Boone, North Carolina

Leander Hutton

The Fuji x100 Series

Gear doesn't matter, until it does.

I've been slow to move to a mirrorless system. Part of the reason is my current DSLRs work more than well enough for my needs, part was lack of system maturity in the mirrorless world and the last part was lack of resources to go throwing a bunch of cash at a new system. Personally I'm still unsure if a mirrorless system can completely replace my DSLR at the moment. I do a lot of astrophotography and the lens selection combined with the high ISO performance in the Nikon world is critical. I haven't seen anything that comes close to some of the fast wide glass Nikon makes yet. Sony is getting there but they've been shooting out a new A7 body every six minutes it seems. I guess you could call that "spray and pray." While their cameras are technical marvels the few I've laid hands on were a bit clunky to use. I also don't see the size and weight benefit on full-frame mirrorless system over a DSLR. I'm certainly not knocking the image quality that Sony has achieved that's for sure. But I don't see the benefit of dumping a Nikon system I'm already invested in, taking a bath on the gear, sinking about $4,000+ into bodies and lenses for what amounts to a marginal weight savings and lost access to Nikon's accessories and service. This is doubly true when you compare the A7's images to Fuji's or even Sony's own A6000 series. Outside of the need for extremely high res files I don't see a compelling reason to drop the coin an a full-frame mirrorless in general unless you don't already have a full frame DSLR. Crop cameras make a more compelling argument to me in the mirrorless form factor. You can get actual weight and space savings and killer image quality. Again Sony's own A6000 series illustrates that. As an aside I haven't tested an A6300 but it has certainly piqued my interest.

Fuji is the other major player in the mirrorless world. They have the hipster look down with their retro styling, which I wasn't a fan of at first (more on that later) and not as varied of a lens library as Sony right now too. Thus enters the X100s. "Wait," you might say "isn't the X100t the new hotness, why are you writing about last year's model, senility finally kick in?" Well, remember that last reason why I haven't jumped in to a mirrorless system? Turns out life is expensive and photography has been on the back burner for a while. I haven't really earning income from photography over the last couple of years either so my gear isn't paying for itself. That being said I think on the whole I think digital cameras have been more than good enough since 2009 or so. There aren't a lot of reasons to upgrade with every generation of camera like ten or fifteen years ago. I still use a D7000 as one of my secondary bodies and it's never held me back. Picking up an older model can save some cash and still net you outstanding images.

So, what was I going on about? Oh yeah the X100s. I'm not going to bother you with the technical details of the camera too much. 16MP, 24mm (~35mm on FX) f/2 lens, some video modes, film presets, yadda yadda. More detailed specs can be found all over the web. I'm not sure what I was expecting but I will say I've underestimated on a quite a few points this camera. First of all was the styling. I like functional designs which the X100 series has covered but the retro look rubbed me the wrong way. In a lot of the same ways that the PT Cruiser the HHR make me roll my eyes. But after a few days using the camera in public I saw the clear advantage of having a camera that didn't look big nor digital.

Usually I spend about thirty to forty five minutes on a walk around town a few times a week. I get free exercise and it's been an opportunity to use my cameras. I've done this in the past but even with just a 50mm prime on the D800 I had issues with people getting nervous, giving me dirty looks and generally not being friendly. Because what in the world could you be photographing in downtown besides women and children for nefarious purposes? Seriously there are people in about one out of ten of the shots I take on the street. You folks aren't that interesting, chill out. To be fair I probably look the part (kinda fat, white, bald, male) of your stereotypical weirdo. Mix in an awkward personality and you've a recipe for getting to know your local security personnel or police. It only made my anxiety worse. For the last few years I've tried to just work around it but ultimately just quit taking the camera with me. However, once I took the Fuji out things changed almost instantly. I was no longer that weirdo with that big Pervtron 800 trying to take creepshots but that cool guy with the old camera. Ok, I've never been cool in my life so maybe that's a stretch but people actually asked me about the camera and were interested in my work. It was really kind of strange out at first. But now I enjoy my little photowalks again. So, if you do any sort of travel, street or general in public type photography the retro styling serves a purpose.

Very clever Fuji, very clever indeed.

Which brings me to the handling. Usually me and small cameras don't mix. I have sort of large hands and even small consumer DSLRs give me grief. I was expecting the X100s to be a bit more cramped and harder to operate and easier to drop. Again, I was pleasantly surprised. It's well balanced and is remarkably easy to use by feel. I'm still getting used to the whole rangefinder thing but even that's not as steep of a learning curve as I was expecting. The aperture ring and metal dials are comfortable enough, although the rubberized dials on my Nikons are a bit easier on the fingers. A few more programmable function keys would also be nice. I set the Fn to control the built in ND filter but I'd like another for ISO instead of having to duck out to the Q menu. Really that's more of a nitpick though.

On a kind-of-sort-of related note, if you're like me and do any sort of outdoor portraiture in broad daylight the X100s is going to become your new best fried. It's about the cheapest thing on the market with a leaf shutter which means it can sync with a flash to its max shutter speed at a given aperture. I've been using it with some cheap YN560s and a Youngnuo remote. f/2 at 1/1000" is awfully nice, f/2.8 and 1/2000"? Even nicer! I can leave my ND filters at home or forget trying to use a McNally Tree in high speed sync mode with my Nikons. My own complaint is that in dark scenes the AF assist light doesn't come as often as it needs to. If you're using strobes without modeling lights or ones with weak modeling lights this is going to be a problem when you're trying to knock down the ambient light in an exposure. It's also more than capable in the studio. So yes, I've been using it for some actual work.

A few reviewers like the JPEG output of this camera and while it's not bad the defaults are a bit contrasty for my liking. The standard film preset tends a bit warm too, overall I like the Astia Soft setting the best. The RAWs on the other hand have an amazing amount of range. I'd put the X100s next to my D800 any day in terms of dynamic range. Blown highlights recover pretty nicely and the shadows are low noise. The lack of a filter on the X-trans sensor makes it amazingly sharp too, the lens isn't bad either. I could make some major prints off this camera with zero problems. Darktable will sometimes struggle with the RAW files, especially if the dynamic range setting is set on auto, but making some adjustments in the Shadows and Highlights module usually clears that up.

