First Impressions, Fuji X-E1

I’ve had the X-E1 for a little while, courtesy of Fuji and Photo Techniques Magazine. I’m working on an article for the magazine, and I thought I’d share a few thoughts along the way:

First Impressions, Fuji X-E1:

  • A very lightweight camera body, due in part to its largely magnesium-based construction.
  • Controls are well-placed on the camera body.
  • LCD-based menus require some studying of the instruction manual.
  • LCD is bright and easy to read, even outdoors.
  • Camera automatically switches from LCD view to electronic viewfinder.
  • Image quality is very good (more on this later).
  • RAW processing software is subject of debate (more on this later).
  • The 18-55 kit lens provided with this camera exceeded expectations.

Here’s an image taken to test resolution and color:

Test shot, Fuji X-E1, Studio Lighting

Test shot, Fuji X-E1, Studio Lighting

Photoshop CS6 Beta test started today…

I just downloaded the CS6 Beta version. Going to be working with it this week and next. Stay tuned as I report my ups and downs, likes and not-so-likes (?!?) in the next week or so. My goal is to post something interesting at least every other day.

PS – one observation: sure looks like Adobe continues to move toward harmonizing the editing controls and tools in Photoshop and Lightroom….

Review: Mamiya DF Camera and Mamiya DM56 Digital Back

Not too long ago I wrote a review of the Mamyia AFDIII and the Leaf 22MP back. At the time, I felt it was an excellent camera, and I still do.

In this report, I’ll cover my recent experience with another Mamiya camera and digital back: the Mamiya DF body, and the Mamiya DM56 digital back. Since space is limited on the blog, I’ll hit the high points as I see them.

Bottom line: a greatly improved, highly flexible camera body that, coupled with this digital back, delivers superb image quality. I have a few nitpicking suggestions, but overall this camera is impressive.

New Mamiya DF Body and Mamiya DM56

Dan Cuny, of Mamiya/Mac Group, came to the SCV Center for Photography in Santa Clarita and provided camera gear for us to use. We started the day with a live demo for a number of photographers from the local area, shooting still life.

The camera feels robust and well made. The viewfinder is big and bright, and the in-viewfinder indicators are easily read. We used two lenses: the 80mm f/2.8 lens supplied with the camera, and a manual-focus 120mm macro lens. The camera is very well balanced with either lens mounted. I’ve found that I can work all day without suffering undue fatigue.

The camera can be used with focal-plane, or leaf shutter lenses. Highest sync speeds are reported up to 1/1600. The DF camera body is compatible with existing 645AFD lenses.

The camera was equipped with a Mamiya DM56 digital back. This back provides excellent resolution, 12 stops of dynamic range, and true 16-bit capture. Color rendered by this back is terrific – vibrant, very accurate, and totally clean.

The large, bright screen on the back makes it easy to view images and manage the controls – although performance in direct sunlight could still be improved.

Autofocus feels appreciably faster than previous camera bodies, and reports from others who have tried this camera confirm this.

We set up a Calumet shooting table, and several monolights. We started out with high-key lighting, but switched later on to a more dramatic approach. The shooting table is ideal for this work, providing a smooth, clean translucent plexi surface that allows totally flexible light placement.

Setting Up At The SCV Center for Photography

We shot with the camera tethered to a Mac Book Pro, using the provided 14-foot long Firewire 800 cable. Leaf Capture 11.3 was used to manage capture and image processing.

The Indian bowl we photographed (a personal possession of mine) was initially shot using high-key lighting, with the camera mounted on a tripod. We used a Sekonic hand-held meter to measure exposure, and a PocketWizard Plus to trigger lighting from the camera.

Note the clean contrast lines in the bowl:

High Key

And here’s a version with more directional lighting:

Note lack of shadow noise

Note how clean the shadows are; virtually no luminance or color noise. We were using ISO 100, one step (albeit a relatively small one) above base ISO of 80.

I was quite surprised by this; conventional wisdom concerning high pixel density is that shadow noise will be significant – but not in this case. I used virtually no noise reduction in the images shown in this article – although I can’t say for sure that there isn’t some processing going on in the guts of the digital back. Regardless, performance exceeded expectations.

We also shot a still life of some sea shells. Note the rendering of subtle colors, and in the second image, the sharpness and detail. Impressive.

