alan frost photography

in monochrome with occasional colour lapses

Posts from the ‘equipment’ category

100 years of Leica

This year Leica are celebrating their 100th anniversary. The very first Leica camera was invented by Oskar Barnack in 1914 and it became known as the Ur-Leica. For the first time film transport and shutter technology were combined in one camera.
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Ur – Leica, 1914

During its 100 year history many models have been produced including the Leica II in 1932 which had an integrated rangefinder and interchangeable lenses. In 1954 the Leica M3 was produced and to this day is the epitome of the M System.

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Leica M3

Arguably Leica still manufacture the worlds finest cameras and lenses. Their classic rangefinder has been used by some of the most famous photographers of all time, to capture many truly iconic and memorable images. Here are just three examples for you to enjoy.
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V-J Day – Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1945
This photo appeared on the cover of Life Magazine and grew to become one of Alfred Eisenstadt’s most well know images. ‘People tell me’ he once said, ‘ that when I am in heaven they will remember this picture’
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England – Gianni Berengo Gardin, 1977
Gardin’s images are considered classics of Leica Photography. Taken in black and white, they are quickly captured windows of everyday life, visual chamber plays of grand formal, aesthetic finesse, at times complex
and at other times delicately harmonious.
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New York City – Elliott Erwitt, 1974
Elliott Erwitt’s passion focused on dogs – for him, they were the incarnation of human beings, with fur and a tail. His photo titled ‘New York City’ was taken for a shoe manufacturer.

The three images and their descriptions were taken from ‘The Legend Lives On – 100 years of Leica Photography’ a page on the Leica website.

Today there are principally two digital M System cameras in their range. The M240 or M and the Monochrom, which only takes black and white images, yet is more expensive than the M which records colour and offers more features, such as live view and the ability to shoot video. There is also the ME which is based on the M9, the predecessor to the M, as well as two film cameras, the M7 and the MP.
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The Leica M
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The Leica Monochrom

Although Leica has had to move with the times, the sheer quality and craftsmanship of their cameras and lenses, coupled with the simplicity of their operation is still at the very heart of their brand ethos. Their is no autofocus; the lenses are manual focus only. The aperture control is on the lens which still features a depth of field scale for zone focusing. The speed dial and the shutter release are on the top plate which together with the bottom plate is made of brass for durability. In fact on the rare occasion I have been able to hold a Leica it feels so well made, extremely solid, and the craftsmanship is second to none. These cameras and their lenses, handle superbly, are built to last and the hold their value well too. This is just as well as the initial outlay to buy a camera body and one or two lenses can easily reach five figures. They are the camera equivalent of a Rolex watch or a Ferrari sports car. An aspirational luxury brand with performance and a price tag to match. Very different to the norm but a real pleasure to own and to use.

As you would expect there is a wide range of lenses available with names like Summicron, Summilux and Noctilux all denoting the speed of the lens. f2, f1.4 and f1 respectively. The faster the lens the higher the price. The 50mm f0.95 Noctilux has a price tag of nearly £8,000! They are all designed to be used wide open and still produce sharp results from corner to corner. 
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The range of Leica lenses

When comparing the ‘basic’ design of the first Leica camera with the Leica M, the very latest model, it’s impossible not to notice a similarity. Yes, Leica has had to embrace the digital age and the requirements of todays photographers, but those fortunate enough to use a Leica, share a passion for both their craft and for their equipment. The simple controls put the photographer in control, but that doesn’t mean to say its an easy camera to master. It’s not like so many cameras of today – turn the camera on and let the mini computer with a lens attached do the rest – in other words a point and shoot! The quality of the lenses can produce the most stunning images, but the most expensive equipment in the wrong hands does not guarantee a great photograph.

Whether my photographic journey will ever lead me to owning a Leica is unclear. What I do know is that as part of their centenary celebrations Leica in London are offering 100 photographers the chance to ‘test drive’ the Leica M during a three hour workshop. They recommend you take your own SD card so that you can take home the results. My place is booked and given my love of black and white, I hope I will get the opportunity to experience the Monochrom as well. It might be the only chance I get to release the shutter on one of these superbly crafted cameras. A camera with a wonderful heritage and built in temptation!

Olympus 17mm f1.8 lens at Cowdray Ruins

Cowdray Ruins
Cowdray Ruins

Faced with the choice of having just one lens what would it be? A prime lens or a zoom lens? If it had to be a prime lens then the vast majority of photographers would choose a focal length of either 35mm or 50mm. The latter is closest to the same field of vision as the naked eye, whereas a 35mm lens is a moderate wide angle. Both are very versatile but of the two my personal choice would be a 35mm lens.

