Sunday, November 30, 2008

James Blunt in Ottawa

Last night, James Blunt played Ottawa at the ScotiaBank Place. Luc Ducet and the White Falcon opened the concert with an excellent set. He has a good voice and is an excellent guitarist. Great bluesy riffs and an overall country blues feeling to the set. Anyway ... it was a terrific hour.

James came on close to 9:30pm and played a fairly short set. It was all over before 11pm, but it was very enjoyable. This is my first time seeing him and my first impression is that he is a very good entertainer. Solid guitar, extremely good piano and of course magnificent voice. If you don't have his CD "All the Lost Souls" I heartedly recommend it.

I did find his voice a bit strained. He had some trouble reaching the high notes, his bread and butter, without cracking or falling off the notes, but he held on for the whole concert and the power parts of the songs came through loud and clear. I suspect he's been on tour for a while, although I have not checked.

The light show was decent, but both sets were poorly lit for photography. Of course, I was in a suite on the 100 level and was further from the band than any other time where I've had a camera with me, so the emphasis on spots with weak ambient coupled with the distance from the subjects was a real challenge.

And I got an early Christmas present about 5 hours before the concert ... the Canon Powershot G10. I brought that camera and my usual concert camera, the Fujifilm Finepix F11, along to test them head to head.

The G10 is a real shooter's camera .... the controls are very good and it is easy to change anything you want in a few seconds ... even though this was my first time shooting the camera. The F11 is ok in that way, because I've shot many thousand images with it ... but I didn't waste much time with it after feeling the G10 in my hands. Wow ...

The F11 is one of the Fxx series of Fuji cameras that is renowned for their high ISO prowess. They can shoot fairly clean images up to 1600 ISO (3200 is really just a joke in compact cameras) but they sacrifice a lot of fine detail. The G10 theoretically sacrifices more than that, with poor saturation and all kinds of noise from a sensor that has more than double the pixels of the F11.

So I shouldn't even bother, right?

Not so fast. Take a look at this article and you will see why I was willing to give the G10 a test drive (I have until 5 January 2009 to bring it back, a very good policy from Future Shop and one reason I buy from them a lot.)

I managed to shoot only jpegs at this concert, despite the fact that I wanted to shoot RAW images as well. I failed to read that part of the manual before the concert and simply could not find the setting. I did not have my reading glasses with me and did not see the tiny arrow indicating that there were more sizes off the page ... *sigh* ...

But that makes this an even better test. If the images look good at higher ISO in jpeg, I *know* that they will look even better in RAW later on. Note also that both cameras were shot in normal jpeg compression ... approximately 12:1 on the F11, not sure on the Canon. This is still excellent, and I did not find jpeg artifacts to be visible during my processing.

So .... without further adieu, let's see the opening act, Luc Ducet.

This was one of my first images ever with the G10 ... and I shot it at 1600ISO, committing heresy :-) ... it's not great, but it's not terrible either. Remember to click to see the larger version of images on my blog.

Here's a similar image shot at 400 ISO for comparison. A bit more detail visible here.

You might be wondering how I shot the same images with ISOs 2 stops apart. Simple enough ... I use Tv mode and set the shutter speed to a fixed value, usually around 1/100s. I have found empirically over many concerts that 1/100s is usually enough to freeze a singer standing in front of a microphone.

For comparison purposes, here is a Fuji F11 image at 800 ISO. Not as nice in my opinion -- good detail, which is always a Fuji strength, but a lot of banding and other noise related artifacts. And white balance and saturation are awful. I was quite surprised. The light was perhaps a bit dimmer than for the other shots .... I don't recall.

When James came on, I recorded video for the first 10 minutes. I gotta say that the long reach of the G10 lens and the superb IS makes for a smokin' video recorder. And it is so cool that they use the H.264 codec instead of the awful motion jpeg codecs used by Fuji and so many others.

Here is the first shot I made of him, again inexplicably at 1600ISO. It was pretty dark, only blue spotlights ... sheesh, what brutal lighting for a digicam. Again, not great, but not terrible. In fact, I am pretty pleased.

I went on to capture quite a few images, some even as low as 200 ISO. The ISO dial is so easy to use that it begs you to experiment ... and I did. 200ISO creates really dark images, but the quality of the pixels in the G10 is pretty high at that ISO. To be clear, these are snap shots, memories, social shots. They are not portraits and could not be enlarged except in a artistic fashion ... of course, I have no legal right to profit from these anyway. My point being that the quality of these need only stand up to the web ... and they certainly do that as a group in my opinion.

Where was I? Oh yeah ... the 200 ISO image. Very, very clean. I was so pleased when I saw this one come up in Bridge.