It's not all smooth sailing though. The battery life is less than spectacular, even with a brand new battery. The power meter is particularly useless. It goes from full battery to flashing red and powering off rather quickly. The "only down one bar" stage lasts about ten minutes. Get a spare or two since they're cheap. The third party batteries work well. I've heard some people complain about the performance and interface. I can't note anything in particular as I left it in high performance mode and there it seems to handle about as well as my D800/50mm combo. Other Nikon lenses seem faster and more responsive but they're bigger too. Autofocus speed isn't bad but don't expect to shoot anything terribly fast with it. But the X100s wasn't really designed with that in mind. The menu system isn't anything to write home about but it's more than serviceable. I've seen worse that's for sure. Once you find where all the settings are it's quick to move through. The shutter speed knob is hard to get to when you have a remote flash trigger in the hot shoe. I've been doing some video things here and there lately and I can already see I won't be using the X100s for much of that. Very rudimentary abilities. Longer clip length and some more manual video controls would be nice. The LCD screen could use some improvement. It's almost overly bright and has a lot of contrast so everything looks washed out, it's sometimes good for judging composition and that's it. The lens isn't the sharpest f/2 I've ever seen either and there are times I wish it was a bit faster. But I say that second thing about every lens I've used.

Which brings me to my final point. When I first started using the Fuji I called it the Python of cameras. No, this doesn't mean it's a big snake that squeezes its food to death. It's a reference to an XKCD comic about a programming language. The X100 series, for all its faults, excels at one thing: getting out of the way. Once the camera is dialed in it just sort of goes. It's inconspicuous nature means you can have it on you most of the time and no one notices. This is where the opening line of this post comes into play gear doesn't matter, until it does. The X100s has literally, almost single-handedly, gotten me excited about photography again. It's not going to replace my Nikon kit any time soon but it has taken over more than I thought it would. The X100s is the Miata or Lotus of cameras. It's not going to win any speed or power benchmarks but it's nimble and has an appeal all its own. Bros will still roll past you in their Mustang, GT-R, RS or other higher powered sports car and try to yell at you about power or torque curves but at the end of the day you're the one still smiling. It's "simplify, then add lightness" in a camera format.

While I still don't think a replacing my Nikon system with mirrorless is in the cards soon the Fuji X-series just jumped to the top of my list. Even then I'll probably keep the Nikon FX kit around and get use the Fuji stuff in lieu of buying more anymore Nikon crop sensor gear. I've shot literally hundreds of photos with the X100s over the last couple of months, more than the last half of 2015 total and I can't see myself putting the Fuji down anytime soon.

Update: Darktable Noise Reduction

After the last post comparing Darktable and Lightroom in terms of noise reduction I went back and did more testing. I'm not sure why I never really tried the setting the HSV lightness mask to the wavelets mode before but I gave it a try and managed what I consider better results for this shot. Look for yourself below.

DSO Dome Fuji X100s at ISO 3200
Left column settings for wavelets image, right for non-local means.

Just for comparison here is the Lightroom 5 output.

Adjusting the transparency on the HSV Lightness mask down a bit helped with the ugly pattern and sharpened things up a bit too.

This just goes to show that it pays to try new things. Having this many options available is a bit of a double edge sword. If one chooses to really get in there and tweak things Darktable can produce exemplary images. However, this comes at a steeper learning curve and hit in editing time. Lightroom and ACR in general does a lot behind the scenes where as I'm finding Darktable to me more of a chose your own adventure deal. There's no such things as free lunch.

Pixel Peeping: Lightroom vs Darktable Noise Reduction

Quite a few of my shots are done at ISO 1600 and above so noise reduction in post processing is something I pay attention to. I've been using Darktable over the last year and just wanted to do a quick comparison to Lightroom 5's NR features. No I haven't bought Lightroom 6 yet, I barely use it as is so sinking more money into it seems like a poor decision.

First, comparing a couple of well lit shots at ISO 1000 from the X100s.

Image with no noise reduction
Darktable profiled noise reduction, settings in image
Lightroom 5 noise reduction, settings in image

There isn't a lot of noise at ISO 1000 so either program really does an OK job. Darktable seems to preserve more details but at the cost of some muddy colors and artifacts in places. Lightroom's output is smoother. I'm not sure this is the noise reduction or just differences in RAW processing and camera profiles, the screen captures exaggerate it some as well.

Next some rather dark photos from the Dark Sky Observatory. X100s at ISO 3200. Darktable's profiled noise reduction takes a fair bit more tweaking to get satisfactory results. I've taken the approach advised by Robert Hutton and done two passes of the module. The first set to wavelets mode, blending uniformly for HSV color to remove the color noise. This Darktable handles quite well. Where it runs into problems (like with the other images) is luminance noise.

ISO 3200 no noise reduction
Darktable color only noise reduction
Darktable color and luminance noise reduction
Lightroom noise reduction

After comparing the darker shots you can see where Lightroom pulls out in front with luminance smoothing. More detail is lost but the image is generally better IMO. Darktbale's profiled denoise on a HSV lightness layer produces very blocky results, it kind of reminds me of Noise Ninja's output from 2007 or so. It's especially noticeable inside the dome where there's a very patchy pattern in the red light. If you crank up the strength much more the pattern becomes very pronounced. Darktable does do a great job on the color noise removal however. All in all it's not terrible results.

Now, in all fairness Lightroom has been around around twice as long as Darktable and costs a whole lot more. The fact that you can get good results out of a free open source program is pretty incredible. Lightroom was pretty terrible at high ISO NR until version 3 too. Likewise I suspect future versions of Darktable will improve tremendously. But if you're doing a whole lot of shooting at higher ISOs a standalone noise reduction plugin might be a better bet. On OS X it's pretty easy to export the RAW to something like DFine and bring it back into Darktable if you're that picky.

Linux Photography V: GIMP

I've been putting off writing this because I kept changing how I wanted to approach the end of this little series. The longer I waited the more comfortable I became with the tools and techniques and the more my work flow changed. While I plan on hitting the high points here this is still an ever evolving process. I'm making progress though and I find myself jumping back into the Adobe-sphere less and less.

