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”

Nikon 1 J1 Review

My gear has evolved from P&S to DSLRs over the last five years, and each year I end up buying a new camera. The focus this year, was on reducing the size and weight of the camera gear, unlike previous years where I had been looking to acquire the latest sensor technology (although I was tempted to swap my D3100 with D3200!).

What started out as a quest for cheap backup P&S, ended up as a story about Nikon 1. But not before I had analyzed every single camera in the INR 10k to 25k price bracket. Thanks to Flipkart which has a decent range of cameras. But somehow I resisted the urge to order J1 from Flipkart, and instead went to a Nikon store in Lajpat Nagar, where to my surprise I got a better deal.

Nikon 1 J1

When Nikon launched the 1 series, I was one of those who ridiculed their decision to go for a piddly 1 inch sensor, with a meagre 10MP resolution. More so because of their outrageous pricing of the kits. Perhaps Nikon’s think tank never updated their market study which seems to have been based on the trends prevalent five years ago. Back then, these cameras would have been ground breaking, earth shattering, but things have changed since MFTs hit the market. Pricing has become a sensitive issue, in an already overcrowded CSC market. Thankfully Nikon acknowledged this fact, and dropped the price significantly for both its cameras, a move which seemed to work in their favor as J1 (and V1) dominated the CSC markets in Japan and Europe.

J1 in Action

J1

Form Factor : J1 is not Sony RX100 or Olympus XZ1, but its a sufficiently compact ILC, and light too
Prior to buying the J1, I had mostly been carrying my DSLR kit – D3100, Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC, and Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, to my leisure trips and social events. Throw in a battery charger, UV filter and polarizer (both of which fit snugly on either of the lenses), and the kit would weigh two kilograms or thereabout. Those who have carried so much weight to day long sightseeing trips would agree that the dead weight spoils the experience.

J1 is light and how! The body weighs in a mere 235g, add a couple of lenses 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 VR (115g) and 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 VR (185g ONLY!) and you get a useful range of 18mm – 198mm (DX format) for just 535g. For the sake of comparision, D3100 weighs in a good 455g for body alone and similarly Olympus PEN E-PL1 weighs 335g and has a heavier kit lens by comparision.

In hands, the J1 is good to hold, its not feather light and that helps in keeping the hands steady. I have taken it to a few wedding events and it hasnt been a distraction, to say the least. The only gripe that I have is regarding the neck band that Nikon has provided in the kit. It would have made more sense to put a wrist band instead. I didnt even bother to put the otherwise flashy neck band, instead used an old wrist band that came with my Canon Powershot.

Nikon 1 J1 + 1 Nikkor VR 10-30mm F/3.5-5.6

Look and Feel : Solid build quality
J1, like V1 has a solid build quality. Better than my D3100, and more reminiscent of my old D80. Both lenses have metal mount, and great rubber grip. The zoom rings are sufficiently smooth to operate and have no creep. In white avatar, the camera seems unimposing to the subjects, which is particularly good for clicking those natural, life-like photos where the subjects dont consciously pose for the camera. At weddings, I have often received cold stares and unwelcomed looks by the professional photograhers, even when I wasnt obstructing their field of view. Thankfully the J1 makes it easier for me to sneak in and take advantage of their lighting setup without the professionals bothering too much.

Nikon 1 J1 Rear

User Interface : A curious camera
After using it, I labelled Nikon 1 J1 as a curious camera. It is definitely not a DSLR and nor is it a P&S. The UI, button layout and handling are all different. Yes, you find similarities with DSLR when you zoom the lenses, and to P&S when you use the buttons, but there are subtle differences and unique features (like unlock lens to switch on the camera). It takes time to adjust to the new UI (which isnt a bad thing), it kept me engaged for a while before I became familiar with the controls. For example, there is no Fn button to control ISO, but if you exit the “Menu” after adjusting ISO, J1 remembers the last option, so the next time you hit “Menu” you are directly taken to ISO settings. The menu is extensive but intuitive and easy to remember. Not once have I felt that UI has come in my way while setting up the camera for that quick shot. Infact, the camera feels more like a point and shoot, once you set it up properly. I mostly use Shutter priority mode along with Auto ISO, in order to harness the brilliance of the EXPEED 3 technology. The EV comp and ISO settings are fairly easy to reach just incase I want a greater control over the output.

