Saturday, 12 September 2009

The Year's Most Interesting Pictures

image^A Bavarian holds on to her rational sleigh in an annual race in southern Germany.

Having been bombarded by the news and reviews and hand-ons of the new exciting cameras, we are more seriously numbed than ever.  It's time to neutralise ourselves with what photography is exactly about: T-A-K-I-N-G  P-H-O-T-O-S!

^Jason Romero fishes in Bremerton, Wash., as the clouds are reflected in the calm, serene water.

Here are the screenshots of the most interesting pictures of the year featuring in a CNN site.  Going through the photos, I am impressed by the works but more by the saying that it's all luck.

image ^Participants at the annual Engadin skiing marathon are on their way from Maloya to S-Chanf in southeastern Switzerland.

It's not really that the photographers can take better pictures than you do.  Well, yes if considering their ability to predict and manage to get the right position.  That's intuitive to them after years of practice.  But more importantly, the pictures were done with a bit of luck, if not lots of.

The link to the site is here.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Good (and) Grief

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Over the past few days, We have reviewed the CX1 for its major features and functions as a secondary camera to a serious compact.  The credentials of any point-and-shooter to qualify it as such are:

» pricing (cheaper enough to save the serious compact in rougher conditions like when raining or hiking at night with gear around)

» the lens' range of focal length (preferably 24 to 200mm; anything beyond 200mm is okay if the differences in price and optical quality are slight)

» the degree of manual controls

Responsiveness and portability of the camera are assumed and therefore left out from the above criteria.

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I have been using the CX1 for around two months.  The shutter count is 600.  There is not one shot failed in focusing or exposure, save for the suspected issue I mentioned about the lens retraction at 135mm after determining the focus.  But whether this is a bug issue or simply a coincidence is to be explored further.  At least the problem is more noticeable for insufficiently lit subjects only.

Now it is time to round up my verdicts.

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The Good

Manual Controls: The CX1 is of the pedigree of Ricoh's higher grade cameras in terms of functionality, which is of course offered at a reduced fashion.  Take for example, the white balance correction can only be done via in-camera post-processing instead of application to the image at the time of shooting.  That's fair to me.  The customisable Fn, quick menu and MY settings are not ornamental but really work.  The elbowroom to tune the EV, flash output, slower shutter speed and minimum aperture is good news for serious compact users, who are mainly control freaks like me.

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Lens: The 28mm widest focal length is without little barrel distortion.  The longest zoom at 200mm offers sharp (but cannot be said crisp – well this is a P&S after all) optical quality in images as we saw yesterday.  I haven't noticed any flare issue.  Anything beyond 200mm is not usually necessary under most shooting occasions.  And I bet that the users will find composition awkward with a longer zoom lens except for special works, say, photographing birds.  I would be wise about money and probably get the CX1 instead of the CX2 or a camera of other brands with a similar longer lens.

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Ergonomics: The quick menu and the customisable functions add to the smooth ADJ jog stick to give a fairly pleasant user's experience.  The camera may feel a wee bit oversized for a lady's hand (but depending on how big or small the hand is) but just right for most men.  The built is solid.  The CX1 can require the thumb and the index finger only to operate.  It is a responsive beast in terms of start-up and focusing.

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Image Quality: Good enough up to ISO400.  As we saw in the bushwalking post, the CX1's images fare quite well even up to ISO1600.  The multi-segmented white balance is a gem of the camera, successful in reducing whiteout areas in the images.  The DR function is very useful for pushing up the EV coverage for the more contrasty scenes, making the final images look better overall.

R0010589 (Medium)Others: There are other functions I haven't tested, mainly, the array of continuous shooting and focusing modes.  The skew correction mode and the test mode are inherited from the GRDs and GXs, which have been proved useful.  The electronic level is what you will wish for in every camera.  The 920k LCD display is in the class of Sony's A850, about which Ricoh is really generous.  The display is coated with a anti-grease paint, which really save it dirty finger prints even after almost two months by now.

RIMG0100 (Medium)The Grief

There is not really much I complain about the CX1.  Two tedious points. 

First, the arrangement of modes on the Mode Dial should be improved, which is Auto, MY1, MY2, Video, Scene, Easy (Fire-and-Forget shooting), Continuous, DR (,back to Auto). 

