Friday, September 21, 2012

Space Shuttle Endeavour

OK, no curious cameras were involved (just a boring old Nikon D3).  But the space shuttle Endeavour flew over San Francisco today, on the back of a 747, and I had so much fun shooting it, I wanted to share a couple pictures.

Today was the last day that any of the shuttles will ever fly.  Endeavour is now on the ground in Los Angeles, where it will soon be ensconced in the California Science Center forevermore.  Seeing it overhead for the last time was a sad and beautiful thing.

space shuttle endeavour

space shuttle endeavour

Update: I run the San Francisco Lightroom user group, and at our October, 2012 meeting I used the black and white photo above as an example while I talked about some of the things you can do in the Lightroom Develop module.  If you'd like to see what the photo looked like originally, and how I made it look the way it looks here, you can watch the full presentation here, or you can watch an abbreviated version here.

Update 2: The website PetaPixel has featured the how-to video that I made, you can see their article here.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Leica M-Monochrom and our Love of Rangefinders

Earlier this month Leica announced the M-Monochrom, an eight thousand dollar digital camera that shoots only black and white, and I recently had the opportunity to spend a day shooting with a pre-production model.

Shot with the Leica M-Monochrom

Shot with the Leica M-Monochrom

Maybe the lovely Tony (pictured above) is scratching his head because he's wondering why on earth anyone would spend eight thousand dollars on a camera that shoots only black and white.  Why not buy a camera with the advanced "color" feature, and convert the photos to black and white later if that's what you want?  If you believe Leica, the rationale is that the elimination of the color filter array results in better light sensitivity, since the filter array isn't cutting the light, and better detail, since there's no demosaicing required.  And, in Leica's words, the image is a "true" black and white, since each pixel registers full luminance values.

And it's true, the detail and tonality are remarkable.  But consider for a moment the Foveon X3 sensor, and the Sigma cameras that use it.  No color filter array, no demosacing, full luminance registered at each pixel location.  And, get this, it shoots color.  The point being, there's no technical necessity to limit a shooter to black and white, just to achieve the alleged advantages that limitation brings.

So then, what is the real reason that someone would spend eight thousand dollars on a digital camera that only shoots black and white?  The real reason is that it's an eight thousand dollar digital camera that only shoots black and white.  It's the same reason anyone would shoot with a rangefinder at all these days: it's obtuse to the point of cool.  Or, more charitably, limits breed creativity (a topic about which I've written before).  Of course historically there were actual advantages to rangefinders, but the advent of digital obviated most of those advantages to one degree or another.  DP Review recently tried to articulate the appeal, but basically these days it boils down to, "I am a bomb-ass photographer, and a baller to boot; I like my exposure controls physical, my focus manual, and I'll be goddamned if I'm going to shoot in color.  Check out my sweet Leica man-jewelry.  Yeah, they left the "e" off the end of "Monochrom" on purpose.  Less is more, man."

I sound scornful, but I'm really not, I see the appeal.  And so does everyone else, judging by the incredible popularity of the micro four thirds format, and other rangefinder-style cameras.  Leica is the only company making an actual, true digital rangefinder (though based on the eBay prices of the six year old Epson RD-1, other manufacturers might want to consider it).  But plenty of the new mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras bring that rangefinderesque joy, perhaps none more so than the recent Fujifilm X-Pro 1.

Tony (of head-scratching fame), let me borrow his X-Pro 1 for a recent day of shooting on the Golden Gate Bridge.  A tough subject if you're concerned about "originality" since, as the sign in the adjacent gift shop mentions, it is the most photographed bridge in the world.  (The sign does not mention that it is also the world's number one suicide destination.)

