Sony a7s

The Sony A7s is being heralded as “Camera of the Year” by some reviewers, Frederick and I take a look at the third camera in Sony’s a7 series. While offering a sensor with only 12MP, the a7s is getting a lot of attention for a sensor that can shoot up to ISO 409,600 as well as being one of the first still-image camera that also produces 4K video.

Does it live up to all the buzz? And who really needs a camera that can shoot in the dark? And what about that 12MP sensor? Isn’t that really heading in the wrong direction? I explains why 12MP may be enough for you and why a high-ISO sensor may be important to everyday photography.

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Panasonic Lumix GH4

The long-awaited latest Lumix “G” flagship camera breaks new ground: It can shoot 4K video and save it directly to an SD card. So this week we invited video guru Dave Dugdale to join Frederick and me to give us his two cents.

Dave and I put the GH4 through some very different paces. I wanted to see what would happen if he shot 4K video specifically with the goal of extracting still images. Check out how well the GH4 did in both our tests.

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Sony a6000

The a6000 replaces Sony’s NEX-6 and at only $600 (body only, street price) you might think this is just another entry-level camera, comparable to a point-and-shoot. But you’d be wrong. Sony claims this is the world’s fastest autofocusing mirrorless camera and is now the top-of-the-line in their APS-C sensor line.

I put the a6000 through some serious usage tests including an intense week of shooting on the streets of New York City. And while Frederick and I lament the fact that Sony still doesn’t appear to understand the value of features like touch screens and external mic jacks, you’ll also hear whether I think the a6000 is a good choice regardless of these weaknesses.

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Fujifilm X-T1

Based on previously using the X-E1 and X-E2, I started this review with quite high expectations. And while the X-T1 is certainly one of Fujifilm’s greatest cameras to date, he didn’t find that it comes up #1 by every criterion. Controls? Autofocus? Bracketing? No touch LCD? (What’s up with that?) Hear what Frederick and I have to say about it.

Fujifilm cameras produce excellent quality images and Fuji has many fans, including me. To their great in-camera emulations of classic film stocks, Fujifilm has added the claim that their flagship X-T1 is the fastest autofocusing camera on the market. But does the X-T1 live up to the hype?

Curiosity, JPL InSight Lander Hearst Castle Chips Depth of Field (56mm f/1.4) Hearst Castle Roman Pool Paramount Theatre Lobby Detail LACMA Shoot Canon or Die! Bixby Bridge, Big Sur, California

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Olympus OM-D E-M10

The OM-D E-M10 is Olympus’ smallest and least-expensive micro four-thirds camera to date. Is it an entry-level MFT body? A good second camera? And how does it stack up to the venerable E-M5? Check out the latest episode of All About the Gear.

OM-D E-M10 Product Shot

 

I put the new puppy up against it’s larger, older brother (E-M5) and the Panasonic Lumix GM1. Along they way I take a deep dive into the issue of diffraction and why MFT cameras seem to have plateaued at 16 megapixels. It’s a discussion that every photographer will want to hear, regardless of the size of your sensor.

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Nikon D4s

The latest episode of All About the Gear covers the D4s, Nikon’s latest flagship camera that can shoot at an amazing ISO 409,6000. As Frederick says, “It’s so sensitive, it can see the future.” But is that claim hype or reality? And who should spend $6,500 for this camera?

Nikon D4s - Product Shot

I spent three weeks shooting with this beast and have been wearing a wrist brace as a souvenir. The AAtG team takes a break from the small-camera mirrorless world to see what’s new in the old world of DSLRs.

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Lytro

The Lytro is the first commercially available light-field camera. There’s been a lot of buzz (and even controversy) surrounding this revolutionary focus-later device, but it’s not clear whether this is an important development or just a gimmick. Frederick interviewed the folks at Lytro before the camera was released, and now I’ve spent two weeks putting it through its paces, learning about the science and technology of light-field photography, and figuring out whether you might want to own one. Watch the review on All About the Gear.