That's shot from over a hundred feet away! And here is a fairly close crop of the image ... showing that there is some detail in there. All 6 strings are visible, I believe.

I will close with a few more from the part of the set where he runs through the audience giving hugs and then jumps into a secondary stage with a piano that he plays for several songs. Also far away from me and poorly lit.

To see the whole set of about 30 images, go here.

Here he is on the secondary stage, shot at 400 ISO. The people are all visible, as there was a bit more light on them at that moment. Made for some nice ambiance in the shot. Note the sharpness of the security guy's face on the far left. And note also that this was shot at 1/8s ... kudos to the IS in the G10 ...

Here is one a short time later with the Fuji. Shot at the higher ISO (800) and faster shutter speed (1/100s) makes it decently sharp. It actually looks quite nice.

Here's a wide shot from the Fuji, showing the stage at the other end of the arena and the one spotlight shining down. Decent amount of ambient light allows me to show the audience. This one started pretty dark and the result is a little harsh looking. Still, not bad, especially when you consider it is shot at 1600 ISO.

Back to the Canon. With the very wide 28mm lens, I was able to capture a really nice ambient shot. This is a portrait crop from a wide landscape image, shot at 400 ISO (I inadvertently reported this as 1600 ISO when I first posted this blog entry), and is far smoother. IS helped with that, and there are a lot more pixels to work with and they are at a fairly high quality, despite the incredibly tiny photosites. And I didn't even shoot this in RAW :-)

Ok ... one more for the road. Here's a 400 ISO image from the G10 ... quite clean, a fairly strong crop, yet quite clean and detailed. Look at the faces in the audience to see what I mean. So clean!

Great concert. I'll update this blog with the video when I have processed it and uploaded to YouTube. Meanwhile, go see either Luc Ducet or James Blunt (and if you are really lucky, both) if you get a chance.

And consider the G10 for your every day shooter. Fits in a (fairly big) pocket and this things rocks!

Panasonic LX3 at High ISO

So DPReview appears to have annoyed some people by giving the Canon G10 a recommended rating instead of highly recommended. I was a bit surprised, since the scuttlebutt (I read a lot of professional photographers) is that this camera is amazing.

Anyway, my fans (how are you both, by the way?) will remember I did a bit of a comparison a while back in hopes of finding the perfect concert camera ... one that I can actually get in (dSLR is out, Fuji F100fs is out, both much too big.) So compacts are my only hope Obi Wan ...

In that comparison, I compared the Canon G10 (leading contender at the time) against the Panasonic G1 (sort of a contender, but kind of big) and the Fuji S100fs (not a contender because of its size.) You can read my conclusions here.

Now ... at the time I didn't think of the LX3 as a contender, and I still don't. The lens simply has no reach. Since I want a concert cam, and since I am not a press photographer, I need something with a little reach.

But the subject keeps coming up, and I realized that I had the perfect basis for comparison of the LX3 to the other three I had already done. So I quickly grabbed the same shot at 800 ISO from the Imaging Resource site (very good images there for this specific purpose) and whipped up a new version of the crops and the 800px web sized images.

So, without further adieu, here are the crops:

My analysis is that the LX3 is tied with the Fuji for being easiest to look at straight from the camera. I think these two have higher sharpening by the way. But no matter, they do a decent job. Still ... none of them avoid the clumping of the hair ... there are simply no individual strands visible ... such is the problem with small sensors, and it is not avoidable with current technology.

To be drive the point home, here again are the crops from the dSLRs I used in the other comparison:

Here, you can start to see individual hairs ... there is far less clumping going on. If you want to be really impressed click over to the other comparison and look at the D700 crops ... mind blowingly clean. Every individual hair is visible.

The other thing to note is the nasty noise reduction artifacts that pepper the LX3's image after a bit of smart sharpening. They are visible in the image from the camera, but obviously are very unfriendly to post processing. The LX3 is a camera you will want to shoot in RAW.

And finally, here are two images at 800 pixels ... they are not labeled, and they are in no specific order. The EXIF is intact for the curious, but frankly I think the G10 and LX3 are quite similar as social cameras. Either takes a usable image 800ISO when processed properly.

By the way ... I bought the Canon G10 yesterday as my concert camera. It was just too tempting. I'll be blogging my first impressions shortly.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Fujifilm Finepix F31fd versus Panasonic LX3 for Low Light Supremacy

Ok, these two aren't really in the same league. The Panny is a serious camera with amazing ergonomics and a smoking good lense, albeit way too short (booooooo!)