Shot with the Fuji X-Pro 1

Shot with the Fuji X-Pro 1

As soon as you start using the X-Pro 1 (or any other mirrorless interchangeable lens camera) one advantage of the Leica (and the Epson RD-1, for that matter) becomes immediately clear: fifty years worth of truly superb lenses (at truly bone chilling prices).  Unless you want to use an adaptor, there are currently three lenses available for the X-Pro 1.  The 35mm is a brilliant lens, fast and sharp, a real joy.  But after using the glorious 35, the 18mm seems a bit soft, and the 60mm spends most of its time hunting around for focus.  Limiting myself exclusively to the world's most boring focal length was an interesting creative challenge, but using only one lens does rather call into question the value of an interchangeable lens camera.  But using the X-Pro 1 feels like using a camera; it's got physical dials in all the right places, including an aperture ring on the lens; it's got a viewfinder that takes all the advantages of an SLR viewfinder, a rangefinder viewfinder, and a digital screen, and crams them all into one improbable package.  It's got those silly little modern niceties like auto focus, and color, but it's also got that great retro appeal, that classic, dyed-in-the-wool je ne sai quoi.  All 10,000 people on the Golden Gate Bridge who were carrying a Canon Rebel around their neck looked at this camera out of the corner of their eye as they passed.  One guy stopped and asked me (in a combination of what I believe was Japanese and broken English) if it was a Leica.  If Fuji's goal was to capture the essence of a Leica in a more modern, usable package, I believe they are now free to lean back, clasp their hands behind their heads, and let loose a maniacal laugh.

The Leica M-Monochrom and the Fuji X-Pro 1


While the Leica M cameras and the X-Pro 1 feel like brethren of a sort, like they share some fundamental philosophy, there are other philosophies on offer in the mirrorless, interchangeable lens world. A couple days ago I got my hands on a Sony NEX-7.  It's another small, mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera with a rangefinder style body, so it fits right in.  Sort of.  Compared to the X-Pro 1, it's less like using a camera and more like using an electronic appliance of some kind.  But it's cheaper, smaller, faster, and has a better selection of lenses.  The pictures look great, and it can manage some basic tasks that flumox the X-Pro 1, such as focusing in anything less than broad daylight.

Shot with the Sony NEX-7

It has no retro appeal.  No one looks at it out of the corner of their eye.  Instead, it just works, all the time.  I miss having an aperture ring on the lens.  But not too much.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lightroom User Group

Tonight I will be hosting the very first meeting of the Bay Area Lightroom User Group at the Adobe San Francisco office, 601 Townsend Street.

We're pretty much booked up for tonight, but if you're interested in attending future meetings, please join our group on Meetup.  It'll be a great way to learn all about Lightroom, and meet other photography enthusiasts!  We plan to meet once a month, and will alternate the location between the Adobe San Francisco office and the Adobe San Jose office.

Update: We had a great meeting!  You can watch a recording of the full presentation here.  My actual presentation starts about three minutes in, and runs for about an hour.  Interested in Lightroom, but never tried it out?  Watch the presentation, and in one hour you'll learn everything you need to know to start using Lightroom productively.  You can purchase Lightroom here or download a free 30 day trial here.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Lytro - It's Aliiiiiive!

The most succinct description one could give of the Lytro Light Field Camera is this: it's not a camera, it's a purchasable tech-demo.  That was my impression when I placed my preorder last fall, and six weeks of shooting with the device hasn't changed my mind.  There, you can stop reading now.  You're welcome.

Oh, hi.  You're still here?  As you may already have noticed, you can click on the picture above to change the focus.  Seriously, try it.  Focusing after having taken the picture is a neat trick enabled by the Lytro camera.  Lytro calls this a "living picture", and their site is steeped in a thick broth of marketing copy explaining how much more engaging these photos will be for the viewer, compared to the static, fixed, presumably "dead" pictures of yore.  I suspect I'm not going out on much of a limb when I say that's a bunch of crap. Viewers will find clicking on photos to refocus them to be fun for exactly 17 seconds, after which they'll be bored, not to mention annoyed that they're being made to do work the photographer should have done already.  As for the folks behind the camera, placing the focus is a creative decision, and in general, photographers aren't going to want the end viewer making their creative decisions for them.  Lytro knows this perfectly well, as evidenced by this picture from their website:

You'll notice that this is not a "living picture."  You cannot click it to change the focus.  Why ever not?  Because the photographer has a specific intent, an individual element of the picture on which they wish to focus your attention.  I'll give you a hint, it's not the chick in the background.

