Saturday, 15 May 2010

Before We Can...

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...do better, we have to know why we're doing what.

I just approached my housemaid with a weird question when she was ironing clothes, "What is the meaning to life while you're ironing the clothes?"

She was baffled, busying with her work on hand and beaming an embarrassed smile.

"There are many answers to this. They are not either correct or wrong. There is no model answer," I expounded to give her some hints, " You may put your answer this way or that. You can have your own thinking."

"Then," she said in an uncertain voice, "is it to make a living?"

I accepted her answer but gave my view that she might put more philosophical substance in her answer. I went on to explain to her that her answer didn't fit in a lot of situations like he meaning of life was while I was taking a photo.

Well, making money could be a good answer.

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Everyone can have an unique answer. What's important is that when we don't know why we are doing what we do, chances are that we won't excel in our work, to say the least. We'll be bored of it before we know it. Give a reason to your life, and it will feel blissful short; otherwise, everything just feels excruciatingly long.

This mindset is absolutely applicable to photography. If you don't know why you are shooting what, your photos just lack punch in them. Yes, you may still come up with some keepers, but they are more by luck than by knowledge.

So, the other day when I saw some photographers with 300mm-lens-mounted DSLRs engrossed in shooting some toy car models the size of a backpack, I was curious about the meaning of what they were doing. Did they really know it?

This is not about knowing just the theme of your photos, but a higher scheme of things like: know why you do this theme.

If those photographers could answer it, surely they would not have acted like using a chopping knife to spread butter on a piece of bread – dead wrong!

Photography can be purely for fun. But at the core of it, you have to know why you are doing it. Then you can choose to do it just for fun.

Of course, everyone has an unique answer to this too. They can as well define photography as buying new cameras before figuring out the NR on-off button of their last camera.

(My answer to the question for the housemaid is "to serve".)

Friday, 14 May 2010

Selected Excellence: Depth of Field

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GX GARNERINGS' long-time reader and regular contributor, Chris, sent me this photo probably to demonstrate the truth of depth of field.  The photo effectively achieves this goal and on top of this, proves that her feet are healthy.

A very good way to start the day and end the working week.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Why Sony is not Called Sony for no Reason

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The reason is in the NEXs.

But first up, if you haven't read and seen enough, DC Watch has done an informative report showing size comparisons between the NEX cameras, the PENs and GXR. Two clips are included one of which shows how to attach the external but not optional flash. (Note: Sorry that only Google Chrome can manage to give an English translation to it and there is no way to get the link out of it)

From the now clearer picture of the NEXs, Sony has not actually entered into the market of serious compacts YET. The NEX3/5 are positioned as point-and-shoots with an APS-C sensor and capability to change lenses. They are aimed at the populace market. That is to say, the largest possible base for making money in the pyramid of consumers. Fact is, there are more existing and potential camera owners who don't know photography than those who do. The NEXs' diving-into-the-menu-for-controls approach speaks volumes for their targeted buyers. Why bother with buttons which would have made the camera body larger if the buyers don't really tweak the, say, exposure combos?

Oh, and the new E-mount to make sure that the Alpha users stick to the NEX's bigger sublings. See? The two product lines are aimed at two different markets: photographers versus non-photographers.

So, among the Internet critics, there is an obvious point missed: the NEX is not to be technically reviewed for a scientific conclusion. The NEXs are jolly cameras to the buyers and maker. On the buyer side, the now ponit-and-shoot owners feel that if they buy the NEXs, they can take professional pictures too. At least the high ISO shots will be much better. There is a popular myth that good (and expensive) cameras equal to good photos. Will they buy the idea and the camera? Yes, yes and yes because the myth is deeply rooted and the NEXs are priced the shallowest for its class.

On the maker side, Sony is overjoyed with the creation of a new market. And it should.

So, Sony has not entered into the existing serious compact market yet if the market is considered for users more serious about photography. No, not until when it has fed the populace market up with the NEXs. Will the NEX7/8/9 be targeted at the serious photographer market? Maybe but doubtful. And hopefully at that time, a leap forward has been made in technology to tackle the issue of the now disappointing focusing capability of the like cameras.

Is Sony admirable in this tactics, or sleight of hand if you preferred? In a way, yes. A sensible company may make money. A smart company may inspire and make money. A supersmart one will make money by inspiring and creating a demand.

This is Sony.

Links to Our NX10 Field Report

_SAM2759 (Medium) The iconic Bank of China Tower from a novel angle.

(Kudos to Samsung HK for the loan items)

1) NX10 Field Report: The Body

2) NX10: Full Size RAWs and JPEGs

3) NX10: Smartest Menu System Ever

4) NX 10: Picture Wizard, Exposure Latitude and White Balance

5) NX10: The Tough Proposition of Viewfinder

6) NX10: Using the Lenses

7) NX10: Issues of the Lenses

8) NX10: Conclusive Remarks

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

NX10: Conclusive Remarks

(Postscript: the post linking to all the NX10 review posts is here.)