But the Fuji Talk Forum has been desperately searching for the next great compact Fuji camera for social situations ... the last one was the amazing F31fd. This is a camera that is so smooth at 800ISO that it defies logic. A sensor the size of your little finger nail with noise characteristics better than some of the crappier dSLRs ... (you know who you are ...)

DPReview performed a full review the LX3 and gave it a highly recommended. But they found that low contrast detail, a perennial problem in small sensor cameras, was not handled well. Panny have always had noise issues and over-zealous NR. The LX3 is much improved, but still not where it should be for the price.

I always enjoy Thom Hogan's reviews, and he looked over the LX3 against the stunning Canon G10 and the rather mediocre Nikon P6000 (why Nikon, why?) The LX3 should have won, but Canon has done wonders with their processing with some of the tiniest photosites yet ... and the Canon walked away being the only one Thom thought could do a decent 800ISO. I certainly think it does alright, because it retains a decent amount of detail.

Anyway ... back to the Fuji issue. The debate has been raging in a thread over there, based on someone's work on the DPReview sample images. The NR was a bit heavy handed and did not show enough to declare a winner. So I thought I'd apply my Neat Image skills to the problem and see what I could coax out of these two.

The result was, in my opinion, a virtual tie. Kudos to the LX3. Here are the 800ISO crops (click to expand the images):

As you can see, the two are pretty close at 100%. Factor in paper and ink and even fairly big enlargements will look similar. Although the Fuji will look smoother in dark areas. You can see that with the lense crop, the Baliet's bottle crop, and the color card crop.

On the other hand, the Fuji has some weird edge artifacts. That is most obvious on the lense crop with the jaggies all over the little details around the silver parts.

I think the Fuji's NR is a big over-aggressive as well ... this being most obvious on the Bailey's label. The tree in the Panny image definitely has more detail.

Still ... overall, the detail is about the same (see the glove crop) ... leaving one to wonder where the extra 4 megapixels went?

So ... pretty much a tie. If only that LX3 lense were not so darned short :-(

I think these would make fine prints, but the situation would be quite different were there hair or distant foliage in the image. We'd be looking at lots of clumping in the Panny image ... and some in the Fuji image too. But I am pretty sure the Fuji would be a little better.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Deal of The century! WACOM BAMBOO FUN!

I was poking around on's for sale forum and saw a WACOM BAMBOO FUN tablet for sale for $60usd. This seemed quite reasonable, so I took a look around and found out that these are very decent beginner tablets. The kind that non-artists can use for illustration, editing and even navigation. Vista has been pen-enabled, so is quite friendly to the use of a pen instead of a mouse.

I checked the prices here in Canada and found them quite reasonable. Future Shop has the best prices right now, with the basic BAMBOO selling for $69.99cad and the more advanced BAMBOO FUN selling for $99cad in its small form. Note that the small form is perfectly fine for most purposes, and in fact I find it already a bit large for pen navigation as you have to move your arm pretty far to address the edges of the screen.

The BAMBOO FUN comes with extra goodies, which should be quite worthwhile for many people. First, it has a nice looking table, which also comes in three colors. I purchased basic black. With the glowing navigation circle, it looks very cool. It also comes with a mouse, which basic BAMBOO does not. This mouse never needs batteries, yet is wireless when used with the tablet. Very nice.

But the real kicker is that you get very recent versions of Adobe Photoshop Elements, Corel Painter Essentials and NIK Color Effects Pro. Elements is now at version 6 in the package, which is a heck of a deal, as you get Adobe Camera RAW 4.6 with support for the most recent cameras in it. And you get keys that are upgradeable!

So this qualifies in my opinion as an amazing deal. An excellent beginner's tablet plus world class photo editing and organization software for a hundred bucks. And fully upgradeable to the latest version, which has just been announced (Elements 7 with ACR 5.)

Consider giving this a try if you have ever thought about using a table for editing, illustration or navigation. It's pretty cool ...

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Crop Factor affects the apparent Depth of Field

The topic of crop factor and depth of field comes up once in a while in debates on the net. Specifically on certain forums on, where there are people who consider an extremely limited range of depth of field a virtue ...

Some people do not believe in the NxA Rule, something I picked up on a web site that is sadly no longer visible. However, this rule tends to work out, despite its rudimentary approach to the topic. Basically, N is the *crop factor* from the camera's sensor size to a full frame sensor size. Roughly, this corresponds to the diagonals of the two sensors.

A Fuji F11 (my favourite compact until they release something that is truly better feature for feature) has a 1/1.7" sensor, which has a diagonal of 9.5mm. A Nikon D300 (my favourite dSLR until I win the lottery and grab the D700 and a selection of appropriate lenses) has the Nikon APS-C variant, which has a diagonal of 28.4mm. And a full frame camera (any 35mm film, and the majority of full frame digital SLRs like the aforementioned D700) have sensors with a massive diagonal of 43.3mm.