The absence of PSAM dial / shooting modes is inconsequential for me since I hardly use it even on my DSLR. For those shots, where I would like to use manual mode, I would generally have enough time to delve into the menu and change the settings – a fair compromise.

CX Sensor

Performance : Stellar metering and auto focus
J1’s start up times are fast, and continuous shooting mode is a delight. The metering is brilliant in most situations, and focus is fast enough even in low light. In broad daylight, J1 performs as expected, yes, the auto focus is the fastest that I have seen in this form factor, and dare I say the most accurate, even comparable to D3100. The LCD brightness is good, so much that it can be lowered a bit without affecting legibility, in order to conserve battery. Overall, I have been very pleased with J1’s performance.

Image Quality : Gritty but detailed output; Shoot RAW for best results
The JPEGs are generally pleasing with typical Nikon colors, and the RAW output is definitely a notch above the JPEGs. The images are gritty even at base ISO (even when compared to D3100, let alone D7000), but the 1inch sensor captures plenty of details. The sensor size is no excuse for poor low light performance, however J1 fares well in absolute terms, comparable to what I used to get from my old D80. IQ is decent until ISO1600, beyond that things go down hill and require careful processing to get acceptable results.

1 Nikkor VR 10-30mm F/3.5-5.6

Lenses : A lot of options to choose from
Although 10-30mm kit lens is sharp, it is still the weakest lens in the lineup. Following up with excellent results that I got from the kit lens, I decided to buy 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 VR and I must say this lens absolutely shines on J1. With a complex construction and different coatings, it is a must have for your Nikon 1. The VR works surprisingly well and the images come out sharper than Nikkor 18-200mm VR, and are mostly comparable to Nikkor 70-300mm VR II. Nikon has introduced a slew of lenses which include ultra wide zoom, pancake, fast prime, and travel zooms. The pricing however, remains to be a bit on the high side. I would have preferred the lenses to be atleast 25% cheaper than their DX counterparts. For those who would like to couple their Nikon DSLR glasses with J1 there is a handy FT1 adaptor, however, I have not seen it in action as yet, so I dont know for sure if it taxes the auto focus performance of the DX/FX lenses.

Battery Life :  Good enough, doesn’t warrant buying a spare
On my last run, I have been able to get 350+ shots with VR always on, flash fired on atleast 50 occasions and the battery status still shows 50% usage. Pretty decent.

Conclusion : Not just a sidekick
My quest for a back up camera, concluded with me buying a Nikon 1 J1 and replacing my old Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR with a shiny 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 VR. My revised kit now consists of Nikon 1 J1, 10-30mm VR, 30-110mm VR along with Nikon D3100, Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC. With J1 taking a more active role of a pocket sized tele-shooter, and not just being a sidekick to D3100.

Impact of Sensor Size on Performance — a Contemporary Survey

I am in the middle of a choice between interchangeable lens systems and one of my pressing needs is the selection of a system that lets me have a smaller, lighter camera bag. Now is not a bad time to be shopping for cameras, with so much choice being available across price brackets and IQ variance. As always, having a lot to choose from is another way of getting confused, so I decided to do some objective data analysis to figure out what’s what.

The choice is between 35mm (full frame or FX in Nikon parlance), APS-C, Micro Four-Thirds (MFT) and 1″ (CX in Nikon parlance) sensor platforms. It’s worth noting that there isn’t any FX mirrorless interchangeable lens camera on the market so far, so going FX means using a DSLR with a mirror and built-in OVF. Similarly, there’s only the Nikon 1 system available in the 1″ format.

