Photoessay: recent iPhone work

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Today’s post is a small collection of recent work – I suppose a better description is grab shots encountered in the course of life when I didn’t have another camera available to me. I make no excuses for the medium; the work stands on its own. It’s to serve as a reminder that the camera really doesn’t matter. Enjoy! MT

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The trouble with compacts

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Homage to Van Gogh. I didn’t leave the house that day with the intention of shooting anything, but if I hadn’t been packing some pocket heat, I wouldn’t have gotten this image, either.

I ended the last article on this note:

By far the most effective camera-for-when-you-don’t-want-to-carry-a-camera is a compact of some description; ideally one that’s small enough you don’t notice it, but is fast and responsive enough to react when you see something, and preferably be operable one-handed. I don’t want to feel like I’m carrying a camera. Of the dozens of these things I’ve owned, precisely none of them have fit the bill completely.

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Review: The Leica D-Lux 6/ Panasonic LX7

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There aren’t that many choices for fully-featured, pocketable compacts at the moment; in my ongoing quest to find the ideal take-everywhere companion, I’ve probably tried most of them. Current top of the heap is the Sony RX100; I’ve also used the GR-Digital series, Fuji XF1 and Panasonic LX/ Leica D-Lux series. For whatever reason, I’ve never really bonded with the Canon S-series, so that’s never made it into my pocket; same with any of the Nikon Coolpixes, though I’m really hoping the A will change that. Whilst I loved the RX100 for its fantastic sensor, the lens arguably lets the package down: it may be fast one the wide end, but for it to keep up with the sensor in the corners, you have to stop down a bit (thereby negating this advantage) and the tele end is just plain slow.

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Deconstructed photography, part two: compact camera masterclass

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Imprint. Iphone 4

In part one, we deconstructed the essence of photography, and identified the critical qualities required for a good general-purpose camera. What about the candidates?

On this basis, we have a few potential candidates, in alphabetical order with specs and particular standout qualities:
– Canon G15 – 12MP, 1/1.7″, 28-140/1.8-2.8 – optical finder, zoom range, external controls
– Canon S110 – 12MP, 1/1.7″, 24-120/2.0-5.9 (!) – compactness
– Fuji FinePix X10 – 12MP, 2/3″, 28-112/2.0-2.8 – mechanical zoom, optical finder
Fuji FinePix XF1 – 12MP, 2/3″, 25-100/1.8-4.9 – mechanical zoom, compactness, JPEG quality
– Leica D-Lux 6 – 10MP variable-aspect, 1/1.7″, 24-90/1.4(!)-2.3 – variable aspect ratios, lens speed, macro, extended warranty and Lightroom (over the LX7)
– Nikon P7700 – 12MP, 1/1.7″, 28-200/2.0-4.0 – telephoto reach, external controls
– Olympus XZ2 – 12MP, 1/1.7″, 28-112/1.8-2.5 – a safe middle of the road choice
– Panasonic LX7 – 10MP variable-aspect, 1/1.7″, 24-90/1.4(!)-2.3 – variable aspect ratios, lens speed, macro
Sony RX100 – 20MP (!), 1″, 28-100/1.8-4.9 – low light use/ resolution/ dynamic range/ overall image quality, speed, video
– The Ricoh GR-Digital IV is a possible too, if you don’t mind a fixed 28mm lens – 10MP, 1/1.7″, 28/1.9 – steath, compactness, street/ hyperfocal photography, configurability

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Church reflection, Melaka. RX100

Of these, I think the G15, X10, XZ2 and P7700 are probably on the large side of what you might want to carry, that said, they are loaded with external controls, and the most tactile of the group. The smaller cameras are more button-and-menu-driven, though they all have control dials whose functions can be assigned to your preferences. The X10 and XF1 are the only two cameras here with physical zoom rings; a neat touch that improves responsiveness (especially since the rings are linked to power-on). Almost all of them are based around the same sensor, and offer fast lenses at the wide end; the LX7 and DL6 are really fast (f1.4); others are consistently fast throughout. The more compact cameras (S110, XF1, RX100) trade off lens speed at the long end.

If you’re expecting me to pick a winner, you’re going to be disappointed. All are similar enough and offer sufficient control, image quality and responsiveness that any one will do for the majority of situations. Yet, they are also different enough in control philosophy and particular feature speciality that if you particularly need any one of these features, your choice may be skewed. If not, pick the one that feels best to you, the one your brand loyalty dictates, the one whose design you prefer – whatever. It doesn’t matter. You just need to like the camera enough to use it, and it should be intuitive enough that you will actually do so. Lower end cameras will work just fine, too – I’ve had great results with the ultracompact Canon SD780 IS and superzoom Panasonic TZ3.

