Saturday, July 06, 2013

Neil Gaiman eulogizes Iain Banks

I'm pleased that Neil Gaiman was a fan of Iain Banks, as evidenced by this Eulogy.

And then I wrote to Iain.  [...]
I think you're a brilliant and an honest writer, and much more importantly, because I've known lots of brilliant writers who were absolute arses, I think you're a really good bloke, and I've loved knowing you.
If you've never read any of his books, read one of his books. Then read another. Even the bad ones were good, and the good ones were astonishing.

For me, to be frank, there are several of his most mainstream books which I don't think I'll ever get through. But his more quirky stuff and especially his space opera, was in a class of itself. For example, the term "space opera" doesn't cover his SF by a long shot. Surface Detail took place partly in artificial, computer-generated virtual realities, which got as weird as anything I've read. One of them was a highly controversial Hell Reality, which was just like a very imaginative mind could imagine Hell to be. Many wanted it deleted, but the conservative/religious forces on the planets involved kept it going. For moral and social purposes, you understand, not because of basic sadism... Two of the main character voluntarily goes in there to report of the horrors. But as you may imagine, that world is not exactly designed to be easy to get out of...

There are enough great ideas in Surface Detail alone that many authors would have gotten 8-10 books out of it. But Banks' problem didn't seem to be getting enough ideas, more how to get them down fast enough. 

Sensor size graphic

For future reference if nothing else.

This graphic is larger than life. (Micro Four Thirds is 13.5x18mm, and Full Frame is like the old negative size 24x36mm.)
Which shows how much sharper sensors can be made than film normally was. (Many phone cameras have even smaller sensors than the smallest here.) The smallest successful film format was the Instamatic 110 casettes (the small, flat cameras). The negative was 13x17 mm, which made for very poor image quality if you tried to go above the 4x5-inch standard prints. Attempts at even smaller formats (Kodak Disc!) were too horrible even for casual snapshooters, and failed. And yet the "1/2.3" size (I swear they use these terms just to hide facts) is only 5x6mm and can give great results! (If the light and lens is good.)

Here's a 2013 article about what sensor size matter. 

Thursday, July 04, 2013

How to Photograph Fireworks Displays

How to Photograph Fireworks Displays, article

Keys points:
  • Tripod. 
  • Wide lens mostly.  
  • Lowest ISO setting. 
  • Small aperture (11 or 16). 
  • Manual mode and manual focus. 
  • Long exposures, perhaps bulb. But not too long, they are easier to over-expose than you think. 
Photo by Vlad

A triumph: Olympus E-PL5 at high ISO (updated)

A small giant

I yesterday watched a short review (which I can't find now) of the new Olympus E-P5, Micro-Four-Thirds camera.
The lady, sitting behind the desk, said words to this effect: "image quality is good until ISO 800, from 1600 and up it begins to get a bit blurry". (ISO of course being the setting of light sensitivity of the sensor. The higher you push it, the more quality suffers because of the signal boosting.)

This didn't fit with my feeling about it. Okay, my old Panasonic GF1 did not do at all well over 800 ISO (basically unusable at 1600), but things have improved immensely recently, so I tested it today. Well, I tested the E-PL5, which has the same sensor and is a bit older and cheaper than the E-P5, so if anything it should be not quite as good.

The result surprised me. I don't know what that lady had been looking at (or smoking), but my test images were sharp and baby-bum smooth up til at least 6400 ISO! Astounding for a M4/3 camera.

Not only that, 12,000 ISO is pretty good too! And even 25,000 ISO wouldn't be unusable in some situations, though barely.
[Note, earlier I had written "1200" and "2500". I'm not used to using 5-digit numbers about ISO sensitivity! We're not in Kansas anymore.] [Note two: normally people use "12,800" and "25,600", but this is misleadingly precise numbers in such an area.)

Why is this so exciting? Well, young people are getting used to developments like this in electronic, but those of us who photographed before the millennium, the only one way to get just one stop higher sensitivity (a doubling of ISO) was to either accept a dreadful degrading of quality over 400 ISO, or to get a faster lens. And a faster lens, say two stops faster, was, and is, much bigger, much heavier, and much more expensive (so much so that they were and are out of the reach of most amateurs). And then you got to deal with the much shorter depth of field (depth of sharpness), this is not the case with sensor improvements. So you may see the improvements in recent years as getting a 1.5-kilogram, $2.000 lens for free, plus getting the faster film without the quality hit. Heady stuff.