Crop Factors

Crop factor is the ratio of the field of view between FX and the sensor in question. One of the things it tells is the focal length required on a 35mm sensor for a given focal length on the sensor in question. E.g. the crop factor of APS-C sensors is usually 1.5, which means that a 100mm lens on APS-C would give the same kind of frame as a 150 mm lens on FX.

Crop factor also determines the increase in Depth of Field (DoF) for a given aperture value between FX and the sensor in question. E.g. a 100mm lens at f/4 on APS-C would give the same frame and DoF as a 150mm lens at f/6 on an FX sensor. One thing the crop factor doesn’t change, though, is the metering. A scene that requires 1/100s shutter speed at f/5.6, ISO200 on FX would still require 1/100s at f/5.6, ISO 200 on a CX sensor. I.e., a smaller sensor allows you to shoot at wider apertures and lower ISO or higher shutter speeds for the same DoF.

Lastly, the square of the crop factor indicates how much larger the FX sensor is compared to the sensor in question in terms of surface area. E.g. FX is 1.52 = 2.25 times larger than APS-C sensors.

So, let’s take a look at the crop factors across the systems and see how they compare. Here’s a chart:

CropFactors

 

As you can see, the biggest gap is between FX and APS-C. The smallest is between APS-C and MFT. All of them are fairly close to 1 stop (1.414) so you can assume that you change a stop’s worth of equivalent aperture while going across the spectrum.

These crop factors have interesting consequences. They mean, for example, that a 50mm f/1.8 “normal prime” would behave like a 135mm f/4.9 telephoto lens on a CX camera, except for exposure metrics.

Tonality

Tonality, or colour depth, is the ability of a sensor to distinguish very similar looking colours from one another. This metric is what gives photos from larger sensor cameras that “3D look” while the pictures form cellphones and small cameras look very “flat”. I have pulled the best in class tonality data from DxOMark scores for each format. The chart below shows how they compare.

Tonality

This chart shows an almost linear progression across formats, except that the best CX format sensor (Sony CyberShot RX100) is nearly as good as the best MFT sensor. The good news here is that if you’re looking for colour depth in your photos, you are much better off in 2013 than just 5 years ago. The colour depth of the RX100 (22.6 bits) is about the same as that of the Nikon D90 (22.7 bits), despite the latter having more than 3 times the sensor area.

The not-so-good news, of course, is that an FX sensor is still quite far ahead in terms of tonality, and this becomes especially important if you are a landscape photographer shooting in snow or haze. Portrait photographers would also get much better skin tone gradation with FX sensors.

Dynamic Range

Dynamic Range (DR) is a measure of the maximum variation of light and dark areas in a scene before the sensor loses the ability to resolve colour or tone, rendering the dark areas as greyish black and bright areas as white. DR is especially important for shooting outdoors in daylight or indoors with overhead lighting or spotlights. People who shoot Christian weddings would also want to be careful about the DR of their sensor since they often need to shoot the groom wearing a black suit along with the bride wearing a white dress.

The DR variance, again based on the segment topping sensor scores on DxOMark across formats is shown below.

DynamicRange

This is an interesting chart because the variance in DR doesn’t have any correspondence with the crop factors. The best FX and APS-C sensors are quite close to each other, but there is a huge gap from APS-C to MFT. In fact the RX100 outperforms its MFT siblings in DR despite a sensor that’s almost half as large.

Noise

Now we come to the most important metric for a sensor, i.e. noise performance. We all recognise noise as the speckles and freckles that we see all over a photograph. That is the most visible effect of noise, but it’s not the only one. Noise also reduces a sensor’s tonality and DR quite a bit. What’s even worse, a noisier sensor would also perform worse at its base ISO for long exposures compared to a less noisy sensor.

