with  no ability to override it.  Of course, the answer is the Pentax MX.  It’s almost exactly the same has the ME, but with a shutter speed dial on top and a 0.97x 95% viewfinder.  Anyone care to trade?

Minolta AF-Sv Talker

Minolta AF-Sv Talker
Minolta AF-Sv Talker by Capt Kodak

If I had to sum up in one word what it is that draws me towards certain used cameras, it would probably be “interestingness”.  “Cheap” probably ranks pretty high too.  After buying my first DSLR, a Sony A200, I got on a bit of a Minolta kick.  Sony bought the rights to Minolta’s A-mount, so I researched Minolta’s history and started collecting a few of their cameras.  During my research, I found a camera that seemed to have everything:  it was interesting, cheap, and employed the most obvious misplaced use of technology in a camera that I’ve ever seen (including blink detection).

That camera was the Minolta AF-Sv Talker, and I was lucky enough to find one on eBay.  Unfortunately the seller claimed not to know anything about cameras so they couldn’t verify if it even turned on or took pictures.  It’s funny that someone who can figure out how to use a computer and sell something on eBay can’t figure out how to put a couple of AA’s in a camera and push the “on” button.  Oh well, I won the auction for $10 and at that price it was worth the risk.  The camera arrived with its box and manual and it looked as good as new… Until I opened the battery compartment and saw that the batteries has leaked all over the place and the contacts were severely corroded.  Was my dream of having a camera that talked to me dashed forever?  Find out after this short commercial break.

After watching that commercial, is it any wonder Minolta went out of business?  I did a bit of scrubbing and some grumbling and eventually got the camera to turn on.  When I attempted to load my first roll of film, I found that the camera has the best film loader that I’ve ever used.  After pulling the film leader over to the other side of the camera, all you have to do is close a clear plastic cover over the film and the cameras winder motor does the rest.  I grew up with digital, so I’m never 100% confident that I’m getting an image when I take pictures with film.  I know exactly how a digital image sensor works, but film is mostly magic to me.  When I can see the leader being spooled up instead of just trusting that it’s happening gives me nice piece of mind.  The second thing I learned after getting the camera to turn on is that it only says two things: “Load film,” and “too dark, use flash.”  Why couldn’t it tell me things like “theres a telephone pole growing out of your uncle’s head” or “that’s boring, don’t even bother wasting film on it”?

As it turns out, this camera is incredibly simple and fun to use.  It’s not for control-freaks who want to set things like exposure compensation, aperture, focus, shutter speed, etc. Even though it says “AUTO FOCUS” in large, white letters on the front of the camera, I’m pretty sure the Talker is fixed focus.  If the Talker is autofocus, then it has the fastest, quietest focusing mechanism I’ve ever seen. This camera is a true point-and-shoot, unlike the point-wait-and-shoot digicams available today.  As soon as you click the button, there is a quiet springy sound and the moment is captured.  When you let go of the button, the film advances with an annoying whine common to all auto-winding film cameras.  That film-advance delay is a nice trick and can be used to avoid embarrassing distractions caused by the loud noise.  This gives the camera a dual-personality.  It works great as a funny, lo-fi anachronism, but it also works as a simple, discrete and pocket-able camera.

The two wedding photos above were shot using Ilford XP2 chromagenic film (black and white film that can be developed in C-41 chemicals at drug-store photolabs).  The Talker tends to underexpose, which I didn’t realize at the time, so the results on XP2 (or any film) are pretty grainy.  The 35mm f/2.8 lens is far better than any lomo plastic thing.  It’s real glass and the results are fairly sharp with decent contrast and low distortion.  The downsides of the lens are the strong vignetting and low saturation.  However, I find the performance of the lens to be just my taste (one part of my taste, at least).  It has some of the qualities of lo-fi photographs that I like (vignetting, low saturation) without the extreme softness exhibited by plastic lenses.

For such an undeniably stupid product idea, the Minolta Talker is a surprisingly good camera.  It’s simple, small and fun.  The camera’s dual personality allows you to be as discrete as you want with it.  There is probably no better way to get a subject to smile than hearing a synthetic, strongly accented voice say “too dark, use flash!”  I can’t imagine a better use of $10.

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Update: Steve (aka Capt Kodak) has cleared up my confusion with the autofocus system in the Minolta Talker.

The “quiet springy sound” you hear is the autofocus mechanism. It is NOT like what you find in either modern DSLRs or video cameras. It is phase detection (the method of AF used in SLRs) but instead of zeroing in on a specific point of focus, it is doing “zone” focusing–near, medium, far–and the lens has enough depth of field to cover for it. If you look at the front of the camera (specifically at the two rectangular windows on either side of the viewfinder) and press the shutter release, you’ll see that one of the openings has a mirror that “moves” (more of a pivot). That’s the sound you are hearing. The AF system works just like an old rangefinder but uses phase detection to put together images and calculate the distance. Very cool and very reliable.

Pentax 31mm Limited

Warning! This post contains cliché photos of cats, Christmas tree bokeh, and in some cases…BOTH.  Please forgive me.

