Sunday, September 28, 2014

"See" Trials - The Fujifilm X-E1 Indoors

When I started writing this post, I wasn't wild about the original color JPEGs. But when the same images had their "color removed", they took on a totally different, more comfortable feel. I suspect they reminded me of my early available light images, taken with my father's Mamayaflex, loaded with Kodak Tri-X film, and developed and printed at my home darkroom. And while I'll be the first to decry the rather poor quality of these quick monochrome renderings, the simple black and white conversion made them easier (for me, at least) to view without detracting from the original intent of this posting.

I am beginning to draw my own conclusions about when to use the Fuji cameras (X-E1 and X100s) and when to use my more conventional SLR cameras. I admire the work of photographers like Zack Arias, one of several high profile advocates of the mirrorless technology.  I see the spirit of the "street photographer" in his work, resulting in feeling of a voyeur without any hint of prurience. Photos from a trip to Havana, Cuba in this blog entry captured some very intimate slices of life. Not sensual, but he captures images of things that might normally escape our gaze, or that we secretly want to stare at, but feel we shouldn't.

Unobtrusive: These photos were taken during a letter writing campaign here at the Adult School. I was able to move easily about the room carrying only the X-E1 and its 18-55mm f/2.8-4 kit lens. Aperture wide open and set to its shortest focal length, the lens isn't particularly fast, becoming less so when zoomed to its longest focal length of 50mm. It doesn't have the delineated plane of focus provided by my heavier, but faster, DSLR zooms. But the camera's hushed click was easy for these students to ignore, and it became easy to do followup shots without the distracting "clack" of my mirrored cameras.

Diminutive: The small size of the cameras makes them far less intimidating, a fact that has been proven over and over again in a variety of venues. Its size and feel reminded me of my Olympus 35SP, my first, and last, "daily carry" camera I ever owned. Even my recently purchased 12mm Zeiss Touit lens with its 67mm filters seems so much smaller than my SLR lenses. Mounted on the undersized XE1 body, the combination is almost laughable.

Precision: I consider this both a plus and a minus. To the debit, the small size puts the external buttons uncomfortably close to one another, and I found myself inadvertently changing settings from time to time. To the credit side, make a single photograph became an act of critical focus, literally. While the external adjustments for aperture setting and exposure time were clearly visible from above one had to check them frequently to make sure that no settings had gone awry, which they sometimes did. I was annoyed by the lack of markings on the kit zoom. You really couldn't tell if you had changed your aperture setting unless you checked in the view finder. I suspect I could learn to check my settings on the LCD display before bringing the camera to my eye, but when using a camera that took such pride in its retro layout, it seems awkward, and illogical. I do understand that a properly marked aperture ring would be problematic, since the current offering of zoom lenses have variable maximum aperture settings (remember the F 2.8-4 spec on the kit lens?). This shortcoming does not apply to the prime (non-zoom) lenses.

Focusing: I found this to be a little annoying. First off, under some conditions, the electronic viewfinder was not as responsive as a mirrored reflex camera. Certainly the efficiency has increased dramatically since the days of the Sony R1, but isn't up to the level of a current DSLR. And while the general layout of the viewfinder was logical for a former rangefinder shooting like myself, the focusing sensor, located where the split-image ranger finder used to be, didn't seem to adapt to the focus/re-compose sequence I've become accustomed to. And while its location can be moved, you must take the camera from your eye because there isn't enough space between the back of the camera and your cheek to "feel" the adjustments. Perhaps it's the barely perceptible blurring that inevitably occurs when the camera is repositioned during the final phase of composition, but there's definitely something bothersome about the view. 

This shouldn't be confused with sensitivity, however. I've gotten sharply focused images in situations where the low level of existing light would have given most SLR conniptions. The Fuji could lock focus on the proverbial "black cat in a coal bin", but it took a while to do it.

For right now, the Fuji seems to be at its best when shooting available light indoors. If the "stealthy photographer" approach is required, the nearly silent, mirrorless wonders will certainly fill the bill. But be prepared to shoot slowly and with great deliberation. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Fuji X-E1: A GREAT Deal!

I decided to run a fast post before really getting to know this camera. Here's the single sentence that sums up the gist of this post:

Get yourself a Fuji X-E1 while they are seriously discounted!

By the time this post is published, I'll have owned my X-E1 for a little more than a week. I purchased it from B&H Camera at an incredible discount. From what I gather, the X-1 was discounted deeply when the X-E2 was introduced in early 2014, so I was able to get a body and the18-55mm f/2.8-4 OIS Lens for $700.00. This was an incredible deal, as the lens alone retails for $600.00. It was like buying the lens and getting the body for an additional $100.00. Such a deal!

The real kicker is the software update, which the makers claimed improved the X-E1's performance. Having come late to the party, the update was already available when I received the camera, so instead of wondering how much the new firmware improved the performance, I immediately did the upgrade. It took 30 minutes to download the firmware, and 15 minutes for the camera to digest it all, but the process corrected some autofocus problems while adding drivers for some of the newer Fujifilm lenses.

