Tuesday, November 29, 2011

RAW vs JPEG with the Sony A77

Straight out of the A77

As a shooter of RAW (or Sony *.ARW) files, it was a bit scary to be out shooting JPEGs the other day. But I did it for a couple of reasons.
First, I had entered a SOOC (straight out of the camera; that is, no post processing) contest in the fun photographers' group I'm in (US Photographers in Europe) and was still in that frame of mind.
Second, I had read a lot about how blurry the A77's JPEGs were, yet also how poorly Lightroom renders the RAW files. So I had to do some practical testing in JPEG mode!
Finally, I wanted to try out some of the fun picture effects which the A77 offers: toy camera, pop color, posterization (color or b/w), retro photo, soft high-key, partial color (image retains either red, green, blue or yellow and makes the rest b/w), high contrast mono, soft focus, HDR painting, rich-tone mono, and miniature. This was something I had never had the option to get SOOC, so I decided to test my eye. You need to find the right situation to use such filters effectively.

In the digital age, when you shoot RAW files, you end up with a digital negative, with which you can do all the non-destructive post-processing you want in a program like Lightroom and never lose your original data. The files are larger than the compressed JPEGs and must be processed to some degree to look like anything at all. But the point is that afterwards you can (re-)create the picture that you (wished you) had taken with your camera. The emphasis with RAW is on the word 'afterwards'.
With JPEGs you have to do a lot of thinking beforehand, which is not necessarily bad. Some of the most personally satisfying photos I've taken were visualized and sketched out before I shot them. Since the camera compresses the image, little can be done to the picture in post-processing without damaging it. So it is best to set the white balance correctly and to have the creative style (vivid, b/w, light, clear, etc.) chosen with the particular motif in mind. That doesn't always work for my type of photography because I do a lot of spontaneous street shooting.

Down at Stuttgart's beautiful Christmas market, I decided to try some of the effects on the miniature train landscape that is built up there every year. First there was the in-camera HDR painting look. The camera releases the shutter three times and gives you one picture, the intensity of which you can set beforehand. With this effect, you can almost make a miniature landscape blend in with a heroic-looking backdrop.

The miniature effect adds vivid colors to the picture and defocuses parts of the picture that you choose. The effect is similar to what you would get with an expensive tilt-shift lens or with a Lens Baby attachment. You can clearly see what parts of the picture will be out of focus.

However, the idea is to make a life-size landscape or city-scape look miniature. This type of selective blurring can also be done in post-processing fairly easily.

In the picture below I chose to have the checkered man in focus and the passers-by blurred.

The selective blurring in the following picture also seems to be effective, especially when combined with the in-camera vivid setting.

Another effect I've grown fond of is the posterization effect. You can try it with high contrast colors or in black-and-white. It is good to have bright colors in the picture to begin with, but even if you don't the camera setting will create them for you. This plate of bread with red peppers, cream cheese and anchovies was set on a light brown table. Again, as with most of the other effects, you see what the picture will look like before you take it. The HDR and rich-tone monochromatic settings take three pictures and composite them in the camera, so you don't see the result until the processing has been done. Expect to wait approximately 13 seconds for the camera to do its thing!

The advantage of using the b/w posterization effect is that high-ISO settings are not a problem. What might be a potential problem with this effect (both color and b/w) is that the white parts have no information in them and cannot be changed much in normal post-processing.

These are the effects I would probably use the most because they are eye-catching and very different from what my normal post-processing work would show. The others are more subtle and require a bit more finesse. For instance, the retro photo look combines sepia tones and reduced contrast. This is one of the types of looks that you can get from an iPhone app and thus it is all the rage. I think I've seen too many of these instamatix pix to appreciate their novelty any more.

The A77 can also master many more in-camera effects, including panoramas, 3D panoramas and hand-held twilight pictures. I'll report on these after I've had more experience with them.

    Wednesday, November 23, 2011

    Light, light and light again!