Let me be clear, I'm not skeptical about the value of being able to set focus after the fact, I'm only skeptical about the value of letting the viewer set focus after the fact.  Letting the photographer set focus after the fact is fantastic.  Any technology that shifts creative decision making away from the crucial moment of capture, and instead lets you make the decision later from the comfort of your couch, is hugely valuable.  If we didn't think so, we wouldn't bother shooting raw.  As such, it's easy for me to imagine that this functionality, if not necessarily this specific technology, will make its way into a wide variety of cameras in the future, and I suspect that Lytro's goal is not to become a consumer electronics manufacturer, but rather to license their technology to established camera makers, or perhaps be purchased outright, à la Foveon.  The camera is a proof of concept.

So, does it work?  Yeah, sure, I guess.  It has a tiny little sensor, so like any small sensor camera, pretty much everything is in focus pretty much all of the time anyway.  If you actually want to see the power of refocusing at work, you essentially need to compose your shot with that in mind.  You need to put a humming bird feeder a few inches from the lens, with San Francisco Bay at infinity in the background.  Lytro talks about how this camera eliminates the need to worry about focus.  But of course you want to take advantage of the cool thing that your camera can do, so you end up thinking more about focus when shooting with this camera, rather than less.  It would be a different matter if shooting with the Lytro were like shooting with a 50mm f/1.2 on your Canon 5D Mark III, where your shot of that beautiful woman can be ruined because you focused on the tip of her nose, rather than her eye.  Besides the fact that the Lytro can't achieve a depth of field that shallow, it doesn't have sufficient resolution to reveal missed focus that subtle.  That's not soft focus you're seeing, that's the maximum resolving power of the 1 megapixel image.

And both the camera and software have enough quirks, flaws, and oversights that shooting with the camera isn't always quite the experience you might hope.

For example, the camera has a tremendous zoom range, 8x, roughly 35mm-280mm equivalent.  But in order to avail yourself of the full zoom range, you need to put the camera in "creative" mode, which then requires that you, get this: focus before shooting the picture.  That's done by tapping on the screen, and is quite slow.  Positively glacial, actually.  You can still refocus after the fact, but only across a narrow range, thus the necessity to specify the center of that range at the time the picture is taken.  Why is this required?  I'm honestly not sure.  DP Review's article on the Lytro makes it sound as if, in non-creative mode, the camera is simply set to hyperfocal distance, everything is captured in focus, and portions of it are then presumably defocused later.  But maybe I'm not understanding them correctly.  Certainly Lytro CEO Ren Ng's dissertation does not make it sound like this is how it works, though my reading of his dissertation was admittedly cursory.

What else?  The screen on the camera is terrible.  You haven't seen an LCD screen this bad since the mid 90's.  Which is a real shame, because this camera attracts a lot of attention, and people always want you to show them its trick.  But the screen is so incredibly low resolution that you can't tell focused from unfocused except in the most extreme conditions, thus making it essentially impossible to demo the magic for interested bystanders.  Simply from a word-of-mouth marketing standpoint, it would have behoved Lytro to put a better screen in this thing.

The form factor of the camera, including the placement of its touch sensitive zoom strip (hyper-touch sensitive; I'm constantly zooming by accident) and its tap-screen-to-focus creative mode mean that shooting with this camera is pretty much a two-handed operation, despite its diminutive size.  And the lens cap attaches magnetically, which seems very slick until you realize how weak the magnets are and how easily the cap comes off.  I'm quite confident I'll lose it at some point.  (Update: yup, lost it.  To Lytro's credit, they sent me a replacement lens cap for free!  I'm going to tether this one.)