Since the digital macro and skew correction options are inside the Scene mode, which are more commonly used than the DR mode, the Scene mode should be swapped with the DR.  In this way, the users can be spared repeated turning of the dial from one end (Auto) to another (Scene).  After all, those who use the Easy mode is less likely to bother about turning the dial to use other modes.  And the DR mode is used for specific scenes and on a tripod.  It is usually selected before powering up the camera.  Therefore, the chance of users turning from other modes to the DR mode is minimal.

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Second, the tripod mount is integrated with the door to the battery/ card slot.  When dismounting a tripod, the door will be accidently opened.  It happens all the time.

Another minor point is that the CX1 retains the mechanical characteristic of Ricoh's camera: a more audible noise of the camera's mechanical operations.  It is not loud enough to be a nuisance.  But just in case you're new to Ricoh, now you know.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Long Zoom, Shallow Field and Panoramic Vista

We are nearing to the end of the CX1 review series. Before rounding up my verdicts in the next post, we'll look at the longest reach of the CX1 lens and the related discussion. This is the sixth posts of the review series.

R0010422 (Medium)^A cafe at the Peak. Taken at 85mm.

A major reason I wished for an auxiliary camera to my GX200 is that even though I don't frequently shoot at a longer focal length, it is good to have the capability to zoom farther coming in handy. To all serious compacts at present, discounting the M4/3 models, the longer reach of the lens is not really long. There is a workaround solution to this by attaching a conversion lens. But for people like me and for reason of operation, a P&S with a long zoom capability is a better option.

The first thing sprang to mind about using a 200mm focal length was to trip to the Peak. It is in capital letter and absolutely not a typo. The Peak is not the highest point of the ranges embracing the Kowloon Peninsular and the Hong Kong Island, which makes up the main part of this Pearl of the East, a fancy catchphrase to promote Hong Kong since the days of the British colonisers. But it commands a panoramic view to city of Hong Kong.

R0010406 (Medium)^A tourist asking for his way near the bus stop where I was waiting for the bus to the tram station. Taken at 200mm. The proportional relationship among the elements in the image is distorted, categorically a feature of a lens at its widest and longest reach.

What is famous about the Peak is that the sloping hill used to be the residential district of the privileged expats in the Hong Kong under the British rule, now developed into an up-market residential area sought after by the super rich. Historically, the Peak was more commonly known as the Flag Hoisting Hill. The folklore has it that a famous pirate and his gangsters in the old days hid at the Peak and flagged the Jolly Roger to their people on the foothill to loot the unfortunate in-coming vessels.

R0010413 (Medium)^A true attraction at the Peak: Free kicking of Bruce Lee's butt. No, just pretend it. A real kick will make you liable for the damages.

The best way to trip to the Peak is, from Kowloon, take the Star Ferry to Central, take the open-top bus to the base tram station, and then take the tram to the Peak. Mark that the right-sided seats will afford you a better view to the scenic vista as the tram climbs up the slope.

The CX1 lens starts at F5.2 at its longer reach. This is fast enough for a 200mm lens to be used under most decently lit situations. The lens could have been made faster but because for some technical reason, it is easier to manufacture a faster lens for a fuller sized camera. After all, the CX1 is not in the price range for such a lens. R0010407 (Medium)

>This is the reference photo for the 100% crops below to show the sharpness of the lens at 200mm, about which I have absolutely no complain.

Although not exactly comparable, the new Sigma 70-300mm lens for APS-C and FF cameras starts at F4-5.6. This should give you some idea about the fair speed of the CX1's lens at 200mm. Coupled with what I think the best invention in photography over the years, the shake prevention, and CX1's commendable high ISO image quality, the 200m F5.2 is absolutely a very capable tool. And a sharp one too.

R0010407centre^The centre area. The lines of the building logo and the route numbers are very legible.


R0010407top rightR0010407top left

^1) The man's watch. Oh, can you tell the time? 2) Top right. The canopy was fluttering in the wind, hence the blur. 3)Top left. The rivets are so solid that I can almost see the pattern of the lower one

The benefits of the lens zooming as far as to 200mm are two-fold. First, the photographer is able to accentuate the main subject in the image. Second, the perspective of a scene becomes unique when using such a long focal length, with the elements more tightly compressed and their proportional relationship annihilated in the final image. These are a textbook understanding about the benefits.

R0010425 (Medium)^Shot at 200mm to show the blurred background effect with this small sensor CX1. This was photographed at Cafe Deco on the Peak, which I recommend for a buffet lunch on your next visit to Hong Kong.