Shot W/ Macro Lens

Shell Detail

Later in the testing, I had the opportunity to photograph a model in a studio setting. I often use low-key, dramatic lighting in my personal work. The lighting setup was created by a friend, Ron Brewer – I tweaked it a bit, and this is the result:

The highlight/shadow transitions are clean, and free of noise. Also note the high level of detail around the eye (below). These images are not retouched, other than a basic levels/curves adjustment.

Crop from full portrait

The nitpicks? The thing that bugs me the most is the location of the Auto exposure lock button – it is placed toward the outer side of the camera grip – and I found myself having to adjust my hold on the camera to reach it.

The digital back viewscreen, like just about every one out there, is very difficult to see in bright light outdoors, much less direct sun. It is, however, great in other circumstances. Don’t know if this is a solvable problem; at least Hasselblad provides an LCD view of the histogram on top of the camera grip.

And last, battery life, as with all MF digital cameras I’ve used, is less than I’d like. I realize the battery has to power the guts of the back, and the preview screen, but I’m still blasting through several batteries a day outdoors. If Nikon and Canon can make batteries that go a full day, why can’t the MF manufacturers?

Last but not least:

Say what you will about performance of high-end DSLRs, there’s still a noticeable difference between 14-bit capture and medium format 16-bit capture, in color fidelity and accuracy – and as good as DSLR lenses are now, it’s still true that MF lenses are hard to beat.

The flexibility of the camera is very good – given the sync speed, choice of shutters/lenses, software (Phase One or Leaf), and ergonomics. Whether you shoot weddings, studio, fashion, or landscapes, it’s worth a look. I haven’t shown them in this article, but the images I took on location are just as good as those provided here. (by the way, outside temps were over 100F one day!)

And a parting thought: this latest Mamiya incarnation has a new feeling of sophistication and polish that comes through
every time I pick it up. It’s a shooter’s camera.

Link to New Workshops – June 2012 Photo Workshop in the Palouse!

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Disclosure: I did not receive any compensation from Mamiya or Mac group in exchange for writing this article.

New Photography-Based Portal – Phoozl Public Beta Is Live!

My friend and colleague, Harald Johnson, has just launched the “public beta” of his new photography and game site, called Phoozl. (He made up the name. I had nothing to do with this part. Honest.)

Phoozl Public Beta Is Live!

Seriously, this really is a new approach, providing a website destination or portal that houses cool games and other fun activities connected to photos, photography, and other visual arts. Harald is a true entrepreneur and publisher, and his creativity sparks a steady current of ideas. His strong background in photography spans a number of areas.

A quick note: since this is still in beta format, if one web browser gives you hiccups, try another. Firefox seems to work well.

The rest of this interview is in the form of a Q&A:

What sort of games are available on Phoozl?

The current core of Phoozl is the many online “video” games organized in different categories. The total is about 30 at the moment. This list of games, including five “Phoozl-Original” games, will be constantly growing. Games range from puzzles to quizzes to “click mysteries” to “first-person-shooters” and other unique categories.

And what are the “other activities”?

There’s information and learning, too, in the form of Photo IQ quizzes, Photo Tips from photography experts, educational games and “brain-training.”

We will be adding contests, creative challenges, missions, hunts, and “secret events.” And those last things I mentioned will be the true soul of Phoozl.

There is also a PhoozNews blog. A new Community section will be coming online in the near future.

What are the”Secret Events”?

If I tell you all the Secrets… I’ll have to… well, you know. So I can’t tell you. Stay tuned, and check the site!

And you just went live?

Phoozl is live as a “public beta” so now’s the time to test drive it and make suggestions!

How does Phoozl work?

The basics of Phoozl are simple: go the website and hang out. Playing games, reading Photo Tips, Commenting, Reviewing, Phavoriting, etc. Doing basic things like playing a game is free and requires nothing more than your curiosity.

But if you want to get the full Phoozl experience, you are encouraged to Sign Up (again, it’s free). Then you can do a lot more cool stuff. Especially the stuff that’s coming.

Tell me a bit about your background as a photographer and designer.

My background plays right into the creation of Phoozl. I’ve been a pro photographer (commercial and pj), a graphic designer, a creative director and art director, a magazine publisher, a filmmaker, an author of digital printing books, a marketing communications agency owner, and a bunch of things I can’t even remember!

