Playing with Pro HDR

I found out about the Pro HDR app from a video by The Verge which talks about various iPhone photography workflows.

The app is a pretty straightforward implementation of HDR, but with the interesting twist that it lets you visually specify two metering targets for each of the exposures, and then combines the two into the final image. It’s a surprisingly easy way to think about it, and to me it’s way more natural then thinking about f-stop bracketing.

Here’s one of the first shots I tried with it. Bright sunny day, and huge contrast between sun-lit areas and shadows. Without HDR, the shadow area would be basically invisible. I was pretty impressed by this shot. Certainly way better than anything I’ve previously been able to get in similar situations with the iPhone (4S in my case).

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Of course, nothing is perfect. Here’s a shot I got at golden gate park. It was a backlit tree with lots of yellow leaves. While the tree came out quite cool, there’s some weirdness in the sky. The blue sky to the right of the image is what I wanted, the weird murky sky to the left is the app not being able to figure out which exposure to use? 

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Also, with any multiple-exposure scenario, movement can cause issues. Here’s a zoomed crop from the photo above. The trees were swaying the wind, so you get this ghosting effect when they don’t line up between shots. But in a bunch of shots, I didn’t find this effect to be too noticeable.

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For comparison, below is the same shot I got out of my E-M1.

Definitely much sharper, but you can see that the sky is totally gone. The iPhone version actually captures the dynamic range of the leaves better, in my opinion. 

Here’s a few other shots that I did.

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I thought I would be able to better bring out the shadows in this one, but I couldn’t get the metering to focus on the shadows. Perhaps if I had picked the shadow of the left bush it would have worked better. Also, the column has some pretty bad ghosting. It was hard to keep the camera still when I was reaching upwards to frame the shot.

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The sky looks good in the shot above, but I wonder why the building is so dark. I think the sun flare probably threw it off. I couldn’t fix it with the brightness slider. The app really needs a “shadows” adjustment a-la Lightroom. Or it would be nice if you could save out 16-bit TIFFs for adjustment in other, more capable apps.

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An ok sunset shot. Still doesn’t quite look like what it did in real life, but a much better shot than I could have gotten without HDR.

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This one from the Stanford campus worked out pretty well, but there’s some fuzziness on the edges of the shadows, and you can also see ghosted people in the background if you look close. 

Overall, I’ve only been playing with this app for a few days. There’s definitely some challenges when shooting multiple exposures, and I’ve found the app to be pretty simple and basic in terms of controls, but it has opened my eyes to the possibility of getting some kind of shots that I thought were basically impossible on a low DR sensor like the iPhone.

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Olympus E-M1 first impressions

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I did something a little out of my comfort zone and ordered the E-M1 before my X-E2 even made it back, leaving me in the potential state of having two cameras on my card. Thankfully it all worked out (Amazon is usually awesome about this stuff) and I didn’t have to go more than a few days without a new toy 🙂

Judging from my filesystem it looks like I’m about 500-700 frames into the E-M1, so these are really very initial reactions.

First thing I did was pick it up and, click…. woah, did that just take a shot? The shutter release button has a distinctly different feel compared to my GH2 (or even the X-E2). Most cameras I’ve used have a “notch” for the half-press of the shutter. You can feel that it will go deeper, but you also get some tactile feedback in the form of a click that you’ve achieved the half-pressed state. The E-M1 doesn’t have this, and it really threw me off at the beginning. Half press feels like you’re barely touching the thing, and full press doesn’t “bottom out” like other cameras do, so it feels like you’re just squeezing the thing. I did get used to it after a few hundred frames, but I don’t know if I’d say I prefer it quite yet. I imagine it was very deliberately designed this way, so perhaps there are different schools of thought.

On to actual shooting. This thing is snappy. If you’re not careful, you fire off 20 shots w/o even thinking about it. AF is definitely faster than the GH2, and I notice it more on the Panny 20mm (which has a slow motor) than on the 25mm which is faster. The focusing system does seem to have different behavior than the GH2, so it has taken some getting used to. For example, the single point AF (not the “small” mode) seems to be a bit finickier than on the GH2. So far I have been having the most success with the mode that lets you choose a 3×3 grid of focus points.

The touch to focus and touch to snap both work just fine. Face detection is much better than on my GH2, though, annoyingly, it’s not a mode on it’s own like on the GH2, so instead, it falls back to single-point AF or whatever you’ve configured when there’s no face in the frame, but then as soon as a face pops in, it locks onto the face. You can turn this off, but I’m not sure I wan to dedicate a Fn button to this quite yet. I had it left on, and a few times while shooting my kids, the face detect would just totally change the focus point that I had set up manually, which was a bit frustrating. 