What I like about Pentax is their utter disregard for following convention.  There are certain focal lengths for prime lenses that everyone seemed to agree on: 24, 28, 35, 50, 85, and 135.  Lenses bearing those numbers can be found in any manufacturer’s lens collection.  Pentax however, went their own way: 15, 23, 31, 43, 77.  Their FA (full-frame) Limited lenses (31/1.8, 43/1.8, 77/1.8) are renowned for their compactness, build-quality and image quality.  Pentax offers some made-for-digital DA Limited lenses (including the 35/2.8 which I own) which are excellent, but Pentax users seem to have a special place in their hearts for the older FA Limiteds.  The FA Limiteds are even rumored to have fairy dust in them which makes your pictures better.  Since I knew I’d need the extra speed (f/1.8 vs. f/2.8) for indoor photography during the holidays, I decided to rent the 31mm Limited and find out.  When the lens arrived, I was surprised that it wasn’t as compact as I expected and it was fairly heavy, but it oozed quality in a way that few digital goods do these days.  As is required of any new lens, I tested it on my cat.

Pentax K-7, 31mm ISO1600 f/2.5 1/30

This bored him.  I apologize for the gratuitous Christmas tree bokeh.  It’s unnecessary and it won’t happen again.

Pentax K-7, 31mm ISO1600 f/1.8 1/60

Oops, there it is again, I’m sorry.  Here’s a close-focus, wide-open aperture shot to show off more of that legendary bokeh.  It’s sharper at f/4, but the sharpness here at f/1.8 is more than adequate and far better than my Minolta 50mm at f/1.8.

Pentax K-7, 31mm ISO1600 f/2.0 1/80

Oh man, another cat picture.  The combination of moderately wide angle and shallow depth of field that the 31/1.8 provides is just plain fun.  A shot like this wouldn’t turn out as well with the 31mm Limited’s competitor, the Sigma 30/1.4.  Reportedly, the Sigma is sharp in the center of the frame, but very soft in the corners.  However, you could buy three of the Sigmas for the price of one 31mm Limited.  Hmmm…

Pentax K-7, 31mm ISO800 f/2.0 1/80

Look!  People!  The holidays are a great time to take photos of the relatives that you don’t see very often, but it can be hard when those relatives get annoyed by being photographed.  But what is it really that annoys people about being photographed?  Usually it’s the shutter noise (for DSLR’s) or the flash.  The K-7’s quiet shutter and the large aperture of the 31mm Limited solve both of those problems.  Also, 31mm isn’t so wide that you get weird distorted body parts.

Pentax K-7, 31mm ISO800 f/2.0 1/80

Here’s another shot of game-playing fun and a bit more Christmas bokeh to clog up the interwebs.

Pentax K-7, 31mm ISO1600 f/2.0 1/60

I took this picture of my grandmother getting dessert ready and it’s probably my favorite photo taken with the 31mm.  Mmmmmm, pie.

Pentax K-7, 31mm ISO1600 f/2.8 1/60

I don’t have a point to make with this photo, but I thought the internet could use just one more cat photo.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this collection of Christmas snapshots disguised as a lens review.  The Pentax FA Limited 31mm f/1.8 lens was tons of fun to use and I’d love to own one.  However, it’s very expensive and it’s not as versatile or as compact as my 35/2.8 macro.  The large aperture of the 31/1.8 is nice, but there are more cost-effective options out there.  Neither of those should count against the lens and in fact I can’t come up with a single thing to fault the 31mm Limited for.  Excellent build-quality; excellent image quality right from f/1.8; compact enough; a little heavy, but not too heavy.  The great thing about any of the Pentax Limiteds is that they have that extra something that makes them more fun to use and there just might be some fairy dust in them after all.

Traveling Camera Project

Way back in July, the Feeling Negative? blog started their Traveling Camera Project.  The concept was that a cheapo 35mm camera would be mailed from person to person around the world with each person shooting a roll of film in the same camera.  It sounded like fun, so I signed up to take part.  The map of where the camera has been so far can be found here, but I’m not sure how well it’s been kept up to date.

I received the camera from Janne in Osaka who blogged about his experience, too.  The camera being used for this project is the Vivitar Mariner, available at Amazon in a waterproof case for the extraordinary price of $100, used.  Ours was missing the waterproof case and only cost $5.  After using it I can say the value is much closer to $5 than $100.  It’s basically a disposable camera that you can reload film into.  The Mariner is fixed-focus with only one aperture and shutter speed setting.  You truly do just point and shoot.  Where you’re pointing is not so precise, however, since the tiny viewfinder covers maybe 70% of the image captured on the film.  The lens is 28mm and has the typical chromatic aberration and blurry corners of all plastic lenses.  Of course, blurry corners implies that something in the image is sharp, which requires luck.  It’s a fun camera to shoot with and is capable of some nice lo-fi shots, if you’re into that sort of thing.

