Who Needs A Real Camera…?

So this week I purchased the newly released iPhone 11 Pro. I bought an iPhone XR about a year ago, together with Moment telephoto and wide angle supplementary lenses, and although I thought the quality of images from this combo was great, it was always a bit of a ‘faff’ to take a lens out of my bag or pocket and fix it in place. Also, the special phone case that was needed to fit the lenses did make for a rather bulky setup. Consequence was that I didn’t really end up using them that much.

I was excited, to say the least, at the announcement of the new iPhone 11Pro with its 3 built in cameras – wide, super-wide and telephoto, and further improved processing capabilities.

iPhone (portrait mode)

With a holiday imminent, I decided to take the plunge and grab one as I saw they were available direct from Apple if I moved quickly. So, £1400 lighter for a 256gb version and Apple Care, I had it all set up in a couple of hours and good to go.

First impressions? – amazing! The wide lens is about the same focal length as the single lens on my iPhone XR, ie about 26mm (35mm equivalent) which is pretty wide anyway, the super wide is a staggering 13mm equivalent, while the tele lens is a useful 52mm, great for portraits. The super wide has to be seen to be believed – it’s not just the ability to get much more into landscape shots, it’s about being able to get so much more in the frame where space is tight. There’s a whole lot more I won’t go into in detail here, such as the ability to automatically apply perspective control to fix converging verticals – suffice it to say the imaging and processing rivals a ‘serious’ camera and dedicated computer…

iPhone (tele lens) – verticals corrected

So what are the images like? – in a word ‘fantastic’…! OK, from a tiny sensor and lens combo you are never going to get definition and clarity to match a dedicated APS-C or Full Frame camera, so mega size prints are out of the question. But let’s face it, how many of us non-professionals use our photos on anything larger than an iPhone or iPad screen anyway? What impresses particularly is how close the output matches what you thought you saw when you took the photo – whereas my Sony camera often needs images tweaking to get back to ‘as it appeared at the time’ the iPhone seems to hit it bang on, straight off!

iPhone (super-wide lens) – cropped slightly

So where does this leave my ‘real’ cameras? – the SonyA7iii with its zoom and prime lenses, and my quite recently bought Fujifilm X100F? The Sony is smaller than good old fashioned DSLRs, but still quite chunky when fitted with its 24-105mm lens, and the whole kit needs a decent sized rucksack to carry it all. I find I go out with it less and less these days just due to the weight – my back is no longer up to trekking around the countryside with camera and lenses, filters and tripod!

The X100F is pretty small by comparison (but still a whole lot bigger than an iPhone) and has no interchangeable lens facility. I bought it as an ‘everyday’ carry around camera, thinking it would offer quality close to the Sony, but in a compact form. As you would expect, with its much bigger sensor it’s much better than any smartphone, and I’ve achieved very acceptable 30″x20″ prints from the earlier X100T version. BUT, it’s definitely not pocket sized, so not quite sure what it’s place is going to be – if I want absolute quality, and can cope with the weight etc, or want maybe a proper telephoto lens, I’ll use the Sony; if I’m prepared to sacrifice quality for sheer convenience, then it’s the iPhone… The X100F is an expensive piece of gear to hold on to if I’m not going to use it…

iPhone (tele lens)

Guess I’ll see how it goes – if, as I suspect, the Sony kit proves in the next year or so to be just too big and bulky to take out, then I may just give up on having a system camera altogether, or get something a bit smaller like a Sony A6xxx series outfit which would save maybe 40% of the weight without too much loss of image quality or functionality.

For now I guess I’ll concentrate on learning how to get the best out of my shiny new iPhone and then decide!

No Tripod Allowed

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London Eye – Fuji 50-140mm

A combination of illness and family commitments means my Fuji cameras haven’t seen much action over the last month or two, but a couple of weeks ago I was booked on a Light and Land ‘Impressions of London’ workshop with Valda Bailey (Twitter – @tanyards) and Doug Chinnery (Twitter – @dougchinnery) and really didn’t want to miss it. Although I have been taking photos for over 50 years, and feel pretty confident with landscape and urban subjects, I’ve sensed my photography was in something of a rut lately and wanted to try a different approach. So off I headed to London, slightly intimidated by the joining instructions that stated that tripods were not allowed and would be ‘thrown in the Thames’! The reason for this became obvious fairly quickly – this workshop was all about experiencing different techniques like Intentional Camera Movement (ICM), Multiple Exposures and Zoom Pulling, and without the ‘straightjacket’ of a tripod, and the front-to-back sharpness that most photographers are programmed to produce, there would be ample opportunity for creativity and abstract impression. And, boy, was it a different experience!

