My favorite vantage point for photography

I was invited by the folks at Light, who are working on some pretty interesting camera technology, to write about my favorite vantage point. I explained to them, as I’m explaining to you now, that I don’t have one. I get bored with shooting the same locations and I’m always on the lookout for new things to shoot.

Then I realized that over the past few years, I’ve been working in the exact same location, putting in lots of time and effort, being happy with the challenges offered by that very same spot and enjoying the beautiful results. But you didn’t know about those photos, because I haven’t published them on my website, and it didn’t occur to me earlier that it was a vantage point. I’m talking about my studio work for my wife’s printed books, in other words, about my food photography.

My favorite vantage point over the past few years has been the whitebox (the official name for it is a seamless tabletop background sweep cyclorama). Here’s what it looks like:

whitebox.jpg

That’s where I’ve been spending my time. Lots of my time. Here’s one example of my work:

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This is one of my wife’s raw desserts. It’s a raw vegan whipped cream, mint and strawberry cake. You can find the recipe for it in her Raw Desserts book.

And here’s another photo from the same book. I apologize if it leaves you drooling. It’s a raw vegan brownie with a raw chocolate glaze.

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Here’s how I work. I don’t have a set position for the camera or for the speedlites. I work handheld and I vary my camera position, angle and lens until I find what I think is a good frame for the photo. Then I’ll shoot a few photos to see how the lights fall on the subject and whether I need to vary their positions as well, in order to bring out the colors and sculpt the dimensionality of the photo with lights and shadows.

I use three independent speedlites triggered by the on-camera flash, which I sometimes choose to also fire or to only have it act as a remote for the other speedlites. For this photograph, I worked with my Canon gear: one of my three Canon cameras, an EOS 60D and three Canon speedlites. I love my EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM lens and I tend to use that a lot for my studio work. I also use ambient light from within the room itself (I turn on wall and ceiling lights) and I use a mix of warm and cold lights. I know most people say you should use the same temperature lights, but I prefer to mix them in order to get a warmer ambient light. The speedlites overwhelm the subject with their cold light, but there’s a hint of warmer light all around the photo, which I like, and this comes out when I edit the photo as well. I suppose I started doing this when I began to shoot video. People leave a lot of work for post-production, but I do like it when I capture the mood light of the video live, as I shoot it, so I fiddle less with it in post.

I’d like to say I’m the set designer as well, but for my food photography, I leave that to my wife. She’s the award-winning raw chef with seven published books and I’m the photographer. Sometimes we’re inspired and we love the results, and sometimes we’re not happy with what we get. So we re-do the photo shoot at another time. There have also been instances where we’ve re-shot certain recipes for later editions of her books, because we weren’t happy with the photographs and as our skills improved, we knew we could do better.

I wish I could be more helpful than this but for me, every studio photo is a new challenge and I vary my angles and lighting in order to get what I think are the best photos of my subjects. My wife and I then cull through them and pick the ones that’ll go into her books. I then edit each one carefully, add it to the collection designated for that book in my Lightroom catalog and carry on doing this until we’re ready to turn things over to the publishing house.

Details on film

Here are several details captured on 35mm film. I love how film is readily nostalgic whereas digital photographs have to be edited heavily in order to make them so. I think what that says about digital sensors is that there’s plenty of work still to be done to them. Because to me, unless I feel a photo, it’s just a snapshot.

Vignettes from DC

Try to guess where these photos were taken; some of the images might be readily recognizable to you if you’re from the DC area. If you’re wondering about the processing, they were captured on 35mm film with an Exakta EXA Ia camera, scanned in from the negatives and edited in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Camera preview: Canon EOS M

As I announced back in June of 2010, Canon has been at work on a mirrorless DSLR and they’ve finally launched it. It’s called the EOS M. It uses a new EF-M lens mount and its specs are pretty much what we expect mirrorless DSLRs to have these days. It ships in four colors: black (see above), white (see below), red and dark silver. Suggested MSRP is $799.

I’m going to be blunt, because the late arrival of this camera is frustrating. The only innovative feature I can see on it is its Hybrid CMOS AF System, which is located right on the sensor. Other than that, this is another mirrorless DSLR in an already mature market, albeit a highly anticipated model from a large manufacturer.

Canon took their time to take the plunge. My guess is they wanted the other manufacturers to “work out the bugs” in terms of the feature set and pricing, then they matched what the market wanted to see. They didn’t stick their neck out there to try something new. They let others do the hard work while they kept fiddling with the EOS Rebel line and tested the waters (partially) with the PowerShot G1 X and its large sensor.

Design-wise, the EOS M is pleasing. It’s thin, it’s got a nice profile, it’s not cluttered and it’s simple to use.