Lytro-Title

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Nikon Df

The Nikon DF (for “Digital fusion”) is at first glance the technology of a Nikon D4 sensor (at half the price of a D4) in a D600-class body that touts compatibility with classic Nikkor lenses. But that’s just the full half of the glass.

I spent three weeks with this strange beast and while I love the image quality and compatibility with old lenses, it’s an ergonomic disaster. Frederick probes deeper to discover both the half-full and half-empty attributes of Nikon’s play in the retro-camera world.

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Olympus OM-D E-M1

Olympus claim the OM-D E-M1 has the fastest autofocus of any camera, but is that really true? The E-M1 also has a new 16MP sensor, but does it deliver better images than the popular OM-D E-M5, which now sells for almost half the price? Check out the latest episode of All About the Gear.

 

OM-D-E-M1-Title

I’d like to welcome our new sponsor and partner, Hunt’s Photo and Video. If you click on the image below it will take you to a special offer to save $200 on the OM-D E-M1 + lens through February 28, 2014.

Hunts.title

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Sony a7 (and a7R)

The long-anticipated Sony a7 and a7R have been called the cameras of the year by some. I was an early fanboy, but does the a7 live up to the hype and my expectations?

The a7 and a7R are the first full-frame, mirrorless, autofocusing interchangeable-lens cameras. Together, they’re strong competitors for the Leica 240 and the Nikon D800E. But the native lens selection is meager. The sweet spot may be to combine the new Sonys with third-party lenses.
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Sony QX10

Frederick Van Johnson and I explore the Sony QX10 and QX100 “lens cameras” in this episode of All About the Gear.

Once again, Sony is showing that it’s not afraid to innovate and put out breakthrough products that might be a bit ahead of their time. The QX cameras are definitely in that category. Not yet ready for prime time, they may be more an indication of what’s to come than the end of a line.

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Gear for Sale

End of the year means “out with the old and in with the new”. As I downsize from big Nikons to the Sony Alphas and upsize from the NEX series, I’ve got some gear to sell.

  • Nikon D600 w/24-85mm lens $1,500 (original box, etc.)
  • Nikon 18-200mm G VR $325
  • Nikon 24mm f/2.8 D $200 (original box, etc.)
  • Nikon 35mm f/2 D $250 (original box, etc.)
  • Nikon 50mm f/1.8 D $75 (original box, etc.)
  • Nikon 85mm f/1.8 G $425 (original box, etc.)
  • Nikon 135mm f/2 DC $950 (a very unique lens!)
  • Sony NEX-7 w/18-55mm lens $850 (original box, etc.)
  • Sony 50mm f.1.8 $200
  • Really Right Stuff D600 L-bracket $120
  • Really Right Stuff D000 L-bracket $100
  • Canon S95 $150 (original box, etc.)
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Fujifilm X-E1

pic_additional_01 I love this camera. As with their X100S (read my review), the X-E1 is another example of how Fujifilm can make a camera with almost everything just right. Frederick Van Johnson and I discussed the X-E1 on episode #8 of All About the Gear.

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Canon 70D

MDe9150b77-2804-435d-aae4-9e3f164c7aa0 Although much of the buzz this year has been about small, mirrorless cameras, the big-boy DSLR makers (Nikon and Canon) haven’t been entirely asleep at the switch. The new Canon 70D is most notable for it’s groundbreaking Dual Pixel CMOS autofocus sensor, which is used in video and Live View modes. The Canon 70D and an explanation of autofocus technologies are the topics of this episode of All About the Gear.

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Workflow: The NDOC “Tree Tunnel” Image

This image I made of a very popular location here in Marin County, California, generated a lot of online feedback. Because I used such a variety of post-processing tools and techniques, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to explain the workflow here. This presentation is an experiment and I look forward to hearing what you think of this format, particularly compared to screencasts and videos.