    Light, light and light again!

    Photography is nothing but writing with light, as the etymology of the word tells us. In the autumn the sunlight has a special quality that can't be captured in nature at other times of the year. Sometimes I ask myself whether it is the reflection of the sunlight on the yellow and orange leaves which makes it so colorful, or whether there are little particles in the air that function as a filter. But I'm no meteorologist; I'm a photographer. Joe McNally can tell you how to create a similar looking light with a couple of small flashes, but how do you capture the autumnal feeling of a scene like this?

    Yes, you could paint the leaves of the trees any color you wanted in Photoshop, but could you render the light realistically? Is this picture interesting because of the colors or because of the light? Or is it more artistic looking and more pleasing to you in black-and-white?

    I wonder if it is just the colors? Looking at my pictures critically helps me find out what is special about them. Does this split-tone picture have an autumnal feel to you? Why (not)?

    Backlighting may have something to do with this fall feeling. A few seconds can make a big difference in either simply capturing a pretty face or creating a nice portrait. The sun broke through the chestnut trees from one second to the next here. Can you wish for better light, better colors, a prettier profile?

    I've always done event and journalistic photography. It is rare that you are blessed with this kind of natural light when you are on assignment!

    So there you have a homework assignment. Look at your own pictures critically. Is the light adequate or is it fantastic? Does it help light the subject or does it make the picture what it is? What could you have done to improve it? How, where and when can you find such light again?

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011

    Find it and shoot it!

    Find it and shoot it! 

    Once you find a good motif, take as many pictures of it as you can. "Shoot it to death," some might say. You know what I'm talking about. Perfect light, great models, plenty of time. A photographer's dream, right? I found that combination at the zoo last month, but I've also run across such motifs in the city and even at home.

    Sometimes the "models" give you more than you asked for!

    The light may change, giving the photographer and the viewers a new look at the monkeys.

    I didn't think grooming was supposed to hurt.

    After observing the alpha male running around the enclosure for a while, I was able to anticipate when it would jump.

    If I had continued with my studies of biology, I might be able to tell you what the large male was trying to convey to the female, but I'll bet she understood his intention without a graduate degree.

    The little monkeys were trying to climb up the steep cliff to where the others were sitting. When the one on the left slipped and fell, the other couldn't do much but hold on and watch.

    Monday, November 21, 2011

    Shopping and shooting at night

    Shopping and shooting at night

    Twice a year (in April and November), the Swabians go crazy and let people shop until they drop (or until midnight, whichever comes first). A couple of weeks ago, I went shooting with my photo friend Stephen to further test the nighttime abilities of my new A77. I was using both the Minolta 1.7/50mm prime lens and the Minolta 4/70-210 zoom, also known as the 'beercan' (because it looks like one!).
    Obviously, the zoomed-in pictures were taken with the beercan. I wouldn't normally post two zooms at once, but the one above seems perfect to illustrate this story. And the one below I just love. When you are hand-holding a long lens like that, it is difficult to hold the camera steady so you can get straight lines.

    The city had paid for various types of illumination, mostly elfinly phallic orange cones, signifying...I don't know what. Firelight perhaps? The evening was mild for early November, so Stephen and I were able to enjoy the sights from 6:30-11:00 pm.

    The evening was devoted to the retail merchants, who did a good bit of business that evening, even though their winter clothes - such as these hats - stayed on the shelf because no one really wanted to believe that cold weather was on its way.

    Buy me!
    We got something to eat after watching the St. Martin's Day parade march past the Neues Schloß in the dark. Not even 6400 ISO could salvage a good picture of that parade. It will remain a challenge for yet another year. Here's a picture for those of you who have never seen a German St. Martin's parade. It's usually very cold and the kids (and parents) are hungry and no one knows but the first verse of the songs that are being sung (badly) to the accompaniment of the cold, out of tune brass instruments.

    The Königstrasse was full of people, including street musicians from Chile who play new age Indio music and dress up for the Europeans.