R0010426 (Medium) For a camera with a senor smaller than the nail of your little finger, such a long focal length can make up for a deficiency: the inability to blur the background in an image.

With such a long zoom, blurring the background is not a problem at all. This trick works unless the subjects are half a block away which, for reason of distance relationship, will force a great depth of field in the image.

R0010419 (Medium)^The people at the cafe is a street away with the buildings farther away. In this case, there is no hope of blurring the background even at 200mm (this photo is for illustration and not shot at 200mm).

Surely, another way to blur the background is to activate the macro mode. For the same reason of distance relationship, the background will be rendered into patches of elements.

R0010399 (Medium)^A blurred background afforded by the Macro mode.

It should be noted that the CX2 sports an even more aggressive zoom to 300mm at F5.6, which is a focal length that I seldom use on my Minolta 75-300mm zoom lens unless for doing portraits. So, if I am to consider a longer zoom, the expected use is for doing portraits. The compressed perspective works nicely to accentuate your subject. And because the photographer has to stand further away from the model, he or she will feel more easy at every shot, resulting in more natural results.

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^You may realise that except for the man-asking-for-direction and Transformer photos, none of the photos in this post was done at a long focal length. So a 300mm lens is not really useful in common photographic occasions to me.

Otherwise, such a long focal length is to me odd to use because the photographer has to be long away from the action spot. Composing at 300mm is not what normal photographers may usually like to do or with much success. If you are considering either one and the price difference is a concern to you, think about whether the longer zoom range is of use to you. Base your decision on the answer to that question.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Roaming and Rummage

This is the fourth post of the CX1 review series written in a photographic journal sort of writing. In this post, we'll rummage the CX1 to check out its credentials as a serious compact's companion, namely, the elbowroom for manual controls.

R0010016 (Medium)^The test started in a rather rundown neighbourhood. To be true to the atmosphere, I locked the exposure after metering a brighter spot and shot the photo. If left to itself, the camera would have exposed the scene to become brighter and the gloominess gone. Read on to see how this AEL is possible with the CX1.

The ultimate credential that a point-and-shooter can be called a serious compact's companion is in its responsiveness in a less costly, more intuitive compact body which features an adequate degree of manual controls. We have discussed CX1's responsiveness in start-up and focusing. The manual control aspect is what to be probed into here.

To test the nitty-gritty of the CX1's capability for manual controls, it is best to use it in a way I do with my GX200, or any other serious compact. So, I walked around town with it and photographed using the customisable functions. Follow me to roam the city.

Quick Access

As I started walking into a rundown area, I fumbled for the mode dial. On the mode dial of the camera are the Auto, MY1 and MY2, among several other modes. The Auto mode, unlike the "fire-and-forget" Easy mode, is more than meets the eyes, so to speak.

CX1 has inherited many great customisable functions from the higher grade Ricoh cameras, the Fn button being my favourite. In a nutshell, it is a quick access button to one of the many essential photographic functions depending on the user's specific setting. The best setting to me is to put AEL (auto-exposure lock) in it, allowing myself to work around the given exposure values by way of metering the desired spot and locking the exposure. So, with the Auto shooting mode, the photographers still have the leeway to expose a scene as their taste dictates.

R0010380 (Medium)^This stark contrast of the bright sky and the shadowy facades of the buildings called for me to spot-meter the sky and dial down 1 EV. The adjustment was done swiftly on the CX1, thanks to the customisable quick menu for a better experience in doing the manual controls. By the way, these glass-walled buildings are the major contributors to the hot island effect in the city.

The good of the CX1 about the manual control aspect doesn't stop at the Fn button for sure. Despite the CX1 hasn't the unmistakable control-dials of the GX and GRD cameras, it has a miniature ADJ. jog stick to give users instant access to a quick menu for four customisable functions at the users' choice. Compared to the LX3's teeny-weeny round jog stick, CX1's is much better as it is flat on top which doesn't hurt the finger even after repeated presses. The pressing and pushing are smooth, unlike the LX3's with restricted room for movement. During the week of trying out the LX3, I had found myself struggling with its jog stick. Not with the CX1.

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^The cenotaph is in honour of the courageous death of the Royal British and Hong Kong soldiers in the World Wars. It is said that the value of a place can be gauged by looking at the tallest buildings. This is exactly the message of this image. The tallest building is the International Finance Centre. Since the handover of Hong Kong's sovereignty to China, the sense about political correctness could have been the reason that the annual memorial service is relocated from here to a small shrine nearby.