If you read camera reviews of modern DSLR’s, you’ll often come across complaints about entry-level cameras having poor build quality and employing too much plastic in their construction.  They obviously have never used the Mariner.  Without batteries (batteries are optional), the camera feels like it could break at any second.  Luckily, simplicity comes to the rescue, so the only things that could break are the shutter, the winding knob, or the light seals.  I think the winding knob and the light seals were broken.  The frame counter stayed at “1” after I had taken at least 5 shots and then it all of a sudden jumped to “6” on the next shot.  Advancing the film in between shots is…imprecise.  I was shocked when all of my photos came back and weren’t half overlapping.  You can see in this shot that the camera is prone to light leaks, but this was the only picture where it showed up.

It was fun to take part in the Traveling Camera Project.  I can’t pass up an opportunity to try out a new camera and it’s fun to watch it make its way around the world.

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Canonet GIII QL17

As promised here, I am reporting back with my Canonet experience.

The Canonet is one of if not the most popular compact 35mm camera from the 1970’s.  It was introduced in 1972 as the top of the line in Canon’s Canonet series of fast fixed-lens rangefinders.  According to CameraQuest.com:

The G-III  became a best seller  with over 1.2 MILLION SOLD from 1972 to 1982 per the Canon web site. This probably makes the G-III the best selling 35mm  rangefinder with built in meter OF ALL TIME.

What this translates to today is that you can find Canonets today in good condition and for a good price.  The 70’s seem to have been a great time to find a fast, fixed lens rangefinder.  Too bad I wasn’t born yet.  Other notable cameras in this class are the Minolta 7sII (drool), the Olympus 35RC (very small), and the Yashica 35 Electro.  I had been bidding on Minolta 7sII’s on eBay for a while, but the prices were just too steep for me.  I have no doubt the 7sII would be worth it, but I knew there were other excellent rangefinders of a similar size and build for a lot less money.  As often happens, once I stopped looking for a compact rangefinder, I found the Canonet at a thrift store for $30.

Design

Rangefinder cameras are small, but they’re not as small as the latest digicam or cell-phone.  If you can accept that the Canonet won’t fit in your pocket without an unsightly bulge, then you will notice that everything about the camera is just right.  The 40mm f/1.7 is fast enough and wide enough without being too wide or too big.  The size and weight of the camera body are perfect: heavy enough to feel solid, but not too heavy.  Goldilocks would love the Canonet.  Like all fully manual cameras, the controls include only the necessities: aperture, shutter speed, focus, shutter release, and film advance.  The controls for aperture, shutter speed and focus are all positioned around the lens.  There is a learning curve to figure out which doohickey controls which thingmajigger but once you do it’s very intuitive.  The focus is manipulated via a lever and the aperture and shutter speeds are adjusted using rings around the lens with a distinctive feel so that you can tell them apart.

Features

The camera can be used in shutter priority mode, but I can’t tell you anything about the metering because I’ve worked sans battery since my first attempt at replacing the dead mercury battery.  A lot of cameras from the 70’s used batteries that are now illegal in the US because of their mercury content.  There are a few options for replacing the battery but luckily only one of them involves smuggling poisonous batteries across the border inside of the unpleasant body cavity of your choosing.  The option I attempted was ordering a zinc-air battery.  Supposedly the voltage matches well enough but the battery life is not so good.  My order never showed up, but by the time I noticed, I was already having too much fun using the camera in manual mode.  There is something liberating about taking pictures without electricity that has to be experienced to be understood.

The “QL” in “QL17” stands for “quick load”.  It’s hard to explain, but the film loading system in the Canonet is easier than even the most modern film camera.  If you swear while trying to load film into the Canonet, then maybe film photography isn’t for you.  The quick loading is a feature I could do without, but it’s undoubtedly nice to have.

The whole point of compact rangefinders is their portability and stealth.  It’s stealth where the Canonet shines.  It stands out a bit visually today since the chrome and black color scheme screams “vintage”, but it’s small enough that most people won’t even notice you have a camera.  The real stealthiness lies in the shutter sound or the lack thereof.  Yes, it’s louder than a digicam with the fake shutter sound turned off, but it doesn’t rely on a bright LCD screen on the back either.  The leaf shutter in the Canonet is so quiet that you’ll often wonder if you took a picture at all.  It’s a nice change from the cacophony happening over in SLR-land.  The drawback of the leaf shutter is the relatively slow max shutter speed of 1/500s.  You’ll need some pretty slow film if you want to venture into large aperture territory during the day.

Conclusion

The Canonet GIII QL17 is a great example of a compact rangefinder from the 1970’s.  It’s probably not as cool or rare as some of the other offerings of that era, but rarity comes at a price.  Canonets are relatively easy to find and I guarantee that you’ll be surprised by the build quality.  The fantastic 40mm f/1.7 lens and small size are just icing on the cake.  Sometimes I wonder if the time and money it takes to process film are really worth it, but it’s cameras like this one that keep me coming back.