So what does the Noise progression look like across formats? Well, here it is. No surprises.

MaxISO

The chart above is based on DxOMark‘s listing of ISO measurement at which the degradation in image quality becomes perceptible. I have converted those numbers into “stops” for a more easy comparison. E.g. according to the chart above, the best CX sensor (Nikon 1 V2, in this case) is 3 stops noisier than the best FX sensor (Nikon D3s).

Sensor Performance Conclusions

Based on the above charts, we see that there’s a significant gap between every segment, except MFT and CX, wherein the RX100 is acting as a bit of a leveler, albeit with 1.14 stops poorer noise performance.

If you are an outdoors shooter, it’s probably not a bad idea to downsize since the key metrics for outdoor shooting (Tonality and DR) are far more level across the formats, while the kit size reduction is significant. If you shoot indoors without studio lighting, though, you should strongly consider having a large sensor system.

Another important thing to remember, though, is that today’s sensors in any segment match up to or outperform the sensors of the next segment from 5 years ago across all metrics. If you are satisfied with your 5 year old equipment’s IQ, you are ready to downsize without consequence.

State of the Camera 2012: Part 2

In Part 1 of this two-part series we looked at some of the dominant technology trends over the last couple of years and the impact they are having on cameras and photography. In this part of the series, I write about my impressions of a few recent cameras that I have had the opportunity to use.

Sony CyberShot DSC-RX100

Voted by Time Magazine as one of the best inventions of 2012 and declared to be the best pocket camera ever made by New York Times reviewer David Pogue, this camera has changed the way people respond to small sensor sizes.

RX100 is a fixed zoom pocket camera with features and controls designed for enthusiast photographers. At 36mm thickness, it is just about small enough to fit into the front pocket of a pair of jeans without discomfort. Its claim to fame, though, comes from the fact that despite such a diminutive size, the camera’s 1 inch (13.2mm x 8.8mm) sensor delivers dynamic range and colour depth that matches that of the much bigger APS-C sensors, e.g. that of the Nikon D90. This excellent 20MP sensor is mated to an f/1.8-4.9 Carl Zeiss 3.6x zoom lens that is sharp enough to justify the super-high resolution.

I acquired this camera in September 2012 and since then, I have hardly used my DSLR (Nikon D90) and I sold off my Sony NEX-5 as well. Other than the 100mm+ telephoto range, I do not miss shooting with the DSLR. RX100, in fact, has a few smarts that make it nicer to shoot with than the D90:

  • Fast AF, accurate metering and white-balance
  • Astounding detail in the 20MP files captured with this camera
  • Horizon Indicator, to show camera tilt across two axes
  • High resolution, high brightness WhiteMagic™ LCD that makes daytime shooting a pleasant experience
  • Front and rear rotary dials offer direct control of shooting parameters
  • 7-option customisable “Fn” button for quick access to shooting options
  • 3 memory presets for shooting parameters that one can customise for specific conditions
  • Tiltable on-board flash for bounce-flash capability

Another thing that RX100 does much better than the D90 and its bigger cousin NEX-5 is video recording. The video stabilisation on RX100 is amazing and the results from 50 fps 1080i video are striking.

There isn’t much that this camera leaves to complain about. If at all, I sometimes find the minimum focus distance at tele end to be a bit too much.

Olympus OM-D E-M5

Voted by DPReview readers as the best camera of 2012, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is indeed a remarkable camera. This camera is remarkable for 3 reasons:

  1. Exquisite styling based on the Olympus OM series film cameras, with solid construction and weather sealing
  2. Excellent new technology incorporated into the camera
  3. Large selection of small, high quality micro Four-Thirds (MFT) lenses

OM-D EM-5
Indeed, the styling of the camera is admirable. Its modern machine tooled cuts combined with classic styling cues give it an intriguing and likable shape from the front and top. The rear side of the camera is dominated by the large LCD swivel touch-screen that makes it look and feel like a modern camera. The looks of the camera are enough to raise expectations from its performance, handling and IQ.

