Friday, August 12, 2011

X100 After Dark.....

Hey Folks,

I mentioned in my last blog that I was going to try the X100 with a simple flash set-up...well I went a bit further than that and invested in a simple little adjustable led light-panel and set off for Marina Bay Sands Resort. Here is some background on what was only a partially successful shoot. 

The Light - Panel itself was a S$ 158 purchase for SG Camera in Singapore and is pretty basic in that it takes 5 AA rechargables and comes with 2 filters, one of which is a diffuser and the other an orange to balance tungsten light. The filters affix rather neatly with magnetic disks in each of the four corners. Additionally there is a dimmer control which would be nicely effective in daylight where the panel is being used to fill shadows or provide contrast. What sold me on this particular model ( F&V Z96 kit) was its quality of light which was by far the best of all of the cheaper kits I looked at and showed no signs of a color cast. Another benefit of this model is that it has a side clip to allow it to be banked with similar models to increase the light output. Overall, the construction is adequate and the filter system good but I think it needs careful handling and probably wouldn't stand up to prolonged hard usage.

So how did it fare in use???

Firstly, the set-up. I started off with the light-panel shooting into an umbrella and to be honest there simply wasn't enough light so I then shot directly from the light-panel with only the diffusion filter supplied and then finally settled on shooting through the umbrella (see Bellow)

This is the effect when shot direct on full power through the supplied diffusion filter and to be frank, the results are not that great. Just as you would expect with such a small light source and similar to a raw strobe flash, the contrast is very harsh and it is inferior to flash in its light output. Only advantage for me was that it is obviously continuous light and therefore much easier to quickly adjust exposure. This is a very unflattering light and I can assure you that your models will not be happy with the results on their skin and features !!!! Even against the drop dead stunning sunset I had, this is a pretty poor result.

As I said earlier, next step was to introduce the umbrella again and shoot through it to soften the light. This gave a much more acceptable and softer light as you would expect however, the major downside of low output reared its head again and I had to drop to ridiculously low shutter speeds and 800 ISO on the X100 to get any kind of balanced light. By this time I was shooting as low as 1/15 th at f2 and needless to say loosing a lot of shots to motion blur. Having said that the X100 with its very soft shutter release and lack of mirror can be hand held at astonishingly low speeds, and as long as the model was still the results were ok.

There is of course a quirky side spin-off benefit of shooting at these low speeds which is that the ambient light is greater and therefore the background opens up and looks much better. I messed about with this for a while and decided that the best thing to do was backlight against the strong spotlighting that was still in place from Tuesday's National Day celebration and started to get some nice contrasty results which converted well into B&W.

This is the last of the color shots and you can clearly see the twin spots that were giving the nice backlight on the B&W shots. There is also the added benefit of some highlight rim lighting on the side of the face helping to define the model against the somewhat messy background of the National Day stage set.

As I said before, by now it was dark and I was moving into ISO 1600 at 1/20 and f2. You will read in various reviews that the X100 lens is a little soft wide open and this is largely true. Personally though, this is no big deal and we are not talking about extreme softness more a gentle lack of definition that, as you can imagine, is no bad thing when shooting models as it can give a nice glow. I did find that the shots were now looking better converted to B&W due to the strong backlighting and slight loss of contrast at the higher ISO's. All things considered though the little X100 dealt with this very well and I can think of no DSLR that would have given these kind of results at such low shutter speeds and high ISO. Only option would be something like the D3 with f 1.4 lens and of course that is against the principle of trying out the light-wieght travel kit.

The final two shots in this article are pretty similar and I really liked the way the backlighting defined the models face. Again, these are shot wide open at f2 and with the light-panel through the umbrella to soften.

Last model shot threw up a nice flare from the spots. This would have looked great as a starburst but that would of course have entailed stopping down the aperture quite a bit and, as I explained, there is not nearly enough light from the light-panel to do that.

So what is the conclusion from all of this????

Well, generally I am a bit disappointed. The Light-panel looked so bright in the shop that I thought it would do fine for reasonable close-ups but in reality it only worked either un-softened, when it proved too harsh, or softened through the umbrella where I had to keep it really close to the model and shoot at dangerously slow shutter speeds whereby I lost a fair 50-60% of shots.

