Home-Hacking the Fujifilm X-Pro-2

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Why don't more industrial designers design for fingertips? They seem to understand grip, but sensation... less.

Over the past couple of years I've taken to hacking the mechanical controls of my cameras (and a few other items) with Sugru, a quick-curing material that's a bit like a cross between modeling clay and rubber. The idea is simple: provide tactile landmarks for my fingers, so that I can use the camera's controls without needing to look at them -- either because it's raised to my eye, or even if the camera is out of sight in my bag or jacket pocket, preparing for the next shot.

In this photo, the red blobs are bits of Sugru. In the past I've used black. The color is pretty unimportant, what matters is the material feel against your finger.

Sugru is strong but the nubs usually wear down after a few months of daily use. They're easily replaced in about three minutes.

The Idea:

If you're reading this on a computer, run your fingers along the center row of keys. On most American-style QWERTY keyboards you'll feel tiny "nubs" on the "F" and "J" keys. Even if you don't think about them, your brain does use that extra information to help align and coordinate touch-typing (You may find a bump on the "5" key if you have a numeric keyboard, too). They're nearly ubiquitous now, though the patent on the idea (for keyboards) was only filed by June E Botich in 2002.

The same idea works great for cameras or other devices with multiple hard-to-distinguish buttons. On my Fuji-X cameras, I put a dot of rubber on the AF and AE lock buttons, and one near the "zero" of the exposure-compensation dial.

Not only does it help me navigate individual cameras, but it also helps me when I switch cameras, say from the X-Pro2 to X-T1 or X100T. The button layouts might be different, but my thumb and fingers know the feel of matching controls.

For other cameras with fewer mechanical controls, like the little Lumixes, I just add a dot on the main dial to indicate the "P" setting. Always, the goal is to let my hand do as much of the navigation as possible, rather than burden my eye, which should be watching for The Picture.

Home-Hacking the Fujifilm X-Pro-2: posted March 17, 2016 | 0 Comments

LX7 (with a little LX5)

As has been a habit, Iím coming to write up a usage report for a camera only by the time its replacement has been announced: the LX7 is about to make way for LX100 (or for the Leica marque, D-Lux Typ 109), which Iím sure will be a fine camera too. Iíll stick to my 7 until circumstances warrant a switch -- which is how I felt about the LX5 for nearly a year after the LX7 first appeared. What finally changed my mind?

The aperture ring. As much as possible I want a camera that I can use without needing to check menus and displays. If I can roll over to the far end of the apertures and then count clicks to know my f/stop, without ever taking my eye off the scene in front of the camera, Iím happy.

Little Things Make a Difference

Looking over the other improvements listed in the brochures: 1080p video, faster aperture, etc, none of them stand out as crucial differentiators for me except this: the LX7 uses the same batteries as the LX5, meaning that I could have two cameras with me using the same battery type. So leapfrogging my LX3 (different battery) with the LX7 meant I could set aside all those old batteries and chargers. This not-very-visible difference can be a huge deal when out running around shooting! One set of batteries to juice them all.

The photos on this post are from a springtime trip where we shared an LX5, LX7, and also brought along a Fuji X100s as the "big" camera (more on that later). One set of Lumix batteries made for more relaxed days.

I was initially excited by the LX7's new 3D shooting feature -- we already have a 3D TV around, and Iíve shot a lot of stereo over the years. But in practice itís been used only once or twice.

That said, there are three other features of the LX7 that Iíve come to love: the Outboard clip-on EVF, the ND filter, and (to my surprise) Dynamic Color Mode.

EVF: (External) Electronic View Finder

The similar EVF on the LX5 was already surprisingly great. The LX7ís, while oddly chunky-looking, is even better. This became especially useful as Iíve also become keen on the ďdynamic colorĒ mode in both cameras. Yes, itís one of those gawky Instagram-ish filter modes. It has a beautiful ability to get detail out of shadows. Itís tremendous on sculpture, on woodwork, it even has an occasional place in portraiture. Seeing it as you shoot: terrific.

Built-In Neutral-Density (ND) Filter

The 3-stop ND filter is usually hyped as a means to use strobe outdoors. And yes, it does this too. But Iíve found it useful for another purpose: a three-stop drop is just about perfect as the difference between sunny exposures and sky-lit shady ones. Since I shoot a lot in changeable sun, among the skyscrapers of the San Francisco Financial District or in forest, the ND button is a great manual-exposure tool -- I set my manual exposure for shade, then with one press of the ND button, Iím good for sunshine. And vice versa. A very big deal for someone like me who likes to manage the camera by finger without taking my eye off the shot.

