13 April, 2014

Hello Fuji X-T1, Bye-Bye NEX-7

It was a tiny bit over two years ago, in March of 2012, that I replaced my Fuji X100 with the Sony NEX-7. After the exercise in frustration that was the X100, the NEX-7 felt like a breath of fresh air. But lo, the times, they are a-changin'.

On Friday (2 days ago), I took delivery of a new Fuji X-T1. Much like my original receipt of the NEX-7, it was a transformative experience, and within the first 24 hours using the camera, I had shot images in situations that would have been near-impossible with the NEX-7. This post will include some representative images that I've shot with the camera, as well as comments on why each one is included, how I shot the image, and which features of the camera are relevant to that image. All images are JPEGs from the camera.

The common theme will be: X-T1 AF is dramatically faster, and works in really low light. I like that there are lots of buttons to change settings without diving into menus. I like that I can check settings without putting the camera up to my eye.
I shot the opening image, this one, and the one below all at In-n-Out, maybe two hours after getting the camera. I really like the colors and tonality. I like how the light falls off dramatically in the distance.
Another In-n-Out shot. This focal length (40mm-equiv) is new for me as well; I usually shot 29mm-equiv with the NEX-7. I like the compression, but it's a little tight for the kinds of "friend sitting across table" portraits that I like to do.
Kind of a dynamic range test shot. Works for me. I focused on the chair arm, and that was pretty snappy.
Evening low-light shot at base ISO. Tones are coming out nicely. I was able to autofocus on the tree silhouettes without a problem.
I was planning to walk around Palo Alto Friday night, just to see how the camera did in actual low-light conditions.

But first, LemmeTakeASelfie.
First stop: Pizza My Heart. This was when I encountered the first major interaction bug: the exposure compensation dial is ignored whenever a shutter speed and an aperture are both explicitly selected, even though I still had auto-ISO enabled. That's why this shot is so bright. So the camera would peg the ISO, looking for a 0EV exposure in a dark environment, when what I really wanted was for it to aim for -2EV or -3EV.

Once I finally figured out what was going on, I recalled that another person had mentioned this exact problem in a review. *sigh*. I guess it wouldn't be a camera without ridiculous bugs.

If you're actually shooting in low light at wide-open aperture, there is a workaround. Just flip to auto-aperture. The camera will conveniently pick the wide-open aperture again, but this time, it'll actually pay attention to the exposure compensation dial. *sigh*
At this point, I was playing around with the shutter speed, en route to discovering the exposure compensation bug. This works okay as a high-ISO test shot, though. 3200ISO, and the stubble on his chin is fairly sharp. Plus you can see the individual strands of hair on his head (in the highlight). Works for me.
This was more of a focus test than anything. I used autofocus, trying to focus on the person in the distance. In practice, the camera actually focused on the second-to-last table, in front of the person, but that difference is invisible at reasonable focal lengths. This was where the dual-view thing really came in handy. I was able to quickly check a magnified focus box and hit the shutter without having to check focus, then zoom back out to make sure my composition was okay.
I'm really happy about this shot. I mean, it's not good, but it's a reaction shot where I noticed, focused, and took the photo quickly. The NEX-7 wouldn't have handled this situation, especially not with the speed and aplomb of the X-T1. The X-T1 nailed the focus, even with the sweeper surrounded by reflected highlights, with a lot of contrast in the background, and with similar tonalities between the sweeper and the floor and everything around him. Well done.
This was another quick shot that worked out pretty well. I had paused for a moment to take one shot, and then I continued walking as I took this shot. Focus is on, and there's plenty of image detail at 3200ISO (another impossibility with the NEX-7).