R1229619 (Small) After the first few days playing with the NX10, I asked myself, "What are the reasons if a photographer is to buy one of these serious compacts?"

With the exception of GXR for, rightly or wrongly, its designs and rationales defiant of the long-time sensor-in-body concept, all the serious compacts are simply shrunk DSLRs. The two Sony NEX cameras launched today are of no exception. Beaten tracks are always safe to travel and surely profit-making ones. But where do these beaten tracks lead the photographers to and is the destination worthy of the admission price?

And the admission price is the starting point after which comes the investment in lenses and the paraphernalia.

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Do We Need a Serious Compact?

GX GARNERINGS always advocates serious compacts. But there are guiding principles which we have also been advocating all along. The small size of such cameras shall not be just made for smallness's sake. These cameras have to be compact without compromising ergonomics. Operationally, they shall match the DSLRs. Price-wise, a topic we revisited for a renewed conclusion before the NX10 review posts, they shall be sold at a price commensurate with what they can deliver to the users.

_SAM2545 (Medium) These contemplations accumulate to the answer to the above question. The answer is in two parts.

For veteran photographers, such a serious compact is worthy of ownership if it is considerably big in ergonomics, significantly small in size and operationally comparable to their DSLRs. The selling price is not a big issue because the on-cost of their existing arsenal of lenses will be huge enough to dwarf the price consideration of a compact; that is unless the compact can make use of their existing lenses.

Such cameras don't exist yet. At least, the focusing is still not as good.

For tyros looking for a camera, there are in fact plenty of reasons for bypassing a regular DSLR. As Sony's codename for its version suggests, these serious compacts are for the NEXt generation. The overall performance and functions of any serious compacts is set to well cater for these users' needs.

Of course, for those rich or silly enough – well, they are not equal –to buy each and every new camera, the logic here doesn't apply.

Do We Need a Serious Compact from Samsung?

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It is a known fact that Samsung's ambition to own the market of serious compacts is a hard war to fight. Let's look at the strategy of Samsung in realising the ambition as revealed by the launching of the NX10.

Lenses

Other things being equal, Pany and Oly (now even Sony) have the advantage of a fuller choice of lenses. Although it is observed that an increasing number of GF-1 and Pen users are buying old mechanical lenses, which may bring all serious compacts to a level playing field for lens choices, the majority users only consider dedicated lenses for such cameras – in passing, serious compacts work best with the dedicated lenses for reason of the shortened focal distance without the reflex mirror. In this sense, Samsung is disadvantaged.

What Samsung has admirably done is launching together with the NX10 three lenses covering the focal lengths required by 99% of the photography community, unlike the competitors who make some lenses available in phrases. This sincere and transparent approach has convinced photographers that Samsung is seriously dedicated to back up the NX system with more lenses, hopefully winning over some undecided buyers or boat jumpers.

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What is more, Samsung has pitched the selling price of the lenses at a very affordable, if not the lowest, level. The optical quality of the three lenses may not be the top grade. But compared to the competitors' lenses, the difference is not huge enough to not recommend them.

Well, some issues of focusing have been observed for all of the three lenses for the NX10. But they are not exclusive to NX10 but also to the other serious compacts. The culprit is not necessarily in the construction of the lenses but the burden of calculating the focus being put on the imaging sensor. This is the single reason which can deter perspective buyers from purchasing serious compacts. Hopefully, this problem can be solved after a few development cycles.

Size and Ergonomics

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Mounted with either of the zoom lenses, the NX10 does not have a significant advantage in weight or size as compared with the lighter DSLRs like the Pentax K-x. The GF-1 and GXR are more preferred.

What it lacks in the matter of size NX10 makes up in ergonomics. Actually, NX10 features the most accessible and effective menu system of all serious compacts. It even outdoes the DSLRs in this area. The disposition of buttons on the camera body is virtually perfect. Samsung has definitely shown an exemplary example here for its competitors to follow.

Again, ergonomics is the strong point of the NX10.

Pricing

As press time, the price difference between the GF1 bare/ kit and NX10 bare/ kit in Hong Kong ranges from about HK$ 600 to 1,000 (about US$ 70 to 120). For photographers like me who prefer using the viewfinder, the NX10 with the integrated viewfinder is much cheaper. The NX10 may not deliver what we have hoped in terms of focusing. However, such a price difference is huge enough to make almost any user to forgive the shortcomings of NX10 as discussed above.

Do you need a serious compact, even one from Samsung? If you have the money and the urge to burn it, try to play with your targeted choice before making the deal because tastes are very personal. And consider your photographic needs and styles before you buy one. The NX10 may not have a big advantage, if any, over its competitors but the selling price is really enticing.

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As a veteran photographer with a cabinet full of photographic gear, I am not in a hurry to buy a new one and believe that the next generation of serious compacts can tickle my fancy fuller. It will not be long before Canon and Nikon will join the fold, and maybe their tactics are correct. We should wait and see.