Using the LX7 in tandem with the Fuji X100S ended up being a very enjoyable (silent and lightweight) travel/street combo: the LX7 provided wide and short telephoto ability, excellent macro, color fun (Fuji has similar modes, but I'm used to the LX!), and the occasional variance from the 3::2 format, while the Fuji provided amazing low-light performance and faster operation.

Dynamic Color Mode

Compare the "dynamic color" shot above to the standard one taken a few seconds later. It may not be "natural" but the detailed information in the shot, especially around the buildings in the background, is to my mind superior

This isn't to say that the standard color rendition is bad -- here are a couple of samples to show that it's the opposite! You can see the LX5 in this shot -- can you find the other snap of it in this post? And the (blurry) LX7?

Again, the dynamic color made really brings out fine scultural detail, as in this Rodin figure -- without having to resort to using a RAW file and manipulation in Photoshop later on.

Another quick comparison of color modes: Retro, Soft, and the surprisingly snappy Dynamic Monochrome.

LX7 (with a little LX5): posted September 22, 2014 | 0 Comments

Upgrades

Third Almost to Minna

Third St Almost to Minna

Itís been a while since Iíve written about the web tech of botzilla or random photo gear issues. No time like the present.

First off Iíve been slowly updating all of botzilla to use more modern web frameworks, which happily work well with the ratchety old Moveable Type backend. The blog portions were easy to complete, the older Powershot & Streetphoto archive bits will come soon enough. Iím also rearranging some of the tag bins, mostly to reflect the changes in botzilla intent since the original charter.

Given the general growth of the blogosphere since botzillaís early day, I doubt that anyone other than myself will really notices these changes.

On the camera front, my Canons are being retired, along with my TLRs and Bronica rangefinder (one TLR, the Bronica, a 5D body and a couple of lenses are still for sale!). I initially intended to replace them with the latest Leicasonic LX (LX-7) and later a Fuji X100sÖ to my surprise the littler of these little cameras was dominant for a while, though over time and practice Iíve come to use the X100s more and more, eventually supplanting it with an X-T1 which is terrific and provdes a second career for my Contax lenses, but the X100s is still doing the bulk of my shooting as of September 2014.

Like everyone, Iím also shooting a lot with my phone, occasionally with a tablet, and intermittently with Google Glass. More entries to come on all of these technologies as I stumbled along ahead.

Upgrades: posted September 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

Three

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I've been shooting for some time now with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 (aka Leica D-Lux 4, more or less). I've come to think that it's overall the best small camera I've ever used.

As a companion to my previous LX1 and LX2 notes, here's a personalized LX3 overview.

For myself, the key refinements over the previous cameras are:

Speed of Recording
The LX3 shoots RAW files quickly. No seven- or five-second waits.
Speed of Operation
The addition of the little AF-assist button lets you use the AF selectively, much like the Canon "Custom-Function-4" -- that is, leave the focus-mode selector on Manual and just use the AF intermittently, selectively. So "quick mode" is: MF w/auto-assist + manual exposure (alternatively, zone-focus:zoomed all the way out to 24mm gives a zone focus (at f/8) from a half-meter to infinity).
Hot Shoe
This one I was slow to warm to, and the dedicated-synchro connector I haven't used -- but with manual strobes (or a radio trigger), it's a terrific tool and it synchs at all speeds.
Faster Lens, Better Low-Light Performance
The higher ISO's are much improved, while the extra stop worth of light lets you get more out of the low ones.

That's really it! A short list but each item has had a big impact.

My (small) bag currently contains the stuff shown in the top snapshot: the LX3, a corded manual strobe, and my LX2 as a backup for shots that can benefit from its slightly longer lens.

In a pinch, the whole kit (plus spare batteries, SD cards, & a pocket notebook) can be transfered from bag to a few coat pockets.

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ISO 100 with Vivitar 285 dialed down to 1/16 power

The Canon 5D usually sits at home -- more powerful, faster, but comparatively huge. As they say, the best camera is the one in your hand.

Some other new LX3 attributes I've found useful though less crucial:

HD Video
I can imagine this being a killer app for some people. It hasn't been, for me (though I've used it on occasion).
Face Recognition AF
Again, this is very cool as a "geek factor" feature, but I haven't found a use for it. Yet.
External Viewfinder
I was so excited about this at first. I have a Voigtlander 25mm finder that works reasonably (though it blocks the built-in flash) and a 50mm finder that corresponds well to the LX3's long end. The "LCD display off" feature is a nice touch. Yet the truth is that the LCD is excellent and besides, I'm a comfortable LX hip shooter.
Auxiliary Lenses
The 24-60mm range is already just about perfect for me, and carrying around extra stuff makes the camera unwieldy and hard to store. This likewise applies to filters & other sorts of "system accessories." I'm already toting a strobe that's bigger than the camera!