The EVF and LCD view both have no lag (way better than the X-E2), It’s so smooth that I now notice some lagginess in the GH2 in low light, where I didn’t notice it before.

It has an insane 41 shot RAW buffer, so unless you’re in 10fps mode and just holding down, you’ll never hit it, and I never feel like I’m waiting for the thing to flush stuff out so that I can keep shooting.

As far as physical controls go.. my GH2 actually has more dedicate levers and switches, but crucially does not have the two-dial control scheme. The Oly does (in addition to the 2×2 switch). I’m sure this will be totally better when I get used to it, but I’m just not quite there yet. 

On the IQ front, as far as SOOC JPEG’s go.. X-E2 > E-M1 > GH2. The Fuji and the Olympus are close, but especially at base ISO the Fuji files are just really nice. I also like the color curves that Fuji uses vs the Olympus. They both have aggressive NR (I’ve toned down the E-M1 NR one notch already), and the E-M1 feels like it sharpens a little too aggressively (I’ve turned that down a notch too). That being said, the E-M1 is a solid step up from my GH2, so that’s good. I notice it mostly in high contrast scenes (extra DR), and high ISO scenes (ISO 3200). The E-M1 is definitely close to the X-E1, where as the GH2 is a distant third. The main caveat is I’ve only just gotten over my laziness to go get LR5 to use their preliminary E-M1 raw support, so I’ve been comparing JPEGs to JPEGs. 

One interesting thing that had not previously entered my calculations was the effectiveness of the E-M1’s stabilization system. I’ve taken a few shots at 50mm 1/3s and they’ve come out sharp. That’s really quite amazing, and changes the equation in many low light scenarios. If you’re subject is not moving, and you can afford a slow shutter speed, now you have the flexibility to stop down, or bring down your ISO by slowing the shutter down. I took a shot of my xmas tree at 1/3s, F4.0, ISO800 at night (using peaking for MF), and it’s amazingly sharp (see image full crop below). This feels like cheating. Sure the X-E2 may beat you by a stop in terms of high ISO performance, but being able to do 1/3s on a f/1.4 prime lens gets you way more than that stop. I can see what all these people were raving about now. 

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The IBIS also kicks in during video, which results in some of the least shaky videos I’ve ever taken. Sure, they’re not 60p, but who cares? at least they’re not vomit-inducing. 

Let’s see.. what else? The Auto WB is noticeably better than on my GH2. Interestingly, the E-M1 has a setting that basically says “don’t correct WB when it’s on the warm side”. So indoor incandescent shots will have that warm look. An interesting option, and it defaults to on. That being said, I still very much prefer to have complete WB control in RAW. It still gets it wrong enough that I’ll just tweak it in post most of the time.

One of my favorite small features: when reviewing images, you can hit the “ok” button in the middle of the 4-way pad, and it will center the image on any detected faces (and AFAICT, it re-detects the faces at playback time, and doesn’t require you to have been using face detection mode when shooting). When you’re shooting hundreds of shots of your kids, this turns out to be super handy. Why didn’t anyone think of this before?

In terms of external appearance, I’d have to say again that X-E2 > E-M1 > GH2. The more boxy Fuji just look classy. The E-M1 reminds me of the “gundam” battle suit asthetic. Lots of straight lines and hard edges. Panasonic has the curvy consumer-y feel which was popular at the time and is the worst of the lot. In the eye of the beholder as they say. 

Ok, that’s more than I was planning to write. I’ll post some more thoughts later. Hit me up on my Facebook page if I can answer any questions. Here’s the link for this post on FB.

Facebook Page

I like having a separate blog to post about stuff that interests me, w/o feeling like I’m spamming my friends. And yet, it’s hard for people see the posts here. You either have to be an RSS user (a dwindling population) or be a tumblr user, which is also a small population.

So I’ve started an experiment to use a page on Facebook as the primary distribution point for my posts. If you follow me, and want a better way to find out about new posts, go like my page: http://on.fb.me/IGLNTL

I’ll still use this tumblr for some long form content, and perhaps I’ll switch to medium some day, but in any case, I’ll cross post anything I post off of FB onto that FB page, so if you’re following the page, it should get a chance to be in your newsfeed.

Thanks!

Fuji XE-2 more impressions

Since my last post, I had the chance to take the XE-2 outside on two different occasions.

Autofocus. AF has seen definitely seen a big improvement over the X-E1, and in good light outdoors the improvement is even more noticeable (likely because of the PDAF). That being said, I did notice a good number of my “chasing kids” shots were still out of focus. Even in single-shot AF, with a fixed focus box, I got shots that were back-focused. I tried various sizes for the focus box, and it didn’t really help. 