    The city had also paid for a few special acts, such as the fire twirlers. They put on quite a show for the several hundred on-lookers. It was difficult to get a good place to watch from but with the flip-out screen on the A77 I could easily shoot above the crowd's heads.

    Sunday, November 20, 2011

    Concert Photos

    Concert Photos

    Tamron 2.8/17-50, 26mm, 1/50 sec., f3.5, 800 ISO
    There is a talented young funk band here in Stuttgart named No Better Question that I like quite a lot. I got to know the lead singer last year while he was doing an internship at the DAZ where a photo exhibition of mine was hanging.
    Since I've been comparing the quality of pictures produced by Sony's A700 and A77 cameras here recently, I thought I would continue that while offering my regular readers some real content. The first four pictures here were taken with the Sony A700 in May 2011 at the Jugendhaus Ost and the last three were taken with the A77 in November 2012 at BIX.

    Tamron 2.8/17-50, 50mm, 1/50 sec., f3.5, 1600 ISO
    In a live concert situation, you can not count on the lighting to help you. You have to help the lighting. How? Of course high-ISO settings help but you also need to observe how the light hits each of the players and from which angle it would be best to photograph them from. If you are allowed the luxury of being able to move around and shoot at will, you'll be able to find the right angles for optimally capturing the musicians and their instruments.

    Tamron 2.8/17-50, 50mm, 1/40 sec., f4, 500 ISO
    While preparing my first post with pictures from a concert, I learned that desaturating the pictures helps eliminate a lot of the noise that comes with such low-light situations. However, it really depends on the amount of light you have and where it falls. The picture below has a terrific spray of light in it.

    Tamron 2.8/17-50, 50mm, 1/100 sec., f4, 800 ISO

    Tokina 2.8/28-80, 80mm, 1/80 sec., f3.5, 800 ISO
    Desaturating the picture above would be nearly as unpatriotic (for an American) as wearing that shirt would be. Plus, the lovely retro bronze color of the BIX interior is something I wouldn't want you to miss!
    The next picture, however, gains little from the blue and purple colors shining in the singer's hair. 

    Tokina 2.8/28-80, 80mm, 1/100 sec., f4.5, 1600 ISO

    This is what it would look like with a high-contrast black-and-white pass put on it. The viewer's eye can concentrate much more easily on the important elements.
    In this last image, the high-ISO setting was required to capture the action with a relatively fast shutter speed. Again, the disadvantages of noise must be weighed against the ability to capture the moment. And, of course, you must know beforehand if you are going to use the pictures on the web or print them. In this case, the noise doesn't detract at all from the image quality.

    Tokina 2.8/28-80, 80mm, 1/200 sec., f3.2, 3200 ISO

    Thursday, November 17, 2011

    Count the zeros: Sony A77's 16,000 ISO (just sayin')

    Count the zeros: 16,000 ISO (just sayin')

    You want real-life pictures of really high ISO photos from Sony's new A77? You have read that the details get lost when you get to 6400 ISO? Here are some pictures I took last week at 11:30 p.m. waiting for the last streetcar to take me home. Here is a series starting at 1600 ISO and going up to 16,000!

    A77, Minolta f4-4.5/28-135 at 28mm, 1600 ISO, 1/15 sec., f5.6
    A77, Minolta f4-4.5/28-135 at 28mm, 6400 ISO, 1/30 sec., f5.6
    The advantages of lower ISO speeds are counteracted by the required slow shutter speeds, especially if motion is involved.

    A77, Minolta f4-4.5/28-135 at 28mm, 6400 ISO, 1/60 sec., f5.6

    A77, Minolta f4-4.5/28-135 at 28mm, 12,800 ISO, 1/125 sec., f5.6

    A77, Minolta f4-4.5/28-135 at 28mm, 16,000 ISO, 1/160 sec., f5.6
    I can clearly read the letters of the next arrivals and even the house number of the building 100 yards away. Here's a 100% crop:

    A77, Minolta f4-4.5/28-135 at 28mm, 16,000 ISO, 1/160 sec., f5.6
    100% crop

    Yes, there is noise but there is also detail. And I didn't even post-process these pictures as much as I could have. I just wanted to show you that this camera can take decent pictures in very low light. How about yours? What do you do if you need/want to take pictures in the dark?

