Farewell, Photography

Update: I couldn’t stay away for long. That, and I conquered the sharpness gremlins plaguing my experience with the heavily used AF-S DX 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G VR.

Farewell, Photography

We had a good thing going for eight years or so, but it’s time now to bring it to a halt.

Back when I started, I had no dearth of time to give to myself and I had no one but myself to spend money on. It was meant to be all for fun, nothing serious.

Somewhere along the way, things became different. I still find some time but can’t give it to myself without some sense of guilt being felt or implied. I still have money but spending it on something that no one other than me values doesn’t seem to be sensible any more. The fun is still there but seriously, there’s too much disappointment to make it worthwhile.

Back when I started, digital cameras used to be rubbish. It took the right kind of knowledge and tools to make a picture look good. But if you had the right equipment and knowledge and tools, your photo could stand head and shoulders above the average in terms of IQ (Image Quality). That alone used to bring about a sense of achievement. Now though, you can’t achieve anything noticeable with just a good camera and a computer because digital cameras have matured. They all make stellar pictures compared to what the average camera captured in the previous decade.

Now that’s a really good thing for photography in general. It’s become more accessible to everyone and the general quality of photographs is increasing every year. Having access to a camera on the phones is also giving a lot of people a lot of practice. But herein lies a problem. Being a photography/camera buff today is like being an audiophile in the 80s – back then, good sets of

speakers used to be rare and very expensive. Now the average consumer-grade speakers can reproduce a pin drop to a thunderous explosion with equal clarity and there are credentials – THX, Dolby, what-have-you – to help recognise their capability. You don’t need to be an audiophile to find a good sounding set of speakers. Just get a middle-of-the-price-range set with some fancy stamps and 495 of 500 of your friends will approve of it.

Now you might be thinking, hang on a minute, that analogy is bunkum. An audiophile doesn’t create music, he just consumes it. A photographer on the other hand creates something. True, that, but only to an extent. There are two types of photographer. One who shoots what he sees, and the other who makes something worth seeing. I would be monumentally dishonest if I, for a moment, claim that I am a photographer of the latter type.

So, all said and done, my photographs are only as good as my equipment and what I shoot.

And that’s a big problem.

If I need my pictures to improve I’d either need to improve my equipment or I’d need to find something better to shoot. Now, I have two class-leading cameras (Sony RX100, Nikon D7100) so I am quite far down the curve of diminishing returns. Yes, my pictures would look better with a Nikon D800 and 16-35mm f/4 Nikkor or a Sony A7r with 24-70mm f/4 ZA or some such combination of full frame body with an exotic lens. But how many of my 500 friends be able to tell the difference? 5, I reckon.

So, let’s look at the other bit – what I shoot. Unfortunately for me, I don’t find anything that I shot in the last 6 years worth hanging on my walls. I’m just guessing here, but I think it’s because I’ve only shot common tourist locations in India. India is great, it’s beautiful and colourful and… for me, it’s all the usual stuff. People like photographs of stuff that’s different from the usual. I still find pictures that I clicked 7 years ago in California or 6 years ago in London to be better than anything else that came after that.

All in all, we’ve come to a point where I am thoroughly unimpressed with my photographs and I have no more willingness to throw the requisite time or money at it.

Not at this time.

And that’s not OK, because I can’t bear with myself doing a half-assed job of it, on and on and on.

So I must stop.

The Lost Flickr of Hope

I woke up this Tuesday morning to a shock.

This bar is wrong in a lot of ways. The way it stands out in all its ugliness from the rest of the Flickr visual design speaks volumes about how it was executed (thoughtlessly, in a draconian way), how little the Flickr development team have a say in how things work (I can’t imagine a product owner who would allow such visual desecration of their product without a protest) and how little Yahoo! as a company cares about its vocal community (no attempt made by Flickr staff to respond to the outpour of grief in their help forum).