I even tend to forget, except when trying to photograph with a phone camera, but the ability to freely photograph hand-held indoors or after sunset and get top-notch quality is new, and very liberating indeed.

You can download full from-camera files of those three settings from here. (Click on the three dots in lower right when looking at one of them. (Three dots is new-speak for "Menu".).)

At 6400 ISO:

Same one, about 100%, detail:

... Perfect 6400 ISO on one of the smallest exchangeable-lens cameras in the world! Dang. People who think M4/3 is still not up to pro use haven't looked at recent results.

In fact, personally I think that M4/3 is the future format for enthusiast and professionals. You can make the cameras so small that they are almost too small for some photographers. And the format is big enough, especially with future development, that you can accomplish any technical quality anybody would want, including shallow depth of field for portraits and such.
I think bigger formats will become reserved for special purposes. And smaller formats will be reserved for pocket cameras and phone cameras.
So it seems Olympus was right when they chose that sensor size originally. Although it took over a decade for the quality of it to become truly pro. Just a few years ago they had serious limitations in dynamic range and in low-light capability, and focus speed. In the past 3-4 years they have blasted through those barriers with a vengeance.

This is no idle prediction, because if I'm right, it means that Fuji, Leica, Sony, and the others which have bet on the bigger APS-C format for their mirror-less cameras, have bet on the wrong horse. Already now, and especially in just a couple of years, the format is simply unnecessarily big, and they'll be stuck with big and clumsy cameras and especially lenses all the while the party is on all night in the M4/3 camp.

A note: the E-PL5 (and a couple similar cameras) is a dream camera for street photographers. After waiting impatiently all through the "noughties", we finally got our digital street camera: compact, rapid response and focusing, and image quality good enough for gallery pictures. And this specific one has a tiltable screen, which I feel is very useful for a more flexible viewpoint and for not spooking the natives.
(If you want a pocketable camera with zoom and outstanding image quality, look at Sony RX100, which has just been announced in a M2 version with tiltable screen.)

Monday, July 01, 2013

Too-short zoom. Leica X Vario

Leica has come out with a brand new model, the X Vario, which is "economical" compared to most Leica cameras at US$ 2,850.
It's an APSC sensor, meaning pretty big, and it has a fixed zoom lens. Which means this zoom has to be either real damn big and expensive, or it has to be slow and limited in range. Leica chose the latter. It is 3.5 to 6.3.

Worse, in my opinion, is the zoom range: equivalent of 28mm to 70mm. I have had a few cameras and zooms with this range, and I consider it rather useless. 70mm is not even telephoto, it is just long-normal.
In contrast, I've also had, and still use, cameras with a 28mm-120mm range, and I consider these highly useful, going from taking in a landscape or a room, over normal, to covering all normal portrait ranges, to short telephoto.

For me it's a deal breaker. I almost think you may as well make it a prime lens then. This would make it faster, and more compact. And you could crop with limited quality loss. In any case, it doesn't appeal to me. Every time I use a camera with only a 2.5X zoom range, I think 'what is this good for'?

Okay, it should be said, the image quality of the X Vario is outstanding by all reports. That's good. If it wasn't, what would be the raĆ®son d'etre of it? I'd rather get, for example, one of the new Fuji X-mount cameras, which also have great quality. And exchangeable lenses for much great flexibility.

I think that if Leica had stepped one more step down in sensor size, to Micro-Four-Thirds size, they may have had a much more interesting camera. It could be almost the same image quality, be rather more compact, and have a greater zoom range.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

'bye Irv

Irv Thomas passed on peacefully recently, in his eighties. He was a friend and example to many, and one of the most active and famous hitch-hikers in the world.

Recent interview.
Irv's home page.

(Photo by me, when he visited me a couple of years ago.)

A heavy girl

[Thanks to Bert] 

Aaralyn and Izzy. The singer is six. It's original growl thrash heavy music by her and her brother, nine. I think she is better, and scarier, than most adult male growlers I've heard.

(Notice the look she gives her brother at 1:20 when whazface says he can't wait to hear their "sweet music".)