So the crop factors for the Fuji F11 and D300 are 4.56 and 1.47 respectively. Interestingly, this disagrees with Fuji's reported crop factor (FOV factor if you will) of 105mm effective at 24mm actual. That makes it a 4.38 crop factor. No matter, they are close enough.

What this means is that a D300 shot at f2.8 will have an effective DOF (relative to the FF camera) of 1.47(N)*2.8(A) which comes to f4.1. The F11 shot at f2.8 will have an effective DOF of f12.7.

That's some kind of difference. In fact, it makes it nearly impossible to get pleasing bokeh from the F11. Only in extreme macro situations can the background be smoothed out really nicely. This is why the debates rage in the forums ... compact and bridge cameras are considered by many to be unsuitable for any photographic pursuit where pleasing bokeh is a requirement. But they have their defenders, who staunchly suggest that dSLRs cannot get the same DOF and therefore are actually less appropriate for certain types of photography, the primary example being landscape photography.

One problem, of course, is that most bridge cams and compacts have only a few apertures available at full zoom to keep their lenses reasonable in size. The F11 has a range from f5 to f8, which is 2.33 stops. The S100fs bridge cam goes from f5.3 through f8 in automated modes (a hair over two stops) and adds f11 (ok, does this get confusing with the Fuji's model or what?) in manual modes (a hair over three stops.) I.e. they all start pretty high in the range at full zoom.

So what does this mean in practice? Well, it means that the subject isolation and bokeh you will get on the dSLR shot at anything below about f16 is simply unattainable on the small sensor cameras. Whaaaaaaat, you say? No, it's true. The crop factor predicts something close to this, and a demonstration shows it pretty clearly. It also shows that the maximum DOF is pretty close between the two, although in both cases one is reaching into diffraction-limited territory.

I shot a series of images from a tripod placed less than 2 feet from my subject, a Kirk Enterprises D2 L-Bracket lying around from the days when I owned a D2 series camera (eventually I'll get it together and sell the darned thing.) There are boards stacked against the wall between 12 and 15 feet behind this subject, which make a pretty good test. By the time they come into partial focus, we're well into the teens in aperture. At least, at macro ranges.

A note: At macro ranges it is my experience than you can shoot at minimum aperture (f8 for the F11 and f32 for the lense used on the D300) without significant diffraction impact. I presume that this is caused by the magnification of the subject.

When I shoot the F11 at 105mm to match the lense I had on the D300, I start at f5 and shoot at f5.6 and f8 as well. These should line up somewhere around f15 through f24 on the D300, but my experiment shows it to be more like f16 through f32. This probably because the Fuji could not focus as close, even in macro mode and had to be moved back a few inches. This does not invalidate the test because the relationship between subject distance and background distance is pretty vast and is hardly affected by this slight change.

So ... here is what it looks like. (Click on it to see it at its full size.)

And here is a second test, created when challenged by a user on the Fuji Talk Forum. I was extremely careful to match effective focal lengths and subject distances ... and the result was the same. This is also not a macro shot, with the subject distance to background distance ratio being closer to 1:5 this time.

From this experiment, we can conclude two things:
  • Small sensor cams have great difficulty isolating subjects.
  • Large sensor cams are able to pretty much duplicate the wide DOF of small sensor cams because of their much larger range of useful apertures.
And remember that the difference is maintained as subject distance increases in relation to background distance. So dSLRs have to use lenses with much wider apertures to get any subject isolation from a distance. While they have little trouble getting most everything in focus at long landscape distances without resorting to their maximum diffraction-limited apertures.

There is a slight advantage to small sensors when one wants to shoot something very close to the lense (e.g. a flower) while still retaining the field in good focus. This requires decent apertures to maintain shutter speeds yet requires very wide depth of field from close distances. Since this is usually done at wide angle, the problem is not as severe as with the telephoto macro examples shown here, but it still exists. Raising ISO helps (and there is a lot of headroom there in modern dSLRs) .... but what really does the trick is the tilt-shift lense, which is available for all dSLRs. This lense reorients the plane of focus to match the plane of the sensor, allowing stunningly wide apparent depth of field ...

I have to say that I prefer the wide range of options to the rare convenience offered by the small sensor camera. Of course, the solution is to own both and shoot the small sensor camera when it really does have the advantage. The Canon G10 is likely to follow the G9's success as the backup / travel cam for many dSLR owners because of its dSLR-like control and compact size. But I very much hope that Fuji releases a real competitor once again ... rejuvenating the E-series camera line would be a great thing ...