Minolta SRT200

Balanced Rock, Balanced Camera
Balanced Rock, Balanced Camera, by Bryan Davidson

I bought my Minolta SRT200 at a camera show in Tucson where I was floored by the reasonable prices and the chance to try out all kinds of fun toys.  There were a few grumpy old men who gave me ‘tude just for existing, but the knowledgeable and friendly people and the huge variety of working antique cameras at market price made up for that.  It was funny for me to see the bucket of old Kodak Brownie cameras going for $5 or less.  At antique stores and even thrift stores, Brownies can be found with pricetags of $50 and up.  I found an SRT200 with a 55mm f/1.4 lens and I had to have it.  It was so heavy and metally and the meter worked.

As it turns out, maybe I didn’t get the incredible historic find that I thought I got at the time, but that hardly diminishes the fun I’ve had with my SRT200.  This is what RokkorFiles.com had to say about the SRT200:

The major specifications of the budget SR-T body were now as follows:

  • Single lens reflex camera with through-the-lens CLC (Contrast Light Compensator) meter coupled to shutter and film speed.
  • Meter sensitivity EV 3 to EV 17 at ASA 100.
  • Film speeds supported ASA 6-6400
  • Fully mechanical cloth focal plane shutter with speeds from 1-1/1000 sec plus B
  • Shutter speeds 1-1/60 sec with electronic flash
  • Oversized quick return mirror for no image cut-off even with supertelephoto lenses
  • Exposure control needle visible in viewfinder
  • Flash synchronisation (X and FP)
  • Automatic reset film counter
  • Accessory shoe
As with the original SR-T 100, the later budget model does not have a lot to recommend it when other more fully featured models are now available for similar prices. At the time, however, it remained an attractive option for someone seeking a fully mechanical body with a limited budget.
Oh well, I’ve bought all of my old cameras with the intention of using them, so I’m not all that bothered by the fact that there is a better option out there.  The SRT200 was manufactured sometime between 1975 and 1977.  For reference, 1977 is the year that the original Star Wars was released.  That’s right, I knew that without looking it up.

Garden Gate
Garden Gate, by Bryan Davidson

The appeal of this camera for me is the extremely mechanical feel.  Every detail about the camera makes it feel like a finely tuned machine from the days of old:

  • Very heavy
  • Dirty (but very large) viewfinder
  • Analog needle to show exposure
  • Winding sound when changing the shutter speed dial
  • Deafening mirror-slap
  • Manual focus
  • Manual aperture ring
Kent Station
Kent Station, by Bryan Davidson

Due to the control layout, the camera operates similarly to shutter-priority, if it had automated exposure modes.  The shutter speed dial is on top, and the aperture ring is around the lens.  There are two needles visible on the right side of the viewfinder.  One is pointy, and it represents the exposure reading.  The other needle has a circle on the end of it and changing the aperture and shutter speed moves the circle.  When the circle is on top of the pointy needle, the exposures match.  A good explanation of this method along with some general comparisons between film SLR’s and DSLR’s is given here.  Maybe it’s blasphemy, but the shape and control layout of my A200 is more comfortable and more accessible than the control layout of the SRT200.  However, the simplicity of the SRT200 along with the gigantic, bright viewfinder and the mechanical feel add up to a wonderful experience.

Prickly Pear Lemonade
Prickly Pear Lemonade, by Bryan Davidson

The included 55mm f/1.4 lens was icing on the cake.  It’s not in the best condition, but the images it creates are gorgeous.  The focusing ring sticks and just feels a bit icky compared to some of my other Minolta manual focus lenses.  It’s tough to complain about the results, though.

Monument Valley
Monument Valley, by Bryan Davidson

For anyone looking for the MMM (metal, mechanical, manual) film experience, you can’t go wrong with any of the Minolta SRT cameras.  The manual focus Minolta lens lineup is fantastic and the used prices are nice and low.  Digital cameras are great and they have truly created some amazing opportunities for today’s photographers, but it’s nice every once in a while to experience what it feels like to be the one responsible for how your pictures turn out.  Try as I might, I can’t find “scene modes” or “art filters” anywhere on the SRT200.  That’s exactly why I like it.

 

New Toy!

Geez, I need to stay away from thrift stores from now on, I think.  I just couldn’t resist the Canonet GIII QL17 that was under glass in perfect condition just begging me to pull out my $30 and buy it.  If you would have seen the look on its face, you would have caved too.

Canonet GIII QL 17
Canonet GIII QL 17, by the other Martin Taylor

Actually, $30 is a good price for the top-of-the-line Canonet and it was in very nice condition and it included the original flash attachment.  The foam light-seals are a bit gooey and I’ll probably be replacing them soon, but other than that the camera should serve it’s purpose nicely.  My Kodak Retina IIa was my first rangefinder, but it had such a tiny viewfinder that framing amounted to guesswork.  Quite a few heads were cut off by accident.  The Canonet, however, will give me a proper rangefinder experience because it has a big, bright viewfinder and parallax-corrected frame lines.  That means that frame lines move when you adjust the focus distance.  Very cool.  I’m still working on my first roll of film through the camera, but I already like it a lot.  It’s compact (but not pocket-sized), but still very heavy and incredibly well-built.  The old cliché “they don’t make them like they used to” applies here 100%.  I can’t imagine a better use of $30.