GIMP has come a long way in the last few years. It actually beat Photoshop to the content aware tools by a year or so with Resynthesizer. Resynthesizer works great too and I've been making good use out of it. However GIMP has lagged behind elsewhere though, most notably in handling higher bit depth files. That changed recently in GIMP 2.9.2 but that's still the development branch and won't be in the main release until version 2.10. Luckily a couple of developers manage to package it for the popular Debian based distributions through a PPA. There are also Mac and Windows builds of the GIMP development version out there that work well too.

Before GIMP 2.9.2 I really only used it for files that were only bound for the web. Being limited to 8-bit files kept me away from it for heavy-duty print bound stuff. To be honest it probably doesn't make that much difference but it's still nice to have all of the data available from my camera's RAW files there. I usually save out final edits as 16-bit TIFFs (remember XCFs are like PSDs not really "final product" type format) and export JPEGs from Darktable.

Some photographers like to swap the GIMP keyboard shortcuts for my Photoshop-esque ones. I tend to keep the defaults as I don't spend a lot of time in GIMP (or Photoshop for that matter) and I'm used to platform hopping and remembering different key bindings. YMMV. I do put GIMP into single window mode (View -> Single Window Mode) to make my screen a little less cluttered. Also make sure GIMP is set to use your monitor's color profile under Edit -> Preferences -> Color Management).

Make sure you get the plugins installed. The McGIMP version comes like this automatically and in Debian/Ubuntu/Mint you'll need to install the gimp-plugin-registry. The PPA with GIMP 2.9 has that too. This way you get the Resynthesizer plugin which is ultra useful. Just select an area you want to nuke, go to Filter -> Enhance -> Heal selection and let it do its thing. It seems to work at least as well as Photoshop CS6's version.

GIMP gets the job done for my pixel editing needs. I'm not a graphic designer type so I really only use Photoshop for removing unwanted elements from a frame, touch ups and some very basic compositing. That type of work certainly doesn't need the latest version of CC (nor its recurring costs or QA problems). I suspect most photographers really only use about 5-10% of Photoshop's capability too.

Perhaps the most irritating thing about the experience is the lack of capability for Darktable to "round trip" like Lightroom or Capture One can do. Unfortunately this is due to technical issues. It would be great if you could specify a list of external editors and have Darktable automatically create a TIFF file with the edits applied and send it to GIMP. As it stands now you have to export it through the Lighttable module, open it in GIMP and reimport the file into Darktable. If you have to touch up a whole group of images in GIMP that can really slow things down.

GIMP is available for pretty much any platform out there, including Windows. It's pretty handy to have around. Just make sure you grab the 2.9 version for the 16 and 32-bit image support. It's also a little faster in my testing. Don't be scared by the warning messages about it being a development version.

So far it's been more or less pretty straight forward to have a photography work flow that works in Linux. Most of this software works on OS X too. I actually use Darktable and GIMP on my MacBook Pro regularly. So even if you're not comfortable with installing Linux you can still have a more open work flow.

Photography and Privacy

Cognitive dissonance is a crazy thing. On one hand I am definitely committed to this whole photography thing. I enjoy walking around with my camera looking for nothing in particular to shoot. There are times when someone is either wearing something that catches my eye or doing something interesting and I'll stop and ask for a photo. Usually I don't do candid "surprise photo" stuff in public. I think that whole in your face street photography style has been done to death. There are times when I'll end up with people in the shot just because they're involved with the larger scene and on rare occasion I have grabbed a compelling shot without asking because that moment was just too good to pass up. When a person just happens to be in the scene they're usually small enough to be unrecognizable as in the example below. Most folks are good sports about it and the people who seem to think every guy with a camera is some sort of Jared Fogle are few and far between.

In the United States the law is pretty clear on this. According to the ACLU you have the right to photograph anything that is in plain view when on public property. This includes people, buildings, and officials. There have been some laws passed in certain locales about not photographing police officers. This also doesn't mean you can get a long lens, stand on the sidewalk and try to shoot in someone's window and on private property the property owner sets the rules. You also can't break other laws when shooting like trespassing, obstructing traffic or vandalism. You also can't take photos of someone on public property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, restrooms and changing rooms for example. Even if you can see into it from the outside for whatever reason. On private property the owner or people working for them cannot confiscate your camera. They can just tell you to stop or ask you to leave. Well, they can't take it from you legally but if they're threatening you with a firearm or a good beating I wouldn't argue, you can't get your camera back if you're dead. Just go get the real police if that happens.

Again, these are US laws so please don't use them for justification of public photography anywhere else. Know the laws of the places you intend to visit.

So we have a precedent for public photography being OK. Largely that has been a good thing as it lets the press do their job and allows for free expression, which was the original reasoning behind the legal justification as I understand it. Both of these are important for a world like ours to function correctly and I wholly believe in these principles.

However, most of this was put into place long before the digital age. These days a random snapshot can end up being view by people halfway across the world thanks to things like Flickr, Facebook, 500px, etc. There are also face detection algorithms which a few of these services use to automatically tag someone, along with apps that automatically upload your photos to various cloud providers. This makes for a more interesting set of problems. A photo snapped of a stranger may end up in front of all kinds of eyeballs, unlike in the past, whether deliberate or not. For most people this probably isn't much of a problem. A good part of us first worlders live our lives in public on the internet so a random photo of us walking down a street next to 5-6 Facebook albums of drunk party photos isn't that big of a deal. But there are times that someone may not want their photo plastered all over online. The common response to this is "if you're doing nothing wrong you've got nothing to hide" but it's really not that simple. There are times when people relocate to escape bad situations or other life circumstances. This doesn't mean they're up to something illegal, they could just be trying to remain hidden from an abusive or threatening person or situation. Having their photo online indicating their whereabouts may be less than optimal. These situations, while probably rare, are just a couple of examples of why someone one may not want their photos taken and posted online. Some folks may just want to live online free lives for whatever reason and that's OK too. Several decades ago during the heyday of film photography people didn't really have to worry about things like this. A photo generally didn't travel very far.