The slideshow below contains an image for each step in my process. If you hover over it you can pause it or move it forward or back. Below the slideshow is a scrolling area with the corresponding explanations. Click on any image to see it 2x larger. It should work on your mobile devices, too.

 

  1. Original. This is the original image, converted without adjustment from a RAW file. Fujifilm X-E1, ISO 400, XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS, 1/640 second, 55mm, f/5.6.
  2. ACR Basics. My preliminary work in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw is just to correct for lens distortion and to map the medium dynamic range RAW file down to the low dynamic range 16-bit image that is used in Photoshop. Here I reduce contrast and recover as much shadow and highlight detail as I can coax out of the RAW file. My goal is to end up with a low-contrast flat image.
  3. Endpoints. The previous step typically yields weak blacks and highlights. Now in Photoshop, I start by spreading the luminosity of the image across the entire dynamic range using a curves adjustment layer to set blacks about RGB=2 and whites at RGB=253. I skipped white-balance correction for this image because I knew I was going to B&W, but this is the point at which I would do that for a color image.
  4. B&W Conversion. I created a SmartObject copy and used Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2 for the conversion to monochrome. With a more colorful original I typically start by adjusting the color sliders to control each color’s contribution to the b&w version, but in this case I made no global adjustments (color, contrast, brightness, structure, etc.) at all. Instead, I used about a dozen control points in the dark areas of the treetops to bring out some detail there. I also reduced brightness and increased the contrast of the building at the end of the road. I could have done these later, back in Photoshop (I did, in fact), but it seemed like a good time to deal with these issues.
  5. Levels. I’ll often drop in a levels adjustment layer to keep the white/black endpoints under control. Here I also increased the overall contrast after the b&w conversion.
  6. Dodge/Burn Roadway. I didn’t like the lightness of the road. I thought it attracted too much attention to itself rather than supporting the overall composition of the image. (You can switch back and forth between 5 and 6 to make up your own mind.) I also thought the splotchiness from shadows on the asphalt were distracting because they broke up the continuous flow of the roadway’s leading lines. This was a complex step using two curves adjustment layers and luminosity painting, a technique I learned from Tony Kuyper. One curves adjustment layer darkens (burns) the roadway and the leaves near the trees. The second curves layer lightens (dodges) a strip between those areas. The overall effect is to darken and even-out the roadway while increasing the contrast and strength of the lines leading to the building at the end of the road. Once I was done, I decided it was too strong, so I backed off the opacity of the two grouped layers to 78%. The advantage of using luminosity painting or a luminosity mask when dodging and burning is that you can retain and even increase contrast/detail in those areas.
  7. Mid-tone Contrast. So much of this image is in the mid-tones, so I brought out a bit more using a curves adjustment layer with a Basic Midtones luminosity mask.
  8. Dodge/Burn Trees. The light here was beautiful but unusual. Because of overcast skies and the dark canopy of trees, the trunks are actually getting side light from both sides. I wanted to increase the tunnel effect, so I didn’t want too much light on the insides of the tree trunks, particularly in the foreground. That one tree in the left foreground almost looked like it was hit with a strobe. (Compare to step 7.) As with the roadway (in step 6) I used two curves adjustment layers and painted with brushes loaded with luminosity mask selections. This is another good stage to compare, back and forth, with the previous one. It may look like I’m removing contrast and focus from the left and right sides of the frame, which is true. But I’m doing so to focus the viewer’s attention on the center.
  9. The Building. Although it’s not realistic — an overcast sky is almost always the brightest part of an image — I wanted the building at the end of the tunnel to be slightly brighter than the sky. Here I used a curves adjustment layer with an edited luminosity mask to brighten and increase the contrast of the building. After tweaking, I reduced the opacity of this layer to 39%.
  10. The Sky. To complete the effect above, I used another luminosity mask and a curves adjustment layer to darken the sky to just below the level of the building. I ended up weakening this effect too, backing off the opacity to 62%.
