Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Why No Video?

Why is there no coverage of making moving images in UK photographic magazines? Apart from a mention of the (increasing) video capabilities of cameras in reviews and comments like, clients demand video from professionals, there is nothing. No reviews of video quality, of camcorders, of editing software — nothing. Video is treated as vaguely embarrassing that no real photographer would be interested in. But with more and more people using everything from camera phones to DSLRs, why the omission?
It is not as if coverage of the techniques of film making were not needed. Look at the appalling footage uploaded to Youtube and you will see that even the most basic knowledge is lacking - keep the camera still, don’t zoom unless you have to and so on. After the demise of the devoted video and video editing magazines (which were set up when the technical aspects of capturing and editing video were cutting edge) the photographic magazines have not picked up on the demand from readers. Cinematography has a different language from still so perhaps the magazine editors know nothing about it. But, the publishers are missing a trick somewhere. 
Because of the difference in ‘language’ still photography and cine photography have tended to exist in isolation. However, this was not always the case. Amateur Photographer had a section devoted to cine many years ago.
As a still and cine photographer (standard 8 mm, Super 8, H8 video, mini DV and now HD) I see no virtue in excluding video from photographic magazines. Quite the opposite since increasing numbers of consumers are seeing still photography as being second best. Stills of wildlife (including children) no matter how good, just don’t capture the essence of a subject. They lack the fourth dimension of time and that’s where video scores. Most animals move and it is that movement, even over a very short sequence, that, to me, is essential. Even the shortest movie tells me more than a still photograph. After all, nobody would watch a BBC wildlife programme made up of still photographs, would they?

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Springwatch Binocular Battle 2012

How did the battle of the binoculars on BBC’s Springwatch go this year? I didn’t see all the episodes but it looks as if appearances of Leica, Swarowski and Nikon were pretty well evenly matched. Zeiss had no presence as far as I could see. The marketing men of the various companies must be analysing the appearances of their brand down to the second.

My whole family think Leica still have the edge in the part of the range we favour (8-10 x 32-42). That’s a good job since we could not bear to buy Swarovski and be seen to be associated with those awful glass trinkets they made their name with.

By the way, ever wondered why Swarovskis favour the necks of so many wildlife guides. Wonder no more - special deals are done. Good marketing, which may help explain why that company came from nowhere to take such a dominant role.
Zeiss seemed to lose the plot for a while. They had such a dominant position for decades - all good binoculars were Zeiss. I suppose like many German companies they rested on their laurels for too long. They can’t have been helped by the cheap East German Zeiss Jena range which muddied the brand until German reunification.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Anti-aliasing: Anti or Pro

A very useful and gentle debunking of the current fad for cameras with no anti-aliasing filter (AAF) over their sensor appeared in Amateur Photographer (9 June 2012 issue). The fad for no AAF seems to have arisen because some people seem to think they are getting a more accurate representation without an AAF and that the sole purpose of an AAF is to prevent moiré pattern formation. All my reading is that such reasoning is based on a false premise. The article in AP lays out why the arguments for having no AAF are flawed. However, the demand for customers has been such that several manufacturers now make cameras without an AAF, the Nikon D800E for example.

The extra ‘sharpness’ (‘crunchy’ as the article described it) from sensors lacking an AAF is is fact an artefact of the sampling systems inherent in digital imaging. The crunchiness may be attractive or judged desirable by some but it is no more a reflection of reality than an over-sharpened photoshop job. We are not being cheated into accepting less of the detail that is there by the manufacturers who fit an AAF; an AAF ensures we see the best representation of the image that is presented to the sensor by the lens. AAFs are expensive to manufacture and no designer is going to add such a costly item  to produce what some misguided individuals interpret as a degraded or second-rate image. As the author of the article explains, the fall-off in contrast between features brought about by the necessary but imperfect AAFs, is best corrected during processing by using a sharpening procedure, ‘unsharp mask’ for example.

I have seen the argument advanced (particularly in US-based internet-forums) that because medium-format digital cameras do not use AAFs (and the marketing bumph for such cameras make a virtue of that point) then the lack of an AAF is a desirable feature - the ‘what’s good enough for Hasselblad is good enough for me’ type of argument. Unfortunately, these declaimers fail to realise that medium-format cameras lack an AAF because it is too expensive for manufacturers to include one made to the required size, and that the marketeers have had to make a (false) virtue out of a necessity. Incidentally, Hasselblad must be feeling pretty sore after the comparisons showing their very expensive cameras are outperformed by the Nikon D800.

Nevertheless, some camera manufacturers listen to their customers and, right or wrong, have given the choice of a camera with or without an anti-aliasing filter.

I hesitate to recommend the article by Professor Bob Newman in AP wholeheartedly because while the conclusions he presents are clear, as usual in these articles the technical explanations are abstruse and assume a level of knowledge not possessed by probably 99.9% of readers. That 99.9% includes me and I know something of the work and importance of Shannon and Nyquist. The explanations of the diagrams in this and other articles are very poor. The Editor of AP either needs to allow more space for important articles so that concepts and explanations can be spelt out, or he needs to employ a science writer skilled in taking the bare bones of an article and ensuring that the intended readership can actually follow the argument. Apart from that criticism and suggestion for improvement, AP is to be congratulated for examining such technical matters in digital photography and informing the reader of what marketing material reflects reality and what is hype.

So, would I buy the 800E (lacking an AAF) rather than the 800 as a replacement for my D700. No!

Saturday, 9 June 2012

More on Tolerances

In the middle 1960s when there were some truly awful cameras on the market, Amateur Photographer did become involved. RG Lewis, the dealers, then with six shops in England, now just the one in London, picked up on the problem, reproducing the piece from AP, and their advertisements carried under the headline, Cameras Scientifically Tested, the following text:

Any camera of a leading make supplied by us can receive a free photographic test under the direction of ALM Sowerby BA MSc Hon FRPS DGPh, ex Editor in Cheif Amateur Photographer, and Mr Sowerby will certify the lens definition after a microscopic examination of the negatives. No charge is made for this service, which is available at only six addresses in this country.

This is a scan from an RG Lewis advertisement:

Friday, 8 June 2012

Are all cameras born equal?

One of my first memories of Amateur Photographer is of the test photographs taken of HQS (formerly HMS) Wellington moored alongside the Thames embankment that formed part of the review of every new camera that appeared on the British market. Enlargements to show the centre and edge definition at several apertures were shown. A shutter test was also made which involved a comparison of the stated speed with the measured speed. On my desk now is a November 1964 copy of the magazine containing the review of the Voigtlander Vitrona. The shutter speed was measured in milliseconds and converted to the nearest fraction of a second. The stated speeds for the Prontor 250 shutter were 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250 second with measured speeds of 1/30, 1/56, 1/120 and 1/240.
The obvious question of whether a pre-tested camera was supplied for review by the manufacturer was never raised and as we pored over the results for different cameras each week, we were never given information on how much variation there was between cameras sold to the public or what the manufacturing tolerances were. In 2012, we are still not given that information. If you went into a shop in 1964 and bought a Voigtlander Vitrona off the shelf, how would its 50mm Lanthar lens perform compared with the one tested by Amateur Photographer? Would its shutter fire at 1/240 second?
The same sort of questions apply today. Are the manufacturing tolerances of cheaper lenses, for example, wider than those of the major manufacturers? In the absence of testing a larger sample of the same model, we just do not know. Are the tolerances of a major camera like my Nikon D700 or the D800 so tight that any differences between individual cameras are immaterial? Are ‘entry-level’ DSLRs more variable or still made to tight tolerances with cheaper materials and components?