Come back here in a few months for a more detailed report on the Canonet.  That is if I don’t get thwarted by gooey, decomposing foam and a sticky shutter.

Lomo Fisheye Toy Camera

My Yellow Fisheye
My Yellow Fisheye, by ppinacio

What is a “toy” camera?  Can’t any camera be a toy?  If a toy is something that you have fun with, then you’d have to call a Leica M9 ($9,000) a toy, too.  It seems toy cameras are actually any variety of inexpensive (although usually overpriced) plastic cameras with image quality that is too poor to be taken very seriously.  Let’s face it, if the camera you’re buying is bright yellow (see image at left), then you probably aren’t too concerned with MTF charts.

There is a Lomography “movement” that has sprung up partially in response to the obsession with test charts and image quality brought about by the digital age.  Whether or not this movement has any merit is up to you.  I’ve seen a lot of good work done by toy cameras, but the good/crap ratio is probably about the same as with any camera or imaging medium.  Yes, Lomo cameras and photographers produce photos that look different from most digital cameras, but the photos are not very different from each other.  What I’m trying to say is that there has to be some effort on the photographer’s part to make something original rather than just fall back on the qualities of toy cameras (softness, vignetting, low contrast, funky colors, light leaks, etc.) as a crutch.

Crooked Trees
Crooked Trees, by Bryan Davidson

The fun thing about toy cameras is that they force you to see differently.  A fundamental part of creativity is working within limitations.  And boy is the Lomo Fisheye limited!  It takes film, which limits the number of exposures; it has a single focal length lens, so no zooming; the lens is a fisheye, so things look weird no matter what; it has a single exposure setting; it’s viewfinder is so close to the lens that you can’t see at least a fourth of the scene that you’re shooting; and last, but not least, it’s brightly colored (teal, in my case) so you can’t use it without getting comments from people.  All of these things force you to work outside of your comfort zone, which helps you grow.  Maybe you won’t get any exhibition-worthy shots out of the camera, but you’ll begin to see differently even when using other cameras (with limitations like less than 180 degree field of view).

The key word for this camera is “fun”.  In fact, it’s just about impossible to be very serious while you’re using it.  The color might have something to do with that…  The build quality is better than you would expect.  The all-plastic body is covered in a rubbery skin that provides a nice amount of grip and sturdiness.  The only moving parts are the shutter, the film-wind, and the flash on-off switch.  The lens cap is made of floppy rubber and it’s tethered to the body.  My biggest complaint about the build is the tiny film rewinder knob.  It’s hard to grip and a pain to use.  Not a huge deal, but it manages to annoy me every single time.

In use, the camera could frustrate you if you’re taking it too seriously.  When using film, you already have to wait to find out exactly how your shot turned out, but at least with an SLR you have a lot of control and you can see through the viewfinder basically what the picture will look like.  Not so with the Fisheye.  Getting the film developed is extra-exciting because you never know what you’re going to get.  This camera is the very essence of point and shoot.  You load it with ISO400 film and shoot away.  If you’re indoors, use the flash; if you’re outdoors, don’t.  The only thing you have to think about is what to point the camera at.  Don’t get too fussy with your composition, though, because you can’t see a large chunk of the frame through the viewfinder.  I assume this was a design choice to minimize parallax error.  When using a fisheye lens, it’s often recommended that you get close, otherwise your subject will look tiny.  Unfortunately, at close distances, the parallax effect arises and what you capture on film may not match what you’re seeing through your viewfinder.  To battle this, Lomography put the viewfinder as close to the lens as possible.  The viewfinder is so bad that I often just point the camera at what I want to photograph and hope for the best.  The field of view is so wide that it’s bound to capture everything anyway.

Inflated
Inflated, by Bryan Davidson

The lens is fun, but it’s by no means a match for the precision of a glass fisheye designed for an SLR.  It’s a little sharper than most non-fisheye toy cameras, but don’t expect too much.  Also, the image doe not fill much of the 35mm frame, so you’ll probably end up cropping.  Let’s say that the resulting sharpness is adequate.  4×6’s look decent, but I wouldn’t go any bigger than that.  As expected, fringing around tree branches and other high-contrast areas is extreme, but it’s not that bad at the small print sizes you’ll be using.  Flare is surprisingly well-controlled, which is good since you have almost a 50% chance of including the sun in any of your outdoor shots.  Unfortunately, in bright shots you can often see the edges of the lens along with a “glow” that corresponds to the camera’s color around your image.  This can be taken care of in post-processing, but it’s pretty ugly if left untreated.  Also, there is extreme barrel distortion… obviously… it’s a fisheye.

This is one of the least expensive ways to play around with some fisheye photography.  Even manual focus fisheye lenses for SLR’s run several hundred dollars.  Be warned: this camera is fun enough that you’ll soon be considering a fisheye for your SLR.  Click here for a bunch of examples of what this camera does.