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May arches. RX100

Let’s get something straight upfront though: there are things you can do, and things you can’t. It’s important to know what falls into each category so you a) don’t waste your time attempting to shoot in a particular way then being disappointed by the results, and b) can play to the strengths of your equipment.

Strengths:
– Stealth
– Compressed perspectives
– Getting everything in focus/ hyperfocal photography
– Low key photography (in low light)
– Moderate to high contrast images
– Long exposures, with a relatively lightweight tripod, or IS system: the leaf shutters used in compacts have almost zero vibration, and hand shake can be eliminated almost entirely when paired with the self timer.
– Odd points of view, when used with a swivel screen

Don’t waste your time:
– Getting any sort of shallow depth of field. Only close up, with a distant background, maximum aperture and whatever lets you focus the closest. Otherwise, forget it.
– Tracking moving objects
– Very low light
– Manual focus – why bother?
– Working with thick gloves in cold environments

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Two old ladies framed, Melaka. RX100

For the most part, there are few limitations. Most of the troubling ones can be worked around; the depth of field control one I consider to be more a compositional thing the photographer needs to learn around rather than a limitation of the camera. More problematic is the inability to track moving objects; AF-C is my preferred setting for street photography and reportage scenarios because it counters the effect of subject motion. That said, if you’re using a compact, you could either prefocus at the desired spot and release as your subject passes it, you can pan, or you can rely on the extended depth of field for a given field of view to cover you. Any one of these three approaches will work just fine. In very low light situations, a mini-pod can save you; alternatively, there’s self-timer and IS. But by far the best method is simply to shoot a low key image, or embrace the grain.

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Tranquility. RX100

There are only a few key settings for general photography, in my mind; all of the cameras on the list above will be able to cope.

Program mode. 99.9% of the time, you will be at a focal length/ aperture/ distance combination that means everything in your scene will be in focus anyway; aperture control is meaningless. I’d rather have the camera able to shift exposure automatically to prevent overexposure/ underexposure rather than miss a shot.

Auto ISO. If you set the right limits for maximum ISO (probably around 800-1600 for the smaller-sensored cameras, and 3200 for the RX100) and minimum shutter speed (not always an option), combined with P mode, you’ll avoid missing shots because of insufficient shutter speed or exposure – but at the same time, not have to use an ISO higher than strictly necessary to maintain image quality. Yes, it appears that we’re basically transferring control of exposure over to the camera – but unless you really need to freeze motion or add it (panning, soft water etc.) then I cannot actually think of a situation in which you need to set these parameters manually.

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A night out. RX100

Spot or center-weighted meter. The main reason I’m not an advocate for matrix metering on compacts is that it both tends to be a bit unpredictable, as well simultaneously critical due to the limited dynamic range of small sensors. Nothing screams unnatural in an image more than a blown highlight with a harsh edge transition; taking control of your meter by understanding how it responds to certain situations will help immensely to avoid this. If you use the spot meter, then add between 1/2 and 1 stop to bring the highlights up to the point just before they clip; if you’re using centerweight, then make sure you have a good mix of tonal ranges within the central spot. In either case, the priority is to ensure that the subject is exposed correctly; it’s also almost always the place where you want to focus, so having a spot meter linked to the focus point and exposure lock with a half press of the shutter is ideal – fortunately, this is also almost always the way compact cameras are set up to behave by default.

Exposure compensation easily reached. Regardless of whether you’re using spot or center-weighted meter, you’re inevitably going to need to use exposure compensation at some point – all meters are thrown out by very bright or very dark objects. Better that you either have a dedicated command dial for this, or better yet, a physical dial with the increments permanently marked.

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Tokyo nights. RX100

Single point AF. As much as I’d love to turn over focus selection to the camera, I find that far too often it doesn’t focus on what I want it to, or it picks faces when I don’t want it to, or it finds faces in random geometric arrangements. Whilst this technology has come a long way, it’s still not perfect and can’t determine distance accurately – so the subject picked is almost always the most contrasty one, not the nearest. Just use the center AF point for focusing and metering, then recompose once both are locked.

Prefocus. A common myth is that compacts have huge shutter lag: they don’t. If anything, they have less shutter lag than most DSLRs because there’s no mirror to get out of the way before the exposure. The confusion comes when people include focus acquisition time in the mix; this is not right because you can seldom compare situations in a consistent manner. Prefocus shutter release lag for say the Nikon D4 – arguably one of the fastest cameras out there – is 42ms. By comparison, the RX100’s prefocus lag is just 13ms – so short that it takes your finger longer to physically move to depress the button by that additional fraction. Prefocusing thus obviously reduces overall response time, meaning fewer missed shots. You have to shoot a bit differently with a compact and a moving subject: with a DSLR, I’ll use AF-C and track my subject until it hits the point I want relative to the rest of the composition, then release. With a compact, I’ll frame and prefocus first, wait statically with the final framing intact, then shoot when the subject hits the point I want.

