Photoessay: Monolumpur, part I

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Today’s set is an anonymity-bringing-scale field test around the old part of Kuala Lumpur (Robin’s usual hunting grounds, though I’m sure you’ll see we came back with very different material) of something I’ve been working on for the last couple of months: an attempt at tuning a universal monochrome profile to my preferred style for the Nikon Z7. Whilst the Z7 doesn’t have a direct curve adjustment in-camera, it’s possible to add your own if you use the ‘Nikon Picture Control Utility 2’ software. It takes the place of the contrast and brightness sliders (my guess, ‘contrast’ pushes down the midpoint of the curve, ‘brightness’ brings up the upper quadrant). However, be warned: it seems the mapping is much more aggressive than the input/output controls suggest, resulting in much more contrast than you’d expect, so go easy on the curve. The only explanation I can think of this is that it’s acting higher upstream in the processing chain than we are used to with a curve in post processing. This is a good part of why tuning a profile has taken so long; it also seems that you need to apply some d-lighting (Nikonspeak for fill) to get the right lower midtone luminosity. All in all, I’m pretty happy with the results – and light was absolutely spectacular while I was shooting, which doesn’t do any harm either. Is the Pen F retired? If not yet, its days are certainly numbered. Now, on to the greater challenge of color… MT

This series was shot with a Nikon Z7, AF-S 70-200/4 VR and MT’s special sauce in-camera monochrome JPEG profile.

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Counterpoint: same subject, different eyes

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If you’ve attended an MT Masterclass, you’ll have spent at least one session shooting the same subject(s) under the same conditions with MT. I’ve found this form of learning through osmosis quite effective as it allows me to deconstruct images and figure out what went right or wrong ex post facto. I spent a good portion of MT’s one thousand kilometers with the 2019 BMW M5, riding along as passenger. This included the one stop where all the pictures for both our posts were shot. Given that we both shot in the same 30-minute window with virtually the same gear (Z7 vs Z6) and a similar shotlist in mind, I thought it would be interesting to compare both sets to find areas for improvement and ideas to experiment with next time.

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Coda: Guess the format

The previous post of course needs a conclusion; some of you guessed right and said cameraphone, but others were thrown off by apparent DOF and background blurring and other factors. There are very few giveaways: yes, it’s possible to have shallow DOF with a camera phone: ‘telephoto’ module, near subject, distant background; and computational bokeh options on subjects that lack messy edges and where there are clear transitions works quite convincingly. Perspective isn’t even limited now – given we are starting to see very wide and very long focal length modules on cameraphones. Dynamic range can be managed, and even larger sensors clip. Rolloff can be improved, but to be honest – I was deliberately a bit sloppy with the PP here to give the audience some help. I also left everything in monochrome: I find the biggest remaining give-away at web sizes to be color tonality and accuracy; DOF can be managed in either direction by choice, but you have to work very, very hard to get accurate color out of a small sensor. I suspect this is for a number of reasons: lack of individual sensor calibration and variation in the CFAs; early individual channel clipping due to dynamic range limitations.

But the point of all this is of course that at these (typical) viewing sizes: it’s pretty damn difficult to see any difference. The more ultimate IQ your hardware has, the larger in output size and higher in tonal gamut you need to go in order to see any difference. And given where we are today even with small sensors, I’m going to repeat the same things about sufficiency for 99%, self-awareness for the special needs of the 1%. Back the point most ‘photography’ sites choose to miss (and even readers here selectively interpret): by far the largest deficiency, area for improvement and limitation – for all of us – is the operator. Nice hardware might make shooting more pleasant, or motivate you to get out and use it: but ultimately you still have to make the image. MT

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Photoessay: guess the format

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Or think of this as the first part of an intellectual exercise that will continue with an extended discussion in the next post. There are really only a few clues that decisively give away what format an image was shot on – and even then, many are lost merely in the process of preparing and displaying an image. This is because effectively every image captured has more information than we can view on most (common) output media. Yes, there are edge cases where the strengths of various formats/ systems (they’re not really separable) are necessary and make themselves seen, but those get fewer and fewer as technology improves as a whole. Curiously, what we photograph (i.e. the physical world) doesn’t change that much, if only because what interests us as humans doesn’t change that much…good luck with the guessing game! MT

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Robin’s take: Thaipusam 2019

Thaipusam is one of the largest festivals in Malaysia, drawing no less than 2 million people to Batu Caves in 2018. MT did a splendid job covering it in 2017 with the Hasselblad H6D-100C (photoessays here, here and a video here), shooting mostly in low light as the rituals start on the eve of the actual celebration. This year, I decided to brave the crowds at Batu Caves but was also intending to do things differently. Instead of punishing the camera in impossibly low light situations, I played to my strength by shooting during the day and utilizing the beautiful morning light.