Now if you're wondering why the sudden interest  in the Fuji system, there's a good reason: I just acquired Tennis Elbow in my left arm. Lifting heavy objects is painful, and my DSLR kit, weighing in at over twenty pounds, hasn't helped. I am thinking seriously about taking just the X-E1 with the kit lens and a flash or two for my indoor assignments, since the zoom lens range has more than enough speed to meet my needs, so long as I have a flash handy.

Quick News Flash: I purchased a Fujifilm 35mm 1.4 lens at a recent camera show, giving a fair price for the mint condition lens. I spoke with the seller for a while, and discovered that he too was re-thinking his equipment choices, having placed two Nikon D300s bodies and a 70-200 2.8 Nikkor on the selling table. Turns out he was trying to get money for the recently introduced 10-24 F 4.0 Fuji lens, and was perfectly content with his 18-55mm f/2.8-4 kit lens, the very lens I just received with my body.

More to follow...

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Another Way Of Looking-My Fuji X100s

At first I didn't believe in the difference between rangefinder and single lens reflex (SLR) shooters. This, in spite of years of discussions with my close friend Shawn, a dyed in the wool Leica shooter. I never understood his more contemplative approach to shooting and the esthetic mindset he brought to his personal photography. That is, until now.

I wouldn't have thought that a non-reflex camera would find its way into my kit. I did, and do, carry a Nikon P7700 as an emergency "shoot flash in bright sunlight" camera, but its tiny sensor made for some rather noisy images, and a lack of sharpness that I could feel more than I could see. True, a pixel is a pixel, but compact cameras with small sensors just don't produce the kind of images I've come to expect.

The Fuji X100s: Admittedly, this is the camera that started me thinking. Something of a novelty when it was introduced, it was definitely not a toy. Among its noteworthy features: A solid, camera-like feel, conveniently placed external controls , a hybrid optical/digital viewfinder, and a non-interchangeable 35mm F 2.0 equivalent lens. I hemmed and hawed for a very long time, but finally "bit" when a new, all black one was available for purchase.

Flash! The one thing that drew me to the X100s was its leaf shutter, with its inherent ability to synchronize speedlights up to a top speed of 1/4000 of a second. This presumes that your chosen exposure time (shutter speed) is longer than the duration of the flash at the appropriate power output. This makes my X100s a potential go-to camera for those situations where flash may be needed to enhance a photo when the primary lighting is provided by direct sunlight, a notoriously powerful light source. David Hobby has a very detailed explanation of t.5 and t.1 times if you want a more detailed explanation. However, a clever photographer can do a systematic trial-and-error method to determine the optimal shutter speed/flash output settings when using manual settings, which is what these times are all about. Here's how: 
  • Find an indoor location where the ambient light is enough to allow for proper auto-focusing, but not so strong as to influence the exposure of your sample images.
  • Be sure your camera and flash are OFF.
  • Mount your camera on a tripod (optional).
  • Attach your flash to your camera.
  • Turn your camera an flash ON.
  • Set you flash/speedlight to 1/2 power output.
  • Set your shutter speed to  1/125 of a second to start, and make an exposure. Examine the playback image. If you can display a histogram, so much the better.
  • If the image is too bright, stop down your lens or decrease the ISO setting until you get a centered histogram. If it is too dark, set the lens to a larger aperture, or increase the ISO setting. When your aperture/ISO combination yield an centered histogram, continue to the next step.
  • Set your shutter speed to 1/160 of a second (or the next shorter exposure increment) and make an exposure.
  • Compare the two images. If the histogram is displayed, you will (hopefully) see no difference in their horizontal alignment. This tells you that both shutter settings can take full advantage of the flash's 1/2 power output. Without the histogram, you can get a rough idea by just comparing the images.
  • Continue to decrease the exposure time until the histogram shifts noticeably to the left. This indicates that some of the light from the flash is being "clipped" from the tail end of the discharge curve. When you see this, you know that you've had exceeded the minimum shutter speed for your flash when set to 1/2 power.
Photo #2
You can repeat this for a flash setting of 1/4 power. Once you have these numbers, write them down on a piece of tape attached to your flash.This actually took longer to read than to actually do. See Photo #1.

Photo #2
This flash is my Young Nao 560, an inexpensive (or cheap, depending on how you feel about the unit) flash that has accompanied me on several outings. I've used it primarily with my Nikon D70/70s cameras, and my Sony, specifically for use in augmenting direct sunlight outdoors. As you can see, I've done the tests and recorded the results for future reference. I chose the YN560 because of it no-frills triggering system (central contact pin and hot shoe contact) which allows the unit to be fired without the camera body actually knowing there's a flash present (Photo #2, arrow). This is the main reason I use it, and resign myself to struggling with manually determining the proper aperture setting.

To be continued...