Handling of this camera is quite good. Apart from the awkwardly placed on-off switch, everything is just about where it should be. The tilting LCD screen offers a better shooting experience than the built-in 1.4M dot EVF, though the latter may be used for extra stability. While using the LCD, you can also use the touch-to-shoot functionality to focus on a desired point in the scene and shoot.

The E-M5 features hybrid AF (on-sensor phase detect + contrast detect) that is very fast to lock on and quite accurate. The 16MP imager has great colour depth and high ISO performance. The JPEG engine from Olympus also retains its characteristic colour response to give pleasing images straight out of camera. It did have some issues with auto white-balance under fluorescent lighting.

Another first in the E-M5 is the 5-axis in-body image stabilisation. While most IS systems only compensate for yaw and pitch, the E-M5 compensates for yaw, pitch, roll and horizontal and sideways translation movements. This works very well for shooting stills, and also for shooting video. However, the RX100 still outclasses the E-M5 in video shooting for one basic reason — continuous tracking AF in E-M5 is very, very slow, at least with indoor lighting.

Overall, this is a very attractive camera and just by its looks and handling, it inspires one to shoot. However, it’s still a bit rough at the edges and things like iffy AWB and slow focus tracking can be a bit disappointing. Nevertheless, this is the first camera from the FourThirds stable since the Panasonic GF1 that has held my attention and is having me think of switching to the MFT stable instead of Nikon APS-C.

Nikon 1 J1

The Nikon 1 J1 is a strange camera in many ways. In photographs, it appears to be all cutesy and properly small, in line with other compacts. When you see it in real life (I was going to say, “flesh and blood”, but stopped for obvious reasons), it turns out to be rather big and very solidly built.

The most striking thing about the J1 is its build quality. It is crafted out of seemingly thick metal, with large, nicely tooled buttons on top. The back-plate has some more large and well constructed buttons, along with the LCD screen. It makes the very solidly built Sony RX100 feel like a flimsy little thing.

So, the J1 is uncharacteristically well built. What about the performance? It has the same sized sensor as RX100 but whereas RX100 only does contrast detect AF, the J1 has hybrid (phase detect + contrast detect) AF like the OM-D E-M5. This does result in super-fast focusing with a high level of accuracy. Raw IQ is excellent and matches that of the RX100 where low light is concerned. At base ISO, RX100 has higher colour depth and dynamic range, though. The camera is also capable of up to 60 fps frame burst, which enables it to offer interesting features like Motion Snapshot and Smart Photo Selector. That’s not all, the camera can also shoot 400 fps videos at 240p and 1200 fps videos at 120p. For all this performance, though, it doesn’t offer exposure/WB bracketing or in-camera HDR, which brings us to the next point.

The J1, unfortunately, is a bit of a strange camera for another reason. It’s designed for P&S upgraders and novices, but requires an enthusiast — a tinkerer — to get the most out of it. The metering and AWB of this camera are both unremarkable, making it necessary to shoot raw and use EV compensation more often. That, however, is a problem because the camera being designed for novices, doesn’t offer an up-front control to set EV compensation. The high speed videos look like an attractive prospect, until you discover the amount of ambient light the camera needs to be able to capture them.

Another trade-off between RX100 and J1 is that of size vs. versatility. The J1 is big, compared to RX100 (though smaller than Olympus E-PM2) and its lenses are bigger still. But for the added bulk, you do get the ability to choose between not just the interesting Nikon CX lenses like the 18.5mm f/1.8 or the announced 32mm f/1.2, but with the FT1 adapter, you can also get your Nikon DX and FX lenses to work with it.

Overall, it’s a very interesting camera and for its now discounted price, it offers a great value proposition. Indeed, it’s the best selling mirrorless ILC in Japan by a healthy margin.