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011

    The new Sony A77 - a personal review

    The new Sony A77 - a personal review

    Looking at home now on the shelf among a forest of lenses is my new Sony Alpha 77, the camera I'd been eagerly awaiting for over a year. The A700 which it replaces looks somewhat old-fashioned next to it, though the new creation also has a similarly robust magnesium alloy body with oodles of buttons at your fingertips, making it easy to change settings while still following your subject through the viewfinder. The first thing you notice different about the A77 is the gold sticker on top of the flash that advertises its "Full HD Movie" capability. The top display panel  makes seasoned Sony users think "top of the line", and the fold-out rear display reminds some of us of our earlier models. The former is found only on the A850 and A900, but the latter could be found on every Alpha from the 300 on up to the 580. But there is a new twist to the display, adding a new dimension to live-view and thus self-portrait photography.

    The first week I used the camera, I was slightly disappointed. I liked the smooth-looking video quality but wasn't blown away by the high ISO picture quality. I puzzled several friends with my luke-warm response to Sony's newest camera coup. Even though I very quickly became acclimated to the positioning of the buttons and learned how to avoid the lag of the electronic viewfinder, I just didn't see any difference in the picture quality. The files were twice as large as those of the A700 but I didn't seem to be getting my money's worth.

    Since buying the camera on October 21, I've taken 3500 "keepers" and learned to love many of the camera's new advantages. On the other hand, I've also deleted over 1000 pictures, a ratio that I never had with the A700 but I'll attribute the high number to the learning curve and my not wanting to overtax my hard drives.

    The new camera uses the same battery pack, can use the same A-mount lenses (though some Sigma HSM lenses may need a *free* update of the chip), and is also rigged to record data to the Sony Memory Sticks. However, A700 users who invested in Compact Flash cards will have to trade them in for the industry standard SD/SDHC/SDXC cards or the Sony Memory Stick PRO Duo/Pro-HG Duo medio. You can also use Eye-Fi cards in the A77, which allow you to upload the files directly to your computer or website. The size, weight and build of the cameras are very similar, so it won't take long to get used to the feel of the new camera.

    So what's new? Read on. I had worked with my (three!) A700s for years and was very pleased with the cameras' performance. Ever since the Nikon D90 came out with video capability, I had considering switching brands on account of the ability to take movies with a DSLR. Then the accolades that Canon's 5D Mark IV had received for its video performance made me more curious than ever to try it out, even though two good friends with the Canon had rarely used the function. Well, the A77 has the best video capability of any digital camera currently on the market. It can take full HD movies using the AVCHD format at 1080 60i (NTSC) or 1080 50i (PAL), which means that the camera utilizes 1,080 scanning lines and the interlace system. An HD specification using 720 scanning lines and the progressive system is also available, as is the MPEG-4 format at either 1440x1080 (12M) or VGA (3M) resolution.

    The A77 sports front and rear adjustment dials (as do the A700, A850 and A900), which come in very handy when shooting in manual mode at a concert, for example. This flexibility, along with the dedicated buttons on the back, let you concentrate on the world around you rather than on the menus in the camera. Furthermore, the EVF is predestined to allow the photographer to shoot in manual mode without ever taking his or her eye of the action. You see how much light is reaching the sensor because, as with the most user-friendly computer programs, WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). In addition, the 100% coverage of the viewfinder is on par with the top-of-the-line cameras from the competition.

    The A700 lacked the live-view function that my A300 and A550 had, but I got used to not having that capability. However, with a 19-month-old child, I find it is a real back, neck and knee saver: just pop out the screen and drop the camera to her level. And with all the political demonstrations going on where I live, the screen makes it easy to shoot over others' heads.