Monday, 10 May 2010

NX10: Issues of the Lenses

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In this post, we will look into the issues surrounding the focusing of the lenses.  Contrary to the conclusion of some big camera testing site, the focusing of the NX10 raises some concerns.

Focus Locking

First, it is about the focus-locking speed which ranges from fast to okay to mediocre to sluggish depending on the lighting situations, the lenses and the AF area in use.

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Just as the Pany's lenses for the GF-1, the focusing speed of NX10's lenses still lags behind as compared with those made for the regular DSLRs.  Actually, the focusing speed cannot be called slow under decent lighting conditions but are not as fast as we would like.  As discussed yesterday, there is an explanation for this performance.  While the regular DSLRs are fitted with a dedicated module to do the algorithm for focusing, the MFTs and the the the likes of NX10 put this additional burden on the imaging sensor, hence the slower focusing speed.

Simply put, under good lighting conditions, the three lenses identify the focus as fast as the GF-1 which is almost instantly.  But for subjects a wee bit flatter in texture or less contrasty under either good or especially low lighting conditions, all three lenses hunt and lock the focus only after repeated attempts.  To be fair, however, this phenomenon has also been found in GF-1 and GXR.  The issue is less obvious with GF-1 and more serious with the A12 50mm lens in Macro mode.

The speed of NX10's three lenses in locking a focus is, in terms of a scale of 1 to 5 stars, 3½ stars in general.   You will be happy working with the lenses but not necessarily satisfied in terms of the focusing speed on some occasions.  Let's look at some examples.

_SAM2434 (Small)This shot was made using the long zoom lens in a slightly under-lit indoor area as suggested by the exposure combo.  The lens was aimed to the rim of the mirror as circled.  The focus was locked roughly after six unsuccessful ones 

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For this shot, the farthest focal length of the long zoom lens was used to focus the man in some 30 feet away.  He was standing outside the brightly lit sidewalk,  and the contrast between the man and the bright background should have provided enough clue for the lens.  However, the lens failed to lock the focus for four attempts.

Similar situations were not uncommon during the testing.

To further confirm the observations, comparison was made between my Minolta Dynax 7 film camera, GX200  and the NX10.  The difference does not bother me under good lighting conditions.  But, even under good lighting conditions, the NX10's three lenses more often fail to lock the focus for subjects of a flatter texture and a bit less contrast.  However, the Minolta Dynax 7 locks the focus almost instantly.

The following is the comparison between the GX200 and the NX10's pancake:

R1229615 (Small) A book with a smooth, slightly reflexive surface was used for the shot.

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The GX200 (in non-Macro mode) locked the focus  instantly.

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The pancake lens of the NX10 refused to oblige.  It locked the focus only after several failed attempts.

Now this less satisfactory focusing performance is an issue to veteran photographers who photographic themes are wider.  The culprit is not in the lenses but the ability of the APS-C sensor in doing the calculations for the focusing.

All in all, the issue is less with the pancake lens, more with the 18-55mm ones and most prominently with the 50-200mm zoom lens.

Another Focusing Issue

All of the three lenses lock the focus comfortably when pointing to a closer subject, but not to a farther subject.

This can best be illustrated with an example.  The "Big Mac" poster in the photo below was at three metres away and shot at 130mm with the long-range zoom lens, using the single-AF mode and multi-AF area.  The focus was locked in a split of a second.

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Now, the lens was pointed to the picture in the background which was 7 metres farther away:

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The lens searched through the focal lengths in an attempt to locate the right focus before locking it (similar performance was found in GXR A12 33mm, especially when the Marco mode is turned on).  This took the lens roughly 4 seconds before locking the focus.

Then, from the focused subject at the far end, point the lens back to the subject at that "Big Mac" poster.  All of the three lenses locked the focus almost instantly.

Similar tests done with all the lenses reveal that the lag is more noticeable in proportion to the increase in the focal length of the lens being used: roughly 2 seconds for the pancake, 2 seconds/ 3 seconds at 18mm/ 55mm with the middle-range zoom lens and 5 seconds at 200mm with the long-range zoom lens.   

This phenomenon may not be an issue in most occasions, but can become annoying and fatal to street and sports photography where scenes may present themselves just around the corner.

Defocused

Also, with the long-range zoom lenses, defocusing is sometimes obvious under some circumstances like people are moving across the scene.  This shortcoming can be worked around by turning off the multi-AF area and activating just the centre focus sensor.

SAM_1656 (Medium)Here, the focus was lost when people walked across the frame at the time the shutter release was fully pressed (continuous AF NOT in used).  Probably the AF is too sensitive which is not a sin.  For sure, in difficult shooting situations, it is wise for the photographer to use the most suitable focusing strategy:  pick a selectable AF point to overcame the problem; otherwise, focus manually.

In the next post, some conclusive remarks about the NX10 will be offered.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Distorting Mirror

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Okay, let's have a break from the NX1o review.  The question for this week is: Where is the invisible photographer in the photo? Any clue?

This is Sunday, take a break!