Buying Recommendations

If you are looking for a pocket camera and are willing to spend the money, I can recommend the RX100 without reservations. It does what a pocket camera should do, and then some more, with uncompromising IQ on-the-go.

For a mirrorless ILC system, though, the choice is still a bit confusing, especially if you consider cameras I haven’t covered yet. There are 3 broad choices based on sensor size:

  1. APS-C: This includes Sony NEX, Fuji X and Samsung NX bodies. With a big sensor comes the burden of big lenses. None of the manufacturers in this segment have managed to address lens size issues satisfactorily, though Sony made some progress with its 35mm f/1.8 prime and 16-50mm collapsible zoom. If you’re going mirrorless to reduce size, you might want to consider the entry level DSLR bodies, which aren’t significantly larger but offer better value for money.
  2. MFT: Micro-Four-Thirds platform has plenty of choice among lenses and the MFT champions, Olympus and Panasonic, have managed to make some really small, really good lenses for this system. Unfortunately, these manufacturers lagged behind in the sensor department. All that looks set to change going by what we see in the E-M5 and E-PL5, and given the sensor supply deal that Sony has struck with Olympus. I would myself have considered this system, but…
  3. Nikon CX: being a Nikon guy, I am watching this mount with interest. The RX100 has shown the potential of a sensor of this size, and I can happily live with the IQ it returns. The CX lens selection is sparse at the moment, but at least they are sufficiently small, even with VR. The AF and continuous shooting performance of Nikon 1 bodies is beyond anything in its price bracket, or even higher. I would have gone for the Nikon 1 V2, but the lack of exposure bracketing  and/or multi-shot exposure modes a la Sony’s Superior Auto is a deal-breaker for me. Let’s hope Nikon addresses this concern soon enough.

State of the Camera 2012: Part 1

It’s been exactly two years since I last wrote about a camera on this blog.  A lot has changed in the camera scene over the last two years and I fell in and out of love with the NEX-5 during this time as well. In this post I shall begin with talking about the recent trends in the camera market followed by short reviews of a few new generation cameras that I have tried or bought.

Mirrorless/EVIL Systems

The hot new stuff these days undoubtedly is the rise of “mirrorless” or “EVIL” (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) cameras. “Mirrorless” is a broader term that just indicates the absence of a mirror that is traditionally used to operate the Auto-focus system in SLR cameras. Mirrorless cameras use their sensors directly to auto-focus either through contrast detection (CDAF) or phase detection AF sensors embedded directly on the main sensor. Mirrorless cameras may not have a viewfinder or allow changing of lenses. EVIL cameras include both.

By discarding the mirror, the bodies of these cameras can be considerably thin. By dropping out the optical viewfinder, these bodies also save space otherwise occupied by the pentaprism in SLRs. This opportunity in body size reduction for the same sensor size is the main selling point of the mirrorless cameras. They allow you to carry cameras capable of seriously good IQ in a smaller package.

Nikon vs Sony

Small Sensors

As the Sony NEX system demonstrates, while it’s possible to reduce the body size considerably by going the mirrorless route, the size of the lenses does not reduce since it’s largely related to sensor size. To reduce the overall size of the package, the sensor size must also be reduced.

Traditionally, small sensors have had a big gap up to the IQ delivered by bigger ones (APS-C/APS). However, smaller sensors have also now reached the IQ sweet spot where minor improvements in IQ are harder to perceive and more expensive to deliver. A striking example of this is the 1 inch sensor inside Sony Cybershot DSC-RX100. As per DXOMark, this sensor is better than that of the Nikon D80, despite being 3.24x smaller. It even matches up to the D90 in all except low light performance!

This isn’t to mean that the large sensors haven’t improved in the mean time. However, the IQ delivered by small sensor systems is now enough to make fairly large (8×12″ or 12×18″) prints without noticing defects. That really is more than most non-professional photographers would want out of their camera.