I use a micro four thirds camera, the Olympus OMD EM5, which has a crop factor of x2, so the equivalent focal length for this camera format is 17.5mm. Although I can cover both 35mm and 50mm full frame focal lengths using the Panasonic 12 to 35 f2.8 zoom lens, there is nothing quite like having a compact, fast and sharp prime lens attached to the camera. Any prime lens encourages a more creative approach to photography. You have to frame your shot by moving your feet as opposed to twisting a barrel on the lens. A wide aperture can give a more limited depth of field, throwing backgrounds out of focus. In this respect it will never be a match for a full frame camera, but for my requirements this lens more than serves its purpose.

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The Olympus 17mm f1.8 prime lens

So in the past few days I decided to buy the Olympus 17mm f1.8 lens. In no way is this a review, but the all metal lens in black looks wonderful on the camera, is very fast to auto focus and has a ring which can be pulled back for manual focusing. It also reveals a distance scale which combined with the Depth of Field markings allow ‘zone focusing’, a technique often used by street photographers.

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The 17mm on the Olympus OMD EM5

Having only had the lens for a few days I have not yet had the chance to put it through its paces but I already think it could well become my default choice when I want to travel light with just the camera and a single lens.

I did though have the opportunity to take a couple of shots of Cowdray Ruins in Midhurst. I set the camera to take both RAW and JPEG (Fine). Set to f8, ISO 200 and a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, the JPEG straight out of the camera is I think very pleasing. Sharp across the frame and good colours from the Olympus processor.

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Cowdray Ruins – JPEG straight out of the camera

The RAW version was of course just asking to be converted to black and white…….

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The first mono version
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This is the same image as the one at the top of this post
but with a ‘coffee’ tint added in Silver Efex Pro2

Of the four versions I have my own personal favourite (it’s at the top for a reason) however this post was intended to be about a superb lens which I know will give me many hours of pleasure in time to come. With luck I will get out and about in the next few days to see just how capable it is in different conditions.

As an aside the Ruins at Cowdray in Midhurst, West Sussex are truly magnificent and I will definitely be returning to explore the photographic opportunites at some point in the future. 

The Olympus OMD EM5…..a year on

It’s nearly a year since I decided to commit to the micro 4/3rds system as my principal camera and I went out and bought a black Olympus OMD EM5. All the reviews were very complimentary although at that time the camera was still in relatively short supply. I managed to track one down and a year on I have no regrets. To the contrary the camera, the lenses and the results have exceeded all my expectations.

Olympus OMD EM5 with Panasonic f1.7 20mm prime lens
Olympus OMD EM5 with Panasonic f1.7 20mm prime lens

I have never written a camera review in my life and I don’t want to start now, but it may be helpful to anyone who reads this entry to know why I have so much enjoyed using this system in the past 12 months.

Firstly it has to be the quality of the results. The 16mb sensor captures so much detail and A3 size prints are excellent. They helped me achieve my LRPS distinction back in December when they were viewed by a well qualified and experienced panel of judges; a seal of approval as far as I am concerned. I have yet to print larger than A3 but will be doing so in the near future, so watch this space. I do not use Auto ISO as I prefer to set this myself and  nearly always use ISO 200. I will push it to ISO 1600 if lighting conditions are poor or I need more depth of field and a faster shutter speed. The quality is still good but I have not used a higher ISO rating.  The fantastic built in 5 axis image stabilisation is worth at least two stops which helps to offset the need to resort to a high ISO anyway. A lower ISO of say 100 would be good but it’s not something I really miss that much.

Olympus OMD EM5
The camera, its great 16mb sensor and Part 1 of the HLD-6 hand grip

Secondly it has to be the range and quality of the lenses from both Olympus and Panasonic. I can only comment on the ones I have in my collection. Having committed to micro 4/3rds and the EM5 in particular, I have been fortunate in the last year to acquire a fine range of optics.

The camera was supplied with a kit lens – 12mm to 60mm f3.5 – f6.3 but I have to say I have hardly ever used it. It is splash and dust proof and does have a macro function but that is not my style of photography.  It came with the camera and if ever I sell or upgrade the EM5 then I assume it will help the sale. It’s a reasonable lens, so no real complaints but it’s no match for the lenses I am about to mention.

One of the main reasons I was drawn to the system was the choice of excellent prime lenses. I now have the Olympus 12mm f2.0, the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 and the Olympus 45mm f1.8. They are all great lenses. They are very sharp, fast to auto focus and with their large aperture openings can be used in low light conditions without having to increase the ISO to a very high setting. They are lightweight and keep the camera and lens combination quite compact. I still can’t decide if I like the silver finish of the Olympus lenses on the black body? It is of course down to personal preference – they do look smart, but they are not so discreet for candid work.