On a side note, I'm really going to have to practice this shot, because I really like how the background is motion-blurred because of the camera motion. The trick is that you have to keep the camera pointed in exactly the right direction (which direction changes as you walk), plus you have to match your shutter speed to your walking speed so that the subjects are acceptably sharp, while the background gets a nice blur. Excited to see where this goes.
Another quick shot. I think the camera focused on the kitchen, but that's good enough here. I really like the silhouette. I really like how much dynamic range I'm getting at 3200ISO. Keep in mind that in addition to more noise, you tend to get less dynamic range as the sensor sensitivity is pushed. I also like the tonality here — the floor reflection combines the shape of the silhouette with the general color palette of the rest of the image.

That said, you're definitely starting to see some signs of aggressive noise reduction in the OOF areas off to the left and right of the image; especially in the napkin-holders and tables to the far left of the image.
Nice colors, sharpness, and dynamic range at high ISO. Look how the green trees came out on the far right.
More colors and dynamic range. Really low-key image that I accidentally shot as I was picking up the focus distance from the floor.

Pro tip: that's an easy way to set up zone focus when you don't want to put the camera to your eye. Just make sure you're standing on something with lots of contrast and trigger AF on the floor.
Really quick no-look reaction shot. Didn't pick up the focus in time, but I think the sentiment is good enough that the image can still work in context. Also, I'm apparently really bad at keeping the camera level for my no-look shots :o)
Another no-look, another crooked horizon, although it kind of works here. Camera nailed the focus (without me looking through the viewfinder at all). Exposure is where I want it (I was shooting auto-shutter-speed). Composition kind of worked out. I'm pretty happy with this, and it's another shot that the NEX-7 wouldn't be able to match.
Shots in outdoor bright sunlight. Really like the colors and contrast. AF was easy and pretty quick. Even though my lens doesn't have the standard built-in aperture ring, switching apertures with the rear dial is easy and matches my DSLRs. For people who care, the mapping of which dial is aperture and which is shutter speed can be flipped in the settings. As can manual-focus-ring rotation, for that matter.
Backlit portrait with some light from above. Happy with the skin tones and depth of field. Really happy with the sharpness. AF was again dead simple, even though the subject's face is in shadow and there's brighter stuff in the background. This was right around base ISO.
We can rebuild him! The same as before, but this time with a non-destroyed turbo. I love this really strong silhouette, and the camera focused on the silhouette edges in a snap. I'm again really happy with how this came out, and setting up the silhouette was super easy — twist the exposure compensation dial to -3EV-ish (which the EVF will reflect) and fire away.
Jerrit cleans some tools. I auto-focused on his hand, and the manual-focus aids were really useful in enabling me to double-check the focus. The dual-view EVF thing was really useful in allowing me to double-check the focus while keeping track of Jerrit's right hand, because I definitely wanted it in the frame.

Again, I'm also loving the dynamic range — the touch of rim light on the sockets is what makes this image, for me, and I really like how those highlights attract my attention, and then when I look closer, I can make out the silhouette of each one.
All told, I'm really happy, and looking forward to shooting lots more stuff with this sucker. Whee! :o)

01 April, 2014

Moments of Trust

Of late, I've found myself repeatedly explaining why I do photography, what my goals are, and what motivates me to continue. Each explanation forces me to reflect a little bit more, and to explain things a little bit differently — every time I tell someone about my photography, I learn a little bit more about myself. I feel like this image is a great illustration, and so I'll explain once more.

First and foremost, my photography is about capturing moments that someone will cherish. Moments that will evoke an emotion, and that will tell the viewer a little vignette about the people in the photograph. If you can look at a photograph of mine and feel like you're meeting the subject(s), rather than just looking at them, then I'm moving in the right direction. If you know what or whom they care about, then I count that as a success.

Second, for me, photography is about love. It's about noticing moments and stories that I love, that I care about, and that interest me. I try to capture those moments, because I also like to share the things that I love, and I like to retell the stories that I witness.

Third, I revel in the things around me. My perspective is that it's wonderful to find inspiration in the world. And it's even better to find that inspiration in a context that you can revisit frequently. I believe that learning to appreciate the quirks and the beauty in the things I see every day is going to change my life more than learning to appreciate the things that are far away.