I believe that people should have a right to where they want their data stored and how much of that they want public facing. I tend to eschew many cloud services for this reason, only use Facebook/Google/etc for the most inane social interactions, disable location services on my devices, use trust no one encryption when possible and so on. Remember kids, there is no cloud, it's just other people's computers.

So I can see two sides to this argument. In a world where a photo can be seen by thousands of people in a few seconds where does the individual right to privacy end? Should a private citizen be able to ask a photographer not to take a photo or to delete it? Would that potentially be abused by public figures who may be up to no good? What about the media's ability to do its job? What about art? Do the current rules work well enough?

Personally, I'm more or less OK with how things work now. There are some fringe scenarios where everything may not work out but for the most part out in pubic and put on the Internet are close enough to the same thing. That's probably a good way to treat what you do online too. Just because you've put some disclaimer (that I'm laughing at right now) about how private and confidential that your email is doesn't mean there isn't a relay out there with it stored. Use GPG fool. Same goes for Facebook messenger, etc. But I digress.

Moreover, the press and people documenting public officials are protected somewhat by these rules. This is probably one of the most important things to keep in mind. Sure, you might not like that random guy taking photos on the street but there are others who depend on these rights and ultimately we all do to some extent. However, it is good to sit and think about these things every once in a while. Things change every once in a while these days.

Linux Photography IV: RAW Development

Note: Riley Brandt has released some video lessons on using Darktable and other open source software for photo development. I highly recommend checking them out.

Here we are getting into the good part. I've become quite fond of Darktable's RAW developer. The tools are solid and in some areas it even outstrips Lightroom's develop module.

The first thing I noticed is that Darktable doesn't come with a whole lot of modules enabled out of the box. That's easy enough to remedy though, simply expand the area labeled "more modules" and enable the modules you'd like to use. If you click through a few times it will add the module to your favorites list. I recommend enabling color correction, profiled denoise and monochrome as those have been some of my favorites thus far.

Darktable groups modules together in a few logical bins. These groups are called Active, Favorites, Basic, Tone, Color, Correction and Effects in order from left to right just below the histogram. Active is handy for disabling adjustments without digging through the other groups. The Favorites grouping contains all of the modules you've stuck in there. This is analogous to web browser bookmarks. The rest are sort of self explanatory. Things like contrast and exposure are found in the Basic group, tone curve and levels in the Tone group, color correction and input color profile in the Color group, lens corrections in the corrections group, etc. It's pretty logical once you learn your way around the interface but it does take some getting used if you're coming from Lightroom.

I'm not a huge special effects/post processing type photographer so I usually hit a few select modules and export my finished edit. Darktable does store edits in XMP files but not every other software package supports the same adjustments in the same way so it's nice to have a 16-bit TIFF of your final. My first stops are usually input color profile and base curve. Darktable supports camera ICC profiles but not DCP profiles. This posed an issue for me early on as I had been using a ColorChecker Passport and the X-rite software which only generates DCP profiles. This is fine if you're using Lightroom or Camera RAW but not much else. Apparently Argyll CMS supports the ColorChecker Passport with the correct template (which I downloaded). However I could never get it to recognize the test pattern. Not all is lost, I managed to get a working ICC profile from dcp2icc after using X-rite's software on my Mac to create the DCP profile.

Base curve is my next stop, I usually choose the preset that goes along with my camera model. Base curves take the RAW data and essentially tunes it to look good for your monitor. This is similar to the image treatments your camera does to JPEGS when you set it to Camera Standard or Camera Landscape. Darktable has a few built in base curves for each manufacturer and you can create you own as well based on JPEGs from your camera.

If the image needs some exposure tweaks I'll hit up the exposure module. This module works about the same way way as every other exposure adjustment I've ever seen in a RAW developer. Darktable's masking capability is quite good, so it's easy to just paint in adjustments over parts of the image. If no adjustments are needed I'll move on to levels, tone curve, contrast, saturation and local contrast. It's nice to have levels and curves in a RAW developer and when I do end up back in Lightroom for whatever reason I find myself missing it. Local contrast is the closest thing I've found to the clarity adjustment in Lightroom and it works OK, although it seems to highlight noise more than accentuate details. I've been primarily using the tone curve tool to adjust highlights/shadows instead of the highlights and shadows module as it seems to give better results. That's just my findings, you may like the other module better.

Speaking of noise, be sure to take a look at the profiled denoise plugin. It's a bit complicated looking at first but after some trail and error I've found some settings that seem to work fairly well. The wavelets mode seems to work better with color nosie and the non-local means seems to work better for chroma noise. Thankfully in Darktable can apply the same filter multiple times in multiple modes. Generally I'll duplicate the profiled denoise plugin and set one to wavelets, strength of 1 and blend it uniformly in color mode. For the other I'll set it up as non-local means, strength of 0.5 and blend it uniformly in lightness or HSV lightness mode. Those settings have worked well for me, but you may want to tweak things.

On a side note I'd also recommend looking at the color correction module. It's more of what I'd call a special effect as it's most similar to to split toning in Lightroom. But it's very useful for color grading your images. Much more customizable too.

That's about it for a quick pass through the RAW developer. This isn't intended to be a full tutorial, just a quick breeze through some of the steps I use to edit my RAWs. Next up I'll look at the GIMP and a few specialty programs out there for photo editing in the Linux world.

Linux Photography III: Organizing

Note: I have been relatively busy of late and I've been constantly revising my workflow and thus these posts. Hence the break in between updates. Still working on getting it dialed in. With Adobe's recent move towards punishing perpetual license holders I imagine alternatives will be getting some more attention.

Now we're ready to so some actual photo work. The first step in any photographic workflow is importing, organizing and tagging. Personally, I prefer to keep my photos organized on the filesystem in lieu of using any sort of albums or collection features of a particular software. This is for a couple of reasons but the main one is to remain independent of whatever development package I'm using. If Aperture and iPhoto have taught us anything it's that these things are moving targets and it's probably not wise to bolt yourself down to any particular application. Most operating systems and desktop environments support meta data in some fashion so in a lot of ways the organizing side of a lot of these applications is a bit redundant now. Mostly Lightroom, Aperture, Darktable, etc just add a GUI that's better suited to managing photos than the file manager built into your OS.