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Duplicity. RX100

Stabilizer on. Small cameras held at arms’ length (and not braced against one’s face) are not the most stable of shooting platforms; without a stabilizer, you’ll probably need 1/2x focal length – or higher with higher resolution cameras – to maintain a pixel-sharp image. You can probably claw back around 3 stops with the best of the stabilization systems, of which Panasonic is currently king. Make sure it’s set to the mode which is always active so you can frame more precisely, too – some cameras only activate the stabilizer when shooting to save power.

RAW (with exceptions). Other than the Fujis – whose JPEG files, especially with DR400 set – are amazing – there are gains to be made by shooting RAW and postprocessing for all of the above cameras. The gap is smaller for the Sony RX100, but still noticeable. Note that some cameras like the LX7 add in-camera processing to remove CA and distortion; whilst you might get more detail and dynamic range in RAW, you’re going to be trading off automated lens corrections.

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Crossing. RX100

Burst mode. I don’t spray away at 10fps on my RX100 all the time, but I do have it set to CL and 4fps in case I need to shoot a sequence of something interesting; it’s the same way I have my DSLRs and OM-D set up. In lower light, keeping your finger down can partially alleviate any camera shake caused by the depressing motion.

Flash off. Unless you’re triggering remote speedlights, are shooting social images in a dark place, or perhaps trying something with rear-sync, then avoid the small built-in unit. It’s just going to look horrible, not to mention lack power to fill in daylight beyond a meter or so.

Highlight warning in playback, with zoom-to-focus-point. I find this particular combination of review settings useful because it lets me quickly assess if I nailed the shot or not: is it critically sharp (magnification amount for this will differ from camera to camera)? Are there any overexposed areas? Critical underexposure? The latter is especially important when you have both only the LCD to use in daylight to evaluate images, as well as limited dynamic range.

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In front but not driving. RX100

Have a spare battery handy. Continuous live view drains batteries very quickly. Even the best of cameras will only manage perhaps 3 hours of continuous running time with the LCD on, which is probably about 200-250 images or thereabouts. If you are careful and turn the camera off between exposures and minimize your chimping, you might eke this out to about 5-600 shots; for me, this is bare minimum for a full day of shooting. A spare battery is therefore a must have, and allows you to keep going even when the main one is being charged.

I want to talk a bit about RAW, processing and sufficiency. Although I’ve been repeatedly revisiting the whole idea of postprocessing recently – first with film, then with medium format, and as a question in and of itself – I know I haven’t taken a position either way yet, but I don’t think not processing is an option for most compacts, with the exception of the Fuji X10 and XF1. This is because none of them have the native tonal qualities that are desirable in a photograph – namely smooth highlight and shadow transitions with reasonably punchy midtones – straight out of the camera. The files certainly have the potential to be that way, but they do require work post-capture; perhaps a bit more than a good file from a larger sensor camera. However, I wouldn’t be too worried about image quality: a good 12MP file that’s critically sharp at the pixel level will print just fine to A3 and perhaps one size beyond; needless to say it’s more than enough for web viewing. It’s often important to take a quick reality check in the pursuit of megapixels: when was the last time you printed larger than A3?

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Imagined patterns.

In the end though, it all comes back down to the pictures, and the ideas encapsulated and communicated therein. The camera is merely a box, a tool; why should it be over-promoted to seemingly also be the endgame? My personal journey for creative evolution has taken me in a different direction: an increased focus on the purity of the idea, and continued liberation from equipment requirements. I want something that can capture what I see in a variety of perspectives; something that is unobtrusive, stealthy and doesn’t attract attention; something that’s flexible enough for most situations I might randomly encounter, but doesn’t require a great commitment in bulk or weight, preferably I shouldn’t even know it’s there. I don’t mind if it imposes some limitations on the way I shoot or the way I meter; these might turn out to be good things which provide small creative nudges in the right direction. As good as Micro Four Thirds is, by the time you load up on a lens or two, you still know you’re carrying a camera – and I would still take the OM-D for serious personal work – but for experimentation, and the kind of ligthbulb moments of experimentation that happen when you’re not planning them, it seems that for now a serious compact or two is the way to go. And the best thing of all is that if (and probably when) I get bored of it, it’s not going to be too painful to swap it for a new one and start the process all over again. MT

The various cameras mentioned in this article are available here at their respective links from Amazon: Canon G15, Canon S110, Fuji FinePix X10, Fuji FinePix XF1, Leica D-Lux 6, Nikon P7700, Olympus XZ2, Panasonic LX7, Sony RX100, Ricoh GR-Digital IV.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

10X10: 100 ways to improve your photography: Compact point-and-shoot cameras

Pretty much everybody has a compact, even if it’s only the one built into your phone. It’s no good for serious photography. Or is it? You might find yourself using it more if you try some of these ideas…

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My favorite compact – Ricoh GR Digital III.