My suspicion after playing with it is that Fuji still hasn’t quite figured out how to pick a focus point within a certain area. If the focus box is 75% covered by a face, and 25% the background, I’d expect it to focus on the face (or other closer subject), but it appears not to. It seems like it wants to just pick the area of the box which has the most signal, which is not necessarily what you want.

All in all though, I think as long as you’re not shooting very rapidly moving subjects, the AF is definitely acceptable. If you are shooting things like kids, then it’s not quite there yet. I think my two year old GH2 can still get more shots in focus.

EVF lag. My experience with the viewfinder was surprising. While the frame-rate is definitely improved, both the EVF and the rear LCD seem to have inconsistent, unpredictable behavior. For example, sometimes, even in super bright outdoor light, you could see the frame-rate start to drop. But by far the worst issue is that the live view feed seems to stop for a good half a second when the shutter is half-depressed. I think all X-series cameras do this, and it really drives me bonkers.

I’m often trying to keep the focus box over my kid’s face as the focus system tries to lock on. But as soon as I engage the shutter to start the focus, BAM, it hiccups. By the time it shows me what’s going on again, I’ve totally lost the framing, and its a good bet that whatever was behind my subject is now in focus.

I tried to combat this by using the “mash the shutter button and pray” technique, but I still couldn’t get a good hit rate. I even tried burst mode with continuous AF. The problem is that if the subject is moving around a lot, you really need a fluid display so that you can maintain the framing. The X-E2 simply does not let you do this at all. As shots are being fired, the EVF is all kinds of herky jerky. When it calms down, you get your smooth frame rate again, but by then it’s too late.

Perhaps it would be better to use multi-AF, but after some quick experimentation with that, I couldn’t trust it to focus on the obvious subjects in the view.

Color. The JPEG renderings that come out of this camera are awesome. I didn’t get a chance to play with RAW much because I didn’t want to mess with the LR beta or the other random tools out there that supposedly deal with X-Trans. I ended up taking a bunch of family shots, and people I showed them definitely noticed a more pleasant rendering compared to my previous GH2 shots (which even has my own RAW tweaks. I guess the Fuji engineers are better at this than me :P).

One issue that I did notice was the default NR seems quite strong, especially if you get into the iso3200-6400 range. Faces come out plastic-y, void of any skin texture. All my custom modes ended up having NR set to -1 to compensate for this.

Which brings me to another minor operational complaint. When I use the Q menu to select a custom profile, then shut the camera off (to save battery) and then turn it on soon after, I get stuck back into the “basic” profile (where my NR level gets reset). Why? For a camera that seems to really prioritize persistent settings (having physical dials for a bunch of stuff is as persistent as you can be), I just could not understand why this behavior should different.

I also had a lot of fun shooting in the black and white modes. I tended to use the green filter for portraits, and the red filter for other stuff. It’s really fun to be able to see the result in the live view. I think you could do this with the X-E1 as well, but perhaps I was just not into B&W as much then. The B&W output looks exceptional though. I almost wonder if they have some special demosaicing trick they do for BW that differs from color.

One thing that comes up with BW modes is dynamic range. While I found the metering of the camera to be pretty good, it tends to render shadow areas quite darkly in high contrast scenes. I ended up using the shadow tone -1 setting minus one to lift the shadows a bit, but then I was still often victim of the forgotten profile setting I mentioned above.

Overall, I’d say that the X-E2 a big improvement from the X-E1. It fixes some of the plain terrible issues that the X-E1 had around auto focus and EVF lag. It also feels speedier and more refined. The image quality is also still top notch. The stuff that comes out of this APS-C sensor is pretty amazing.

All that being said, it still isn’t better enough to really fit my needs. A vast majority of my photos are candids of my kids. And while the X-E2 can keep up with them if they’re in a particularly calm mood (or are sitting at the table for a meal, for example), most other scenarios end up with a lot of hail-mary shutter presses. When the AF happened to lock on the right thing.. the result was usually awesome. But more often then not the focus missed, or the framing was just completely off, because of jerkiness of the live view when focusing. 

One way to categories cameras is to think about what kind of design philosophy they embody. XE-2’s (and basically other X-series cameras) seem to derive more from the rangefinder school of thought. These types of cameras tend to be used by folks who are somewhat considered in their photography. The X-series appeals to these folks through lots of manual controls (even if it means less efficient switching between different shooting situations) and a focus on non-action image quality.

On the other end of the spectrum is of course the DSLR. Usually ugly, but high performance. They have some manual control to give you some creative dimensions, but also a lot of smarts to pick good parameters when you have to think fast. Great AF that lets you keep up with a fast-changing scene.