  11. Vignette. I wanted to darken selected areas, particularly around the periphery, so I painted with a very weak black brush into a new layer in Soft Light blend mode. Opacity 41%. I didn’t use a luminosity mask here because I didn’t want to maintain or enhance the contrast or detail.
  12. Touch-Ups. I should have done this much earlier in the process, but there were a few bright objects in the close foreground and on the roadway that were driving me crazy. I used a new layer and a combination of the Clone Stamp and Healing Brush tools to get rid of them. It’s hard to see unless you toggle between images 11 and 12 and look closely, primarily at the lower-left corner. I always use these tools in a separate layer because they’re then non-destructive and I can use the Eraser tool on them.
  13. PPW Sharpening. I frequently use the Sharpen 2013 action from Dan Margulis’ Picture Postcard Workflow, version 3.3. In fact, many of the steps in this workflow I learned from Dan. I ran the sharpening action on a copy of the image, flattened that image, then copied it back to a new layer in the original image. Rather then adjust the sharpening in that second (temporary) image, I often just keep the defaults and copy it back at full/normal strength. I then reduce the effect selectively with a layer mask or (in this case) globally by reducing the opacity of this layer to 45% to avoid over sharpening. The advantage of doing it this way is that since I don’t make any changes to the output of Dan’s action, I can re-create it at any time.
  14. Levels (2nd). After so many adjustments, the white & black points are often off, so I use another levels adjustment layer and the Auto button to bring things back into line.
  15. Warm Black. I decided the image was too cool, so I used an action I developed that warms the shadows (a gradient with black as r=9, g=4, b=0). I backed it off to an opacity of 75%.
  16. Original Color. After warming the image, I decided I wanted to see just a hint of the original color: the green in the treetops and some additional warmth in the leaves along the roadside. I added a new layer with a copy of the original image at 20% opacity in the Color blend mode. The effect is very subtle.
  17. Darken. After that warming and color, the image was too light for the effect I was looking for, so I used an unmasked curves adjustment layer to darken the image overall without affecting the endpoints.
  18. Global ACR Tweaks. At the very end, I wanted to add a bit of local contrast and crunchiness, so I created a merged copy, converted it to a SmartObject, then ran Adobe Camera Raw as a filter with the following global adjustments: Exposure=+0.15, Contrast=+6, Highlights=-31, Shadows=+71, Whites=+17, Blacks=+1, Clarity=+20 and Vibrance=+29 (for color). This last step really brought the image to life with a bit of that Halloween feeling I was going for.
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Autofocus: How Does it Work?

In a to-be-published edition of All About the Gear (#9, Canon 70D) I explain the differences between all the autofocus technologies: contrast, phase-detect & cross-type and Canon’s new Dual Pixel system. It’s a complicated and important enough topic that I’ve decided it’s worth a blog post all its own.

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MVFF: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (B)

We had high expectations for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a remake of the 1947 film starring Danny Kaye. The new version is directed by and stars , who was present (along with an entourage of producers and 20th Century Fox executives) at the Mill Valley Film Festival closing-night screening. This was only the second time the film had been seen by the public, the first having been at the New York Film Festival.

In the end, we were disappointed. This is a major production, being heavily promoted for a Christmas release. It’s a “pretty good” movie, but left us feeling that it lacked a certain energy.

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MVFF: Zaytoun (B)

There are so many good films set in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it’s almost become a genre all its own. (One we loved was a documentary in 2010 called My Precious Life.) But because there have been so many, the bar has been set fairly high for new ones. Five years ago at the Mill Valley Film Festival, we were treated to director ‘s marvelous Lemon Tree. The producers of Zaytoun, (“olive” in Arabic) convinced Riklis to direct another film in this genre, and while it’s certainly a well-done film, it doesn’t quite measure up to his earlier work.

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