Am I Just Pixel Peeping?

Micklegate
Micklegate, York.

Just over a year ago I wrote about using a then new piece of software called Iridient X-Transformer which dramatically improved my results when processing photos from my Fujifilm X System cameras.

Back in January 2017 Iridient X-Transformer was in beta testing but the results were impressive enough for me to purchase the software right away.

Since then I have been using X-Transformer on a photo by photo basis where I think it will be of most benefit to the image.

I’m now beginning to think that I should just run all my Fuji photos through X-Transformer regardless. Why? Have a look at the screen shot below. This is one small section of a photo I took in York back in November, looking along Micklegate from Micklegate Bar. It’s not a great photo, I didn’t bother to process it at the time and I’m just using it as an example here. Click on it to see it at 100% or I doubt you’ll be able to see what I’m talking about and particularly look at the lettering on the red “shop to let” sign, but also at the brickwork and the little Christmas tree.

compare
Small section of a photo viewed in Lightroom’s compare loupe. Click to see at full size.

Which looks better / sharper / clearer / better defined to you? The image on the left or the image on the right?

To my eyes the version on the left is the clear (and clearer!) winner. No surprise then that the version on the left is the .dng file processed through X-Transformer whereas the version on the right is the default .raf imported by Lightroom.

Compare
Small section of a photo viewed in Lightroom’s compare loupe. Click to see at full size.

I was originally planning to run all of my Fuji photos through X-Transformer as I stated in that original blog post but then I noticed how much more disk space the .dng file took up compared with the .raf file. In the case of the example shown the .raf file is 24.4MB, the .dng is 66.7MB. This photo was shot using my X-Pro2 and I use a (losslessly) compressed raw format so the .dng version is always going to be much larger as that compression is removed during the process of converting to .dng.

I am now thinking that it would better to accept the greater file size and just process everything I shoot on a Fuji camera (99% of my photography) through X-Transformer. I likely wouldn’t have used it to process this photo as I wouldn’t have viewed it as containing lots of intricate details – just a normal (and rather dull and uninteresting) street scene.

The difference is clear so I think it’s time for another change to my workflow. Process everything through X-Transformer before importing into Lightroom and I might as well stop using that compressed Fuji raw format on my X-Pro2 as there will be no benefit if converting to .dng anyway. Yes, the photos will take up more space but that might be a good incentive for me to be more ruthless with my “pruning” during the editing process.

I dont think this is “pixel peeping”. I think that Lightroom’s de-mosaicing of Fuji raw images is substandard and I’m not getting the full benefit of the image quality my Fuji cameras are capable of providing.

Adobe should be doing way better than this. I pay a subscription to use Lightroom, it’s not “cheap”. X-Transformer currently costs just £23.75 and is produced by a small, independent software developer. I do wish they produced their full Iridient Developer package for Windows, I’d be highly likely to switch from Lightroom.

I have considered and tried using Capture One and again the results are way better than Lightroom but at the moment I would rather not spend hundreds of pounds on new software and I don’t know how many hours learning to use it. I know Lightroom pretty well and get along with it fine, if I pre-process my photos with X-Transformer I can then just carry on as normal with Lightroom. I just wish to heck that Adobe would do something about its treatment of Fuji files. Good job Iridient are there to step in where Adobe fall short.

Trim Time

Trim Time
Trim Time, Northampton Street, Leicester.

There were a few more photos I wanted to share from my amble around town on Sunday.

The first, above, was taken on Northampton Street looking towards Granby Street. The clock from which the photo gets its title belongs to the barber shop that my dad used to drag me into when I was a lad, not quite literally but it would be true to say that I didn’t like getting my hair cut. As I got older I kept going to the same place. It used to be “Shilton’s” and I did ask the obvious question about thirty years ago but no, no relation to the one time Leicester City and England goal keeper. I liked the conflict of the word “trim” with the state of the clock and the building at the end of the street which also looks rather the worse for wear.

Curve.
Curve Theatre, Rutland Street, Leicester.

I’ve only been inside The Curve twice in my life to date. Once to see “Of Mice And Men” and again to see “The Importance of Being Earnest”. I should check their schedules more frequently than I do but I’m often put off by the number of musicals they put on here. I’m “not a fan” of musicals. I love music. I love drama. The musical just seems like the lowest form of both to me. Anyway, I was passing by during my quest for street art and thought I’d snap a photo. The building to the right with the dome above the entrance and the tower block looming behind is called Alexandra House and features some rather elaborate carvings, particularly around the entrance.

Exchange Buildings.
Exchange Buildings, Rutland Street, Leicester.

Built in 1888, I don’t know anything of the history of these buildings. They are now shops and offices but the name makes me think of financial institutions. I like Victorian architecture and this is a fine example right next door to the Curve Theatre. Something tells me that the theatre might not look so grand after it has stood for 130 years.

The Black Boy.
The Black Boy, Albion Street, Leicester.