MT’s note: I’ve covered Thaipusam on several occasions in the past, but tend to prefer working at night for both the atmosphere/drama and the lower temperatures (though it brings its own challenges in the sheer crowd sizes, light levels etc.) Had to sit out this year because of my back, but glad to see one of the team made it!

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Bigger isn’t always better, or why you can’t see the difference most of the time

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Quasi-gratuitous header image: large format golfball, anybody?

I start this article with a deliberately provocative title, at the risk of being taken for one of those forum sensationalists that proclaims OMG NEW BEST CAMERAR EVARRRR SINCE THE SECOND COMING OF SLICED JESUS!! . But as always, there are caveats: I’m examining the situation under practical implementation, practical shooting constraints, and real world limitations: i.e. non-ideal circumstances, which I believe to be fair since this is how most photography takes place. And since we’re interested in hardware towards the practical application and implementation of photography, this is a fair approach to take. The crux of the argument is this: we have now reached a point in technology where the tradeoffs associated with upscaling your format do not translate into significant gains in shooting envelope or even practical output most of the time. Actually, I’d go even further and say that your hardware choices really hinge on a few factors, which we’ll discuss shortly.

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On-assignment photoessay: From the workbench

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I shot for one of my toughest clients recently: ourselves. Whilst there’s no pressure, we all have the desire to do better with every set – and there’s the friendly internal competition given that there are no fewer than five photographers amongst the founders’ group. I am of course talking about the watch business; this set was photographed at the facilities of our production partners Schwarz-Etienne in La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland, whilst a series of 19.01s and 19.02s underwent assembly, regulation and final quality control. I’ve shot this kind of thing before for many other brands, of course – but it feels very different when it’s your own name on the dial and movement… MT

Images were shot with an Olympus PEN F and Panasonic-Leica 12-60. Post processing with the Monochrome Masterclass workflow. Image of yours truly at the bench shot by my co-founder Dr. Magnus Bosse.

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Shoot everything / diminishing returns

Is it possible to practice too much? To the point that it’s almost impossible to capture something exceptional because you’ve already seen 99.9% of the possible expressions of a given subject, and then captured and curated the best from there? Is there really a point at which additional repetition does not build muscle memory, speed of response, familiarity or spur creativity? Of late, I’m increasingly thinking the answer is actually yes: you can overshoot. But as usual, there are caveats, so hear me out before you break out the stakes, pitchforks and gasoline.

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Photoessay: Cityscape Tokyo

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The more you visit a city, the more your impressions change; that initial freshness and impact wears off into a sort of routine of the favourite places you like to visit while you’re there. Layered on top of this are the changes to the place itself, since no city is static – least of all somewhere like Tokyo. The latest instalment in the Cityscape series of retrospective curations has taken the longest to put together simply because I’ve got so many images from this place, from (at least) annual visits spanning the last 12 years. I realise that most of the early impressions no longer resonate with me as much as images shot in say the last four or five years, at most. This is the Tokyo I have in my mind now – one of density, activity, anonymity, details – but it won’t be the Tokyo I remember next year as I’m actually here at the moment with my family, and for the first time, our four year old – new memories are being made, new impressions formed, and it’s still too new to know what will stick. MT

Shot over a long, long period of time with a wide variety of equipment. Mostly processed with PS Workflow III.

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Robin’s fisheye adventures

Firstly – a happy Lunar New Year to all our readers!

Fisheye lenses fall in the love-it-or-hate-it category – there is no middle ground. The excessive distortion is not widely accepted and frankly does not work for many scenarios. I was curious about how I would approach street shooting with such a lens as it would, no doubt, change my execution in street shooting by forcing me to look for different subjects and compose my scenes differently. I found that I needed to be more careful in my framing as the lens can fit in more than intended. Also, to find subjects and scenes that work well with fisheye is a huge challenge in itself. I used the Olympus M.Zuiko 8mm F1.8 Fisheye PRO lens for all images in this article.

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