The next little bit is going to be pretty OS independent. It's also my personal way of doing things. This might not work for you or it might not make any sense. That's fine. I organize my photos into directories based upon a few criteria. Mainly I separate them out by either what type of job they were, if they were part of a series or a project or just random day to day snapshots. For example I'll have a Photos directory with sub-directories called 000_Projects, 001_Screenshots, 002_Clients, 003_Models_and_Tests, 004_Photos_by_Year. Inside of those directories I'd have directories named after the clients, job, date, or other criteria. From there I just copy the files over like any other document. After all RAWs and JPEGs aren't any different than other types of files.

Some people like to rename files off the camera, I don't do that. I worked with other photographers on jobs or as a second shooter so I have my camera doing it's own custom naming with my initials (eg LGH_XXXX.NEF). I generally don't use something like Photo Mechanic or Rapid Photo Downloader to cull or backup my files either as I'm generally set into my current workflow. However do recommend giving Rapid Photo Downloader a shot if that's your thing. My shooting style is more deliberate instead of spray and pray so generally don't have many photos to throw out when I get back to my desktop. However, I've used Lightroom for this purpose and continue to use Darktable to cull. Again, this may not be ideal if you generate a ton of images per assignment/vacation/outing/whatever. For whatever reason I like to shoot like I still have a roll of film in my camera and I don't fill up cards.

My next step involves tagging the images and applying meta data. In the case of RAW files Darktable write this information out into an XMP side car file. Lightroom will do the same thing, but you have to turn on that option. I prefer this to storing the metadata in a monolithic library as it's more portable. Darktable has pretty rudimentary metadata editing support but it gets the job done. The presentation could be a little more polished in my opinion and support for a few other fields added. Hopefully more refinements come in future versions. The lighttable module is probably the weakest point of the software right now, but it's still very usable and highly customizable.

Darktable has a few presets for metadata. I started by using one of the Creative Commons options, fill in my name for the creator, and import from there. In the metadata panel you can customize the defaults and create your own presets if one of the defaults doesn't cover you. Unfortunately Darktable does not seem to support the full IPTC Creator fields as of the writing of this post. At least I haven't found anywhere to editing things like the address, phone number and site address fields. However, I simply put my contact info in the tags including my website. Not so much for preventing infringement as for directing people to my site from images they find on places like 500px and Flickr that display the tags.  Other than that I don't go crazy with tags.  It's definitely one of those less-is-more things. I limit it to 10-15, usually including the subject, name of the client, location, etc.  All of this works just like that other commercial product everyone else uses.

Hopefully that was helpful and not too rambling. I keep updating and revising this workflow as I go so it's taken a while to get this all written down. Next up I'll dive into RAW development.  That will be more about Darktable and not necessarily specific to Linux as well.

Linux Photography II: Profiling and Calibrating

Perhaps the most important part of any graphic workflow is color management. A colorimeter should be up there with a camera and a lens on your list with of equipment to buy. Without one there's just no way to ensure reproducibility of your photos. Colorimeters are relatively cheap nowadays and even the basic ones are more than enough for discerning photographers. If you don't have one I recommend going and picking up the ColorMunki or ColorMunki Display right now. These are great inexpensive colorimeters that work well and last many years. My ColorMunki Display works fine with Xubuntu 14.04 and I imagine most USB colorimeters would.

Once you have the hardware you'll need the software. On Ubuntu based distributions this is very easy. Somewhere between falling off a log and screwing in a lightbulb. You can either used the built in display calibration tool in regular Ubuntu or install dispCalGUI via the Software Center or web download for Kubuntu or Xubuntu. If you are using one of the Ubuntu derivatives as I am you'll need to install whatever bridge you need for the desktop environment and colord if it doesn't have it by default. For Xubuntu and XFCE that's xiccd. Again not terribly hard. This is so the resulting profiles can be loaded by XFCE/Unity/KDE/etc. In standard Ubuntu you won't even have to do that much if you use the built in tools, however I recommend trying out dispCalGUI anyway as it supports more features of the colorimeter's hardware, such as ambient light detection.

As far as I can tell there's no calibration reminders in dispCalGUI like the X-rite software. I may have missed it somewhere though. I just put a reminder in my calendar to overcome that problem.

All in all display calibration is pretty simple in Linux. If you can do it on Windows or OS X you can do it on a modern Linux distribution. The whole process is about as hand-holdy as it gets.

Next up I'll go over organizing, tagging and metadata handling.

Linux Photography I: The Great Experiment

Let me preface this by saying I've used Macs since the System 6/7 days when I was in middle school. I've also owned/built PCs during that time. I'm a general technology kind of person. I've used both platforms for almost every task imaginable. Even with that OS X has remained my platform of choice for important work over the last fifteen or so years. Both photographic and otherwise. So keep that in mind before you get your drawers in a bunch and fire off an angry email about me being a Mac hater or not hip enough to get it. I was writing code on a Mac back before the rest of the world figured out the Apple was cool and Steve Jobs knew what he was doing. I remember treating my Titanium PowerBook with the utmost care so I didn't ding the paint. I used Macs before the iPod was even a thing. I remember organizing and editing photos before Lightroom existed. So get off my lawn you darn kids!

OK, with that out of the way we can get to the meat of the post.

A few months ago I started looking at a replacing my aging Mac Pro. The final straw came when 20 of my 24GB of RAM failed and one of the RAID disk went out. Old, slow CPUs and a lack of memory really hampered my work. I RMA'ed the RAM but that would take a while to come back, FB-DIMMs were expensive when they were actually being mass produced and have only gone up in price in recent years. Ordering more RAM to hold me over seemed to be throwing good money after bad at this point.

I don't really care for the new iMacs. Part of the reason I've held on to this Mac Pro so long is because it uses easily replaceable and upgradeable parts which greatly extends it's service life. I've added a USB 3 card, upgraded the graphics to support three monitors, added more RAM, and more drives over the years. These days you can't even replace the hard drive on an iMac with off-the-shelf components due to the specialty firmware Apple uses. The new Mac Pro tube is firmly out of my budget (thanks, homeownership) and really isn't that great of a deal right now due to the hardware being aged. However, if I had an infinite budget I'd probably get 6-core model with 32-64GB of RAM, a few 1440p 27” anti-glare displays and a USB 3 or Thunderbolt disk array and call it a day. But that wasn't happening.