Micro 4/3rds prime lenses
A set of prime lenses
From left to right – Olympus f2 12mm, Panasonic f1.7 20mm and Olympus f1.8 45mm

As much as I enjoyed using all three prime lenses, the 45mm probably being my favourite, I did find there were occasions when a zoom lens would be more flexible in general use. So when Panasonic announced the addition  of the 12mm – 35mm f2.8 and the 35mm – 100mm f2.8 to their range, the temptation was too hard to resist. It was made particularly more difficult when I spotted a second hand (as good as new) 12 -35 in my local camera store at a really attractive price, certainly when compared to the cost of a new one. These two lenses are quite superb in my view. To my untrained eyes they are a match in terms of optical quality to the prime lenses, are just as fast to autofocus and whilst f2.8 may not as wide as the primes, it’s plenty wide enough for most situations. They are splash and dust proof and whilst they do add to the bulk of the camera they sit well on the EM5. Compared to their full frame equivalents they are tiny in both bulk and weight. Do read this blog entry for a comparison.

Panasonic and Olympus micro 4/3rds zoom lenses
Zoom lenses for Micro 4/3rds cameras
From left to right
Olympus 12-60 kit lens, Panasonic f2.8 12-35mm and Panasonic f2.8 35-100mm

Lastly I have the Panasonic 45mm – 200mm lens which I bought second hand from a fellow member of my camera club. The two Panasonic lenses mentioned in the previous paragraph were not available when I bought this lens and frankly it doesn’t get a great deal of use. I rarely have a need for the extra length, but there will be times when the additional range will be useful, so I will keep it for now. It doesn’t share the image quality of the other lenses but it’s still very good, it’s just that the others are superb.

Thirdly the size, weight and feel of the camera is just right. This will not be the same for everyone and there are times when the small size of the buttons can be a nuisance, but I would rather have a relatively compact and lightweight system and just accept there will be times when I hit the wrong button. I can’t recall ever missing a shot as a result and I am sure there are seasoned DSLR users who will have used the wrong control unintentionally. Once you have explored all the camera settings the EM5 is very configurable and I now have it set up just as I like it. It does take a little time but it is worth the investment and a little trial and error.The tilt-able screen is a real bonus and the built in electronic view finder (EVF) is very clear.

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The tilt-able screen and some of the controls on the rear of the EM5

As far as accessories are concerned I have not used the detachable flash as I prefer to shoot in available light. I do though have the two part grip (HLD-6) and the first part stays on the camera 90% of the time. There is no question that it improves handling of the camera without adding too much extra weight or bulk. The second part of the grip houses the spare battery and provides extra controls for ‘portrait’ use. I don’t use it a great deal but when it is required it’s an excellent accessory. The spare battery on the other hand is essential, as the battery life is not that great compared to say the Nikon D90 DSLR which was my previous camera.

Olympus OMD EM5 with HLD 6 Hand grip
OMD EM5 with both parts of the HLD – 6 hand grip

Lastly I no longer need a large rucksack to carry all my gear, so I now have a Billingham Hadley shoulder bag which takes all I require for a days shoot, apart from a tripod of course. It’s a pleasure to use and I can happily fit the EM5, two part grip, both f2.8 Panasonic lenses and 2 or even all 3 prime lenses in the bag plus other bits and pieces, including an iPad.

Billingham Hadley shoulder bag and Olympus OMD EM5
Billingham Hadley Pro shoulder bag

Another big advantage is that I used to spend a lot of time reading reviews about the latest equipment. I am pleased to say this does not happen now, which frees up more of my time to take photographs and adding new entries to this blog – both of which give me far more pleasure!

I suppose the only draw back is the price. I do not dare to calculate the total cost but like most things in life you get what you pay for. My late father also told me to buy the best you can afford at the time. I am very fortunate and have been able to follow his advice and invest in a first class system, which is really enjoyable to use.

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First colour print from the Epson 3880

In a recent post I wrote about how pleased I was with the black and white results from the Epson 3880, not to mention how easy it was to set up and select the right settings. Whilst I expect most of my prints will be in monochrome, there will be times when I want to print a colour photograph, so I thought I would run a test print.

As opposed to using Lightroom I opened the image in Photoshop CS5, resized the image for A4 paper and selected the ‘Photoshop manages colours’ option. I also selected the ICC profile for the Fotospeed Platinum Lustre fine art paper which I had chosen for this first print.

The settings are shown in the screen shot below.

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The print settings in the Epson print driver is shown below.