The thread that runs through all these pursuits is creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Especially entrepreneurship. For me, it’s always been about building a business out of whatever I’m doing. A magazine publishing company. An ad agency. An international consulting business. And now, a game and entertainment business. All of these have come out of ideas I’ve had, some whackier or more “out of the box” than others! ;-) And most have been successful. I’m not batting 100%, but pretty close.

What gave you the idea to create Phoozl?

I like to innovate and go into unexplored areas. When I see a problem, a need, or an emptyness, I automatically move toward it and basically jump in with both feet.: “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

One day I saw a huge hole open in front of me; a part of photography that I didn’t think was getting enough attention: the “Phun” in Photography. I have no quarrel with the serious side of photography; I’ve lived and experienced it first-hand for decades. But there’s also room for photography’s playful and adventurous side, too. And this led directly to Phoozl.

What kind of team did you need to make Phoozl a reality?

A good question. Even though the idea came out of my head, I have enough experience to know that I can’t do everything (nor do I want to!). It started first with my wife, who I run everything by. Then I went to my old best-friend and buddy, Richard, who happens to be an entertainment attorney in Hollywood. I needed someone to cover my legal back and to give me “wise counsel.”

Then I needed the people to do the things I didn’t know how to do. Specifically, and because I was also creating original games in addition to a website to house them, I needed programmers and coders who were experienced in gaming.

And finally, I decided to create an Advisory Panel that I could run ideas by to double-check me. This is a varied group including a photographer, gamer, educator, Internet entrepreneur, entertainment executive; a real mix of folks.

(left) Haraldo On A Phoozl Assignment (right) Ricardo Searching for Phoozleers

What challenges stand out in your mind in the creation of Phoozl?

The hardest part was waiting for other people to do the work I was asking them to do, and to not get overly frustrated when things were delayed. And to not throw in the towel completely when things REALLY went south on me. For example, the programmers and coders are basically solo freelancers spread all over. I call them “guys in bedrooms” (even though they’re not all guys) because I can imagine them sitting around in their houses with their laptops doing the work. Sometimes I wouldn’t hear back from someone for a while. Sometimes a LONG while. I was in the middle of an important part of the project with one guy, and he completely disappeared! I mean forever; I’ve never heard from him since. So I had to start that work all over. Talk about frustrating! But I pushed through it. I’ve learned the value of patience. If you knew what my original launch date for Phoozl was, you’d understand!

How do you feel about the result?

I feel great, but remember that this is just the beginning of Phoozl. The recent launch of the website (a “public beta soft launch”) is only Step 1 of a 1,000 steps. Maybe a million! I will be growing Phoozl from now on. Evolving it while listening to what people think and say. I’m actively seeking feedback from people in the photo community about the state of Phoozldom. So make comments and suggestions right away!

Who should be interested in Phoozl?

Anyone who’s a “photo enthusiast”, creatively minded, or visually-oriented person. Skill level doesn’t matter: Pro to amateur. And all ages from 18-80. If you like to have fun (Phun!) and are feeling adventurous or are up for a challenge, make your way over to Phoozl.com to Sign Up and become a “Phoozleer”!

And here’s a challenge to anyone reading this: If you can beat the current High Score (420) for the original game “Get the Shot!”, I’ll promote you and your work on the site. Go ahead, try it. I dare you!

You can find the public beta of Phoozl here.

Camera Test: Mamiya 645AFD III Camera and the Leaf Aptus DL-28 Digital Back

I recently received a Mamiya 645AFD III medium-format camera to test, accompanied by a Leaf Aptus II DL-28 digital back, and several lenses. 

 

I’m going to report on my experiences with this camera, starting with an overview and first impressions in this post. In subsequent posts, I’ll cover a variety of shooting situations (in studio and on-location), image quality, and the Leaf Capture software and its performance. Note that this is one of the cameras we will be using on the upcoming Focus 09 Fine Art Printing and Art Reproduction Seminar Tour October 2-21.

 

The camera arrived in the original packaging, which is well designed, protecting the camera quite well.

 

Ergonomics are top-notch; the camera is well balanced, and controls are logically placed and fall easily under one’s fingers – in short, it just feels good. 