Finally, I prefer to document stories that are actual rather than hypothetical. This is why I approach photography as would a photojournalist — if I publish an image, that image is as you would have seen it, standing next to me, focusing on the things I focused on, paying attention to the same things I noticed about that moment. I believe that if you can trust someone to show you things that are unexpected, that you are more likely to accept that the world may not be as you had imagined. If that trust is missing, then it becomes a lot easier to doubt the medium, and a lot more difficult to doubt yourself.

To be clear, I strive to be worthy of your trust.

23 March, 2014

Gear Photography: Lessons Learned

Recently, I embarked on an effort to sell all of the gear that's been gathering dust in my closet. Everyone loves pictures, so my first step was to photograph all of the equipment. I'm pretty pleased with how well everything turned out, especially given how little effort I put into the whole shoot. Here are some things that went well, and some other things that I can improve next time around.
This was my general setup. Lights are a pair of Elinchrom BX 500 Ri monolights. I've got a beauty dish on the one to camera right, blowing out the background wall, and also giving some ambient fill and a nice rim-light effect. And I've got a second one at camera left with a strip box mounted at some cockamamie angle.

I specifically went for the strip box because while I definitely needed some diffusion, I also wanted the light to be hard enough to elucidate the texture of the equipment. I wanted to make it easier for a person to look at the image and imagine what it would be like to hold each piece in his/her hands.

As you can see, I got the reflections by just tossing a dirty piece of plexi onto a table and putting the gear on top of that. I shot pretty long, generally in the 120mm (180mm-equiv) to 200mm (300mm-equiv) range, and I believe my subject distance was around 10 feet. The subject was around 6 feet in front of the distant wall.
Just to keep things easy, let's make a list:
  • I started off with the key light about a stop too low, so the detail of the body was difficult to see. You can see how this image looks really back-lit compared to the shot above.
  • Lazy is good, too lazy is bad. I didn't really clean anything (lazy!), and it generally didn't make much of a difference (yay!). But failing to even wipe off the surface of the plexi was too lazy. You can clearly see a whiteboard-marker mark near the lower-right corner of the camera.
  • You can't (directly) see it, but I wasn't able to lock down the rotation of my lens in its tripod-foot collar, which led to the rotation drifting any time I touched the camera. Keeping everything exactly the same (as much as possible) is the easiest way to cut down time in the studio, and time applying custom adjustments to each and every image during post-processing.
  • Along the same vein, I should have marked the center of the frame on the plexi. This would've made it easy to keep the framing and magnification the same as I moved from piece to piece.
Thankfully, enough things went right that things worked out in the end. A couple examples:
  • Stayed focused. I had a good idea of the things I needed to get right, and the things that wouldn't make a big difference. In particular, I didn't want to spend a ton of time on images that I'll likely never use again.
  • Brought a backup body. For some reason, my first body wasn't triggering the strobes, and if I didn't have a backup, the evening would've been wasted.
  • Shot long. I ended up at f/7.1 and 250s most of the time, which is right around peak sharpness for this lens/body. It also gave me plenty of magnification without having to get the camera really close to the subject. The ~10ft throw also gave me some reasonable DoF.
  • Picked a reasonable lighting design. I basically just threw some stuff together, given my prior studio experiments. The beauty dish hitting the back of the room turned out to be a really great idea. You can see how the rim light wraps around the right side of the lens in the picture. The level of diffusion on the key light was pretty good as well. Plenty of directionality, and depth and texture, but nothing too harsh.
  • Fixed things as early as possible. This meant that by the time I got home, I just picked the ones that didn't suck and pretty much auto-processed them all. I didn't do any cropping (too lazy), and only fixed rotation in a few cases (too lazy).
So yeah, that's that. Hit me up if you've got any questions.