Surprise of the evening goes to the X100 which handled admirably at high ISO's and very slow speeds. Shooting wide - open gave a very nice, gentle softness to facial features and worked well for portraiture. Surprisingly the 35mm equivalent lens is looking not bad either and it suits my style of trying to frame some interesting background or scene context within the shot.

It would be possible to bank the light-panels as I mentioned at the start but that would not appear to make sense for me and it would be better to carry any kind of decent speed-light.

Where do we go from here????

I can see the light-panel having its uses for fill and its very light and extremely fast to set up and shoot with, I am going to mess around a bit more with it this weekend to see where I can push it. Ultimately though, its nowhere near a replacement for even the cheapest and most basic of strobes.

Thanks to my friends for their help and the ever patient Riyanti for volunteering to model, it all worked pretty well and we all learned from the shoot.

Hope this was useful to some of you and keep shooting,


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bali, what a good place to start.......

Hey folks, I am a blogging virgin but thought it would be fun to share photography and travel experiences with you.

This blog is aimed at pretty much anyone who enjoys combining travel with photography and I hope to bring some useful advice and insights from my own travel experiences in Asia. Additionally I thought it would also be fun to look at good (and not so good) travel & photography equipment and kit.

I am an avid buyer and user of cameras, bags, lenses, etc. and have applied and used these extensively on tour and I think I have excellent insight into what works (for my style at least) and what doesn't, whats worth carrying and what is a pain in the butt, back or neck !!!! Much of what I buy and use is second hand and some of it is top end while at the other extreme I have some very cheap kit that can be just as useful for travel photography.

I have also travelled with a number of different tour companies and will provide completely impartial insight into what works, what they are good at, and where their best destinations are.

I dont want to get mega - detailed and geekish with this stuff but I will include hotel and specific travel advice about a location if I think its important.

Time for a photo:

This is the second of a set of three shots from my Bali trip that I wanted to show and talk about, it also links to a forthcoming series of Blogs that I am going to call 'What's New ?? Old Stuff of Course' that will focus on second hand or old kit that I have taken on specific trips. In this case it will be an old beat up Nikon D3 and the unlikely paring with an also used Tamron 28-200 XR f3.8 - 5.6 Macro lens. Why this weird paring? 

Well, I like to think that the above shot is typical of my style, where I try to get in close and wide but show depth through the photo. I would normally do this with the D3 and 24mm f1.4 prime (an example of one of the few new pieces of kit I have and the subject of a future review) which for me is the killer travel combo for quality photography. In this instance a couple of things were at play; firstly, in preparing for this particular shoot I knew that the surf can be strong at Kusamba (having lost a shoe in it on a previous trip!!!) this meant that it wasn't always easy to get close to the ferry as it was loaded and sailed off, secondly, this stuff can be brutal on the equipment with the combination of sea water and sand that will inevitably get on your gear if you try to shoot this kind of scene seriously. On other recent trips I also missed out on some good shots from not having any kind of longer zoom capability on hand.

So my solution was to have look at review sites, eBay and then trundle off to my favorite used shops in Peninsula Plaza in Singapore to see what was on hand. The Tamron cost me S$250 and looked like old/new stock. More on this in the upcoming review.

Back to the photos - shot 1 at the top I wouldn't have got without the zoom, shot 2 would have been better with the Nikon 24 but I think the compression from the zoom works better in shot 3 below:

So what does all of this mean? first up, the tones and colors look ok but at the time the light was positively devestating. It was early in the morning and the sky was cloudy and the combination of surf and sand reflected it everywhere giving a very nice contrast. Why am I saying this? Well here is the crunch for this type of lens, if you are sure that the light will be good and you don't need to push ISO, then these cheap lenses are great. There is no need to worry too much about damage and their range is very useful in this type of situation. So, what's not to like??? Hmmmm, to my mind the light here was so stunning that somehow the Tamron didn't fully get it in the way that a better quality lens would have. I also missed a number of shots that I had to bin because of the horrible flare when shooting against the light which is something I enjoy very much and try to do at every shoot.

At the end of the day though, this series of shots caught the sense of the moment, the light, surf and, as the next shot hopefully shows, some perspective on where the location was (hint, its on the headscarf ...)

So far so good, as this is my first ever blog I promised some more hopefully useful information to anyone thinking of making this trip so here we go.