Sony A200

Introduction

The Sony A200 is the camera that made photography real for me.  Since it’s no longer for sale, I have no problem professing my love for this camera and informing you that I have an extremely biased opinion of it.  The A200 was my first real camera.  I had a decent Canon A570IS before it, which had a few manual controls.  The problem was – as I quickly learned – on a tiny sensor camera with a slow zoom lens and no RAW output, the settings just don’t make that much difference.  It was such a pain to traverse the menus and change the aperture, even though you’d have to zoom in to 100% just to see any difference between that and auto mode.  Most of the time, full auto mode seemed to work better anyway.  That’s when I made the mistake of doing some online shopping and reading camera reviews.  This of course led to spending lots of money.

Honey?
Honey? by Bryan Davidson

I settled on the A200 because of its compatibility with Minolta lenses (which I didn’t understand the significance of until much later), its in-body image stabilization, and its great image quality for the price.  The DSLR market was very different just 2 years ago and there were far fewer choices in the entry-level arena.  If I had to pick an inexpensive first DSLR today, it’d be the Pentax K-x.  Sony’s recent entry-level offerings (all 37 of them…) are just a joke for photographers who actually want some control over their cameras.  To me, the A200 was the last decent entry-level Sony and it is by far better than the most recent A290.  The biggest reason?  Buttons!

Handling

From the moment I tried out the A200 at the now-defunct Ritz Camera store I could tell it was the camera for me.  Every control was exactly where it should be.  It took me no time at all to become comfortable using the camera and it fit my hands like a glove.  After using the camera for over 2 years, it is now completely second nature for me to find any button or menu item that I need.  As I’ve probably made clear in previous posts, I love analog controls.  The pinnacle of analog controls on a digital camera was probably the Konica-Minolta 7D, reviewed here.  As a first camera, I think I’d find that one intimidating.  As I think about what I want for my next camera, however, I’d drool all over a camera that had as many analog controls as the KM-7D.  The A200 has a nice blend of buttons and well-organized menus.  The function menu (accessed by pressing the “Fn” button) is nicely implemented and it has become just as second nature to navigate as the analog controls.

Snoqualmie Falls
Snoqualmie Falls, by Bryan Davidson

I never appreciated just how small the A200 was.  As my first DSLR, all I had to compare it too was my A570IS, which fit in a pocket.  Until fairly recently, I always felt like the A200 was a hulking beast.  Two things helped me put the size of the A200 in proportion.  First, I have now tried a lot more cameras and the A200 is smaller than most of them.  Second, I bought a couple of Minolta primes which gave me outstanding images in a smaller package.  With the 50mm f/1.4 attached, the A200 just isn’t very big.  In fact, it’s just right.  (Note to Sony: sell a compact, affordable 25mm f/2 prime for APS-C and I’ll stick around for a lot longer).

The handling of my A200 has become so second nature to me that I struggle to find controls on newer cameras from other manufacturers (and Sony, who changed their layout after the A200).  Whenever it gets replaced, I’ll miss my A200.

Bluejay
Bluejay, by Bryan Davidson

Image Quality

I’m not going to talk too much about image quality, because I’m a firm believer that any DSLR released in the past 2 years is good enough for 95% of applications. The worst DSLR available today can still produce fantastic results. When shooting RAW and using Lightroom 3, the A200 can produce beautiful results up to and including ISO1600. That’s a stop or two below today’s best offerings, but don’t forget that over two years have passed. Using Lightroom 2, I usually stopped at ISO800, but Lightroom 3 (beta) has opened up the option of ISO1600 and made IS800 a no-brainer. At high ISO’s, setting the chroma noise reduction to 20-50 and leaving the luminance setting at 15 or less (I usually go with “0”) gives some nice film-like results. When combined with a quality lens, there is nothing I can complain about regarding the A200’s image quality.

Rocky Ridge
Rocky Ridge, by Bryan Davidson

Performance

This is where my bias comes in.  As my first DSLR, I was blown away by everything from the lack of shutter-lag to the quick on-off times and the battery life.  There are lots of DSLR’s out there today that can outperform my A200, but to me it was perfect.  The sensor-based image stabilization has won me over and I will never be able to buy a camera without it.  I’ve gotten usable images at ridiculous shutter speeds down to 1/2 second.  When I started using film cameras for the first time, I was surprised at how much more careful I had to be to keep my images sharp.  I know that lens-based stabilization can be theoretically better, but I’ve got stabilization on every lens from any decade without paying extra.  The only thing I could ask for is a more obvious indication if it is turned off.  Almost every time I turn it off for tripod use I forget to turn it back on until I get my first blurry shot.

Glowing Tulip
Glowing Tulip, by Bryan Davidson

Conclusion

I know at the time I made the right choice by buying the A200.  I will always remember it as the camera that taught me and got me hooked on photography.  This was the perfect first camera and I have no regrets for purchasing it.  I’m not too excited about Sony’s latest offerings, but I can’t blame the A200 for the crimes of its younger siblings.  Any time that I think about upgrading, all I have to do is put the A200 back into my hands or look at some of the pictures I’ve taken with it and those thoughts almost vanish.  It has served me well.  All of my A200 Flickr pictures can be found here.