The Black Boy stands (just!) on the corner of Albion Street and Chatham Street. I’ve never been inside, my memories of the place go back to the 1970s when I was a lad and my dad worked at the other end of Albion Street (more of which later). Sometimes my sister and I would be driven out by  our aunt to collect my dad from work on a Saturday evening and we would park up along Albion Street to wait for him to leave work. The Black Boy would be lit up at the end of the road with people heading in there after work or just starting their Saturday night out on the tiles. I know somebody had been wanting to demolish the place to make way for yet more student flats but I think the planning application was turned down. Quite what will happen to this lovely old building I can’t guess. It would be great to see it restored to its former glory and used as a pub once again, but in the current economic climate and with pubs closing down in droves I sadly doubt very much that will happen.

Young's Camera Corner.
Young’s Cameras. “Camera Corner” – Belvoir Street and Albion Street Leicester.

Young’s Cameras was where my dad worked for most of his working life and stands at the corner of Belvoir Street and Albion Street, the opposite end of Albion Street to the Black Boy pub above. Young’s had started off as a chemist’s store in the late 18th Century and sadly closed down back in 2010. Eight years later the shop still stands empty, a sad testament to the “centre of gravity” in Leicester having shifted hugely towards the Highcross Shopping Centre across town and the fate of many bricks and mortar retailers as online shopping took trade away. As a kid back in the 70s I would occasionally have the treat of going into work with my dad when school was closed for some reason. I was trusted to be down in the basement alone, surrounded by heaven knows how many thousands of pounds worth of stock and deadly chemicals. The then owner, Mr Young himself, was a kindly man who I remember with great fondness. He would often come down into the basement to bring me a cake from the shop around the corner, a photo book I could have or maybe there was a little “job” I could do to “help out” (and keep me amused and out of mischief). I’m sure it wouldn’t be allowed today.

All photos taken with my Fujifilm X100T.

Bring The Paint

Two Faced
Two Faced, Midland Street, Leicester. I couldn’t get to the other side of the fence so I made use of it in this composition. I did consider focussing “through” the fence but felt that being able to see it enhanced the grungy, urban feel.

Today I took a stroll around Leicester with my X100T for two or three hours. The light was flat and dull so I decided that I would go in search of some colour in the form of street art.

I walk by a few eye catching examples on my way home from work each night so I knew which part of town I was aiming for – the “Cultural Quarter” near the Phoenix Arts Centre and The Curve Theatre. However I decided to park up near Victoria Park which is probably a mile or so away from my target area. That way I could wander down New Walk (a Georgian pedestrian path and much favoured location for the offices of solicitors and financial advisors) and nab photos of anything else that took my fancy on the way (and also I knew that particular car park is free to use on Sundays).

New Walk.
New Walk archway.

When daylight hours start to get a bit longer I can see myself walking in and out from home but that would add another couple of hours onto the round trip. The light was gloomy enough as it was today without the sun setting on me whilst I was out.

Along New Walk I had to pass New Walk Museum which currently has an Anne Frank exhibition running so I decided on the spur of the moment to pop inside and take a look (very well worth the visit). Last year they installed a new curved stairway leading up to the first floor of the museum so I stopped to grab a quick snap of that. Believe it or not even looking over the side to take this photo triggered my height issues so I didn’t really explore many angles.

Stairs
New Walk Museum staircase.

I then continued on to Leicester’s Cultural Quarter and I wasn’t disappointed by the street art to be found. I knew of a few pieces already but there was more hidden away within car parks and around corners I wouldn’t have thought to turn unless I was specifically searching. A few of my favourites are to be found below along with the photo which I used at the top of this post. Many of these works (if not all) were painted in May of 2017 during a “Bring The Paint” festival.

LCB
LCB – this is the site of the old Leicester City Bus / Leicester City Transport depot on Rutland Street. I think this portrait is stunning.
Crime
“All you see is crime in the city”, Midland Street opposite Phoenix Arts. I used the fence to create an “imprisoned” feel and it was the best angle I could find anyway due to some parked trucks.
Street art
Old lady trimming the crust of a pie. Colton Street. I was sadly very limited here as the gates were locked and although there might be other ways through to the yard where this painting is located I couldn’t find them.
Bring the paint.
Bring the paint! The name of the festival which produced all this art. Corner of Southampton Street and Morledge Street.
Boogie.
Boogie! Less colourful than some but I loved the look anyway. Within car park at corner of Southampton Street and Morledge Street.
Tiger.
A Leicester Tiger… Maybe…? Within car park at corner of Southampton Street and Morledge Street.
Hole
View through a hole in the fence into a car park which had been extensively painted (including the two previous images which were on a wall out of shot to the right inside). Southampton Street,
Caged Bird.
Caged Bird, St. George Street, opposite what was the Leicester Mercury building. I walk by here every night on my way home from work so this one I knew about. Beyond the fence is a car park which I could have walked into but I decided to use the fence in my composition rather than shoot around it or over it.
Sound House.
Sound House, Southampton Street. A music venue I walk by every night on my way home but despite my following of the local music scene around Leicester, I’ve never been inside. I seem to remember that this building was also painted up like this during the “Bring The Paint” festival last year. I love the look – the tsunami pattern seems appropriate for somewhere where (sound) waves are generated.