The newly redesigned Flickr reminded me that I’ve been on Flickr for a very, very long time – close to 9 years. My joining of Flickr pre-dates its acquisition by Yahoo!. I have been with Flickr through the several major design changes to its layout and functionality and through the waves of people from Flickr community leaving for other competitors. More importantly, I was generally quite vocal in my defence of Flickr and the changes it brought about. The only time I previously considered looking for alternatives was when the site had not received any significant updates in ages.

 

I think I was naïve. I think the people who left earlier had better foresight.

I revoked my Pro account yesterday. Barring a few days of discontinuity between manual renewals, this is the first time in 8 years or so that I’ve dropped to a free account on Flickr.

I don’t intend to continue with any more public photo uploads to Flickr. I haven’t decided which service to use next, partly because it’s a difficult choice. Flickr is a great website. Despite years of neglect in community building, it still has strong community participation. There are other photo hosting websites, other photo sharing websites and other online communities. But there’s none that brings all these aspects together the way Flickr does.

Looks like I will have to find not one but two alternatives – a showcase and a community to replace my daily Flickr fix with.

PS: Some people recommend deleting photos from Flickr or making them private to disallow Yahoo! from making advertising money from our pictures. However, I don’t think I’m going to do that. I don’t want to break the trust of scores of third party pages that have legitimately embedded my photos instead of just flicking them without credit.

From Shooting RAWs to Shooting JPEGs

To Shoot RAW or JPEG?

I have been shooting photographs regularly for over 7 years now. I spent the first year shooting with a 2 Megapixel phone camera. Since then, however, I’ve almost always had RAW capable cameras and shot RAW compulsively. And why not? I get 16x or 64x more colour depth than JPEGs. I don’t have to bother about setting the right white balance, contrast or sharpness. I don’t have to choose between monochrome and colour at the time of shooting. I can figure all of that out on the computer during RAW conversion and even try out different settings for the same picture at my leisure. Why would I give up all this and shoot JPEG?

Continue reading “From Shooting RAWs to Shooting JPEGs”

Nikon D90 vs. Sony RX100 in Goa

Last weekend I was in Goa on a leisure trip, which gave me an excellent opportunity for some photography. I carried the RX100 for landscape and street photography. The D90 also came along mainly for long range shooting with the 55-300mm VR and low light shooting with the 50mm f/1.8D. This trip allowed me to sort out some things related to the pros and cons of using a big DSLR vs. a small compact. Here’s how the cameras fared.

Continue reading “Nikon D90 vs. Sony RX100 in Goa”

High on Lo-Fi

The camera industry is going through some pretty big movements these days. Since the advent of digital cameras and social networking websites, more and more people have been finding interest in taking photos and exhibiting them online to friends and public at large. Somewhere in this explosive growth of photography, veterans and early enthusiasts sometimes find themselves in a tight spot.

Big Camera, Small Camera

Since their inception, digital camera sensors have been pushing the boundaries of the quality of images they produce. For most of the last decade, it was a case of bigger is better. For better image quality (detail, focus accuracy, lack of noise), you needed to go for the largest digital sensor you could afford. That led to a lot of people lusting after Digital SLR cameras, with sensors having 10-20x more surface area than those of smaller point-and-shoot types.

Early this decade, though, we started seeing a proliferation of back-lit CMOS sensors, which significantly improved the light gathering efficiency of small sensors. More importantly, the improvement did not scale with sensor size, leading to a reduction in the image quality gap between small and large sensors. More importantly, they crossed some sort of an acceptability threshold, above which, quality improvements did not have as profound an impact. When these sensors got mated to always-connected smartphone devices, the ability to take good photos and immediately broadcast them to friends via social networks turned into a compelling channel for creation and consumption of photographs.