There is an array of other subtle improvements and alterations, which I appreciate though they're not game-changers in the manner of those other big features. I really get the impression that the design work was done by someone who actually uses the product. What a concept, so unlike most other compact designs, which tend to focus more on body styling, fashionable colors, and confusing on-screen menus. The Pana-Leica designers really seem to get the idea that the camera is a device for the hand; that the eye should be taking pictures, not navigating camera controls.

What about hacks?

So far, only one: A strip of tape across the top of the lens to keep the aspect-ratio switch firmly locked to 16:9 -- I have an annoying habit of bumping and otherwise moving it when the camera is coming in and out of the bag or my pockets.

I'm not alone in my admiration of the camera's redesign, there's already a swarm of fan web pages, sites, and dedicated groups for it, more than for the previous LX's and possibly driven by some apparently photographer-savvy people at Lumix marketing (I suspect that the growth of LX3-specific product-fan pages has already peaked -- like all modern products, the marketing life of the LX3 is as brief as a flower's, already past its prime while the sales machine is preparing for their next round of new-and-exciting. But this means little to those of use who see cameras as tools rather than as consumer fashion items).

Features I Never Use

Maybe someone can clue me in on uses for these geek-factor checklist items that have simply slipped right past my imagination.

Photo Audio
Besides the fact that this doesn't work with RAW, it makes the camera stop for several seconds after the exposure, while it records audio. Does anyone use this?
Kid and Pet Names
Do you really need to fiddle around with a menu to decide who you're going to snap before photographing "BABY2"? Won't you recognize them later?
Direct-from-Camera Printing
Another feature I've never seen anyone use, other than the souvenir-photo guys trolling around amusement park entrances and national monuments.

What Next?

No tool is perfect for all things. It's hard to imagine a range of improvements for an LX4 that would be as significant as those that the LX3 already has over the LX1 & 2. Not that that would stop me from dreaming up my own list of suggestions:

Instant On
This can't happen for a retractable-lens compact. Or can it? I can imagine that it the camera could detect that the auxiliary-lens/filter extension tube were attached, then the lens could be told not to retract. Then it's just the electronics, which could easily reduce the turn-on time from a few seconds to a few tiny fractions.
Zoom While Shooting Video
Come on, why doesn't anyone support this well?
Locks
This is the "Kevin is clumsy" feature. I often accidentally press the [+/-] or [flash control] buttons on the back of the camera while shooting. Then I have to stop, look at the menu, turn them off again. I'd like some way to tell the camera "I am shooting now, all settings buttons should be ignored until further notice." You might think that pressing AE-Lock (even in manual mode) might do this, but: not today.
Webcam Mode
This seems an obvious plus for such a useful travel camera (and if you can feed live images from USB, you could potentially let the user shoot tethered, too).
Mic Input
Then again, if you could record video tethered, you could just use your laptop.

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Three: posted March 11, 2009 | 0 Comments

Sepia Blues

Sepia Image + 3 component channels

Almost two years ago I wrote an entry about in-camera sepia, wondering if in fact a sepia transofrmation could provide a photo with more tonalities than a tyical 8-bit black and white.

At the time, I assumed that the crucial yes or no part of that answer would involve the B&W conversion -- if it was done before the sepia rotation of the color space, or after -- that is, if the # of B&W values was fixed to 256 and then rotated, or if it was in a higher precision RAW format, rotated, and then quantized to eight bit. In the latter case, you'd have more tones.

I was half right, and it was the poor half. Looking closely at LX2 sepia images like the one above, it's become clear that the B&W is converted and quantized first. And the part I was wrong about I didn't expect -- that the LX2 creates sepia images not through a matrix transform in RGB color space, but simply by adding a color to the B&W image. The color appears to be (+30R,-18G,-38B). That is, raise red, and drop green and blue, by a simple addition.

Since the values are already clipped to 8-bit, this means a loss of highlights in the red channel and a loss of shadow detail for green and blue. Since all three are made from the same B&W original, it's possible to rebuild that original B&W 8-bit picture by adding (-30R,+18G,+38B) and then selectively using the shadow detail from the red channel and the highlights from the green or blue channels. The result, in Photoshop, is the same as if the pic had just been shot in B&W to start with (barring JPEG artifacts).

So why does it seem to have more tonality? I'm guessing that it simply looks better on the small, contrasty camera LCD.

It's a tragedy that the B&W image is already clipped to 8-bit before sepia conversion. If the image was unclipped, the sepia conversion realy would be better, with and increased number of shadow tones in red and highlights in blue and green. It is what it is, though.

At least for web use, this is suggesting to me the following work approach for high quality B&W from JPEGs (when time demands preclude shooting in RAW):

• count on spatial resolution as a stand-in for pixel depth detail. Given some level of pixel noise, 4x4 8-bit pixels should be better than one 12-bit pixel. For a reduction from a 4K image down to a 500-pixel web snap, there are a lot of input pixels for every final output pixel.