09 February, 2014

Touch and Go (2014 National Pole Vault Summit)

Pole vault is all about taking flight. And fittingly, everything that happens after an attempt centers on preparing for the next time you take flight. Like an airplane executing a touch-and-go, you only land so you can take off again.

If that last attempt was a clearance (a make), you stick with what's working, or maybe you tweak something to be sure you'll also clear the next height. If it was a miss, you figure out what went wrong, and what you can change to make the bar the next time around.

As a reminder, this is Part 2 of a series about what it feels like to pole vault. The thoughts are my own, and they're illustrated by photos I captured at the Elite Meet at this year's National Pole Vault Summit. I have no idea what goes through anyone's head but my own.

(In photo: Sarah Sheppard)

A miss

One essential truth of pole vault is that every competition ends with three consecutive misses. Some misses are great — if you're jumping better than you've ever jumped before, awesome! You raised the bar. But that new milestone has to sit somewhere, and the only way to find out where is to try and fail to go that little bit higher.

(In photo: Mike Arnold)
Some misses are frustrating. You can feel that next height coming. You can taste it. But all the ducks aren't quite in a row, yet. Maybe you got off the ground with that next big stick, but you didn't manage to link up the swing yet.

Well, sometimes you have to take things one stage at a time. First you get off the ground. Then you get upside down. Then you try to pull everything together and make a bar.

Whenever I move up to an unfamiliar pole, I try to do that on my first attempt, so that I can get comfortable with the first two attempts before I have to make the third one count.

(In photo: Mark Hollis)
Some misses are demoralizing. It's like, you're all set to show the world how it's done. This is going to be your meet. They're going to see a whole new you… And then you trip coming out of the starting gate, and you have to watch the rest of the competition from the sidelines… "That's not how it was supposed to go… What happened?"

(In photo: Nick Mossberg)
It's times like those when you have to take that miss (and, perhaps, that entire competition) in stride. Everyone messes up. Everyone has messed up at what seems like the worst possible moment, at the one meet that really mattered. In my own case, my last collegiate meet was an exceptionally mediocre performance at the national championships. It felt like a wasted opportunity, but in some ways it was a stepping stone.

Part of what it means to improve in the pole vault is that you have to take once-in-a-lifetime meets — once-in-a-lifetime opportunities — and you have to figure out how to make them commonplace. The first time you reach that next level, it feels amazing. "Now I'm jumping with the big boys." But as you advance, so do your aspirations. And with hard work, today's demoralizing failure will look a lot more like a small speed-bump in hindsight.

(In photo: Jordan Scott)

A make

Clearing bars is the pole vaulter's bread and butter. But just like you can have an amazing miss, you can also have a frustrating clearance. Generally, those are cases where your skill just didn't show up, but you had enough luck (or brute force) to make the bar anyway.

In college, my coach discussed the concept of a pride line, which is essentially a standard of acceptable performance. Any performance above that standard could be considered reasonable. Below, though, is just unacceptable, inexcusable, and shameful.

Where that line sits will vary from person to person, and situation to situation, but the most frustrating clearances are the ones where you performed below that threshold, didn't deserve to make the bar, and cleared it anyway. A make is a make, so you take it, but sometimes it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. Serves you right. Wake up and make it count next time.
By contrast, when you make a monster clearance, it feels amazing. "Yeah, I rocked that bar; I was nowhere near it." Regardless of whether you just started at a conservative opening height, or you're jumping better than expected, it's a confidence-inspiring result. You're firing on all cylinders, and you're ready to bring that heat at the next height.

(In photo: Kylie Hutson)
Then there are the surprises. As I mentioned in Part 1, sometimes I will make a mistake, and then correct for it in mid-flight, and make the bar by virtue of having made the right correction at the right time. Other times, I have doubts or fears, but I still manage to execute well enough to clear an unexpected height. "Woah, did I really just do that?! Boom, son." That's also a great feeling.

In the next episode, I follow some of the crowd interactions that I saw during the elite competition.

(In photo: Trey Hardee)