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Tate Modern Café – iPhone 6

From the outset, it was clear this was going to be a great day; the weather was kind – mainly sunny with cloudy intervals; the location was great – the South Bank near Tate Modern; Doug and Valda were great tutors, and it was a small but enthusiastic group, keen to learn new techniques. After our initial briefing, where it became obvious that my Fuji X-T1 would have some shortcomings (more on this in a moment) we all worked individually to try and capture images that broke all the conventional rules, but still worked.The instructions were clear – experiment, take lots of photos, look for unusual angles, textures, colours and combinations.  Try to build up images from different elements that complimented one-another in some way.  Overlay patterns and abstracts on defocussed main images, and think about how images could then be further worked on via post-processing.

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Trees, South Bank – Fuji 16-55mm

So the start point for me was multiple exposure images and this is where the limitations of Fuji cameras compared to Canon and Nikon DSLRs became apparent.  Some of the Canon cameras can take up to 9 shots to create a single image.  Not only that, but each is created as a RAW file, the individual shots making up the image can be saved individually, and there are multiple modes for blending the images together (like the layer blend modes in Photoshop). The Fuji cameras (X-T1 and XT10 anyway) are much more simplistic – only 2 exposures, a single ‘general’ blend mode, and the only image saved is a JPG of the multiple exposure itself – no original files to go back and have another go with at home… Although this was clearly limiting on the day, I did nevertheless manage several multiple exposure images I was pleased with. Maybe more sophisticated multiple exposure options could feature in a future Fuji firmware upgrade?

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Millennium Bridge – Fuji 16-55mm

Next was Zoom Pulling – twisting the zoom ring during a shot. I found that exposures around 1-3 seconds worked best for this technique – too short an exposure meant there was little effect, while too long an exposure meant all detail was lost.  This is a pretty well known and often over used technique, so to my mind needs to be used with care. First time I think I’ve used it though, and some interesting results, especially with quite bold subjects.

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South Bank Apartments – Fuji 50-140mm

Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) is exactly that – moving the camera side to side, up and down, backwards and forwards, or twisting it, all during the exposure.  This can create weird and wonderful shapes, with these images used alone, or as part of a multiple exposure final image. One interesting thing I found was when using my 50-140mm lens with the image stabilisation switched on. During exposures of 2-3 seconds, providing the camera was not moving too quickly the IS would ‘lock on’ several times during the shot, giving the appearance of a multiple exposure – quite a pleasing result in some cases.

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Golden Jubilee Bridge – Fuji 50-140mm

These techniques (and Valda is a master) are becoming popular, as evidenced by the fact that this month’s UK photo press are carrying a couple of articles about it, so its definitely here to stay.  We were of course mainly shooting architecture and urban views, but I can see it would work equally well with landscapes, nature and even macro. What is rather good is that you don’t need to carry a complete bag of gear (as I did!) to capture these images – a mid range zoom lens is sufficient, and no real need for the highest resolution sensor either. I did find that switching filters to get the correct long exposures during changeable light was tricky – I think a variable ND filter would probably be quite helpful here.

So, I have several hundred images from the day – a few of which I am happy with as they stand, and a good number that can be worked on, either individually or combined in Photoshop.  I can’t wait to get out and try these techniques again – its not often you learn something new after 50 years of doing pretty much the same thing!

Thanks to Doug and Valda (and Light & Light for their great organisation) for a super day out, and a new creative angle for me to further explore!

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South Bank – Fuji 35mm f2

Fujifilm 50-140mm f2.8 – first impressions

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Fujifilm X-T1 with 50-140mm OIS WR lens

Although this lens receives rave reviews, I’ve always held off buying one – until now that is… Fuji prime lenses are superb – no two ways about it, but sometimes the convenience of a zoom lens is what’s needed. Quick changes of focal length, or tricky conditions like salt spray or rain mean a zoom is just so much more practical, and to be fair, the image quality from Fuji zooms is not far off that of primes. But the 50-140mm is seriously big – almost 1kg in weight, and 176mm long – that’s almost twice the weight of my 55-200mm lens. The constant maximum aperture of f2.8, and reputed image quality have been a draw, but that bulk and weight have always put me off – not to mention of course a fairly hefty price tag!