• with this in mind, set the camera to a low-contrast image, to compact as much of the original RAW range into the 8-bit jpeg, and then feel free to beat on it using levels and curves later on -- knowing that even if precision is lost per-pixel, a lot of it will be made up in the size reduction step.

I'll report on some results soon.

Sepia Blues: posted July 27, 2008 | 0 Comments

Ten RAW Images

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High speed ftw! A quick $12.99 sale price later, and the LX2 is somewhere between 25-30% faster on RAW capture. Thank you OCZ and thanks Gary for the hint!

To my surprise, shooting time for ten "high quality" JPEG images remained about the same -- around 20 seconds -- indicating to me that for compressed pix, the limiting factor is the speed of the "Venus Engine" processor itself.

Addedum: yesterday saw the publication of dpreview's test of the Sigma DP-1 which is probably the closest competitor to the LX-2 and considered by many, in anticipation of it, as the compact streetphoto heir apparent. To my great surprise, the Sigma is significantly slower than the LX-2 -- the only got a little over 7 seconds per frame in RAW while the LX-2 turnaround was only 4.5 seconds (even faster than what I was getting). The Sigma does have a three-frame buffer, though it's not clear to me if you can use it in regular shooting mode. And a hotshoe for Martin Parr & Bruce Gilden fans.

Addendum #2: And on the heels of that, another review lamenting the DP-1's lack of speed, this time by Edward Taylor on The Online Photographer -- "My main complaint about the camera then was that it was painfully slow. It was and it is...." Hmmm.

Ten RAW Images: posted May 18, 2008 | 0 Comments

LX2 Part 2

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As I expected, I've gotten more used to the LX2.

In the clichéd and time-honored tradition of pointing Leicas at brick walls to prove that their lenses are top-notch, here's a closer sample of an in-camera-sepia JPEG. The right-hand area shows a detail from the picture on the left -- pixels at one-to-one size (if anything, the image here is degraded just because it's a web-compressed pic. It was also hand-held).

As long as I'm willing to put my thumb on the monitor, it's fine in the hand. During the past week I've been shooting with it at the ION Conference, using it as a notepad to keep track of presentation slides. In the hand for an hour at a time and I've gotten used to the idea. No hand strain. In JPEG, it's also plenty fast.

Tomorrow I'm taking Gary's advice and trying a much faster SD card for shooting in RAW mode. If it can get the differentials indicated on Rob Galbraith's benchmark site, there might be as much as a 4x acceleration, which will keep me quite happy (even a modest improvement might be enough).

LX2 Part 2: posted May 17, 2008 | 0 Comments

LX2

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After returning from China I gave myself a few weeks to see if Panasonic would announce a new LX3 at February's camera-business trade show. No dice, so I promptly ordered a new LX2 to replace the stolen LX1. Here are a few notes, comparing the two.

Only the LX1 camera, one card & one battery were pickpocketed -- my case & charger, 2nd battery & backup card were still in my luggage. Not surprisingly, everything fits perfectly, equipment-wise. Perhaps with time I'll also learn to adjust as smoothly.

The lens is the same killer Leica 28-105-ish. I have been impressed with the improved color renditions, and I don't mind the slightly different character of the in-camera JPEGs (I also don't buy the notion, proposed by some bloggers and others on photo.net, that the LX2's "Venus III" chip does pre-processing on its RAW data -- an assertion that makes no sense to me).

The higher ISOs (two extra stops, from 400 to 1600 as the top end) are a very welcome addition, regardless of how noisy the highest ones may be. A sharp grainy photo is better than an unreadable blur or no photo at all.

I might yet tape the back of the camera for grip as I did the LX1 -- but not the front. The LX2's front finger grip is much-improved in providing your middle finger purchase. Simple, and well-done -- but it needs to counter a downside change, hands-wise: to accommodate the larger LCD screen, the LX2's designers have cramped the rear-side controls. It's harder to shift your (my) thumb around and hit the correct thing in that smaller space.

If I want to hold the camera firmly, one-handed, I end up with my thumb on the screen (and away from the buttons). I am pretty sure that I only rarely used the LX1 one-handed, so this difference may feel like a bigger deal than it is.

Overall, the narrower thumb space means that my hand is significantly less comfortable when holding the camera "at rest," and that in turn creates the (false) impression that the LX2 is heavier.