Back to the four customisable functions. This is a great idea to inherit the ergonomics proven successful on the GXs and GRDs. I customised what I believed to be the essential functions in the quick menu, namely, ISO, +/-EV, Metering Mode and +/- Flash Output.

Take the above shot for example, standing on a narrow sidewalk with pedestrians hurrying by, I had to take the shot quickly without blocking people's way. The cenotaph in the middle of the darken lawn was extremely backlit. With two presses on the ADJ jog stick, I turned the ISO to 800. With another two pushes on it, I set the metering to spot. These quick adjustments saved me the pedestrians' frowning. I finished the shot like in no time.

R0010316 (Medium)^The International Finance Centre photographed at the longest zoom of the CX1.

MY Choice

Another feature which makes the CX1 stack up to serious compact in function customisation is the MY mode. There are two MY slots on the mode dial with which the user can customise all the desirable settings. Dial to the MY mode, power up the camera and the user is ready to shoot with those pre-set settings.

As I have used the GX200 extensively and experimented with different combinations of settings for the MY slots, my suggestion here is to reserve the MY1 for the longest zoom plus your settings (mine is plus centre-weighted metering) and MY2 for ISO 1600 plus your other settings (mine is plus in black-and-white).

R0010315 (Medium) ^The new Star Ferry Piers are fashioned after the construction design of the original ones in the early 20th century. For a shot at 200mm like this with the main subjects in the centre of the scene, it is advisable to employ the centre-weighted metering.

Since I use the step zoom, zooming the lens from 28mm to 200mm will be a pain if without putting the longest zoom setting in MY1. The centre-weighted metering is used because usually at the longest zoom, the subject makes up the largest area in the scene and you will wish to expose it right.

Such a MY1 setting affords me an instant toggle between the focal length at 28mm in Auto mode to 200mm. This is a great feature for control-freak serious compact users like me.

R0010526 (Medium)^The Legislative Council building, previously housing the High Court, has its steeple being composed in the narrow space between the Bank of China Tower and the Cheung Kong Centre. This is another example to show that centre-weighted metering is usually needed for shots at a longer focal length.

Fix Minimum Aperture

Ricoh should be praised for its logics in the elements it put in the cameras. It is safe to say that the CX1 is a rare in that it incorporates truly useful functions even though it is in the point-and-shooter class. The camera maker is considerate enough to add an interesting function in the CX1 called Fix Minimum Aperture.

This function simply closes down the aperture at a fixed mid-range opening to give the image a greater depth of field. To me, it is useful in another way.

R0010528 (Medium)^The Jardine building with, as my Aussie buddy commented, toilet-style windows. The small sensor in the CX1 ensures an extensive depth of field.

There are three factors affecting the depth of field: the focal length, the distance between the camera and the subjects, and the aperture value. The last factor is the point of concern here. Since the CX1 sports a small sensor, for reason of arithmetic proportion you won't bother to know in detail, the distance in reality is calculated to be much shorter, thereby ensuring an extensive depth of field in the image.

Therefore, with or without the Fix Minimum Aperture, the depth of field will not make an observable difference. That is provided that the focal length and the distance of the nearest subject don't condition the depth of field to be shallow at a wider aperture.

R0010437 (Medium)^This skyline shot was done at 85mm using the Fix Minimum Aperture function. The aperture is fixed at F6.9.

But there is something good about this function. As we all know, the sweetest spot of a lens is some way down the widest aperture. Since there is no way to tune the aperture in the CX1 other than by using the Fix Minimum Aperture function, this is the workaround way to ensure the aperture opened at a spot nearest to the sweetest one.

Time Exposure

The roaming around the city was almost finished. But not yet. I stayed in the street until quite late to test the Time Exposure function.

In a word, it allows the user to fix the shutter speed at 1, 2, 4 or 8 seconds. Great for control freaks like me even though I'm sure the night-shot mode can do a similar trick. But, hey, it is nothing better to be able to control how the effect looks in the final image.

So I screwed the CX1 on the mini-tripod and tune the Time Exposure to 8 seconds, which resulted in the last photo of this post.

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As the camera was mounted on the tripod, I pressed the ADJ jog stick and made use of the default fifth function on the quick menu. The specific function allows user to move the separate or integrated AE and AF aim across the screen. Since the street scene was quite dark, I moved the AF aim to a more contrasty subject to facilitate the focusing. This function is a really likeable take by the Ricoh designer.