But somehow, the 55-200mm hasn’t been working for me – the one I’ve been using is the second I’ve had, and despite the excellent OIS and its excellent reputation, shots I’ve taken have never been quite as crisp as I expected. I don’t think its a faulty copy of the lens – it just doesn’t match the sharpness of my other lenses. I also have the stunningly good 90mm f2 lens, but there are just times when only a zoom will do. I had the opportunity to look at and handle a 50-140mm lens during a recent trip to Scotland, and somehow it just felt ‘right’.

XT105771So, a combination of a bundled deal with the new 1.4x converter, and a hefty discount at last week’s Photography Show was too much to resist, and I came home with one! Unboxing it did reveal just how ‘chunky’ this lens is – it reminded me of my 70-200mm f2.8 Nikon lens, albeit still quite a lot smaller than that brute. Mounted on my X-T1 though (without the detachable tripod foot) it’s beautifully balanced, and the controls are so smooth. The effect of the image stabilisation is obvious even just looking through the camera viewfinder, and the focussing is really fast.

XT105782A combination of lots of other things to do, and poor weather this week means I haven’t been outside yet with the lens, but these are a couple of shots taken indoors. They are wide open (f2.8 of course), 140mm, and 1/125th sec, which is usually ‘marginal’ for getting a sharp photo at this focal length, but you can see just how sharp the images are.

So first impressions are very positive. I can see me using it whenever I am going out with  my ‘full’ kit, either for landscapes or events – it fits neatly in my ThinkTank backpack, or a larger shoulder bag. If I’m travelling and need to keep the weight down, then I may have to leave it at home and take the 90mm instead – I had thought I might sell that, but it really is too good a lens to sell! Hopefully some better weather later this week should allow me to get out and test the lens more fully, but so far, I’m impressed!

Fuji 10-24mm – I got there in the end.

pic_02Much as I love my Fuji prime lenses, particularly the 14mm and 23mm, there are times when a nice wide zoom would be so useful. Sometimes 14mm just isn’t wide enough to get everything in shot, and there’s no opportunity to step further back. Likewise you may want to stay close to a foreground subject and get more background in. And there’s the ‘zoom’ thing – its all very good saying ‘ah well, don’t be lazy, just take a moment to change your lens over’, or ‘stand further back’ – that’s not so easy if you are standing in the middle of a mountain stream. Likewise if its blowing a gale you don’t want dust getting into your precious camera body, or to faff around switching filters over from one lens to another. If you are a documentary rather than landscape photographer, those few seconds changing a lens can mean missing that shot.

So the Fuji XF 10-24mm f4 lens seemed the answer to my prayers – 10mm is an awful lot wider than 14mm, the f4 max aperture won’t cause me any problems as I’ll mainly use it for landscapes and buildings, and the OIS (Optical Image Stabilisation) means I can shoot hand-held photos at a much lower shutter speed than usual – handy when using a tripod isn’t an option. A good number of my landscape photos are taken with my 14mm and 23mm lenses, so this should cover me for a fair proportion of what I do.

The lens is bigger than any of my other lenses, but you’d expect that – after all it’s a zoom and there’s all that OIS stuff inside as well. It weighs around 410gm instead of the 235gm of my 14mm, but that’s no big deal – this Fuji kit weighs so much less than good old-fashioned DSLRs. It actually balances quite well fitted on the X-T1, but perhaps a bit front-heavy on a smaller body – no problem when its on a tripod though. It all works nice and smoothly, with those little switches to turn OIS on and off (turn it off when on a tripod for best results), and to switch between auto and manual aperture.  The zoom ring is maybe a little stiff to operate, but it does mean the lens doesn’t ‘zoom itself’ when pointing downwards as some do.

81I2zew1seL._SL1500_Ah, the first real problem… The 72mm filter size does mean I can fit my Lee Seven5 filter system on, but alas, at anything wider than the 14mm setting there is vignetting – i.e. the edges of the filter holder come into the edge of the shot – its then pretty much unusable with the Lee polariser fitted. Not great, but not the end of the world, as there’s always the option to use round 72mm filters – more money and more to carry around, and of course no graduated filter option.