The controls themselves have been subtly improved, mainly by Panasonic's UI designers realizing that people confuse the joystick with the directional buttons -- so, whenever sensible, you can use either control to accomplish the same task. This is good usability design, thinking about what the user wants to accomplish and letting them get there in the way most natural for them. A+

The biggest impression of difference between the LX1 and LX2, however, has been speed of operation -- or rather, the lack of it. The LX2 is slower between shots. I would have guessed about 25% slower, which matches change in the pixel count. dpreview's test shows a 32% slowdown on RAW writes, as well as a slowdown in burst mode. Those percentages feel like a lot, given the rhythm I'd already developed with the LX1. This is frustrating given that the camera's operations are otherwise responsive and the AF is even a tiny bit quicker. That extra second and a half of write time can be tough.

Token LX1 sighting: I saw Sylvia Plachy using one on Ovation's televison bio Close Up. She was switching back and forth during the same session between an LX1, a Leica M, a Rolleiflex, and a Hasselblad 500 of some sort (SWC?).

LX2: posted April 06, 2008 | 1 Comments

Long Ride

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Almost time to say goodbye to China, now that I'm back in Beijing. Also time to say goodbye to:

  • My Canon 50mm f/1.4, which spontaneously has decided it doesn't want to focus on anything closer than 5 feet, even in manual (at least until I can send it off to Canon)
  • My Panasonic LX1, which was pick-pocketed in Xi'an (along with most of my pix of the Xi'an city walls and street musicians)
  • My HTC Excalibur smartphone, with all my notes and action items from the entire trip (pick-pocketed just tonight inside the Hyatt)
  • My faith in Cisco VPN (pretty-well worthless on this trip)
So that's maybe $1000 in theft losses and a major dose of work frustration. Net balance for the trip then? Love it. Hassles and troubles like those just transform a vacation into an adventure, and the experiences I've had will last a lifetime, unlike any sort of electronic gizmo (and I have paper backups of my notes).

If I can just keep my laptop and 5D working for two more days....

(Followup: I remind myself, a bit, of my old second (third) cousin who raced motorcycles and cars and kept soldiering on through the many hospitalizations as just part of the passion....)


Which doesn't begin to compare to what happened to Michael :(

Long Ride: posted January 08, 2008 | 0 Comments

Hi-Fi Lo-Fi

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It's common to tell digital photographers: "don't trust the camera LCD as a preview."

Why the heck not? A lot of the time, I happen to like the picture I see on the LCD. So I made myself an Adobe Camera RAW preset that, as best as I could eyeball, would match the tonal range of the LCD on the LX1.

It was a somewhat subjective process, not entirely perfectly scientific, but simple enough. I shot some Kodak grayscale charts, played them back on the camera LCD while simultaneously loading them in Adode Camera Raw, adjusting the corresponding RAW/DNG conversion on my laptop under Photoshop CS3. I could see where the blacks petered-out, and the overall relationships in tones between neighboring patches. So patch 1 was full-on, the grays died out arounf patch 14, the values were a little boosted around patch 5, etc. It made the picture that I liked.

Once I'd made such a preset fro RAW files, I also made a corresponding adjustment curve that would alter camera JPGs to also more-or-less match the results I was getting from ACR. It's easy to make such a curve with a three-layer photoshop file (I like RAW but some situations — particularly very fast repeat shooting — still require JPEG for this little bufferless compact camera).

To make a curve that matches a JPEG to the ACR result: First, open the JPEG. Next, add a Curves layer and close the Curves dialog (we'll come back to it). Now, open the RAW file in another window, Select-all, and paste it on top of the JPEG (which will make a new layer). Set the blend mode of this new layer to "Difference."

Now all you need to do is open that curves layer again and adjust it until the visible differences between mictures are the absolute minimum. If the picture is black, then both the bottom (JPEG) and top (RAW) layers are a match.

The less-than-wonderful surprise I got was: the pictures don't align. At first I thought it was sharpening, but actually they just don't line up. They are two or three pixels misaligned, apparently at a 45-degree angle. In fact it's not even an integer number of pixels — the pic above (a 100% blowup of the previous blog entry) shows the closes I could get, and shifting it in the opposite direction simply moves the various contour-outlines from one side of the face to the other.

The second surprise was that, despite the fact that these curves reduce the tonal range (that is, they step on constrast), the RAW pic holds detail quite a bit better than the JPEG. I'd expected that since the JPEG had more range than my desired pic, I wouldn't make much difference. But it does. The higher fidelity of RAW still matters even on a low-fidelity images.


As a minor aside, we noticed last night that the LX2 makes a guest appearance in Spiderman 3 — in a scene where a photographer loses his SLR, he wastes no time in dragging an LX2 out of his jacket pocket & just keeps on shooting.... (though I'd never recommend carrying the camera in your pocket with the lens and flash both already extended).

Hi-Fi Lo-Fi: posted May 07, 2007 | 0 Comments

LX1: Ongoing Reports

Whaddaya know, the new issue of Consumer Reports has arrived and what do they pick as their favorite compact camera? The LX2, the latest variant of the LX1 (bigger LCD, higher res, higher ISO's, but the same lens, UI, and camera frame).