Summary

To summarize, digital cameras are now in a phase of miniaturisation as they have reached and exceeded the levels of “acceptable” performance. Miniaturisation is enabled mainly by getting rid of the mirror and pentaprism assembly from traditional SLRs and having their functions performed by the camera electronics (CDAF, Electronic Viewfinder). Systems with smaller than APS-C sensors also benefit from a significant reduction in the size and cost of lenses. The resulting cameras are not only physically smaller, but they are also cheaper than their large-sensor counterparts when you include the cost of lenses.

In the next part of this post, I shall write about a few recent cameras that are at the forefront of this miniaturisation and see how they compare to DSLRs.

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

NEX-5 Early Impressions

It’s been a week since I’ve had my baby camera, i.e. the Sony α NEX-5 and I’ve been enjoying it so far. Here’s a quick low down of the ups and downs I’ve encountered with the camera.

The Good

  • Outstanding IQ in any shooting conditions that can only be trumped by careful, deliberate shooting with a DSLR equipped with high quality optics
  • Small enough to fit in my laptop bag, if not the jeans pocket
  • Excellent iAuto mode for quick snapshots
  • Fairly easy to use controls, esp. with button customisation offered by Firmware v03
  • Auto HDR and Hand-held Twilight Modes really work!
  • Sweep Panorama works really well for hand-held shooting. You can’t do better with a DSLR until you mount it on a tripod.
  • Focuses almost as fast as an AF-D type Nikkor with D80/D90 body
  • Optical Steady Shot (OSS) on the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Kit Lens is outstanding
  • Movie making is super easy and fun!
Top Left: ISO 12800 shot. Top Right: “Hand-held Twilight” shot @ ISO 6400. Bottom: Sweep Panorama

NEX-5 ISO 12800 Mega Performance
Studio-I

The Bad

  • JPEGs tend to be a little less sharp by default
  • Chromatic Aberration is visible in high-contrast scenes, though not unusually excessive and removed in one click with Nikon ViewNX
  • Zooming while composing is cumbersome due to missing support from the forehead as with an OVF equipped DSLR
  • Cumbersome MF adjustment despite on-screen MF assist. The electronic focus ring twists indefinitely so you’re not really sure if it’s locked at minimum/infinity focus, when you need it

The Ugly

  • Excessive battery drain if you take time while composing a shot due to OSS, continuous AF and LCD
  • Fingerprint -magnet of an LCD and screen protector not provided as part of the kit

I’ll probably add more to this post as I get more familiar with the camera, especially when I start shooting RAW (+JPEG, of course).

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.

Which Compact Interchangeable-Lens Camera?

Why I settled on the Sony α NEX-5 as the best mirrorless interchangeable lens camera for myself.

These are exciting times for DSLR enthusiasts. We’ve all marvelled at the creative and operational flexibility afforded by the large dial, switch and button infested DSLR bodies and interchangeable purpose-built lenses. We’ve been spoiled for the impeccable image quality afforded by the 8.5-15x larger APS-C sensors (upto 34x larger if you’re a 35mm shooter). It’s impossible to look back at compacts. Or is it?

Most DSLR shooters sooner or later realise that their beloved hunk can’t be their only camera. They can’t carry it all the time to family events. They can’t do anything about it if they happened to dine in a fancy restaurant on impulse. Carrying a DSLR has to be planned ahead, owing to its bulk. In the last couple of years, though, the B-level interchangeable lens system manufacturers (anyone other than Canon and Sony) had been pushing the boundaries of how small an interchangeable-lens system could be made. While I’ve followed this category (dubbed EVIL — Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lens), it’s right about now that I have finally settled on a system. It’s going to be none but the Sony α NEX-5 for me. If you follow me on twitter, you’d already know about this. Here’s a brief overview of stuff that I considered and what sold me on NEX-5.