I’m used to all my Fuji lenses being bitingly sharp, so when I saw the first images I’d taken with the 10-24mm, I figured it was poor technique on my part. They were ‘ok’ in the centre, but my shots had detail out towards the edges of the frame, and the edges were definitely ‘not right’. Compared to my very good 14mm and 23mm lenses, this lens falls way short – from 18-24mm, it’s also not as sharp as my ‘kit’ 18-55mm lens, with most of the issue at the edges.  This is completely contrary to what I was expecting – no zoom is likely to equal the sharpness of an equivalent prime lens, but all the reviews I had seen of this lens were so good – surely this wasn’t right? Checking around, it seems that while most copies of this lens are indeed good, there is some variability, and without doubt I had one of the poorer copies, so back it went.

There is a happy end to this tale though – after thinking it through, and deciding I really did need the flexibility of this ultra-wide zoom, and with the incentive of a cashback deal from Fuji, I bought another copy.  Running it through the same tests, the results were like night and day. Even wide open, at the edges this lens is pretty good – in the centre its excellent, and stopped down to f8-f11 where I’m most likely to use it, its darn good.  There is virtually no lens distortion, what there is is very well controlled by the camera’s own software, unlike for example my old Nikon 16-35mm lens which had horrible barrel distortion. Be aware though that the extreme angle of view will mean that objects near the edge of the frame will appear elongated – this isn’t distortion, it due to perspective.

All in all, this lens is good enough for me to want to keep, and consign a couple of my other lenses to eBay.  It was definitely worth persevering to get a better copy! I’ll post some images taken with the lens in an update soon.

Zoom or Prime Lenses?

This week I’ve been following a lengthy thread on a photo forum about the merits of zoom vs. prime lenses. Quite heated at times, the arguments debate the convenience of zoom lenses (less weight overall, speedy change of focal length) with the quality of zoom lenses (wider apertures and sharper images generally). The zoom camp accuse prime supporters of being ‘pixel peepers’ – those only interested in the absolute technical performance of a lens rather than the ability to take good photos, while prime supporters maybe imply that zoomers are too lazy to walk backwards or forwards to best frame their photo.

Of course, these arguments are more or less valid depending on the situation; in a fast moving reportage situation the ability to quickly zoom in on action may be the difference between getting and missing a vital shot, while a landscape photo may benefit from a little extra sharpness that a prime lens can give if used carefully. One new argument (to me anyway) is that zoom lenses stifle creativity – its all too easy to just blast away without thinking about how best to frame a shot, and indeed if a subtle change of perspective will enhance a photo.

This got me thinking – since switching from a film camera to digital a few years ago, I’ve mostly used zoom lenses, and I have to say I haven’t always been happy with the photos I’ve taken.  Certainly the proportion of ‘keepers’ – those photos good enough for me to want to retain them even if they are not my absolute favourites, has dropped. Now of course one big factor is the negligible on-cost of each photo taken with digital, compared to the £1.00+ cost of each 6x7cm transparency – with film, you had to make every shot count, whereas with digital the temptation is to just blast away, and select the best later. But there’s more to it than that – even when I’ve taken a number of digital photos of a given subject, I’ve not always been satisfied that I’ve got ‘that’ perfect picture, even though I may have tried any number of exposure or focus combinations. It’s not necessarily that the images aren’t sharp or whatever, they just don’t quite work…

So maybe there’s something about using prime lenses that helps you take better pictures – perhaps its because you need to take time to frame the shot, moving backwards and forwards until the elements are just right, or maybe it causes you to look at a subject differently? So this week, to try and get a feel for this, I went out for an afternoon with JUST prime lenses to see how I got on. Subject was ‘The Roaches’ – a wind-carved outcrop of gritstone rocks in the Peak District National Park about 4 miles north of Leek, Staffordshire and 8 miles south of Buxton, Derbyshire. The weather wasn’t perfect – fairly cloudy for most of the afternoon, and also hazy following a few warm days.

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Anyway, I walked/climbed up to the summit, along the ridge to Docksey Pool and back – a couple of hours in total.  Armed with 14mm, 23mm (borrowed), 35mm and 60mm lenses, and a lightweight tripod which I didn’t actually use, I really enjoyed the more leisurely pace that shooting with primes enforces, in particular adjusting my position to best frame each shot, and taking the time to use a graduated filter to balance/darken the sky when needed.  I mainly used the 14mm wide-angle, but also took a few shots with the 23mm and 35mm, and have to say I was amazed at the sharpness and clarity of them.  I can’t claim they are masterpieces, but I’m sufficiently happy to want to continue the experiment. A few of my favourites from the day are here.