 

Camera, lens, and digital back build quality is excellent. This is clearly a pro-level camera, robust materials and construction.

 

In the next image, basic features are marked by the numbers. Number 1 is located next to the shutter release, and shutter controls: single, continuous, mirror-up, and lock. Number 2 shows the settings screen, which indicates battery life, aperture/shutter speed, and the like. Number 3 shows the dial which controls shooting mode – Aperture priority, shutter priority, program/auto, manual, X, and custom function. Number 4 indicates the digital back, 5 the stylus used to activate controls on the back.

 

331editr2

 

 

 

Controls on the front of the camera include depth of field preview, and a focus mode selector (single, continuous, manual).

 

The camera is powered by AA batteries, which is a plus in terms of cost as compared to camera bodies which require more expensive 123 batteries.

 

IMG_0342edit

 

 

Mamiya lenses have a strong reputation for build and image quality. Focusing rings are well-dampened, and autofocus lenses are quick and quiet.

 

Some specs on the digital back: 28MP, which produces a >150MB file @ 16 bits. The sensor size is 44x33mm, and offers  ISO ratings of 50-800. Pixel pitch is 7.2 microns, which is larger than, for example, the Nikon D3x which features 5.9. Dynamic range is reported to be 12 stops.

 

So far, I’ve used the camera mostly in-studio, with a couple of short sessions outdoors. To this point, the in-camera meter has been accurate, handling high-contrast situations accurately. More to follow on this topic.

 

The camera may be used shooting to a CF card, or tethered to a computer. The days of using an attached hard drive are gone. The battery mounts underneath the camera back, which I find convenient as it helps balance things when using longer lenses.

 

The digital back shoots at 1/fps. It has an excellent, bright viewing screen, 6x7cm, which has very good contrast and color. It can be viewed outdoors, but direct sun is a challenge. In-studio it is, in a word, stunning.

 

A feature of the Aptus digital back is it not only provides a preview and histogram of the image – it is a touch-screen controller for the camera, controlling quite a few functions.

 

In short, one can set up the parameters of the shot, from color space to pre-sharpening to pre-set camera profiles – all with a tap of the included stylus.

 

Now some have criticized this for being “too complex”, or “too fancy”, and I just can’t agree. It is much quicker than push-button driven controls, and the menus are clear and pretty easy to follow.

 

For example, one can set up the camera to provide a simple image preview, image preview with histogram in the corner of the image, or histogram overlaid on the image. Quite flexible and useful.

 

 

IMG_0357edit

 

 

 

RAW file format is now compatible with Photoshop, Lightroom, and Aperture. I applaud the company’s approach to open architecture – makes it much easier to work in a variety of circumstances and locations. We don’t always have control of the resources available to us in the field!

 

Image quality is excellent. Although the camera provides ISO settings up to 800, as a practical matter image quality begins to suffer at 400, and has significant color and luminance noise at 800, even in bright light. To be fair, this camera was designed for lighting-controlled situations – ie, ISO 50-100.

 

I used the camera in studio to capture some macro shots of an orchid. We used the new Westcott Westcott TD-5 lights with daylight-balanced fluorescent bulbs installed. (a check with a spectrophotometer shows these to be dead-on at 5500k).

 

The macro lens is a 120mm f/4 model, updated with a 16-bit CPU. The focusing ring is smooth, perhaps a little heavy to turn. I’d like to see a little less pressure needed, and a better turn ratio for close focusing – after all, this is a manual focus lens. Having said this, I had no trouble at all focusing the lens. (There is a very accurate focusing indicator in the viewfinder).

 

Image quality is superb. On macro shots, I recommend using a sturdy tripod or studio stand, and mirror-up mode for maximum clarity. 

 

The image below shows an orchid photographed in-studio, with a cutout at 100% to demonstrate sharpness. The white “fuzz” you see isn’t sharpening artifact, it’s part of the flower!

 

L_000431r3

 

I’ll be photographing a number of subjects this week, including some acrylic paintings for a fine art reproduction project that just came in. More to follow!

 

 

*****

 

We’ll be working live with this camera, among others, at the upcoming Fine Art Printing and Fine Art Reproduction seminars in Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. These one-day intensive sessions start at the beginning of October 09. For more information, go here.