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The printer started doing its job and the result looked quite promising. The printed colours were as I had hoped, although the clouds in the sky were rather more grey than blue when compared to how they appeared on the screen, but arguably more true to the scene itself.

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I have taken a shot of the finished print standing against the iMac. A camera will never satisfactorily capture the true colours of a back lit computer screen so it would be wrong to compare the print with this image below, so its purely for illustrative purposes. Having said that the screen does appear to have a ‘blue’ cast, so this is something I need to look in to in the future. It may well be the iMac needs calibrating which is something I have not done for quite some time. So in colour terms the print isn’t perfect but it’s more than acceptable and frankly if it wasn’t standing alongside the monitor no one would know the difference anyway.

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Having seen the results of this first test print I decided to print another version of the image with the same paper, ICC profile etc but using Lightroom instead of Photoshop. Lightroom has a ‘sharpening’ algorithm built in, so I wanted to compare the results both in terms of sharpness but also to see whether or not there was any noticeable colour variation.

In the print module in Lightroom I used the settings below, selecting ‘glossy’ paper for the print sharpening.

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When laid side by side the colour rendition of the two prints was very similar. I could not detect any difference in the greens and oranges of the foreground and middle distance, nor could I see any change to the colours in the distant hills and the clouds.  It’s pleasing to know there is no discernible difference when printing between these two programs, with one notable exception. The big difference between the two prints was the sharpness. I had not applied any extra sharpening when I printed from Photoshop, whereas Lightroom had applied it’s own sharpening for the size of print. There is no question the additional sharpening applied by Lightroom improved the image considerably. The grasses in the foreground now had real impact. The same can be said of the wall and the branches of the trees.

Given these were the first colour prints from the Epson 3880, I am very pleased. It really is quite a printer and in no way am I disappointed with any aspect of the product. Having read so many excellent reviews before deciding to purchase the 3880, there is always the possibility that it wouldn’t have met with expectations. This is far from the case. It’s a first class printer which more than meets my requirements and whilst it’s expensive at nearly £1,000, it fully justifies the cost in my opinion.

I now need to make sure that the quality of my photographs are up to the quality of the Epson 3880; after all, ‘rubbish in and rubbish out’, as the saying goes!

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The one to start it all ….. the Panasonic LX3

Back in January 2008 I bought what I considered to be my first serious digital camera. I had owned small compact cameras with tiny screens and hardly any megapixels at all but tempted by photography as a hobby, I wanted something which might just stretch me a little further. Something which had manual controls, a decent lens, and had the potential to shoot RAW. I might set it to full auto and jpeg to begin with and then experiment as time went on. I also wanted a camera that was small and that I could take anywhere. The idea of any sort of DSLR at that stage just didn’t appeal. I remember researching what was available and I finally settled for the Panasonic Lumix LX3. I considered it to be expensive compared to what I had used before but it ticked all the boxes. It even had a 10 mega pixel sensor which at the time was large for what was really just a top of the range compact camera.

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The Panasonic LX3 – the one that started it all

With a Leica lens the LX3 had a 2.5x zoom with a wide angle full frame equivalent of 24mm to 60mm, at f2 to f2.8. A switch on the lens gave the option to very quickly change the aspect ratio from 4:3, to 3:2 and finally 16:9. The ‘Q’ menu also worked very well to change the in camera settings without having to go into the main menu. I was delighted with the performance and one of the very first shots I took was the image below of Bognor Regis Pier. I have only just rediscovered this photo so that I could write this blog entry. To my surprise it was shot in black and white and not converted at a later stage. Perhaps my desire to shoot in mono and my love of black and white goes right back to my very first outing with the LX3!

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‘Bognor Regis Pier’
One of the very first images I took with the LX3

To demonstrate the camera’s capability I took the shot below in the confectionary department of the famous London store, Fortnum and Mason, in April 2009. Shot as a jpeg with a few minor corrections in Lightroom, it was hand held at f2.0, 1/30th of a second at ISO 200. I was able to print this image onto A3 paper and then using a 50cm x 40cm mount, which is the standard size required by most camera clubs, it was entered into a ‘Set Subject’ competition called ‘Temptation’ and awarded 10 out 10. One of my very early club successes.

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‘All sorts Sir?
Taken in Fortnum and Mason, April 2009 with the Panasonic LX3

I still have the LX3 and I doubt if I will ever sell it. It’s a great little camera capable of really excellent results. I should take it out with me more often…..it’s very discreet and produces good sharp images. It has been superceded by the LX5 and now the LX7, but for me the LX3 is the camera which started my love of this totally absorbing hobby called photography.

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