I really do like having all this colour around. British streets are often so drab and dull when compared to the colourful scenes to be found elsewhere in Europe. A bit of colour like this really can give a place a lift and put a smile on your face. Well, it puts one on my face anyway.

Following this I started to head back to where I was parked and as I approached the car park I remembered that I had long intended to take a look at Evington Footway, a Victorian pedestrian pathway near to where I was parked. It’s dingy and feels rather like it would be a prime place to get mugged to be quite honest, although I spotted some CCTV cameras and maybe it would feel better on a bright sunny day. The thing is I like dark, narrow alleys, aesthetically speaking and of course those are the very places where Nefarious Acts take place. I have to say that as I walked down this footpath and met people coming the other way I felt that people might be expecting trouble from me rather than vice versa, being the rather large chap that I am.

Evington Footway.
Evington Footway.
Evington Footway.
Evington Footway.

To sum up I had a good afternoon photo walk without having to go far from home. The experience was enhanced by “travelling light”. The Fujifilm X100T is simply my favourite camera ever. Small, light, discrete and very capable. I’ve used it on several city breaks because I don’t have to bother lugging around several lenses. A 35mm equivalent prime f2 lens is ideal for city / street work and it can be simply stuffed into a general purpose shoulder bag or even a coat pocket when not in use. I also enjoy using Fuji’s hybrid viewfinders, switching from optical to electronic and back again depending upon the circumstances. I love getting a live exposure preview right in the viewfinder including whichever film simulation mode I have selected. Today I had this set to black and white with a red filter as I knew that anything other than the street art I would most likely be shooing in black and white anyway due to the general lack of light. Even though I was only shooting in raw mode (so full colour capture) the camera still honours the black and white “film” selection in the viewfinder which can be helpful.

Busy Going Nowhere

Coffee Yard.
Coffee Yard at night. York, November 2017. Fujifilm X-Pro2, Fujinon 18mm f2.

Following my previous post here I realised that I hadn’t posted anything since September and that towards the end of the post I said that I needed to get out and shoot more.

It’s not that I haven’t been getting out to shoot at all, more that I’ve not been particularly excited by my results. Much of the time it’s the same old places that I’ve visited how many times before and I’m finding nothing new to see, not feeling inspired.

Also maybe I just need to blog about my photography more, even if I’m not doing anything fantastic.

moby-dick-1

I’ve been a paying member of Flickr for a very long time now and I barely use it these days. Every now and again I realise that I’ve not uploaded any photos there for a while so I add a few but I increasingly wonder why. I find it’s rare that I obtain any kind of useful feedback there. Maybe it would be better to put extra effort into my blogging instead? As a case in point I recently once again had a photo featured in “Explore” and the views and favourites went ballistic on that photo for a couple of days. I really don’t know why. It was one of my regular shots of my favourite angel at Welford Road Cemetery. I’ve taken an awful lot of very similar shots and I would also say an awful lot of much better shots, so why this one? It really wasn’t anything special (below).

WelfordRd-23122017-1

I did enjoy a few days in York during November and in particular was drawn to shooting the narrow lanes and alleys after dark. I felt these scenes were quite striking when the cobbles were wet, reflecting more light into the street. I think I need to do more night time street photography.

yorknov17-87

I also spent quite a bit of time messing around with long exposures during the autumn but I’ve yet to shoot anything that I’m particularly pleased with. I think I still have a lot to learn about which scenes make the most compelling long exposures.

lunar-1

After not shooting with my Canon kit for a good 18 months  to two years I have tried to take it out and about with me recently. On the whole I found it a reminder of why I’d not really used it for so long. Yes, it’s bigger and heavier than my Fuji kit but there are other aspects which make me prefer shooting with the Fuji bodies. Shooting with a DSLR again I found that I really missed the “live preview” of the Fuji viewfinder. Yes, I know I could pop the DSLR into “live view” but I generally don’t like composing a photo on the screen (sometimes I will use that method if the camera is on a tripod, but never hand held). Having a live view of the final exposure is something I’ve got very used to and I think it’s particularly useful when shooting under more tricky lighting conditions.

And that is about where I am with my photography as we head into 2018. I want to play more with long exposures and I want to spend more time shooting with a single body and lens. During my recent trip to York the Fujinon 18mm was pretty well a permanent feature on my X-Pro2 and I think I enjoyed myself all the more as I wasn’t always thinking about which lens to use.

New Year, New Workflow

SSD
Samsung T5 USB SSD with £1 coin for scale.

I’ve recently invested in some new computer kit and changed the way I work with my photos in Adobe Lightroom.

I built myself a new tower PC a couple of years ago and that has been my “digital darkroom” ever since. It’s powerful enough for my needs with an i7 processor, a reasonable wedge of memory and fast PCIe connected SSD. However using it means shutting myself away in my “den”. Sometimes that’s fine, other times I’d like to be able to work in the living room, at the kitchen table or for that matter in a hotel room.