I looked at what kind of Mac I could get with my budget. It basically came down to a 21.5” iMac with an i5 or an i7 and 8-16GB of RAM. Not exactly appealing coming from the beast that is a Mac Pro. That felt like a real step down, even given the age of my machine.

The same amount of money would get me a killer DIY PC however.

Now, in defense of the Mac option if most of your work is Lightroom and basic photo editing even the cheapest Core i5 iMac with 8GB of RAM is enough. Heck, a basic Mac Mini would probably be enough. Especially if you have a smaller resolution sensor or older camera. I do more than basic photography with my machine. Stacking for astroimaging or panorama stitching with a high resolution camera eats up RAM and CPU time. I'd like to move into 4K video at some point in the near future too, as well as some rendering, and yes, even some gaming.

That doesn't explain the choice of Linux as the OS. That's simply a matter of personal preference. The philosophies of using open source aside I have a few other projects that are simply easier to work with on a *nix based OS. I'm also not a fan of Windows 8.1's interface or of the software as a service path Adobe is taking as I was an every-other-version-at-most upgrader of CS. I don't use Photoshop enough to justify the monthly price tag and didn't want to wait around for Lightroom to head that direction. I mostly used Photoshop for panorama stitching, HDR merging, some stacking and the occasional cloning/content-aware fill. All of these can be, with varying degrees of difficulty, accomplished with other software and have been around since CS3 or so. No real need for me to be forking over $10 a month for 5-7 year old features.

There's also the whole “if you do everything the same way the rest of the wold does you'll never learn anything” idea. Practically every serious photographer on the planet uses Lightroom. It's fine software and does a lot of things very well. If it ran on Linux I would have it installed (hint hint Adobe). But to me that means your photos are just going to end up with that “Lightroom look” to them. If you shoot RAW your choice of RAW processor matters a lot. Adobe Camera RAW is very versatile but at the same time it can be somewhat limiting and definitely imparts its look on a finished photo. It's the same reasoning why some photographers choose to use PhaseOne. It just produces a different look.

Every once in a while I just want to try something different with my post processing too. See what else is out there and how it stacks up and what I can accomplish. I picked this time to try this out is because this is a slow time of the year for me. If I was in full shoot/edit mode I wouldn't have the time to sit down and learn new software. It has been a journey, that's for sure. There aren't a lot of photographers going this route and aren't as many resources available to those tho choose to go this way. You'll really need to know how post processing works, what tools do what and be able to figure out problems on your own.

I'm writing this from the perspective of a very experienced Linux user. This isn't a how to dual boot your PC or why should you run Linux series. I'm not going to explain what options on ls do what or how to fix your grub configuration. I've been a Linux, BSD and other *nix user for a very very long time and have accumulated a lot of background knowledge that has come in handy for this process and will not be going into detail with that here. You should be comfortable with the OS already before getting into these posts. With that I'm sure I just lost about 90% of the people reading this.

I'm breaking this down into a few bite-size chunks. The next post will deal with color management, afterwards I'll deal with organizing, keywording, metadata, etc. Finally we'll get into RAW development, importing Lightroom edits and more complex editing. I'm also going to stress that this is an experiment. I still have a MacBook Pro loaded with the usual Adobe branded suspects. I will continue to keep Apple laptops. I may end up back on a Mac desktop in the future. I'm still ducking out to Lightroom and keeping it's library up-to-date with my photos. This is not a finished processes and may never be. It should really just be viewed as another set of tools in your box. I'm offering this as more of an interest piece than an advocacy piece, what works for me might not work for you, YMMV, yadda, yadda. Don't go around telling your friends some guy on the internet said Linux is the best for photography and they're a tool for using what they do, cause that's not what this is about.

In the end it's about making great photos and you should stress about the process as much as most of us do. Just use whatever works for you.

Astrophotography Fundamentals Part 2: Gear

In this installment I'm going to go over some of the gear I use in the field, what it does and how I set it up. Please note: don't feel like you need to run out and buy all of what I have listed in this post! It gets expensive, fast. In reality all you need to get started is some sort of camera with manual controls and a decent tripod. I'm also only going to really go over the basics. Once you get deeper into astro work you'll probably want to add things like an auto-guider and acquisition laptop to the mix.

First things first, you do need a camera with manual controls. Shooting at night will severely confuse whatever metering system your camera has. Something with a tripod socket as well. Beyond that anything is fair game. APS-C, full frame, m4/3s, etc are all fine. It just depends on what type of imaging you want to do. Generally full frame is better for wide field while the smaller sensors do better with small telescopic objects. Personally I have both APS-C and full frame, eventually I'd like to add a few smaller sensors to the mix too.

If you're using some sort of camera with interchangeable lenses you'll need some glass to put on that mount. Most people assume that fast lenses are the best for astrophotography and run out, buy ultra-fast primes and shoot them wide open. That's all well and good for terrestrial subjects however stellar objects are a different story.

You see, photographing bright points of light on a nearly perfectly black backdrop is a pretty hard task for any lens. Prime lenses are generally especially bad with distortion, chromatic aberration and field curvature when used at their widest aperture. There are a few exceptions, but by and large you're better off closing down a stop or two. This will help alleviate some of the nasty distortions and color fringing. I'm not saying prime lenses are no good for astro work, I use them all the time, just be aware that shooting your 50mm at f/1.4 won't give you good results. Below is an example of what kind of distortion you'll get out of a wide open fast prime. More than likely you'll need to manually focus your lens as well. Most modern lenses do not have a hard focus stop at infinity and the ones that do are sometimes a little off. I usually use Live View on my camera zoomed in on a star and focus the camera that way. You'll want to make the stars as pinpoint as possible and sometimes that'll be harder than others.