I couldn't help but get a smile out of their pic, though: what's she looking through?

The weird part is, I was just getting ready to blog about that topic anyway: not Consumer Reports, but viewing with the LX1 (or LX2, or Leica D-Lux2, or D-Lux3).

At this point I pretty-much know what the field of view is (especially given how much hipshooting I've done), just looking around. I can "see" the picture in front of me without any camera, so I've found it's comfortable enough to just pretend there's a viewfinder. No glued-on dots or minifinder, just hold the camera up near where my eye is (without covering the eye, as CR has bizarrely done), and go ahead & shoot. I can see the top of the lens to ensure me it's pointing straight, and a bit of the LCD glow gives me some vague notion about the luminance (which I usually ignore — can't turn it off, alas -- gaffer tape and a bit of black paper to the rescue?).

And then yesterday, I finally got to reading Sean Reid's Review of the D-Lux 3 and he's commenting on the lack of detail in any LCD screen. Second-Opinion co-reviewer Mitch Alland has his own VF/LCD take, where he say his use of the LCD is mostly about gross-scale framing, and that (somehow) he too uses his un-VF'd eye a fair bit (though not, I think, the way I'm showing here).

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LX1: Ongoing Reports: posted April 21, 2007 | 0 Comments

Sharp Distinctions

SharpDistinct.jpg

I'm something of a believer in half-baked photo tests. If test results aren't obvious except in highly-exacting circumstances, for equipment that's unlikely to be used in exacting circumstances, then: who needs them?

If results can be shown in ad hoc, half-baked test situations, then they're more worth examining. So here's a quick little comparison. I'm not looking at bokeh, or chromatic aberrations, or anything else. Just focus near the center.

I was concerned about some wobble in the focusing elements of my Canon 50mm ƒ/1.4 lens. I figured I should compare it to my corresponding rock-solid Contax-Zeiss 50, that I can mount to the 5D via a "Cantax" adapter. And since I was shooting at ISO 100 anyway, why not do a quick comparison against my compact LX1?

What you see above are pixel-to-pixel crops from the centers of three photos. The white-balance was set to "auto" for all, so the color shifts are not significant.

The results surprised me a bit. These shots are all made around ƒ/4, 1/250th of a second — handheld but leaning against a wall. I made several exposures & these are 'representative.'

The first surprise, to me, was how poorly the Zeiss lens did compared to the Canon. I had expected the opposite. While it's possible that my manual-focus skills aren't up to snuff when compared to the Canon AF (even with the special Canon 'S' manual-focus screen), I did check the entire frame, and found that there were indeed areas where the Zeiss focus was a bit better than here in the center, specifically in the corners. So either way, the Zeiss had less flatness, or maybe it was just less sharp at the center.

Or I can't focus. Either way, since in this case I only care about photographs that I myself will make, the net effect is the same: I get a sharper result with the Canon, at least for the 50mm. And that was a surprise (I'll have to test the 28mm lenses after the holiday).

I also found that the wobble seemed to have no effect on the effectiveness of the Canon lens (still disconcerting, and I may have to send it in. If I tilt the lens forward or back after locking focus, the elements move — and then I do shift focus. I can also feel a distinct "thunk" when the elements slide).

The third surprise was just how well the little compact PanaLeica held up. At ISO's above 100, or in terms of instant-on accessability, the big Canon dominates — but for good light, the LX1 (or LX2, which has the same Leica zoom lens) puts up a real competetive fight! Especially for a pocketable camera that costs one-fifth the Canon price (or even less: since the LX2 came out, I've seen real LX1 deals. I ran into one at Fry's last week, brand new for less than $300).

Sharp Distinctions: posted December 23, 2006 | 0 Comments

Are Sepia Images Better?

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As I may have mentioned before, one feature of the LX1 that I like is the ability to simultaneously store both a RAW file and a full-sized JPEG image, complete with whatever imaging mode is currently active: particularly grayscale and/or sepia toning.

Exactly what a camera does to the image to produce a sepia-toned image can vary. If the image is converted to 8-bit gray scale and then the processor just replaces the gradient of white to black with a gradient from light brown to the same darkened brown, then... well, you haven't gained much. In fact you've compressed the number of gray tones.

But if the conversion were more duotone-like, following curves that mapped the grayscales across hue as well as brightness, then there's the potential that there might actually be a larger number of discreet color values in such a toned image than there would be in straight monochrome. The result: smoother gradients, and a file format that could pack more of the original RAW info into a compact JPG package.