Lone Tree on White Stone
Lone Tree on White Stone, by Bryan Davidson

Canon S90

Canon S90
Canon S90, by bfishadow

Small sensor compact cameras are a dying breed.  I give them 5 years at the most before becoming a niche product.  They’re being squeezed from both ends.  From the smaller end, cell phone cameras are getting bigger and better every day with the current champ being the 8mp camera in the HTC Incredible phone.  Obviously megapixels do not equate to quality, but at Facebook resolutions, the quality difference between a good camera phone and a compact is minimal.  Meanwhile, the quality difference between a compact and a DSLR is huge, even at small print sizes.  The larger sensors on DSLRs (and mirrorless large sensor cameras) enable low-light performance and a shallow depth of field that’s impossible to replicate with a tiny sensor.  The danger from that direction is the flock of Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable-Lens (EVIL) cameras.  Or, if you like, Digital Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable-Lens (DEVIL) cameras.  EVIL cameras are almost pocketable and they can match the image quality of most DSLRs while beating the pants off of small sensor compacts.  Pants, actually, are exactly the reason I bought the Canon S90 even though I can see that it’s a member of a dying breed.  If a camera is small, but too big to fit in my pocket, then it’s not small enough.  For example, take a look at the new Sony NEX cameras.  The camera body looks pocketable, but the lens is huge.  There is a 16mm (24mm-e) pancake lens option and I’ll admit to that combination producing a bit of drool from me.  Maybe I’ll wait and ask Santa for one at Christmas.

Spiky Mushroom
Spiky Mushroom, by Me

For now, I’m happy using one of the best small-sensor cameras ever made.  At the top are probably this camera, the Canon G11, and the Panasonic LX3.  The biggest thing that sets these cameras apart is the ability to shoot RAW.  If you don’t know what RAW is, this article provides a good explanation.  Simply put, a RAW file contains the original data captured by the camera, while a JPEG file has been compressed and processed according to the camera settings.  For me, the two biggest benefits to shooting RAW are the ability to rescue files that have not been exposed properly, and having more control over noise removal.  I tend to prefer detail with some noise in my photos while Canon and other camera manufactures prefer to smear out detail in order to remove as much noise as possible.  Yes, chroma noise is ugly, but it can be removed without smearing details.  Luminance noise just doesn’t bother me very much.  In use, the JPEGs from the camera look fine to me up to about ISO400, but in RAW I can get results that I’m very happy with up to ISO800.

Merry-Go-Round
Merry-Go-Round, by Me

One of the reasons the S90 has decent noise performance is that Canon wisely chose to sit out during this round of the megapixel race and focus instead on image quality.  The S90 shares its sensor with the G11, which miraculously has less pixels than it’s predecessor with 10mp instead of the whopping 14.7mp in the G10.  What this means is better low-light performance and an added bonus of about 40% smaller file sizes.  The sensor is bigger than what is found in most compact cameras at 1/1.7″, but it’s still tiny compared to a micro 4/3 or APS-C sensor.

Not so Tall
Not So Tall, by Me

The lens is great, mostly for its f/2 aperture at the wide end.  A larger aperture means a lower ISO, which is extra important when dealing with a small sensor.  I end up using the camera as if it had a 28mm prime on it.  As you zoom in, the maximum aperture drops to a very slow f/4.5, and the lens seems to be a little softer on the long end.

Skylight
Skylight, by Me

I love the minimalist design of this camera.  There’s not a single unnecessary crease or bulge.  I find that this is one of the very few digital cameras that is possible to admire as an object.  Some have complained about the lack of a grip on the right side.  While it would probably benefit from one, I can’t say that it makes that much of a difference on a camera this small and light.  For such a small camera, the S90 is a pleasure to use.  It has the control wheel on the front that got everyone buzzing when the camera was released.  There is a second control wheel on the back that is adjusted using your thumb.  Both control wheels and a custom button can be set to control just about anything.  The front wheel has a nice feel to it and it clicks into place with discrete stops as you rotate it.  Unfortunately, the back wheel has no discrete positions and spins freely.  Be careful what you set this wheel to control because you will change it without meaning to.  It’s amazing that such a small thing has caused me a lot of annoyance when using the camera.  Still, if you fiddle with the settings enough you can set up the camera to be very usable.

Droplets
Droplets, by Me

Image quality is better than I’ve ever seen in a small sensor camera.  That said, after editing images from the S90 for a while and being quite pleased with the quality, I was stunned when I returned to editing images from my A200.  The S90 is perfect for a go-anywhere camera.  It works great as a backup to my A200, but certainly not as a replacement.

Loop
Loop, by Me

Even though it’s aimed at enthusiasts, the S90 would make the perfect camera for the not-so-digitally-savvy.  It works just fine in auto mode and it doesn’t have very many buttons and menus to clutter things up and confuse an inexperienced user.  Plus, there is plenty of room to grow into more of the manual settings.  If you are concerned more about responsiveness and image quality than size, look elsewhere (DSLR or EVIL).  Otherwise, I highly recommend it.