    The tilt screen is good for getting down low
    Getting the right shot when holding the camera over your head is made easier with the tilt screen.
    With the A700 I rarely shot above ISO 1600, usually keeping it down around a maximum of ISO 1000 for indoor work. ISO 2000 was simply unusable in most cases. Outdoors on the street during the day I would, however, shoot in aperture priority at ISO 800 to assure a fast shutter speed and never had qualms with the resulting picture quality. The new camera, I hoped, would give me the ability to use ISO 1600-3200 like a Nikon D3s user; in other words, I was hoping for low noise in the high ISO range.
    Confession: One problem I was having with high-ISO photos taken with the A700 was due to my faulty settings. I would shoot at ISO 1000 and underexpose the photo by -0.7 to allow for a faster shutter speed. To compensate for the dark picture, I would let the Dynamic Range Optimization to Level 3. If you want noise in a picture, this is the way to get it! I've since learned that I should have done just the opposite: Shoot at 1600 or 3200, turn off the DRO and over-expose the photo +0.3, thus effectively illuminating dark areas.

    ISO 3200 is no problem for the A77 if you do not under-expose your shots.
    I take a mixture of available-light pictures and flash portraits. Sony's wireless flash capabilities are not as advanced as those of the Nikons or Canons, but my HVL 58 can control my two HVL 42 flashes and my new radio transmitter helps me out with wireless flashing on sunny days or when a flash is positioned behind an umbrella. The external flashes can also be triggered by the pop-up flash on the camera.

    Now for a bit of bad news (and how to learn to live with it): What I still don't like about the camera is that it takes a second or two to re-activate after awaking from the power save mode. I find this annoying when shooting brief bursts with pauses, be it at a concert or in my living room. Whereas a camera outfitted with an optical viewfinder (OVF) is always ready to click away, cameras with an electronic viewfinder (EVF) - including bridge cameras - take a little while to wake up. Solution: turn out the energy save mode in such situations! The battery will drain quickly if you keep the live view screen turned on, so beware and (always) carry a second battery with you.
    I also miss the ability to change picture quality in the screen (function) menu, and I miss cRAW (a smaller, compressed - lossless - RAW format), especially since the 24.3MP RAW files on the A77 are approximately 24MB in size. You can, of course, shoot in the extra fine jpeg mode, but the downsides there are that you cannot as flexibly post-process the images as you can with RAW files and the camera does some of the processing (white balance, noise reduction, creative style, etc.) in-camera for you.
    Unfortunately, the A77 does not include a remote control, so you'll have to keep yours from the A700 if you want to shoot remote, which is easy with the flip-and-swivel screen. The most recent firmware release (v. 1.03) does not allow tethering in LR, but this and some of the other little problems may well be solved by an update soon. Users are also hoping a few other slight nuisances will be corrected by the new firmware: the boot and shut-down times are too long; the menus and controls lag when you want to manipulate them with the control dials; the camera clicks back into auto focus mode if you don't take a picture for about ten seconds. The internet forums are full of lists of firmware wishes for the camera now - as they were, ironically, even before the camera was for sale!

    Other camera makers offer a GPS attachment which you can put on the hot shoe. A Nikon unit will cost you $189. And both Nikon and Canon have put a GPS in a few of their new point-and-shoot digital cameras. Sony has integrated GPS units in both the new A65 and A77 cameras and even had one in last year's SLT A55 model. Now you'll never have to wonder where you were when you took certain pictures. I've read that if you have the GPS turned on, it may drain the battery more quickly, which makes sense because the camera is constantly contacting three orbiting satellites. Around town I have the GPS turned off.

    It is time now to bundle some real-life pictures for you readers and post them as I used to. I hope you have learned something from this review and from the past couple of posts with the picture comparisons. For me the decision is clear: A77.