Does the LX1 do this the "right" way, by converting the original 12-bit RAW signal to 12 or 16-bit grayscale and remapping those 12 or 16 bits diagonally across the colorspace before quantizing to 8-bit and building the JPG? Sadly, I don't think it does. But some camera might...and the idea, that this otherwise merely decorative camera mode could be the secret path to higher-quality digital B&W, is appealing.

Are Sepia Images Better?: posted August 27, 2006 | 0 Comments

UnRAW

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More on the LX1:

I'm finding that the UnRAW files — that is, the JPGs stored with the RAW files — are often what I end up using instead of the RAW image. The RAW gets pumped through ACR, which wants to interpret and optimise (or encourage me to do so). The JPG is more often than not what I was shooting in the first place. Funny, but I'm starting to see the RAW as mainly a backup in case I screwed up (or the contrast range was way out of line).

I've come across a few more scattered LX1 links.

UnRAW: posted May 08, 2006 | 1 Comments

Hacking the LX1

P1000976.jpg

After some time using it daily, I can recognize my own way of working with the LX1, so it seems time to share some rambling notes. Operationally, electrically, and optically the camera is identical to the Leica D-Lux2 — these notes apply equally well to both cameras.

Let me start why saying why I bought the LX1. I knew that it would be slower to use than a DSLR, but I wanted a high-quality compact. A friend at work was raving about his DLux2, and I checked out the Panasonic alternative but wasn't feeling a need to buy anything at the time. A couple of weeks later, I saw a very cool camera at Fry's and realized that this was the same camera I'd been web-browsing. Besides the pleasant feel of the camera in my hand, it had an actually-wide wide-angle (28mm equivalent) and native 16::9 aspect ratio.

16::9 aspect exactly matches the format of newer widescreen movies and the Sony PSP, which I'd found to be an excellent venue for showing short video clips and lots of widescreen photos during the previous week's Game Developer's Conference (where I'd been toting my Canon SLR) (weird trivia — the camera itself is 16::9-shaped , which can be useful for thinking about composition even with the camera turned off (hold it up in front of you for a sec) — and the camera is almost exactly the same size as the PSP screen). I read all the reviews I could find, looked at photos made by it, and then bought it. I have been happy.

This is the first non-phone camera I've had without an optical viewfinder. I know that some folks have gone ahead and superglued a 28mm Voigtlander Minifinder to the top of their DLux2 — I understand it, that desire to raise the camera to your eye is a basic one. The camera is, after all, an extension of your eye...

Yet as much as I enjoy camera hacks, this seems overboard. I like the LCD, though it is not nearly as immediate as a eye-level finder. Responding quickly to what's in front of the camera can be tricky — it takes time for your eye to shift back and forth from the scene and the finder LCD, racking your internal focus back and forth as you do it. It can be a sort of barrier, and I'll mention how to help that further on.

LX1 Hack #1 - Tape Controls
I have gently hacked my own camera, using about $0.05 worth of gaffer tape (you knew I would get here eventually, right?). Gaffer tape can definitely help the LX1, even if you get the camera in the svelte and low-visibility pewter. The first illustration shows two key aspects of the camera that can be enhanced by a little of the old G.T.

At the back, there's a triangle of black tape placed overlapping and below the little "grip nubs" that Panasonic has already provided for your thumb. The fabric of the tape is much better to grip, and it doesn't shift around so much when you're also trying to use your thumb on the controls. It's an improvmenet for two-handed and one-handed operation — in fact the camera is almost too slippery for one-handed operation without this enhancement.

At the top, I've added a tiny strip of tape to the mode-select dial, laid in the blank space. It's directly opposite the "P," so when the camera is in "P" mode you can feel the line of tape squarely under your index finger. This makes it straightforward to set the camera not only to "P" mode but to any mode, once you're used to the order of the neighboring symbols. With the tape, modes can be selected purely by touch — no looking at the dial or the LCD. This is invaluable for use in quick-paced or darkened situations.

LX1 Hack #2 - Tape GripThe front of the camera can likewise use a little grip improvement — placing two narrow pieces of tape as shown here improves the purchase of your middle finger when gripping. The difference in finger-slippage is really dramatic, compared to the smooth plastic surface under the tape. Remember, the LX1 is a very light camera — it's easy for it to shift around in your hand without a good grip (unlike big metal 35mm's of old).

I got a great deal on a red Leica-badged Crumpler case, which is sturdy nylon/cordura and has a wee pouch in front for carrying an extra battery and/or SD card. It can be carried on a shoulder strap (it's almost too light for that), on your belt, or the camera strap can stick out and you can just carry it as a "loose" case. The Crumpler is similar to the Lowepro Ridge 30, which is somewhat generic.