Back to the features:

  • Full HD movie mode with Movie Servo AF: this means accurate and noiseless focus tracking of subjects when using the EF-M lenses with the new STM (Stepping Motor) technology.
  • 18 megapixels: this was predictable given that all of Canon’s lower-priced DSLRs are also at the same resolution.
  • DIGIC 5 image processor
  • ISO 100-6400 in movie mode and 100-12800 in photo mode; they’re both expandable to 12800 and 25600, respectively.
  • Hybrid CMOS AF: innovative, but let’s wait and see how it performs in real world conditions; Canon DSLRs have had plenty of focus issues lately, this being just one example.
  • Compatible with full line of EF and EF-S lenses via adapter which preserves all AF and IS functions.
  • 1,040,000 dot, 3-inch LCD with touch AF
  • Scene Intelligent Auto, Creative Filters, Multi Shot Noise Reduction
  • Stereo microphone, manual audio adjustment, wind noise filter
  • Total recording time per scene goes up to 22 minutes

Watch out for the following:

  • A notable MIA among the accessories is a viewfinder, like on the Olympus OM-D EM-5 or their PEN line of mirrorless DSLRs, like the E-P3. That means using the EOS M in glaring sunlight is going to be somewhat frustrating.
  • Stills frame rate is 4.3 fps.
  • Video frame rate at 1080p goes up to 30 fps. I want to see a Canon camera go up to 1080p/60 fps.
  • Computer connectivity is still USB 2.0. This is one area where Canon could have pulled ahead of the pack and gone with USB 3.0.
  • Battery life is average for a mirrorless (about 230 shots or 1.5 hours of video). Given my experience with Canon HDSLRs, I’d say real world battery life when shooting video is more like 30-45 minutes.

Let’s have a look at the accessories. The camera ships with an EF-M 22m pancake lens.

You can also get an EF-M 18-55mm lens for it.

Here’s the mount adapter I mentioned earlier.

And here’s a diminutive speedlite designed for it, the 90EX.

Here’s how the camera looks with the speedlite mounted in the hotshoe.

So, should you get this camera? If you’re already heavily invested in Canon gear and want a small, easy-to-carry camera, the decision is simple. If you aren’t, then there are many models on the market with various differences in design, feature sets and price that may make them more appealing to you than this particular camera. The decision is yours after you look at all of them, and I do encourage you to look at all of them.

If you do end up getting the camera or some of its accessories, I’d appreciate it if you’d use one of the links below:

Images of EOS M courtesy of Canon. 

Sigma SD1 Price Drop

On the heels of my recent video about Sigma DSLRs, Sigma Corporation announced a tremendous drop in the price of their flagship DSLR, the SD1, from $6,700 to $2,300 (or $3,300 if one looks at their press release). At any rate, it’s an unprecedented price drop that will allow interested photographers to experience the Foveon sensor’s amazing color reproduction firsthand.

With that in mind, I made a video where I talk about the price drop, about other things that Sigma could do to make their DSLRs more popular and about Sigma’s “megapixel dilemma”, as I call it.

In the video, I recommended that Sigma focus on two things:

  • a full frame, 35mm Foveon sensor
  • full HD, 1080p, 30fps video capture

I’d like to add a third item to that list: complete compatibility of Sigma DSLR RAW files with Lightroom, Aperture and other professional photo management apps. Photographers are currently stuck using Sigma Photo Professional, which is a nasty, slow and clunky application.

I’d also like to point out a fairly obvious typo on Sigma’s home page. See if you can spot it as well.

Enjoy the video and let me know your thoughts in the comments.

My thoughts on Sigma DSLRs

I made a video follow-up to my past articles on Sigma DSLRs (see this and this), where I talk about where Sigma is today and why I think they’re lagging behind the market by 2-3 years.

Sigma’s R&D has not developed new DSLRs fast enough to keep up with market demands and the wonderful capabilities of the Foveon sensor are not put to proper use.

The Foveon sensor is remarkable in that it captures RGB color at each pixel due to its three plates (vs. a single plate in regular sensors). It is supposed to give much more accurate color reproduction than regular sensors.

Unfortunately, because Sigma has not worked fast enough to create DSLRs that can truly compete with those made by more popular camera makers such as Canon and Nikon at all leves (including, but not limited to low light performance and HD video), its DSLR arm now finds itself in a terrible slump.

Their latest offerings, the SD15 and the SD1 have not sold well, unsurprisingly, and I hope they do something amazing soon in order to catch up with consumer expectations.

What happened to Sigma and FujiFilm DSLRs?