Finally, on second thought, I used the infinite-focusing to shoot the photo.

(to be continued)

Monday, 7 September 2009

Night Scene Times Dynamic Range

This is the third post of the CX1 review series.   Instead of the usual unexciting reviews , I will do the review posts in a photographic journal sort of writing. 

This is how: I will write about how I used the camera in a real life situation, supplemented with some verdicts on certain review item which is the DR mode for this post.

RIMG0056 (Medium)^An open-air eating place in the street at the well known Temple Street night market.  This is a typical example of illegal use of the shop front area for more business at zero cost. 

Hong Kong people has a reputation of being street smart.  It is simply a humble quality borne to any one living in a densely populated city largely left to their own fate.  During the colonial days under British's rein that is.  This quality has become a common heirloom of the people here passing from one generation to another.

The effect is that the locals can somehow work around almost every problem if they can't fix it.  Some years ago I met with a Singaporean minister through a friend of mine in the city-state.  I was actually on transit in Singapore to Malaysia.  Fact is, the schedules of the airline and the ferry service couldn't tie in for whatever combination I could work out for the evening hours.  I was actually stranded in the minister's big house.  No wonder most similar travellers booked in earlier flights.

One thing was obvious to me: the stranding was a great chance for business.   I wondered why the Singaporeans hadn't figured it out but kept it to myself until over dinner with the minister.  I revealed to him that if the hotel could be sponsored to take in such stranded travellers, first, the evening ferry and flight service could be fully utilised; second, these travellers would spend money there for a night; third, given a promotional room rate for an extra night on their return, they might spend more.  A year later, I noticed a similar arrangement offered by the Singapore Airline.  I could take the credit but it could be just a coincidence.

R0010331 (Medium)R0010332 (Medium)  ^A shot of the Hong Kong Island taken in DR mode.  The image at left is the same scene shot in normal mode.  Arrangement same below.

Anyway, in the Hong Kong context, hoteliers make use of the earning capabilities of their property to the maximum.  Hong Kong is probably one of the earliest place where hotels offer concessionary room rates to locals only during the non-peak season.  The rooms are kept occupied, the staff busy, the patrons happy and the money flowing in.  There is at least one luxury hotel to my knowledge that the rooms are almost entirely booked by locals during the promotional period.

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^ The two towering buildings are the new landmark forming a gateway effect to the Victoria Harbour.

So a friend of mine took advantage of the concession and stayed some nights in a grandeur hotel.  And I took advantage of the chance and photographed the awesome scene through the French window in the room.

Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour aglow with a motley of colourful neon lights at night is sensuous treat of rarity.  The view is too breathtaking that it is criminal not to take out a camera and take a dozen of shots.

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^Taken at the longest end of the lens, the image gives a tighter and somewhat more dramatic view to the Hong Kong Island with the mountain as the backdrop.  The DR image is preferable. 

In general, the usually recommended exposure of around one second cannot really reflect the beauty of the scene.  A two- to four- second exposure will render the image more dramatic in some bright areas than in reality, but to some may lack authenticity owing to the different level of brightness of the neon lights.

This is the time when the DR mode of CX1 comes in handy.  The mode, as many know, combines two shots with exposures separately on the brighter and dimmer areas of a scene.  The good thing about it is that the final image will not look faked to my taste as with a post-processed HDR effect.  The effect is mild and just right.

R0010337 (Medium)R0010338 (Medium) ^To the west of the Vic Harbour is the Lautau Island.  The Disneyland is tucked among the woods on the other side of the ranges.

A tripod is needed in using the DR mode.  There is a function which can be activated in the menu system that a normal exposure shot can accompany the DR shot, useful for the photographer to make his choice afterwards without the hassle of taking two separate shots.

R0010339 (Medium) R0010340 (Medium)

^The building with the round windows is the Jardine Building, which was the tallest building in Hong Kong in the 1970s when the skyline was less crowded.

Obviously, from the EXIF of the shots here, the DR and normal exposure shots are with half a second difference in the exposure time.

This is the function I wish for in my GX200.  A smart and useful function that should worth the admission.

(to be continued)

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Enchanted Rather by Drowsiness

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This photo of the lot sent in by Christopher Guy is better suited for the usual light Sunday post.  An amusing contrast it is.  In the image may be an implication of feminism.

Women hold lots of important positions in Hong Kong.

Have a nice day.