I did have a laptop with Lightroom installed on it but it was a separate catalog. If I imported my photos on the laptop to work on them I would then later export those photos and import them back to my main catalog on the desktop machine. This worked, but it was a more laborious process than I wanted so I didn’t work that way very often.

I explored the idea of storing my Lightroom catalog and more recent photos on a USB hard disk. This worked pretty well. I had for a long time held archives of photos from previous years on a NAS so that they could be accessed by multiple devices, albeit rather more slowly than anything which was held on local storage. With my catalog and recent photos on an external drive I could now swap between the desktop machine and the laptop and just carry on working from where I was before – same photos, same edits, same presets available. As long as I’m at home then my full archive of photos is available on the NAS device. If I’m away from home, working on the laptop then all I’ll have is my recent photos.

Although this solution worked it could feel a bit sluggish. This was only to be expected with storing the Lightroom catalog files and the photos on a USB hard drive. Transfer speeds of around 100MB per second don’t match up to the sort of speeds obtained from an internal PCIe attached SSD. However with an external USB SSD that 100MB per second could be increased to something more like 500MB per second and with Christmas coming around I had gift money to spend so I invested in a Samsung T5 250GB external SSD. I had to further reduce the number of photos I kept on this drive so that now everything but the last 3 or 4 months worth of shooting is on the NAS but the extra speed when working with current photos was worth it.

In addition to being roughly five times faster, the Samsung T5 is much smaller and lighter than a conventional USB hard drive. This coupled with a 13.3″ laptop and my Fujifilm X series cameras makes for a really very small and light travelling kit compared with what I would have had to take with me previously.

Due to the obviously very portable nature of a laptop and small, light external storage I feel that encryption is very important. If I lose the laptop or it’s stolen then I want to make sure that the most important asset, the data, is protected. The SSD internal to the laptop is encrypted using BitLocker provided by Windows 10 Pro and the external T5 SSD comes with its own encryption solution. Of course I also protect my data by having multiple backups with at least one copy being held off-site at all times.

All of this is great and it enables me to work with my photos the way I want to but now of course I need to get out with a camera and take more photos! I don’t really “do” New Year resolutions but if I did they would have to include getting out more, taking more photos and blogging more frequently.

Chasing The Sun – Part 2

Corn
Field of corn, Aurora Nebraska. Phone snap. (this was taken from the shuttle bus as it left the viewing event after totality. The weird lighting is a combination of tinted windows and the fact that the eclipse is ongoing – the sun gradually being uncovered following totality – at the point I took this the sun was a crescent again).

 

Continued from Chasing The Sun – Part 1

 

Corn. Mile after mile of corn. I had been to The Cornhusker State previously but it had been 23 years before and at an earlier time in the year when the corn was less apparent in the fields.

After our concerns about “carmageddon” on the roads due to crazy eclipse crowds we actually had a very smooth journey from Thornton, Colorado to Hastings, Nebraska. We had a hotel room booked for the night before the eclipse and the plan was then to continue on the little way to the town of Aurora next day to watch the action – or if carmageddon occurred we would most likely stay put at Hastings.

After the dry air of Colorado the humidity in Hastings came as a bit of a shock and the skies were almost totally clear – a good omen for the following day. We had most of a day to kill so we looked around the campus of Hastings College where my wife had studied back in the day. I had visited here myself on one occasion and that was during my previous visit to Nebraska all those years before. It was amazing how clearly I remembered the place. We also had a wander around the town and the market stalls which had been put up as part of “SolFest“, the town’s celebration of the solar eclipse. It was a great atmosphere and expectations were running high for the following day.

August 21st dawned, the day of the eclipse. There was quite a lot of cloud about. We had two choices – drive around trying to find clear skies or head to Aurora as we had originally intended – and just hope we would be lucky. You could spend all day driving around trying to find the perfect conditions and still be defeated by the weather and my wife had friends (Dan and Tracy) who were running the Aurora eclipse viewing event – they were staying put and hoping for the best so that was what we did too.

The event had been organised at The Leadership Center, Aurora. Some folks had camped overnight but for those driving in on the day a free shuttle-bus service had been arranged, running from a nearby ball park where we left the car. Arriving at the Leadership Center we chose our spot in the shade of a couple of trees and I got my camera ready. I have to say I was very impressed with the event planning. Dan was providing a commentary during key phases of the eclipse but not so much that it detracted. Food and drink was available to buy at a very reasonable price with the proceeds making a contribution to the funding of the event. There was no charge for use of the shuttle bus and no charge for entrance to the event.

Solar filter.
Solar filter in action shooting the eclipse.

We still had concerns about the clouds. At first we had a clear view of the sun but that was something which was constantly changing, we would just have to hope. It seemed like we had been there for quite a while before I noticed the first sliver of the sun had been eaten away – first contact. From then on I was taking shots at regular intervals. I was bracketing my exposures to try and make sure I got at least something. The filter was working well and I was getting a good view of the ever diminishing solar disc but the clouds were quite variable and although most of the time we could make out the sun behind them I was having to adjust my exposures quite dramatically to compensate. It was difficult to notice the light levels dropping around us, it was so gradual. At one point I noticed that the cicadas had started chirruping as they do in the evening, a sure sign it was getting darker.