DSLR Owners’ Conundrum

A lot of people who acquired DSLRs in the middle of last decade now find themselves in a tricky situation. Using a DSLR means that you need to know a lot about how cameras work, in order to get the best out of the equipment. You need to know, for example, what ISO to shoot at, because unlike older compacts that produced noisy results at any sensitivity, a DSLR can give you very clean images near base ISO. You need to know about lenses and aperture and focal length, because the DSLRs force you to choose your lens carefully. Compact camera lenses get everything in focus most of the time, but DSLR lenses allow selective focus, which is one of the secrets behind their captivating results. Lenses are no longer just one number — 12x zoom and such. Most good-quality lenses are either primes (1x zoom) or 3-5x zooms at most. The zoom factor itself has no bearing with how magnified the image appears — there’s no comparison between the field of view of an 18-55mm lens and a 70-200mm lens, even though both are roughly 3x zooms.

Anyhow, we’re digressing. The point is, if you wanted to take not-crappy pictures in 200x, you had to buy a DSLR and to use it effectively you needed to know a lot about how cameras and lenses work. Unfortunately, the then top-of-the-heap IQ has now pretty much been surpassed by compact cameras and smartphone cameras in terms of resolution and low light sensitivity. The only thing holding smart-phones back is that they don’t have optical zoom and have to rely on “digital zoom” (crop & resize) some times.

A lot of DSLR owners from the last decade or older now feel threatened by the improving quality of compact shooters. Add to that the complex retouching and post-processing that is now available as cookie-cutter presets in applications like Snapseed, Instagram, etc., for which people spent hours in front of a computer fiddling with layer masks and such, and the feeling of threat is compounded. There’s a feeling of loss when you see someone producing as good results as you do, despite your skill and experience, because your skills have been codified in the camera’s firmware. Is the threat perception justified, though?

Say, “Hi!” to Lo-Fi

I, for one, really like what’s happening with the small camera industry right now. Comparing pictures from 5-10 years ago to what we have now, I see a significant improvement in the quality of pictures that people are putting up. The cameras’ scene detection and exposure metering has become smarter, they have better image quality baselines, the low MP counts allow these devices to capture shots in a burst and perform operations like noise reduction, DR enhancement, panorama creation, etc. on board. The artistic presets for lo-fi imagery help make the otherwise boring shots more catchy. Since most of these shots are consumed on the web, their IQ deficiency doesn’t even stand out much, compared to shots from a DSLR.

As an enthusiast photographer, though, you must not forget the reason why you stuck your neck out and put in your hard-earned money for a DSLR — to produce better looking photos than random Joes’. It’s just that having high resolution, noise-free, colour-corrected pictures is not enough differentiation now. You need to look for other differentiating factors. Some of it could be internal differentiators — improving your procedures to allow creation of images that typically need more expensive gear. Some of it could be looking for new frontiers to break with photography that smartphones and compacts still haven’t broken — they can’t do HD video in low light, they still shoot JPEGs, they can’t do 1:1 macro photography, they’re slow to focus. Some of it could be doing a one-up on them at their own tricks. For example, there is tremendous opportunity for being creative with multiple shot photographs that are merged in creative, non-cookie-cutter ways.

All said and done, it doesn’t matter which camera you use, as long as you find interesting stuff to photograph in interesting ways. DSLRs, compacts, lo-fi, hi-fi, are just means to producing something interesting.

Soaring

My Imaging Tools and Workflow

As my photos get backed up and burnt on to a DVD, I thought I might just do a quick cataloguing of the software I’ve found useful for developing my photographs and what each does. I’d also outline my workflow as I present each software in the order in which it appears in the workflow. Just to set the context, I use Microsoft Windows 7 for my imaging tasks, and my camera is a Nikon D90, so I do use a lot of Nikon software.

File Management and Archival

1. Nikon Transfer (Freeware)

This is the program that detects photos on external media and transfers them to a local disk or other external media. I’ve tried connecting the camera through its own USB interface and through the built-in card reader on my computer, but I find that the San Disk card reader that came with my Extreme III card gives the fastest throughput. Anyway, so Nikon Transfer is launched when the SD card is inserted and the nice thing about this software is that

  1. It allows simultaneously downloading the photos to a secondary location, which in my case happens to be just another disk partition but can also be an external USB drive (I’m contemplating doing the latter, going forward)
  2. It detects which photos have already been transferred from a batch and skips those (configurable)
  3. It allows manually selecting the photos to be transferred. I don’t normally use this option but I’ve needed it once or twice so I thought it might be worth mentioning.