That work colleague whose DLux2 helped inspire me to buy my LX1, has one of Luigi Crscenzi's luxurious LeicaTime cases, which like the Crumpler is a snug rectangle, but unlike the Crumpler is fashioned from heavy leather. Slightly less pragmatic-looking, lacking the same sorts of clips and mountaineering-inspired velcro bits, but beautifully made and the machine is well-protected.

Luigi also makes a "never-ready" style case, which you can see here — Panasonic likewise makes a slightly simpler one for about $30, along with their own pouch models.

I'm glad I got the Crumpler — of all the cases I've seen it seems the most durable and useful.

The LX1 has a lens cap. This can potentially make it less-than-pocketable, compared to cameras that fully retract their lenses. I've yet to have trouble with this. A danger, when pocketing the camera sans case, is that the cap will come loose in your pocket and the lens will be scratched. A solution I used before receiving my Crumpler — keep the pocketed camera in a plastic ziploc sandwich bag, which keeps everything snug and doesn't let fabric or loose pens catch on the cap.

The lens is the star of the camera, I'm really impressed with its lack of distortion and crisp results even wide-open. Pictures speak to its color and sharpness. It's only f/2.8 but the addition of "OIS" Image Stabilization gives it hand-holdability at pretty low speeds.

I leave my OIS in "Mode 1" (always on). The "Mode 2" (on just when you press the shutter) slows the camera down. Mode 2 supposedly saves battery life, but a second battery is trivial to carry. I've rarely needed it, even after a full day of snapping.

(It's been pointed out to me that Mode 2, though it does add shutter lag, is sometimes more stable than Mode 1, since Mode 2 always starts from the center "zero" position)

The controls are cramped. That's what happens when a device is tiny. The grip tape helps a lot, though occasionally I accidentally press the self-timer button (the < arrow) at inopportune moments. Likewise, when reaching for the AF/AE lock button, it's easy to accidentally press the joystick (which jumps you to the "quick menu" — invaluable when you need it, but camera-stopping when you don't). Practice is the only thing that can really help here.

At least one user on Galbraith's has complained that the AE/AF lock button is disabled when the camera is in manual mode. They want it to act like Canon's CF4 custom function. Happily, in practice this is a non-issue.

The reason it's a non-issue is because unlike most any other compact digital I've seen, the MF mode is set by a slider on the side of the lens — much like the AF selector on an EOS lens, but much easier to manage. Not a push button that resets when the camera is switched to another mode, nor a (yuck) menu item. It's physical, and it stays where you put it.

So if you're shooting in manual exposure, it's easy to just ignore the AF/AE-L button, and instead let the camera focus in AF and then flip the slider to MF, which effectively functions as an AF lock (with manual override, unlike the "regular" AF lock). It's easy to use by feel which is a big deal to me. I want to be looking at the scene, looking at the picture — not busying my eyes reading menus and other on-screen junk (and that includes looking for the little AF/AE indicator). The more you can know about the camera's state without looking at it, the better. Let your eye look for pictures, not mode indicators.

The manual focus has another rare feature for a compact — a depth of field indicator, indicated as a yellow band against the white range guide. Keen.

Using MF, the camera is very fast to respond to the shutter button. All good. Manual exposure, easy zone focus thanks to the DoF markers, fast shutter & 28mm view — my kind of camera.

The flash is low-powered and uses a preflash, like Canon et al. I've rarely used it. There's no connection provided for controlling external strobes. This hasn't had much effect on my shooting either.

A lot of web-review trumpeting has been made about sensor noise at the higher ISOs in this camera, and return trumpets have sounded about how great Noise Ninja is at correcting for the noise. Both contentions are true. I like using RAW mode and correcting noise problems later, I have a good workflow set up for this.

A feature of the camera is that when in RAW mode, a full size JPEG is stored — some folks have complained about this using too much space on the card (hey, extra 2GB cards are... what, $50-60 these days?). I like it. The JPEG serves as a good reminder of what you actually intended. I like that I can set the color process to B&W or sepia and the JPEG is stored using that setting, while the RAW file is... well, RAW, and contains all the original color information.

Beats me why the camera only supports USB 1.1 output. Ooops. I use an external USB 2.0 card reader, which is much, much faster.

I've finally become a convert to Adobe DNG — it makes life simpler for people with multiple cameras to keep all the files in the same format. So the LX1 RAW files, the CRWs from the G5 or the DSLR, all can live together in peace. My digital workflow goes:

Card Reader —» hard disk —» DNG Convert —» Adobe Bridge

and from there to Photoshop and an archive disk. I keep some LX1-dedicated Photoshop actions around, particularly one that labels pix with LX1-related flickr tags and copyrights, and another that can take 16::9 photos and ready-format them for the PSP.


Here are some links to people I've found using the LX1:

Hacking the LX1: posted April 22, 2006 | 2 Comments

 

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