Weather Balloon.
A weather balloon being prepared for launch. Measurements being taken of atmospheric changes during the eclipse.

 

We were very lucky. Just moments before totality was due the clouds cleared enough for us to get a really good view. It was amazing just how bright it was right up until totality and then suddenly the light level fell to something similar to twilight as a “black hole” appeared where the sun used to be. I really don’t think any words, photographs or video can possibly do justice to the beauty and other-worldliness of witnessing a total eclipse. I felt like I was in a science fiction movie or a surrealist painting. We were in the shadow of the moon, the sun was a black hole above us with a rim of glowing plasma, stars and planets were visible in the sky during daytime and there was a 360 degree sunset extending all around us.

During totality there is no need for protective glasses or for my solar filter over the lens. I slid it off and carried on shooting whilst also trying to take in every moment of the experience.

It was true that no photo could adequately convey what it felt like but I had come all this way and I was prepared the best I could be so I fired away with my Fuji X-T1 and did the best I could. Yes, I needed a longer lens. A much longer lens. In hindsight maybe I would have been a little better off taking my EOS 7D with me just for the eclipse. That would have given me an effective 460mm (ish) instead of 300mm. What I really needed was a telescope. But I had what I had in terms of photographic kit, that decision had been made weeks before we left England and the most important thing was to experience the eclipse first hand, try to remember everything about it as clearly as I could.

I’m delighted that I was able to capture the photos below, inadequate as they are, I had to crop quite heavily due to my short focal length (click to see them larger). They are part of my memory of a unique event. It would be wonderful if I got the chance to see another total solar eclipse but I feel so fortunate to have witnessed one during my life and to have managed to capture anything at all on camera is a bonus. I was delighted that my DIY solar filter worked so well, much better than I ever expected it to.

Solar eclipse 2017.
Before the eclipse started, a complete solar disc.

First contact.
A tiny sliver of the sun is missing – first contact.

Eclipse 2017.
Very obvious now, but the clouds are evident.

Eclipse 2017.
Nearly a Pac-man moment.

Solar eclipse.
Maybe two thirds gone.

Solar eclipse.
Crescent sun.

Solar Eclipse.
Just a toenail clipping left now

Solar eclipse.
Last moment before totality.

Totality.
Totality. Note the prominence to the top right.

Solar Eclipse.
Totality without the cropping. This is what I saw through my viewfinder.

Solar eclipse.
Last moments of totality.

Solar eclipse.
Diamond ring.

Solar eclipse.
Diamond ring without the cropping.

Diamond Ring
Diamond Ring glowing brighter, a moment later it would be over.

Chasing The Sun – Part 1

Totality
Totality as seen from Aurora, Nebraska. 21st August 2017.

Towards the end of 2016 we received an invitation to attend the 50th wedding anniversary celebrations of my parents-in-law over in Colorado during August 2017. Nine days after the anniversary party a total solar eclipse was due to sweep over the USA from coast to coast with the path of totality passing within a “reachable” distance of my in-law’s house in Thornton, Colorado. My wife studied in Hastings, Nebraska and still has friends over there, two of whom were involved in organising an eclipse viewing event in Aurora, Nebraska. So back in December of 2016 plans were hatched and a hotel room was booked in Hastings (a short drive from Aurora) for the night before the eclipse.

I had seen partial eclipses before but I had never been lucky enough to see a total eclipse. Back in 1999 there had been a total eclipse which passed over SW England but at the time we were on the Isle of Lewis in NW Scotland and got to watch that one as a partial eclipse from Callanish stone circle. That was an amazing experience but it wasn’t a totality.

If I was going to find myself in the path of totality then I was sure as heck going to do what I could to try and take some photos of it but I didn’t want to spend a fortune in the process. I’ve already spent quite enough money on photographic equipment over the years and I didn’t want to spend loads more especially for an event which could be wiped out by the weather. After doing a bit of research I decided to make my own solar filter using Baader AstroSolar Safety Film and some cardboard.

I decided to travel with my Fujifilm cameras as they are smaller and lighter than my Canon rig, easier to transport. There was also the factor of them being mirrorless which I saw as being an extra layer of safety to prevent me from burning out my retinas. I would be looking only at an electronic viewfinder, never a view directly down a lens. The flippy out screen on my X-T1 was also a small factor in favour. This decision being made I then started construction of a filter to fit the longest lens I had for my Fuji cameras, the 55-200mm. This would give me an “equivalent” of a 300mm lens which I knew would be “too short” but I didn’t want to spend thousands just for this one event. I do have the Canon 70-300mm and my old 7D body would make that an equivalent of around 460mm but I had decided to take my Fuji kit and not my Canon kit. The rights and wrongs of that could be debated for ever – the decision had been made.

Solar Filter
Making a solar filter from cardboard and solar safety film.