The software is extremely limited, which is fine, this is the first go, and presumably it will be expanded going forward.  But even allowing for its minimal functionality, it has some inexplicable usability flaws.  For example, you can't view your pictures at 1:1, or full screen (though you can once they're uploaded to the website - what?).  And it's twitchy.  Sometimes it fails to hold focus on the point I specify, and it's crashed on me a handful of times.

And here, perhaps, is the most telling thing of all: a week after I got the Lytro in my hot little hands, after having eagerly anticipated its arrival for almost six months, I took a weekend trip to New York.  Of course I brought the Lytro with me and guess what: I never took it out with me, not once.  I wasn't carrying a bag, it's too awkwardly shaped to fit in a pocket, and perhaps most importantly, I had a great little camera, the Fuji X10, slung on a strap around my neck.  When judged on conventional criteria, the image quality of the Lytro can't even compete with your phone.  Resolution is low.  Noise is high.  Dynamic range is poor.  I knew that if I ended up capturing something nice with the Lytro, I would wish that it had been taken with the Fuji.

And yet.

Beyond the obvious wow-factor of "shoot first, focus later," there are a lot of reasons to love, or at least be impressed by, this camera.  First of all, it's a beautiful little object, a characteristic I actually place a lot of value on.  The software is also attractive.  They've taken something that could easily have been overly complex, and made it overly simplistic, which is really quite an accomplishment.  And this whole "light field technology" thing enables some not-so-obvious things too:

The camera is really fast.  Shot to shot time, when you don't have to focus, is essentially instant.  It's liberating to have a point and shoot that shoots as fast as the quickest SLRs I've used.  It boots fast too.

While the lens does exhibit mild barrel distortion and pin cushioning, there's no chromatic aberration.  Why not?  Heck, I don't know, probably something to do with micro lenses.  I don't notice any vignetting either.

The 8x zoom lens is an f/2 across the entire zoom range.  A 35-280 f/2 zoom in a cheap little point and shoot.  Are you still shooting with that 5D Mark III?  A 200mm f/2 prime will cost you six thousand dollars.  I don't mean to suggest they're equivalent, but any technology that enables fast, small, cheap, long zooms with no chromatic aberration is pretty cool, never mind being able to focus later.

The reach of the optical zoom can be seen here when we go from full wide:

to full telephoto:

And there really are instances where focusing later is handy.  For example, it can often be hard to capture the right focus when shooting small, fast moving things close to the lens, such as hyper active dogs that charge whenever you hold something down at their level.  Picking focus later makes this shooting situation much easier.  I know I want the dog in focus, I really don't want you clicking on the house instead, so I'm not giving you a "living picture."  Instead, after setting the focus on the dog in Lytro's software, I export a JPEG, bring it into Lightroom to touch it up a bit, and then post it here.  Just like a regular picture, except without a blurry dog.

Lastly, I guess I have to admit, there are times when being able to to rack focus back and forth across a shot is kinda cool.

Then, of coures, there's the future.  And I'm not talking about improved hardware and better cameras, though surely that will come.  I'm talking about improvements to the Lytro software, which will enable you to do more with the pictures that you've already shot using the first gen Lytro you own today.  Lytro has already demoed the ability to subtly shift perspective in a picture.  Not just from one set view to another, as with the two images taken by a stereo camera, but continuously, albeit across a very small range.  I assume the same shift could be made along the Y axis as well.

This animated gif is from Lytro's blog, and it illustrates some intriguing possibilities besides just perspective shift.  Most obviously, the ability to shift perspective like that also means that 3D images could be created from single exposures.  Although I regularly boycott 3D movies, I'm a big fan of 3D photography.  Life is full of contradictions.  There are some other, less obvious, things about this photo as well.  Note, for example, that everything is in focus, the depth of field is infinite.  Currently the Lytro software only allows you to place the focal plane at the point of your choosing along the Z axis.  The software does not allow control over depth of field, but presumably it could.  The ability to create photos where everything is in focus, like the one above, would be cool, but cooler than that would be the ability to use a small sensor point and shoot to create a photo with as shallow a depth of field as you're getting at f/1.2 on your full frame SLR.  Either way, decoupling depth of field from aperture would open up some interesting possibilities.  And is there any reason that future versions of the software couldn't allow you to swing the focal plane, as with a tilt-shift lens?  If Lytro really does continue to enhance the software, this camera will be the gift that keeps on giving.