I guess the starting point is that Bali is very easy to get to and the simple, all be it rip-off visa on arrival for foreigners (UK, USA etc), makes it a straightforward destination. Just make sure that you pay for the visa first and then join the line for the immigration checks, failure to do so will result in you being sent back. Following immigration turn right outside and you will find a taxi desk with published fares to all key destinations on the island. To be honest, if you are into photography and not simply on holiday to take some snaps you need to get well away from the tourist areas or you will fail to get any real insight to the Balinese and their culture. Here are some locations with associated shots of places to see:

West Bali, Soka, Balain, Palasari and Pura Rambit Sea Temple:

This is a shot taken on a West Bali beach on the way back from Palasari. This is a trip that can easily be done in a day if you set off early enough. Shot with the D3 and again the Tamron 28-200 as this was the only long lens I had :)

A bit of a variation, the above shot was taken at the same beach with the D3 and the marvelous and relatively inexpensive Nikkor 50 mm f1.4 more about this lens in a later blog but for me, this coupled with the 24 mm f1.4 is the core of my travel kit and allows you to shoot just about any subject in any light.

Palasari church is a unique blend of Western and Balinese architecture and I was very surprised to find something like this on the almost completely Hindu Bali. Its a nice place and the friendly locals were happy for us to wander around and go inside. Ask at the warung opposite the church and grab yourself a friendly Balinese coffee at the same time.

This is Pura Rambut Sea Temple which is perched high above the beach and is a very nice place to visit. To be honest though you need to wait around for some locals or ask the keepers   to pose to add some interest otherwise its a bit bland. The beach is great though and if you are there in late afternoon or evening you will often catch the local kids racing their motorbikes.

This last shot from the West Coast was I think taken with my trusty Lumix GF1 with 20mm f1.7. This is wonderful travel combo and I did a previous trip to Bali with only this camera. Its Achilles heel is the well known problem of very poor High ISO (400 upwards in my opinion) so you need a lot of light. Fortunately I like shooting against the light and it works very well for this.

Mount Batur Sunrise:

You are almost guaranteed a gorgeous sunrise here but the challenge for me is to add interest and we were very lucky to have good models available on this trip. I have never had any problem in Bali with asking someone to pose for me and it makes the world of difference to the photos themselves. The location stands up for very nice sunrises with perhaps a slow shutter and ND grads to assist but for me these shots have become cliched and I wanted to try something a little different on this trip. This was shot I think with a Zeiss 35 mm ZF lens and I used an SB 900 Nikon strobe in a Honl travel softbox. This is a very portable light kit and is capable of some very good result as long as you can stay close to the subject. Sorry about keeping saying this, but I intend to deal with travel strobes and light balancing in a future blog, I can't cram it all in here.

Tana Lot Sunset:

For me this has become a very difficult location to add any interpretation to and to be honest if you have been before you probably want to skip it. Its still a very nice sunset though and its very relaxing to sit on the cliff above and sup some fresh green coconut or something stronger :)

The shot below is of course very similar to the one at Mt. Batur and the set-up was also similar. Again, the attempt was to add interest, and whilst not the best of shots, at least gives it a different and more interesting dimension to an oft photographed location.

Other options are to go down to the beach with tripod and ND filters and, if the tide is in, slow down the water and waves to create a nice milky effect. I don't normally carry that kind of gear and the tide was out so I can't demonstrate it here.

Finally, on locations. Although I strongly advocate getting off the beaten track, its also possible to get nice shots in the heart of tourist land and the following shots were all taken at Sanur beach.

This is one of my faves from the trip and was taken at the temple on Sanur beach front. Trusty D3 and 50 f1.4 combo.

Similarly, for some reason this old guy was raking the sand and creating these lovely, zen garden like patterns. D3 and 24 mm f1.4 converted in Silver Efex pro Nik software.

No trip to Bali would be complete without visiting a Kecak dance which is a wonderful experience. The rhythms, posture and poise of the dancers is amazing. Again, these are widely available in nice settings in all of the main locations with some particularly nice ones in Ubud. No problem with getting the dancers to pose and although I have never had any great success, it is also possible to get wonderful shots of the dancers in action but would suggest you want a good fast zoom ( f2.8 , 70-200) and tripod as the light is very low.