The solar safety film cost me about £20 for an A4 sheet. A ready made solar filter would have cost me several times that and this was way more fun anyway. The cardboard (as you can see) came from the delivery carton used by my favourite coffee suppliers. In addition some double sided tape and a glue gun were used. Two rings of cardboard were cut and the solar film sandwiched between them then more card was used to create a short tube which would fit over the lens hood of my chosen lens.

Solar filter.
Expertly crafted rings of finest cardboard covered in double sided sticky tape waiting for a layer of solar film to be stuck between them.

 

Solar filter.
Solar film in place between cardboard rings, tissues used to prevent scratching the solar film during construction.

 

Solar filter.
The finished filter in place on my camera.

I completed the construction of the filter one wet Saturday about three weeks before we were due to fly out to the USA. British Summer being what it is, there wasn’t a sunny day when I was off from work between when I finished making it and when we were due to fly. I did take it out one evening when the sun was behind a layer of clouds and I got at least the idea that it was blocking light. Any other testing would have to wait until we reached Colorado.

Over in Colorado anniversary celebrations were enjoyed, extended family was met, ballgames were watched, mountains were experienced and then we had a couple of quiet days before the journey out to Nebraska for the eclipse. I took the opportunity to set up my camera on a tripod in the garden, pop on the filter and see how it worked. Or how it didn’t.

Sunspots.
Sunspots! Shot with Fujifilm X-T1, 55-200mm, 1/500th at f16. Thornton, CO. 19th August 2017.

Phew!

It worked. And to be honest it worked a lot better than I was expecting it to. At first I thought the splodges were sensor dust. Mirrorless cameras are more prone to suffering from this as when you take the lens off the sensor is directly exposed rather than having a mirror in the way. I was also shooting at f16 which would accentuate any dust on the sensor. However, I moved the sun around in the frame and took more shots as I did so and the splodges stayed put. Sun spots! I couldn’t believe that I was seeing sun spots with my tiny lens and my DIY, bodged together solar filter. I was already excited by the prospect of just seeing a total eclipse. I was now also contemplating the fact that I might be able to capture a set of photos of my own of the event.

I tried the filter out using both my X-Pro2 and the X-T1 (normally I shoot with the 10-24mm on one and a longer lens on the other if I have both bodies with me). I decided that the extra resolution of the X-Pro2 didn’t outweigh the flippy out screen of the X-T1 plus in the event of an accident the X-T1 was bought as a used body and was older technology. Basically I would cry much more if my X-Pro2 got killed during this process. Sorry X-T1 but those were the cold hard facts.

We were due to drive out to Nebraska very early on the morning of Sunday 20th August. We were trying to minimise any issues with busy roads and in the couple of days before we traveled there were indeed stories on the TV news of huge traffic jams and even gas stations running out of fuel. This very nearly put us off the journey. It was a six hour drive each way to our destination in order to see 2 minutes 31 seconds of totality. If we stayed right where we were we would get something like a 90% eclipse without all the driving and the risk of being stranded and out of fuel on the Interstate in the middle of a Mad Max like scenario where rip-off merchants could charge whatever they liked for fuel, food, water – the chance to live on in this cruel, harsh world…

Fortunately our sense of adventure won out and we headed off at 4am on 20th August to drive along I76 and I80 to Hastings and a hotel room we hoped would still be held for us.

 

Continued in Part 2

Flash and X100T, Lessons Learned (so far)

Angel
X100T, 1/1000th at f2, Nissin Di866

 

Yeah, I know I said I’d give the angels down at the cemetery a rest, I know, I know!

But I learned from my previous attempt and I wanted to go back and see if the things I thought about this were indeed so. There being no shortage of cloudy days around here I headed back to Welford Road Cemetery and put my theories and “learning” to the test.

I had come to believe that although my flash was indeed firing when using my wireless flash trigger and I was certainly obtaining some flash light in my photos, I wasn’t “getting the full benefit”. I suspected that I was wrong about my wireless flash triggers being able to fire a flash in sync with my shutter at 1/1000th of a second. I was catching some light, but not the strongest burst. By trying again and comparing wireless triggers against the flash being attached to the hot shoe of the camera I think I can put that one to bed. The X100T will indeed sync with a flash right up to 1/4000th of a second but my el-cheapo wireless flash triggers aren’t able to cope with that.

Which is fair enough!

I continued to shoot with my flash on the hot shoe but naturally I missed the creative possibilities of being able to position the flash independently. I do have a PC Sync cable (that’s Prontor Compur” not Personal Computer!) and my Nissin Di866 flash unit has a PC Sync socket but the X100T doesn’t. The wireless triggers will still have their uses but not for when I’m trying to beat back sun light by shooting at a high shutter speed with the X100. I think I need to invest in a hot shoe extension cable and will need to do some research into my best option for the equipment I’m using (Fujifilm camera with a Canon compatible strobe…).

Next we come to a couple of the features of the X100T itself and how they relate to this quest for sun defying flash.

Firstly that leaf shutter. Yes, it will sync with my flash all the way up to 1/4000th of a second, but there are some limitations inherent to this shutter to consider. With or without flash there are limits to the fastest shutter speed which can be used according to the size of aperture selected.