Despite the camera's shortcomings, shooting with it has been a lot of fun, and that's really the only reason I shoot with anything.  If you think of it as a regular camera, it's a disappointment.  If you think of it as an amazing photographic novelty, it's a blast.  Heck, if nothing else, it's a great conversation starter.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lightroom 4 Now Available

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 is now available.  I've spent the better part of the last year and a half working on it so, you know, in my completely unbiased opinion it totally rocks and you should go buy it.  Or, since the price has been cut in half, you could even buy two!

Lightroom info on
What's new video on YouTube
Press release on DP Review
Review on DP Review
Product page on Amazon

And yes: that is the real box cover.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Instant Obsolescence

This past week was the 65th anniversary of the Polaroid Land Camera.  That news sent me scurrying around the house to see if I still own a Polaroid camera.  Apparently I don't, although there have been several in my past.  My favorite was the Polaroid Captiva which, rather than ejecting the exposed pictures out of the camera, slid them into a compartment on the back of the camera where, via the clear back panel, you could view them without removing them from the camera.  The camera was manufactured through 1997, and I imagine someone at Polaroid thinking that the in-camera viewing trick was cool because it was like looking at the screen on the back of a digital camera.

Although my Captiva has gone the way of all things, I did find this in the back of a desk drawer:

The Polaroid PoGo, a wireless, battery powered, bluetooth, portable printer.  It makes tiny 2 inch by 3 inch prints (you can peel off the backing paper, and they become stickers) and requires no ink due to dye crystals embedded in the paper which are activated by a laser in the printer.  Lasers.  Sweet.

You can actually still buy this thing but let's face it, it hasn't taken the world by storm.  Sure, it has its flaws.  The battery life is good for a chuckle.  And the print quality won't take your breath away, or at least not in a good way.  But really, who cares?  It's a tiny, portable printer, what do you expect?  The PoGo failed not because of flaws in design or execution (or even due to its stupid name), but because we simply don't care.

It seemed like a brilliant idea to me and I bought one the second it came out.  It seemed brilliant to me not because I thought we all need printers in our pockets, but because it was easy for me to imagine a future in which we said, "Remember when we use to have to put ink in our printers?  What a pain in the ass that was."  Instead, we have a future in which we say, "Remember printers?"

The primary benefits of the original Land Camera, the already-ancient PoGo, and the Polaroid company itself, were instant gratification and immediate dissemination.  As such, the reasons for their irrelevance today are too obvious to belabor.  A world in which we all have tiny computers in our pocket which can not only connect to vast, world-wide databases of information from essentially anywhere, but can take pictures to boot may be a strange world, but it's a clear and direct descendant of the world in which Land's daughter, perhaps apocryphally, asked him, "Why can't I see it now?"  The human urge which created Polaroid in the first place virtually assured its eventual obsolescence.

And yet.  Shouldn't any world we make have room for the quirky and beautiful and delightfully outmoded?  For the fascinatingly useless?  For an attention to arcana so focused and obsessive we can't help but feel a bit of gleeful amazement?  The answer, apparently, is yes, yes, and yes.

Clicking "Play" is like asking me to steal 49 seconds of your life.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Dycam Model 1

It seems appropriate that the first article on this site should be about the first digital camera.  As with most things, it's possible to nit-pick here.  Ideas for things that sound a lot like digital cameras were patented as early as 1968.  The first digital camera that was actually built was made by Steven Sasson at Eastman Kodak (oh, how the mighty have fallen) in 1975.  It was not commercially produced.  In 1986 Canon released the RC-701, though it was not a digital camera, it was an analog electronic camera.  In 1988 Fuji built the DS-1P, which was a true digital camera, but most sources seem to agree that it was never sold.  Which brings us to 1990, and the Dycam Model 1: the first true, commercially available digital camera.  There's something else special about the Dycam Model 1: I own one.