This is why you stop down that prime lens! Taken with a 50mm at f/1.4

If you're using a longer lens (I usually notice it at 300mm at up) you'll probably see the stars sort of shaking on the screen as currents in the atmosphere move around. This is called seeing by astronomers. During a night with good seeing the stars will appear as pinpoints. Conversely on a night with bad seeing the stars will appear as smeared out disks and sometimes the turbulence in the atmosphere will cause them to shake in the view. The longer the focal length of the telescope or lens the more intensified the effects are. Sometimes on nights you can't really use a larger scope you can get away with some imaging at middle to wide focal lengths just fine.

Manual focus, VR Off.

Just doing star trails? Go pick up a solid tripod and ballhead. I like Induro as they seem to have the bang for buck ratio down. A wobbly $20 Wal-Mart wonder isn't going to work.

This brings us to tracking the night sky. Well, rather you'll be counteracting the motion of the Earth. There are a few options here. For the casual astrophotographer or someone looking for a lightweight solution for travel I like the iOptron SkyTracker. It's fairly inexpensive, small and comes with a polar alignment scope. The one limitation is its weight capacity. You're not going to be loading it down with a large lens or telescope. I've heard of folks using a DSLR and 70-200mm zoom with it before but I'd wager that's pushing it. Vixen makes a similar mount called the Polarie and I have a passing familiarity with it as well. As with most things the time spent in preparing is way more important than anything else, this includes aligning the mount. Most polar alignment scopes come with markings for aligning with different constellations in different times of the year. If your alignment isn't spot on you'll get some drift during exposures. It takes practice and some time so plan about 30 extra minutes or more for your first few outings.

For more serious astrophotographers, mainly those who want to use a big lens or a telescope, I recommend picking up some sort of equatorial mount. I own an Orion SkyView Pro GoTo and it will hold up to about an 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain, camera and supporting equipment. I generally like Orion's stuff, but Celestron makes decent mounts too. You can buy a equatorially mounted telescope and use the mount for general wide field work as most equatorial mounts use a dovetail mount that is fairly universal. I'd stay away from driven fork mounts or alt-az mounts as those suffer from field rotation during longer exposures. They're fine for visual use though. As with most things it seems most manufacturers overstate the load capacity of their equatorial platforms. As a safety measure I wouldn't try to load a mount with more than about 75% of it's rated capacity and that I feel is generous, 50% is probably a better number to work with. Loading it to 100% more than likely won't send it crashing to the ground but a strained mount isn't a very sturdy mounting. You'll end up with a lot of bad shots and trailing due to slipping and the motors struggling to keep up. Keep in mind these things are big, heavy and take a long time to setup or take down. You aren't going to be backpacking with most of these mounts. Get a smaller iOptron or Vixen for that.

Next up we'll talk about post processing.

Astrophotography Primer Part 1: Fundamentals

The Winter Milky WayA six minute exposure from a dark location.

Astrophotography has become ever popular in the last decade or so as the equipment to do it well as plummeted in price. Now your average back yard astronomer with less than $3,500 or so in gear can take images that rival large imaging instruments from just a decade ago. You can even get some decent results with less expensive equipment and regular old camera lenses. Over the next few posts I'm going to go throw out there what I do to prepare, shoot, edit and finish my work. This is not the end-all-be-all guide to astrophotography, just a workflow that works for me.

Astrophotography seems easy on the outside but it is easily one of the most complicated, math intensive and taxing types of photography out there. It's not for the impatient. You can spend several hours over the course of one night shooting images and end up with squat on the other side due to poor planning or not understanding the subject. I'll go over some of the common pitfalls here too as I've made the same mistakes myself.

First off you'll need to know the basics of photography. Aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc.  If you don't know that like the back of your hand go figure it out and come back. I'm not trying to be rude, this blog post isn't going anywhere and you need to have a firm grounding.  I also come from a math heavy background and will get into some numbers.  Nothing most people can't handle but you should be warned.

Cue Jeopardy music ...

Back? Great! Now let's move on.  The most basic type of astrophotography involves plunking your camera down on a tripod, grabbing a cable release and shooting some star trails.  This is a great, simple way to get started.

Earth's Rotation
All you really need to do star trails is a sturdy tripod, a camera with a cable release, some kind of lens and a few hours of time. That's another thing.  A short exposure for most deep sky objects is around 30 seconds.  Most of my images have a few exposures ranging up to 10-15 minutes. Dress warmly and bring something with you to occupy the time.  A red headlight or flashlight helps too.  The longer you leave the shutter open the longer the trails.  You'll need an area with fairly dark skies and no light domes on the horizon otherwise you'll over expose and the sky will be a putrid yellow color.  A slow ISO (100-400) and small aperture will help too.  You'll probably need to do a couple of test shots when you first get going to figure out what you can do at your location.
 

Another way to dodge the over exposure is to do what's called image stacking.  This is where you take a bunch of shorter exposures, say 30 seconds to a minute, in the field and stack them in post to create the star trail effect.  For this you'll want to cut off your camera's long exposure noise reduction feature and take dark frames manually.  

Say what now?  A dark frame?  What are you talking about?  Glad you asked.  If you've ever dug around in your camera's menus you've probably seen a feature called something like "Long Exposure NR," at least that's what NIkon calls it.  It should be on by default.  What this does is called dark subtraction.  If you take a photo with a shutter speed longer than a few seconds the camera will take a dark frame of the same length of time and subtract that from the light frame.  Why is this needed?  CMOS and CCD sensors generate a lot of noise during long exposures.  Some of the older cameras (I'm looking at you my old D200) had some nasty amp glow around the edges of the sensor as well.  "OK," you might say, "but how does subtraction help us here?" Digital images are nothing but numbers.  As far as the camera and your computer is concerned a RAW file is an array of RGB luminance values or just plain luminance if you have a monochrome sensor Mr/Ms Leica user.  In a light frame these numbers are the values that the were read out of the photosites when the shutter closed plus whatever noise was present in the sensor at that time.  For shorter exposures in good light this noise is safely ignored.  You've got some much signal in the light frame that it's inconsequential.  For longer exposures of fainter things this noise becomes a problem and can at times be brighter than the image (light striking the sensor) itself.  Temperature can affect this noise as well, generally colder sensors are less noisy.