My folder hierarchy for transferring these photos into is like this:

Camera Model/Name > Year > MonthNumber-MonthName or EventName

E.g. D90\2010\09-September, or Vesper\2010\MulaniWedding, etc.

The RAW files get dropped directly into those folders and the converted JPEGs go into a subfolder. I drop the camera-wise separation for permanent archival.

2. Nikon View NX2 (Freeware)

ViewNX 2 is a recent release from Nikon and Nikon Transfer now comes bundled with it. ViewNX 2 allows rating and tagging photos, while also allowing for conversion of RAW files into JPEGs or 8/16-bit TIFFs. It has also started offering the basic photo editing options that are available in Nikon cameras’ retouch menu. I primarily use it to select the photos that I want to develop. The way it allows files to be compared at 100% zoom and the way it can filter the film strip on rating ranges makes it extremely easy to do so. Here’s the rating system that I’ve evolved for myself over the months:

  • 5 Stars: Awesome snap! Convert, retouch and upload to Flickr. Send for a medium/large print too.
  • 4 Stars: Awesome snap! Convert, retouch and upload to Flickr. Send for a small/medium print too.
  • 3 Stars: Good snap. Convert and retouch. Likely upload to Flickr. Maybe send for a small print.
  • 2 Stars: Acceptable snap. Convert, maybe retouch. Unlikely to be uploaded to Flickr or printed.
  • 1 Star: Not that great. Just meant for keeping. May not even be converted to JPEG.
  • 0 Stars: Delete.

Please note that while I ruthlessly delete items based on the star rating assigned as above, I do it only on the primary working copy. The backup copy is always there, just in case I need to revert on my decisions. It doesn’t happen often but on the rare occasion that it does, it’s good to know that you’ve got all the shots with you.

When I’m done with all the processing, etc. for a month or few months, I copy the finished and shortlisted content to a more permanent backup solution (DVDs, in my case).

Image Development

Nikon Capture NX 2.2.4 ($180): This software is all that I use for developing my images. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  1. It’s arguably the best converter for Nikon’s RAW files, giving rich tones, smooth gradations and excellent detail
  2. It recognises all the camera settings used while taking a photograph and applies them as a starting point while developing the image
  3. It has in-built lens correction features like distortion control, CA control and vignetting. Really awesome to have this if you’re shooting with Nikon’s own lenses
  4. It’s got the U-Point controls that make selective retouching really really easy, without requiring you to drop into complex layer masks, etc., which I could never get the hang of
  5. It saves all the development and retouch settings right within the NEF file. The ability to retain the exact settings used to create a JPEG is amazing!
  6. It supports multiple edit-versions of the same file. You want a full colour as well as a monochrome version of the same snap? Sure, your NEF can carry multiple sets of editing steps all in itself
  7. I’ve come to love the very functional interface. Though a lot of people say it’s not as great as Aperture or Lightroom, I disagree. I’ve tried LR3 and I didn’t like it as much as CNX2. Yeah, batch conversion is a pain so if you do a lot of batch conversions, you might have to get something else or use View NX2 if you can live with its glacial speed of conversion and limited retouching support.

Specialised Development

While Capture NX 2 handles development and retouching of single images, some times you need multi-image solutions for panoramas and HDRs. Here are the tools I’ve found useful for these applications:

1. Picturenaut HDR Imaging (Freeware)

Picturenaut HDR is not the best HDR creation software out there, but it gets the job done for me. On the positive side, it’s got a very simple interface and it’s very fast. On the negative side, it doesn’t do image alignment too well (despite the option being present). If you want the super-saturated, artificial-looking, sick HDR shots, just select “Bilateral” tonemapper, set saturation to the max, set contrast to the min and you’re done. I don’t like that, so my workflow is a wee bit more involved.