The Dycam Model 1

My particular camera was presumably manufactured in 1991 or later, since a label on the back of the camera says, "Processor code and printed circuit copyright Dycam, 1990, 1991."  The serial number of my camera is 1079.

The camera was also marketed under the name Logitech FotoMan, but the Dycam had several advantages.  First, "Dycam Model 1" is a much cooler name than "Logitech FotoMan".  Second, the Dycam was black, whereas the Logitech was white and turquoise.

Let's talk specs:

  • 320x240 resolution (later upgraded to 376x284).  In contemporary terms, that's 0.077 megapixels.
  • Black and white (specifically, 8 bit grayscale, in other words, 256 shades of gray).
  • Optical viewfinder only.
  • Can store 32 photos (as TIFF or PICT) on its internal memory.  Sources on the internet report the size of the internal memory variously as either 1 MB or 4 MB.  The label on the back of my camera says, "Memory: 7,497,984 bits" which according to my calculations is 0.89 MB (7,497,984 divided by 8, divided by 1024, divided by 1024).
  • Shutter speed from 1/30 to 1/1000 of a second (1/25 when using the built in flash).
  • Fixed focus f/4.5 lens,  with an 8mm focal length, roughly equivalent to 55mm on a 35mm camera.
  • ISO 200.  The ISO is not variable, and the camera originally shipped with a neutral density filter.

There are a few rather charming things you should know about this camera.  First, it has just one button: the shutter release.  That's it.  No power switch.  And, though the camera has a flash, no button for turning the flash on and off.  Instead, the flash needs to be activated (or deactivated) via the desktop software.  Want the flash on?  Plug the camera into your computer, launch the software, activate the flash, unplug camera, go take your picture.  Want the flash off again?  Back to the computer...  Second, although the first commercial flash memory chips were introduced in 1988, the camera uses volatile memory.  This means that if the camera battery dies, your pictures disappear.  When new, the battery was good for roughly 24 hours.  And lastly: the original 1990 list price was $995 (roughly $1775 in 2012 dollars).

I did not get this camera in 1990, I got mine in 2008 from a guy in Canada, via an online classified ad.  And although I probably paid more for it than you would, I didn't pay anywhere near $995.  In the four years since, I have never seen another one for sale, not even on eBay.

That's a lot of bits.  Wait... no it's not.

I'd love to show you some sample photos, but I can't.  The camera does seem to work, that's not the problem.  The battery doesn't hold a charge of course, but if I plug the camera in to a wall outlet and press the shutter release button it makes an electronic, simulated shutter click noise, and then a few seconds later, it beeps to indicate that the photo has been saved.  Sadly, I have no way to get the photo off the camera.  I have the original connecting cable.  And I have access to plenty of old computers.  What I lack is the necessary desktop software.

There is actually a Dycam website, it looks as if it was perhaps last updated circa 1998.  But there's a phone number, so I called.  A friendly man named John answered the phone.  Dycam, the company, apparently no longer exists as such, but John thought he might be able to dig up some old software for me, and suggested that I email him, which I did.  A month later, when I hadn't heard anything, I emailed him again.  Nada.

Much of the information in this article was culled from other sites.  In particular, I enjoyed John Henshall's review of the camera, which first appeared in "The Photographer" magazine in 1993.  Mr. Henshall's review includes some now quaint-sounding assertions such as "Be warned, you will soon fill up your hard disc with a multitude of 100 kilobyte images if you are not totally ruthless about what you keep."  But quaint or no, his general assessment (which I paraphrase as "Sure, the Model 1 may suck, but clearly this is the future") was of course spot-on.

Have a Dycam Model 1, or Logitech Fotoman yourself?  Have any tips about where to get the software?  Let me know in the comments below.