A Splash of Yellow
A Splash of Yellow, by Me

Thrift Store Cameras: Olympus OM-10 and Fujifilm Instax 100

My sister-in-law came to visit last weekend and wanted to visit a few thrift stores around town.  I have a strange fascination with technology from the 70’s and 80’s, especially audio and photography equipment.  Thrift stores such as Goodwill can provide a nearly endless supply of half-broken, ugly electronics.  To be clear, if you are looking for a specific camera that you intend to use as your primary shooter, a thrift store is probably not your best bet.  If you are looking for a boring, terrible, who-cares, pocket-able 35mm point and shoot camera from the ’90’s for less than $10, then you’ll be in heaven.  I like to look for obscure cameras that stand out to me as a little different.  I found two cameras that met my requirements.

Olympus OM-10, by Lex Tollenaar

The first, an Olympus OM-10, is not so much strange, but I like it.  What I really want is an OM-1, because of it’s historic significance, but I haven’t gotten around to looking for a good one and I don’t feel like spending the money on it right now.  The OM-10 is a “consumer” version of the OM-1.  The significance of the OM-1 is that it was the smallest 35mm SLR of its time and it set a precedent that was followed by other camera manufacturers for years to come.  The OM-10 matches the form-factor of the OM-1, but it has slightly less build quality and lacks native support for manual shutter speed adjustment.  To address this, an additional “manual adapter” can be plugged into the front of the camera to provide a shutter speed setting.  The camera I bought from the thrift store included the adapter.  I usually shoot in aperture priority even on my DSLR, though, so the adapter is more of a “nice to have” for me.  It also sells for almost as much as the OM-10 itself, so there’s that.  I’m currently shooting my first roll of film with it, so I’ll write up a full report once I use it some more.  The lens I’m using is a 35mm f/2.8.  It’s very compact and light, but it’s not in the best condition.  The rubber focus grip is coming off and the focus movement is not as smooth as I’d like.  Still, the view through the viewfinder is big and bright and the entire package is very compact for an SLR, so I’m pretty happy so far.

Fujifilm Instax 100 Instant Camera
Fujifilm Instax 100 Instant Camera, by Arty Smokes

The second camera I bought was a Fujifilm Instax 100.  Introduced in 1999, the camera is Fujifilm’s answer to the Polaroid.  Since Polaroid film is no more (with a resurrection in the works), Fujifilm’s Instax system provides a nice alternative for those of you who like to get your pictures instantly.  Although you can’t tell from the picture, the Instax 100 is comically large (and let’s be honest, that’s why I bought it).  It’s bigger than your head (probably).  It also happens to be the single ugliest camera I’ve ever seen.  I happen to think that cameras can be beautiful (the Kodak Retina IIa, for example), but not the Instax 100.  It doesn’t matter whose eyes are beholding it, the thing is ugly.  It would have been ugly in any color, but Fujifilm chose horrible shades of blue and gray to enhance the ugliness to near epic levels.  When I first powered the camera on, it came up with an “E” on the LCD screen and wouldn’t respond to any button presses.  I opened up the back and it looked like the cheap plastic gears that extend the lens’ front element were jammed.  With some grunting, a little elbow grease, and a dash of swearing, I popped the lens back into place with a cracking sound that was loud enough to make me think I just destroyed my priceless $9.99 plastic camera.  Luckily, the camera came back on without showing the dreaded “E” on the display.  There were about 6 sheets of film left in the camera and I was actually able to get a few pictures from them.  I’ve ordered some more film, but it runs at about $1 per sheet, so I was glad to have some free sheets to get some practice with first.  This camera is so crappy in every way that it’s endearing.  Here’s the experience of taking a photo with the Instax 100: 1) push power button 2) wait and pray that the “E” doesn’t show up 3) cringe while the lens grinds its way out into shooting position 4) aim the camera using the tiny, impossible-to-see-through viewfinder 5) push the flash button 6) wonder what the flash button actually does, because it seems to go off no matter what 7) push the flash button again 8 ) nothing happens 9) subject starts to get restless, probably stops smiling 10) push the shutter release 11) wait, and pray that the new grinding noise is normal 12) grab the picture from the top of the camera and wait for it to show up.  13) realize that you cut off your subject’s head 14) curse, because that shot just cost you $1 15) repeat.  It may not sound like it, but I’m incredibly happy with my purchase.  The Instax 100 is hilariously fun to use, and when you get a good shot (which I might eventually accomplish), it is probably quite satisfying.  However, I’m scared to use this camera in public.

Reg in My First Instax Shot
Reg in My First Instax Shot, by AndyWilson

Both cameras were good finds, especially for thrift stores.  It’s funny to me that I bought one camera renowned for its small size along with another camera that’s so comically large.  If you’re feeling like you might be in a photographic rut, then go out and find a strange camera.  Have fun, shoot pictures with it.  Image quality isn’t everything.  You may not get anything frame-worthy, but at least you’ll be shooting and having fun.