Thus enters our hero, the dark frame.  A dark frame is 100% pure noise.  Kind of like your Facebook feed.  I'm just kidding Facebook friends, really, or am I?  You can take one manually by setting your shutter speed and ISO then leaving the lens cap on so no light strikes the sensor.  Aperture doesn't matter.  Then you're just left the noise that was present in your sensor at the time of capture.  Generally if you're taking many multiple exposures you'll want to manually do your dark frames and subtract them later in post.  However, I tend to leave the in camera dark subtract (Long Exposure NR) on for single shots or short series of photos.

Depending on your equipment you may need to take bias frames and flat frames.  With CMOS based cameras bias frames are not needed as they have a built in circuit that takes care of that for you.  It's still needed for CCD based cameras.  Bias frames are taken in much the same way dark frames are, that is with no light hitting the sensor.  However, bias frames are taken with an exposure time of zero or as close as your camera will get.  Again, these are generally not needed for modern cameras as most have CMOS sensors.  Flat frames are used to compensate for dust on the lens or sensor.  Generally flat frames are taken by aiming the camera at a uniform color frame.  Anything uniform in color will work, such as a daylight sky, as long as it's properly exposed and not blown out.  For most wide filed astrophotography I don't do flats.  Dust doesn't seem to really bother the image much.  Plus it's pretty easy to keep lens elements clean.  If you're using something like a Catadioptric Telescope (SCT or Mak) they are useful as the imaging surfaces are harder to get to.  I consider any lens or telescope under 600mm to be a wide field.

Generally if I'm doing star trails, which I don't do very often, I'll do a bunch of 45-60 second exposures, a few dark frames at the end of the night then do the subtraction and stacking in post.  However, there's nothing wrong with just doing a 30 minute exposure to test the waters.  You just introduce a higher likely hood that something will go wrong and you'll lose the work.

In the next post I'll detail some of the gear I use in the field and some concepts for shooting.

New Shot of M42

Just a new photo of M42, The Great Nebula in Orion. About 29 minutes worth of exposure all said and done. I'm slowly building a library of astrophotos for a new project I'm working on.

"Super" Moon

I'll never complain about science getting media attention but this full moon is only slightly bigger and brighter than most. You really won't be able to tell the difference just from looking as it's only a tiny bit larger than last month's full moon. Overall the moon's angular size only varies by about 15% or so from apogee to perigee. Here's a photo I took tonight using my D7000 and the Orion ST-80 (400mm focal length) with contrast and clarity adjusted in LR.

However, feel free to go out and look up, it's always interesting. Saturn won't be far away from the moon tonight, just east of it near Spica. Even during a bright full moon it's easy to find the brighter planets. However, wait a couple of weeks and stay up late. After the moon gets to its new phase the Milky Way really comes out across the summer sky in this part of the world. You'll need to find a dark spot but it's worth the trouble! Bring a tripod and a fast lens too.

Graduation Portraits - Danielle

Just a few shots from a recent graduation portrait session with an ASU graduate. Nothing terribly fancy but I think they turned out well. The first time in a while I've rolled without lights.

Upgrades, Mailing List and a Few Changes

Behind the scenes shot - high speed sync on an off camera SB-900

It has been a long time since I updated the blog. But I'm back!

Not only am I posting a new entry here I'm also updating my portfolio pages and I've completely redone the site in a new layout.

Hopefully the new site will be easier to navigate and more appealing to the eye.

So what have I been up to? I've managed to stay fairly busy. I stopped by The Flash Bus in Durham, NC to watch Joe and David do their thing. I learned a few things and had time to meetup with a few other local photographers. Speaking of local photographers I've been working more with a friend of mine, Tommy White, in his studio and on some of his weddings. I've also been wrapping up from the Blue Ridge Photo Fest last month. It was a real treat to work with other photographers and meetRob Knight from Atlanta. He hosts his own workshops and seminars at DPhotoA. Definitely worth checking out! Juan Pons was extremely helpful in getting the event planned out and setup, he really deserves a lot of credit on this one. I don't think this years Photo Fest would have been possible without his help and guidance. Juan also hosts his own events and workshops over at Wild Nature Tours

I've also been working on a few personal projects. My favorite thus far has been working on project involving dancers and dance students form the area. A shot from a recent shoot is what's featured in this post. So far I've managed to talk a few very talented dancers into helping with this project. I'd like to say thanks to Kasey and Maegan for their time, you guys are awesome! I'm hoping to do more of that work in the future and possibly commit a whole portfolio to it. If you're interested in such a project feel free to get a hold of me! 

All in all I've been still plugging along. Still shooting, still making mistakes, still trying new things. After all you miss all the shots you never take.

Why I'm leaving Professional Photographers of America

This Friday I received a very ignorant email from the PPA in regards to SOPA and PIPA. Given the wealth of resources available to this organization I was surprised to see their stance be so short sighted, and quite honestly, misinformed. Here's a couple of tidbits that really stuck out to me:

"It is important to recognize that Google, while it claims to be a friend to copyright, is anything but. PPA is one of several associations joined together in a lawsuit against the search engine giant for illegally scanning and posting copyrighted photographs on the Internet."

"So when a behemoth corporate money-maker like Google attempts to stand on the backs of photographers to increase its profits, we as your association take exception." 

Essentially it seems they have no idea what a search engine is or how it works. There's also this bit:

"Both pieces of legislation (SOPA in the Senate and PIPA in the House) targeted off-shore pirating of works produced in the U.S."

This statement is just plain incorrect. PIPA and SOPA are designed to targetsites based in the US.

I'm ashamed to admit that I've been giving money to this organization for the past two years. Quite frankly I owe more to Google for developing my presence than I owe PPA, and Google did it for free. I do have other issues with Google about privacy and user data. However, by and large they've still been more useful to me than PPA has been over the last couple of years.

Backing these bills, in my opinion, is a sign of ignorance and fear. I wholeheartedly believe in organizations like theCreative Commons and believe it represents the future of distributing content. If the PPA wants to take a position fundamentally opposed to that they will no longer receive my membership dues. In fact, I'm going to take those funds and donate to the EFF and Creative Commons. 

The terrifying part to me is how many photographers rely on the PPA as their only source of information on these matters.