10: Carry spare batteries. One in the camera, one in your pocket or one charging. This lets you keep going – especially important since compact battery life is often terrible.

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Crossing thoughts. Ricoh GRDIII

9: Use the hand strap. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? But you’d be surprised how many people don’t, and then land up having to buy new cameras.

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Car reflection. Ricoh GRDIII

8: Shoot bursts, if you have a useable buffer. Without the buffer, you’ll just have to rely on timing and counting shots – think of it as a revolver rather than a machine gun. The same rules about the middle shot being stable and sharp in a burst also apply to compacts.

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Zoom. Ricoh GRDIII

7: Keep ISO as low as possible, and make use of the stabilizer. Most good compacts have stabilizers; this is because even with the 1/focal length rule, there’ll be enough camera shake to blur things – you’re holding a light object at arms’ length and trying to keep it still. Granted, there’s no mirror slap, but there’s also nothing to brace against, either. Keeping the ISO as low as possible lets you maximize image quality. There’s usually a big difference between even base ISO and one stop up; know the limits of usability and don’t exceed them.

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Crossing, London. Ricoh GRDIII

6: Look at the whole frame. I’m not sure how to say this more succinctly: there are things compacts can do that larger sensor cameras can’t – think of telephoto/ compressed perspective shots where everything is in focus, for example – and vice versa (shallow depth of field, wide FoV). Look at the whole scene, and see how you can use these strengths to your advantage. Images shot with compacts that work actually force you to have a much stronger composition, because you cannot rely on the crutch of bokeh or let the lens do the talking.

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On set in the afternoon. Ricoh GRDIII

5: Spot meter. Dynamic range on all compacts is limited because the pixels are small. This means losing the shadows or the highlights is inevitable under most situations; you need to decide which one is important. The spot meter (and a half press to lock exposure) helps you to do that. High key = keep the shadows and lose the highlights; low key = keep the highlights and lose the shadows; most important however is making sure the subject is properly exposed – use the spot meter over faces, for instance. The other alternative is to use the spot meter on highlights and add a stop of exposure compensation – the meter will try to average a middle gray exposure out of whatever you place the box over; you know the camera has a little more tonal range in it if the highlights are at middle gray, so you can safely add some positive exposure compensation. This generally makes the rest of the image a little dark – especially under harsh light – but it also has the side benefit of making the colors richer.

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The fountain of capitalism. Ricoh GRDIII

4: Use P mode. I’d say leave it in full auto, except most of the time that doesn’t let you control exposure compensation and metering – those are important. Why not use aperture priority, as I’d recommend with a larger sensor camera? Simple: there’s no point. The real focal length is so wide and the lenses usually so slow that DoF is enormous, and changing the aperture isn’t going to do anything other than reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor. Great if it’s bright, but if you stop down too much, you’re going to to induce diffraction and just land up with soft images.

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Affection waiting for the bus. Ricoh GRDIII

3: Keep the lens clean. I’m constantly surprised by how many people have dirty lenses on their cameras and then complain that the images aren’t sharp, or that they can’t see anything in the finder – but there’s fingerprints all over it. It’s especially important on a compact as the small sensor and high pixel density are very demanding of lenses; the more aberrations you have on yours, the lower resolving power is going to be.

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After prayers. Canon SD780IS

2: Prefocus. Although focusing speeds have improved dramatically, what’s really nice about most point and shoots is the half press to full press lag is actually quite low – but you need to be prefocused first. In any case, the huge DoF will cover any minor focus errors. Most fleeing moments can be captured with a compact and a little anticipation.

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Break. Ricoh GRDIII

1: Set up your camera to either shoot raw, or output as neutral a jpeg as possible. If you can’t get a raw file, there’s still a lot that can be done with a good jpeg – what I usually do is reduce contrast to minimum to preserve the highlights and shadows; turn saturation down, and lower (but not zero) sharpening. Reason being that if you zero sharpening, you do generally lose some detail on compacts as this step is applied to the raw data in the imaging engine before being saved as a jpeg. You’ll be surprised how much you can do with one of these files afterwards in photoshop. Similarly, avoid those fake HDR or extended dynamic range modes; they might appear to help but what they actually do is make highlights look very unnatural because the tonal values overlap with other parts of the luminance range. MT

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Vehicular architecture. Apple iPhone 4

See more of my small-sensor compact camera work here on flickr: click here

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