A few years ago, there were two companies which had some interesting opportunities ahead of them, if they chose to stay on course: Sigma, with its revolutionary Foveon sensor and lens-making know-how, and FujiFilm, with its remarkable Super CCD SR sensor and long-term experience with professional lens-making.

They didn’t stay on course. Sigma’s continued development of the sensor has been much too slow to keep up with the market, and FujiFilm seems to have dropped out of the DSLR game altogether.

Back in January of 2007, I wrote about the Sigma SD14, a camera I thought was revolutionary because of its capability of capturing every color (Red, Green or Blue) at every pixel, due to its layered Foveon sensor. This was something no other camera on the market had.

The megapixel game isn’t everything, and I was willing to believe so in the case of the SD14. Its advertised resolution was 14 megapixels, but its true resolution was about 5 megapixels. That’s because each layer of its Foveon sensor (there are three layers, one for each color) only captured 5 megapixels. When you looked up the photos resolution in the EXIF data, it came out to 5 megapixels. When you zoomed in at 1:1, the photo still only covered a 5 megapixel area.

Sure, some people pointed out that you could safely increase the resolution of processed images,to 12 or 14 megapixels, and they would still have the quality you need, but in my book, 5 megapixels was still 5 megapixels, even if you could multiply it by 3 and get 14 megapixels.

Regardless of my disappointment with the camera’s real resolution, I still thought Sigma had a gorgeous sensor on their hands. The ability to capture color accurately at every pixel is something other sensor manufacturers only dream about. Their sensors don’t do that. Instead, they spread Red, Green and Blue pixels around the entire sensor area using a mathematical algorithm called Bayer interpolation, then they do some very serious calculations to de-mosaic the resulting image, make out the right colors, and give you as accurate a color reproduction as they can give you. The Foveon sensor didn’t have to do all that complicated stuff. Supposedly, it already knew which color belonged at each pixel, because it captured said color from the get-go. Wasn’t that an amazing capability?

Look what’s happened in the 3½ years since I wrote about the SD14… Sigma launched the SD15 only a few months ago, and guess what its resolution is? It’s still only 14 megapixels if you play their multiplication game, or 5 megapixels if you go by the book. Sure, they upped the ISO sensitivity to 1600 from 800 (3200 in extended mode), which is still not enough, but the AF is still only 5-point, and the max shutter speed is still only 1/4000 sec when other cameras in the same category offer 1/8000 sec. And there’s no video, HD or otherwise.

Another tell-tale sign is that B&H Photo is out of stock on it, and I don’t think it’s because it sold too fast. About the only thing the SD15 manages to do well, given the demands of today’s marketplace, is to look pretty.

When you look on Flickr, no one is using the SD15. That should tell you something right there. And SD14 usage waned over time, as was expected, although the quality of the images posted with the camera is still remarkable.

In case you aren’t already thinking it, let me sum it up for you: Sigma’s DSLR offerings have fallen behind the times by at least a couple of years, if not more. Some might say they came out with the DP1 and the DP2, and those cameras are interesting in their tiny little niches of the market, but they still offer subpar performance in low light, and they still don’t record video (unless you count tiny 320×240 video as real video).

I’d like to ask the folks at Sigma this question: What in the world have you been doing these last few years? You dropped the ball. You didn’t stay on course. You had an amazing sensor in your hands, but you failed to develop it properly while others have taken their inferior Bayer pattern sensors to incredible heights of performance. Your Foveon sensor ought to develop 14 or 16 real megapixels now, on each of its three layers. It should go to 6400 ISO or 12800 ISO natively. It should record HD video. Then it’d be competitive in today’s marketplace. Instead, it’s the same little sensor I saw more than three years ago, dressed up in a relatively new camera body.

In early 2007, FujiFilm also launched a new DSLR. That camera was pretty amazing in its own right, like the SD14, except the FujiFilm FinePix S5 Pro actually met the demands of the marketplace of that time.

It had a wonderful resolution of 12.34 megapixels, an 11-point, 7-area AF system, a 14-bit A/D converter (most DSLRs at the time were still at 12-bit), ISO sensitivity that went all the way up to 3200 ISO natively, and 1/8000 sec max shutter speed.

Most of all, it had a revolutionary sensor developed in-house by FujiFilm. Here’s what they said about it in the S5 Pro press release:

“Fujifilm’s Super CCD SR II will be updated to the new Super CCD SR Pro. Using a unique layout of twelve million paired photodiodes (6.17 million larger ‘S’ photodiodes for main image information, combined with 6.17 million smaller ‘R’ photodiodes for bright area information), the S5 Pro will deliver improvements in noise, dynamic range, colour and tonality. Further improving the capability of the sensor, a new, improved low-pass filter will ensure that moiré and noise are kept to an absolute minimum. Fujifilm believes improvements in these key areas will be of more true value to professional photographers – the challenge is quality of information, not quantity of information.”