At f2 it’s possible to shoot at shutter speeds of up to 1/1000th of a second.

At f4 it becomes possible to shoot at up to 1/2000th of a second.

At f8 it becomes possible to shoot at up to 1/4000th of a second.

Now remember I’m using the shutter speed to reduce ambient light whilst trying to keep my aperture as wide as possible in order to maximise the effect of my flash. So it becomes a balancing act – as is generally the case with photography. I can block out more ambient light by selecting a faster shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second, but in order to do so I would need to close down my shutter by four whole stops to f8. This makes the difference between my flash being blinding and just a barest glimmer of light.

Thus I find my “sweet-spot” for what I’m trying to achieve is to shoot at f2 and with a shutter speed of 1/1000th, using faster shutter speeds requires the aperture to be closed down too much to make the best of the power of my flash. I could shoot 1/2000th at f4 but that only reduces the ambient by one stop whilst reducing the flash sensitivity by two stops. Similarly going from 1/1000th at f2 to 1/4000th at f8 reduces the ambient by two stops whilst reducing the flash sensitivity by four stops. It could be done but I would need a flash four times more powerful than my Nissin.

Secondly the X100 series of cameras has a unique and very useful feature – a built in three stop neutral density filter. This is very useful when considering the aforementioned limitations of the leaf shutter. If you’re shooting in bright conditions but want to use f2 to blur the background then you can only shoot at up to 1/1000th of a second, you’ll probably be way over-exposed. No problem with the X100 series – push a button and the built in ND filter activates reducing the light hitting your sensor by three hole stops. And yes, it is a physical filter built into the body of the camera not an electronic work-around. This has made my X100T a favourite camera to use for long exposures. I have a Cokin 10 stop ND filter but by combining that with the ND filter of the X100T that can go up to a massive 13 stops at the touch of a button.

How is this of use in terms of sun conquering flash? Well I found that I could use the ND filter to reduce the ambient light quite a lot whilst not making such a huge reduction to the apparent power of the flash. Yes, the ND filter will be reducing all light coming through the lens but the flash is incredibly bright and only travels a short distance. So I can use the ND filter to make the sky look considerably darker whilst not appreciably diminishing the very much brighter light reflecting flash from my subject a few feet away. That is the best I can explain it. It seems counter-intuitive to use an ND filter to make my flash light more powerful but it’s “more powerful compared to ambient” that I’m after.

So now I really will give the angels a rest for a while, at least until I get myself a hot shoe extension cable.

Angel Angel
Angel Angel
Angel Angel

Flashy Angels

Angel 1.

The Easter weekend now feels like a distant memory but at least I was able to dedicate some of the free time to photography. I did make the decision not to take a camera to a gig I attended on Thursday evening which was probably just as well because it turned out I just wasn’t in the mood and went home early.

I did go for a short photo stroll in one of my usual rural locations but didn’t really “spark”. So the most successful photo activity of the weekend for me was taking a flash gun to a cemetery! Does it get any more fun that this? Actually, I enjoyed it so much the first time that I went back to do some more. During my first visit I was concentrating my efforts on one statue, for the second visit I was looking for more subjects.

It has been a long time since I’ve done anything at all with a flash gun. I always had one handy (a Nissin Di866), just in case, but it has always been something that comes out only when I have to. The most “into” flash photography I have ever been was during my Project 365 a few years back when using a strobe expanded my possibilities for getting a shot taken during the long winter nights.

At some point during that time I actually invested in a cheap second strobe – a Yongnuo YN460, some bargain basement radio flash triggers, a couple of umbrellas and some light stands. I even made a couple of DIY snoots, just out of folded paper, crude but they sort of did the job. However none of this became something I enjoyed – maybe because every time I used this kit I had to set it all up and take it down again. No space for a dedicated “studio” here. I have pretty much been “The Anti-Strobist” for all of my journey through photography (and that goes back right to primary school days).

So despite having owned first an X100 and then an X100T and loved shooting with both of them, I had never really taken advantage of their leaf shutters for flash work. For some the ability to sync a flash at 1/4000th of a second would have been the chief selling point of the X100. For me the appeal was the compact body with all manual controls, housing an APS-C sized sensor behind a great little versatile lens.

So right now, after 5 years of owning an X100 (or derivative model) I am just starting out in using flash with one. This has been one of the little projects which has helped to lift me out of my Photographer’s Block and I’m looking forward to learning more – which I most certainly need to do.

So why all the angels and moping around in cemeteries? Am I just morbid? I don’t think so although I will admit to a certain gravitation towards “The Dark”. I guess I’d much rather be taking photographs of models in interesting places but for that you need a willing model and these lumps of stone will stand in the same pose all day for me without having to pay them a penny. So, yes I know there has been a lot of this type of thing lately, time to give them a rest for a while now, but I have enjoyed it.