Luxury Compacts

These are essentially non-interchangeable zoom compacts with puny sensors. Canon G10, G11 and the latest, G12, are leaders in this category, owing to their small size and controls that are suited to DSLR users. Heck, they have an ISO selection dial! Some people also choose the smaller Canon S90/S95 systems. Their undoing, however, is their image quality. While they’re considerably good in terms of IQ, sensor technology has been favouring large and small sensors equally and large sensor systems have leaped further ahead in terms of dynamic range and low-light capabilities. Nikon’s recent offering, the P7000, is a worthy addition to this lineup. It trumps the G12 in terms of specifications though deeper IQ analysis is pending.

Certainly, though, these systems aren’t going to offer the kind of IQ one gets from today’s DSLRs. Written off.

m4/3 EVILs

While Canon and Nikon were busy fighting it out in the 24mm and 35mm DSLR arena, a bunch of B-segment makers got together to create a new shared sensor format and lens-mount called Four-Thirds. This system boasts a 4:3 sensor (compared to 3:2 for 24 or 35mm ones) that has about 1/4 the area of a 35mm sensor. Much better than tiny compacts (4-9x larger) but still not up to the level of 24mm sensors. Early on, these systems focused more on the almost-similar IQ to larger DSLRs with a wide selection of lenses thanks to the shared lens-mount between manufacturers. Models like the Panasonic

Panasonic Lumix GF-1 and Olympus PEN EP-1, however, put the same sensor in rangefinder/EV bodies that were significantly smaller. What’s remarkable about them is that they are about the same size as the Luxury Compacts if you put a pancake prime lens on them. Yet, they offer visibly better IQ and flexibility to change lenses. GF-1 and EP-1 were instant hits with shooters of even Nikon and Canon DSLRs as they afforded DSLR-like IQ and operations, without the bulk. Around this time, people started speculating about Nikon and Canon jumping into the Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens (MIL) segment as well.

I was waiting for a GF-1 update, that fixed some of the auto-focus speed issues and various other shortcomings. That update is yet to come but something else happened along the way…

Enter Sony α NEX-5

This May, Sony announced two APS-C MIL cameras — α NEX-5 and α NEX-3. For the purpose of this post, I’m going to ignore NEX-3, which is just a cheaper version of NEX-5 designed to win price wars where needed.

Sony α NEX-5 with 16mm f/2.8 Lens
Sony α NEX-5 with 16mm f/2.8 Lens

What’s cool about NEX-5? Well, consider that despite being an all-metal body, it’s considerably lighter than anything in this category. Not only that, it’s also the smallest. It’s smaller and lighter than the Canon G10/11/12, it’s smaller and lighter than Nikon P7000, it’s smaller and lighter than Lumix GF-1, than PEN EP-1 or EP-2… heck, it’s smaller and lighter than anything at all!

In terms of IQ, this sensor beats all contemporary m4/3 offerings hands-down, blows the fixed lens, tiny-sensor compacts out of reckoning and stands all the way up to Nikon D5000’s image quality. Other notable and interesting features are:

  • Tilt-up/-down LCD screen with best-in-class display.
  • Hand-held HDR creation with upto 6-stop difference among bracketed shots. It works.
  • Multiple-shot High ISO blending for reduced noise low-light photography of still subjects.
  • 3-function programmable jog dial and 1-function programmable lower soft-button (firmware v3).
  • High-resolution 2D/3D sweep panoramas. It’s not magical, but it does usually work. A pan-head tripod like the <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/code_martial/3757510707/”>Sony VCT R640</a> that I have will be of tremendous help.
  • 1080p/24 fps videos with continuous AF (Nikon D3100 is the first to offer continuous video-AF in DSLR form-factor).

No wonder then, that the Sony α NEX-5 is the best mirrorless camera available. In the absence of any significant moves from Canon or Nikon and Sony’s continued ground-breaking advancement into compact APS-C bodies, NEX-5 is also likely to hold its position this year.