In layman’s terms, it had both large and small photodiodes, clustered together in a beautiful geometric pattern, to capture as much image information as a single-layer sensor could capture, and a powerful engine to analyze that information and turn it into beautiful photographs.

People who used the S5 Pro loved its image quality. And even now, when you look on Flickr, you see that people are using it, and the quality of the images they post is quite nice.

So what has happened since 2007? It looks like FujiFilm dropped out of the DSLR market altogether. The S5 Pro is listed as discontinued on their website, and there’s no other model to take its place. None. Instead, FujiFilm is focusing on regular digicams, and seems to be leaning toward cameras that exploit the higher end of the focal range (15-30x zooms).

That’s a losing battle as far as I’m concerned. High zooms suffer by default of aberration and other artifacts as one gets above 15x. And in order to get the proper magnification in a smaller camera body, the sensor needs to be made really small — so small that you run into noise issues and photo quality suffers even at low ISO and close ranges.

What FujiFilm did makes no sense to me. They have incredible know-how in the production of professional, high quality lenses. Their Fujinon lenses are used in satellites, in high end telescopes and in broadcast-quality TV cameras and camcorders. They have the know-how to design really nice camera bodies. I used the FinePix S9100 and I loved its body design. And you only need to look at their current digicam models (S200EXR or HS10), at they way the controls are positioned and the grips are designed, to realize that Fuji knows a lot about camera body design.

When it came to digicam design, they also had what was a big plus over other camera manufacturers. Most of their zoom cameras had manual zoom and focus, and the ability to use regular AA batteries. A manual zoom is just nicer than a servo zoom. It’s more responsive, more controllable, doesn’t eat into the battery life, and it’s more reliable over time. And isn’t it nice when you’re in the field and your camera runs out of juice, that you can just pop in a couple of AA batteries and keep on going? That’s such a practical design aspect, but people tend to forget it when they focus purely on battery life.

Now you look at their line-up, and only two cameras still offer manual zoom: the S200EXR, which B&H Photo says was discontinued by the manufacturer, even though it’s still listed as an active camera on the FujiFilm website, and the HS10. The rest all offer electronic zooms, which I don’t like.

Keep in mind all the good things I told you about FujiFilm’s know-how, and let’s look at the S5 Pro again. The sensor and the engine was clearly Fuji’s. But the body design aped Nikon’s body design. And the camera was made to work with Nikon’s lenses. It’s as if FujiFilm didn’t want to own the very camera it made, the camera which contained its revolutionary sensor. This makes no sense to me. They knew how to make fantastic lenses, but didn’t make them for their own flagship DSLR. They knew how to make fantastic camera bodies, but didn’t make one for their own flagship DSLR. Does that make sense to you?

I wrote to FujiFilm PR in January and March of 2007, asking for a review unit. They were willing to send me one, but they didn’t have any lenses to loan me. I needed to supply my own Nikon lenses for the camera, and since all my equipment was Canon, that was no good. I gave up on reviewing the camera. And I bet you I wasn’t the only reviewer who would have liked to write about the S5 Pro but was turned off by the lens issue.

I’m really sorry to see that today, FujiFilm isn’t even developing their revolutionary sensor any more. Sure, they’re using a variant of it in some of their point-and-shoots, but that’s like saying your lawnmower has a Lamborghini engine inside. You can’t get the performance of a true Lamborghini engine from a tiny, cramped 2-cycle engine made to cut grass, and in much the same way, one can’t expect to get the true performance of the large sensor found in the S5 Pro from a tiny 1/1.6-inch sensor.

Don’t tell me CCD sensors are inferior to CMOS. They each have their pluses and minuses. CMOS sensors were thought to be inferior to CCD just a few years ago, but there was a real R&D push to make them better, and look at them today — they’re incredibly good. Don’t tell me you can’t get great video from CCD sensors. Professional camcorders use either CMOS or CCD sensors to record full HD video, depending on the model and brand, so I know that’s possible.

I know that with continued R&D effort, both the Super CCD SR Pro sensor and the Foveon X3 sensor could have been improved greatly, making them competitive and even dominant by today’s standards.

I feel bad for FujiFilm and for Sigma. They went wrong in their strategy, and I don’t know why they aren’t taking steps to redress. Perhaps FujiFilm feels the market is already too competitive and has enough business from its other sectors. And it could be that Sigma is focused on its lenses, and is satisfied with only a niche of the DSLR market. I don’t know, but I would like to find out more. If anyone has any additional information, please chime in.