I took my Yongnuo YN460 along for this shoot and in hindsight I think I should have taken my Nissin as that is the more powerful flash. I didn’t even consider the output of the two flashes I owned, I just grabbed the most basic one which also has the advantage of a metal foot which seems to fit my cameras and triggers better than the plastic foot of the Nissin. It became evident that the Yongnuo was fine if I could get the flash gun quite close to the statue or if the statue was of a lighter, cleaner, more reflective stone. I think the Nissin would have done better but I can easily go back and try again with that. It’s not like we have a shortage of cloudy days here.

However, my main goal was to try and capture detail in the statues whilst at the same time retaining detail in the clouds and this I have done for the most part (although a couple of the shots don’t have much in the way of clouds and a couple of the angels are bit on the dark side).

Angel 2. The Angel

Angel 3.
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Digging Myself Out

As I said a couple of posts ago, I felt like I was suffering from Photographer’s Block. I’ve taken a few steps to try and resolve this and I think it’s working.

Sovetskoe Foto
Sovetskoe Foto

Firstly I decided that I would spend more time looking at other people’s work and that I have done – in magazines, in photo books and online. The latter of these is a huge advantage we have today, there is such a wealth of photography to see online. One unexpected online avenue I found was a complete online archive of a Soviet era Russian photography magazine, “Sovetskoe Foto” . Sure, I couldn’t understand any of the writing but I’ve been enjoying looking at the photos.

Wistow
Across the fields behind Wistow church.

Next I decided I needed to simplify. Instead of heading out with two or three cameras and six or seven lenses I would make sure I would regularly go out to shoot with just one camera and one lens, not limiting myself in this way all of the time but regularly. Sometimes this has been my X100T, other times my X-Pro2 with the 35mm f2 lens (the f2 over the f1.4 mainly for the weather resistance – I am based in the UK after all). Isn’t it strange how as photographers we spend so much time debating new lenses to buy (“invest in”…?!) and yet having less options actually seems to increase creativity? Plus instead of spending so much time wondering whether I might be better using the 90mm, the 55-200 or maybe I should get in really close and add some drama with the 10-24… well, I only have the 35mm here with me so let’s see what can I do with that, eh?

Pinhole photo.
The Knoll, Leicester Botanic Gardens. Fuji X-T1 and homemade pinhole body cap. 1/2 second exposure.

As I wrote earlier I’ve also made myself a pinhole body cap. I’m not one hundred percent happy with it yet but it did give me something new and different to try. With a bit of tinkering about in Analog Efex Pro 2 I’m getting the kind of look I was hoping for but I think maybe my pinhole is still a bit too wide or maybe not smooth enough. I would like to achieve something with a little sharper rendition. I can keep working at that, it’s fairly quick and easy to make another pinhole to go into the body cap.

I also realised that it had been a while since I’d really shot with a flash. I do tend to regard myself as an “available light” photographer. Sometimes I’ll feel a bit sniffy about the idea of introducing non-ambient light sources – it’s cheating. Other times I just simply can’t be bothered – it’s yet more kit to carry around and more batteries to charge, cables to tangle, wireless triggers to faff about with. So meh – I don’t bother.

The Angel
The Angel, Leicester Welford Road Cemetery. Fuji X100T, 1/1000th of a second at f11.

Today I did bother. I fished out my el-cheapo Yongnuo YN460 strobe and my equally el-cheap iShoot radio triggers and took them along to shoot my favourite angel down at Welford Road Cemetery. Yes, THAT angel. Yes, again. Yes, I know… But with the flash I got some rather different and dramatic looking photos of her that I was fairly pleased with.

The Angel
The Angel, Leicester Welford Road Cemetery. Fuji X100T, 1/1000th of a second at f8.

I was using my X100T for this as the leaf shutter of that camera allows for flash sync at silly shutter speeds. With a flash directly connected to the hotshoe or with the little built in flash it will sync right up to 1/4000th of a second. Using my radio triggers it was working just fine at 1/1000th. Shooting flash at that kind of shutter speed lets you really block down the ambient light and the cheap Yongnuo was powerful enough for me to shoot at f8 or f11 if I held the flash up close to the statue. This way I was able to take advantage of the dark and stormy looking clouds in the background whilst shooting the angel in what was actually pretty bright light (I took a couple of shots using the 90mm : 1/1600th at f2 without the flash). Maybe I’ve processed these a little too much on the dark side… But the main thing was I was out and enjoying taking photos.

Lambs
Lambs near Wistow church, Leicestershire. Fuji X-Pro2, 35mm (actually the f1.4 on this occasion).

Above all I’ve been trying to not force things when I’m out shooting. I’ve found it most enjoyable to go on a wander with my one body and one lens and just take uncomplicated shots, concentrating on simple compositions. If there isn’t a photo there then no amount of trying and forcing myself will make one happen. Move on, see what else I can find. Okay, sometimes I’ll wish I had a different lens with me, I couldn’t get any closer to these lambs for fear of scaring them away but it is so refreshingly simple to just work with what you have.

Through simplifying, slowing down, not forcing things and trying out a couple of new things I feel like my mojo might just be back again. Or maybe it was just a matter of waiting? Either way I’m happier with my photography now than I was a few weeks ago.