My HDR workflow is to create 16-bit TIFFs from the bracketed shots and “Neutral” Picture Control setting via View NX2. I then load the TIFFs into Picturenaut and through some juggling with “Adaptive Logarithmic” global tonemapper. Flying by the histogram (I’m now pretty good at interpreting histograms cool), I get the HDR tonemapped as best as I can. The output is saved into another 16-bit TIFF. I load that TIFF into Capture NX2 for local enhacements and, thanks to the 16-bit depth, I get to recover amazing detail and colour from the shadows, if needed.

2. ArcSoft Panorama Maker 5 Pro ($80)

While trying to make this panorama out of 14 images, I spent hours breaking my head with Hugin. Hugin is Free Software, and it’s supposedly highly capable. I would’ve recommended it but unfortunately, it failed to work for me on MS Windows 7 (64-bit). ArcSoft’s Panorama Maker 5 Pro is a nifty little tool. All I had to do was feed it my 16-bit TIFFs and click one button to generate the panorama! Since panorama stitching doesn’t give a perfectly rectangular image, the tool offers a crop suggestion to crop out all the jagged edges and thereafter you can save your panorama.

I saved it as a 16-bit TIFF again, and retouched it in Capture NX2 to remove some issues caused by uneven exposure in the source images. Oh yeah, remember to always lock focus, white-balance, picture control mode and exposure (aperture, ISO, shutter speed) while taking multiple shots to make a panorama. This tool also includes a little tutorial on capturing individual shots for a panorama. Thoughtful.

3. HDR Alignment Tool v2.0 (Freeware)

Since Picturenaut doesn’t do a great job of aligning bracketed shots, I found this neat tool that allows you to put 2 control points on a pair of images and then re-aligns them. If you have a bunch of images, you need to set 2 control points for each pair in the sequence (1-2, 2-3, …) and this tool will finally yield an aligned stack or re-aligned individuals. Unfortunately, it doesn’t to TIFF output.

Honourable Mentions

While the above mentioned software is what I’ve used so far, here are a few honourable mentions to conclude the post:

  1. Flickr Uploadr for Windows/Mac OS X: Excellent tool for managing your Flickr uploads. Never upload a photo without the right title, description or permissions!
  2. UFRaw: Before moving to Capture NX 2 and Windows, I used Ufraw for my NEF conversion. It’s an excellent tool, but the underlying dcraw converter doesn’t do a great job handling colours and noise reduction. If GNU/Linux or F/OSS is your thing, UFraw is highly recommended.
  3. The Gimp: Also for F/OSS buffs, the Gimp is a highly capable image editor. I suppose it’s indispensable for any imaging workflow on Linux that involves non-trivial retouching.

Take Two

I, Photographer

This isn’t my first time writing a photography blog. I started one, almost 3 years ago and wrote a few posts regarding technique and gear. It was probably too early to start writing, though, and the blog fell off the edge when my hosting plan expired and I didn’t renew it. This time, it will hopefully stay.

Photography is, for me, a new way to experience things. It’s about delving deep into the visual characteristics of the environment around me — shapes, contours, colours, location, the light that I’m seeing by. This ability to observe also allows me to interact with inanimate objects in a new way. I can play with things by giving them different looks through the medium of photography. It may seem trivial at first, but for those who have to live by themselves for some length of time, it’s a relaxing and challenging pursuit that keeps the mind occupied from devilish or plain depressive thoughts.

Photography is also quite rewarding. After spending huge amounts of money on acquiring the right gear, learning the right skills, taking time out to visit the right places and finally making the right image, when you hold a 12″x18″ print in your hands, the sense of satisfaction is as good as from any other accomplishment. Those photographs are not mere memories, they are testimony to the fact that you had a uniquely personal interaction with an environment or an object.

Through this blog, I hope to share my observations and notes with anyone who might be interested as I work on developing myself as a better photographer, and share the small joys I may get out of the photographs that I make along the way.

Click away!