Although I have converted some of the above photos to B&W there is no denying the beauty and color of Indonesia and its worth remembering that in your choice of lenses and post processing.

I hope that some of these photos give some insight into Bali and I tried to balance the local aspects of life such as the ferry and beach with some more conventional tourist locations with hopefully a slightly different slant.

Lastly, this particular trip was organised by the nice guys at Singapore Trekkers and I can heartily recommend their tours. They are specifically focused on photography so expect early rises and intensive itineraries.

I hope this first attempt at blogging is interesting and helpful, here is my current travel kit and I will add more detailed info about each item as the blog progresses. don't be afraid to ask any questions regarding the trip or my kit, I will be happy to answer as best I can.

Detail on the kit:

Nikon D3; well worn territory here, workhorse pro grade camera now appearing used in volume as gossip on D4 heightens. I paid S$ 3.3K for my about 9 months ago or so but it was well used and is even more used now :) Having said that, this is a real tough piece of pro kit and is designed to take lots of use and abuse. The reason I bought it though was for the low light advantage of its high ISO capability and its full-frame sensor which was a good match for my lenses. I have never regretted its purchase and have now seen pristine examples for around S$4K. As you will see as this blog develops I am a huge believer that top kit that is a year or two old makes a great buy, watch-out is that this is not a universal law and entry level digital cameras now represent incredible quality. Having said that cameras like the D2X are becoming incredible bargains if you shop carefully and its only 4 years ago or so that top pros like Joe McNally were churning out fabulous shots and making their reputations using that kind of gear. If you use your gear a lot and travel around to remote locations then to my mind a used D2X will serve you much better than something like a D5000 despite the fact that the latter will have a more advanced sensor. Horses for courses.

Some D3 reviews:

Nikkor 24mm F1.4 G; This is one cracking lens and is my pride and joy. I mentioned above the comparison of D2X and D5000 cameras and her is the crunch - put good glass in front of them. To my mind a D2X with glass like this on it will be much more useful for travel photography with its broadly equivalent 35mm and f1.4 it is unbeatable compared to the kit lenses on most new cameras. Here's a fun bit of viewing on that kind of subject from Kai at Digital Rev tv

Here are a some lower light shots that combined the D3 and 24 mm very nicely. They are all from Myanmar and the temple shot needed a bit of work in Lightroom tp get the contrast right.

Reviews of the lens abound but I would stress what a happy combination it makes with the D3 and by nice coincidence with the D300 or other cropped sensor cameras where it becomes a snazzy and fast 35mm equivalent.

Downside is that this is not cheap and will set you back around S$ 3K. Worth every penny though, will last a lifetime and hold its value well.

Nikkor 135mm f3.5 Ais ; Gorgeous manual focus portrait lens that delivers great results from wide open. This was a S$200 buy and is in lovely condition. Needless to say it really only works with static subjects due to the manual focus. Again, this is where the D3 combo works well with the ability to program the lens focal length and min aperture to get metering and there is a nice focus confirm set up in the view-finder to assist sharpness. 

Depth of field is nice and the Bokeh is not too bad either. Personally, I struggle with longer lengths of lens like this as I find it hard to frame and visualize, however there is no denying the nice compression that is well suited to portraiture.

Nikon 85 F2 Ais; This lens is sweet and fast enough to be used in lowish light. This is a more usable portrait lens for me than the 135 mm. I haven't had a chance to use it much yet but like the results on some home portrait shots. Bought this for S$350 but think you could find it cheaper if you shop around. Incidentally, these lenses are beautifully made in Japan and engineered in a way that we are unlikely to see again due to the cost.

Zeiss 35 F2; A really nice lens with very nice contrast. Manual focus but, as above, D3 has a lens bank for non-cpu lenses and the details can be entered for view-finder display and metering. 

Like the Nikon manual lenses, these Zeiss lenses are very well made and can take a fair amount of punishment. They also have a unique look and are extremely nice to use.

Nikon 50mm f1.4 G; This is a current favorite and for me is an essential in any travel kit, particularly on full frame sensors. Goes without saying that the killer benefit is the ability to shoot in very low light and also the remarkable sharpness achievable by stopping down even slightly.

This lens can be had for around S$600 and for me it is simply extraordinary value. It gets used time and time again with predictable, high quality results.

That's it folks for this first time effort. Keep shooting,