From this perspective, the GH2 I’ve been using is clearly a DSLR-ish camera. It even looks like one. I think much of my dissatisfaction stems from the fact that I want DSLR-like handling out of a RF-ish camera.

I also don’t like having two different camera systems for two different purposes. So if I only get to pick one, then given the kinds of photos I need to take, I have to go with the DSLR-like philosophy.

So I’m sending the X-E2 back and getting an E-M1.

I’m sure I’ll miss the high quality jpegs and the great low-light performance, but honestly, I’ll very likely get way more keepers with the E-M1, and that’s what matters. Maybe in a few more years, the Fuji cams will really perform like fast DSLR’s, but I’m not willing to muddle along and miss a bunch of shots of my kids in the mean time. Also, by then, some of this FF mirrorless stuff will have played out, and the landscape may look quite different. I’m also somewhat relieved that I don’t need to figure out a new X-Trans RAW workflow. The E-M1 will fit right in to my existing Lightroom habits.

Anyways, see below for some of the better shots I got (note how most of them are non-moving subjects). 

I’ll be back to blab more about the E-M1 in a few days. 

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Fujifilm X-E2 First Impressions

It’s been just about a year since I tried the X-E1 last year, which ended up with me sending the unit back. I was excited to hear about the X-E2. I’m still looking for an upgrade from Micro 4/3… something with similar handling and size, but with improved high-ISO performance and dynamic range.

My main gripes with the X-E1 were the slow handling, the super laggy EVF, and the really bad AF system. After I unboxed my X-E2 today, and my first goal was to see if these aspects have been improved.

First up, the EVF frame-rate has been dramatically improved. On the X-E1, if you were indoors at night (lets say iso6400 / 1/60 / f2.8) the EVF would drop to very low fps, and show a lot of motion blur. This made it practical impossible to track any kind of moving subject. The X-E2 in this situation fares much better. That being said, the GH2 still seems better in this regard. It seems more willing to gain up the signal to preserve framerate. On the flip side, the X-E2 seems much better at giving me a preview of the actual exposure. Wish I still had the option to prioritize framerate though.

The AF system appears to be quite a bit better as well. I’ve so far only tested it indoors, and I’m fairly certain the PDAF system isn’t engaging. The CDAF algorithm seems way better than the initial X-E1 version (which was later improved through firmware updates), but it’s still slower than a fast lens on my GH2. Fuji should have fast processors in these new models, so what gives? I’m not expecting E-M1, but at least have competitive CDAF. Is it the motors in the lenses that’s the limiting factor? In any case, I’ll have to try it outdoors tomorrow to see how the PDAF bit performs.

The X-E1 version often simply refused to lock on to anything in relative low light. Thankfully that problem is mostly gone. Even with single-spot AF, it does still seem to have some quirks.. I bunch of my test shots of my kids seemed a little back-focused. When my kids faces filled the frame, the focus box covered part of their face and sometimes refused to focus. Overall the focus system feels still a little on the slow side, and conservative, but my initial sense is that it’s in the usable territory now.

As for handling, I don’t remember too well if the X-E1 felt slow, but the X-E2 for the most part feels pretty snappy. The buffer’s good, and most operations respond very quickly. The only complaint I have is how the system seems to hiccup when I have press the shutter to focus. It seems to be engaging some metering/exposure stuff, and the result is that the live view feed pauses for a fraction of a second. Not a problem most of the time, but when I’m chasing kids, that’s usually the moment that they run out of the frame. Argh.

That’s about it after spending about 5 hours with the X-E2. Looking at some of the JPEG’s in LR, the ones that are in focus look pretty good. But a bunch are out of focus 😦

I felt this with the X-E1 as well, but I think the X-E2 is still something that I’ll have to work with a bit to see if I can tame it’s quirks. I’m also hoping that with the faster processor, Fuji has some headroom to invest more in their AF and handling.

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Phoblographer’s review of the x100s

With that in mind, we’re bound to get questions of whether someone should get a mirrorless camera or the X100s–and this little camera is wiping the floor with Micro Four Thirds options right now in terms of sensor performance.

Sigh. I don’t think I’m going to be able to resist trying the X100s. Sounds like AF is still not as good as m43 options, but it might be better enough, and IQ may be better enough too. I still look back on my X-E1 files and am pretty amazed.

Phoblographer’s review of the x100s

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It seems like we have ended up in some kind of bizarro world.

Fun with VIM: autocmd part 2

More to write about after spending a weekend hacking on vim plugins.

Autocmd is probably one of the most powerful features of vim, but also one of the easiest to mis-use. If you ever end up copy-and-pasting someone else’s autocmd examples, beware!

Here’s one that I had in my .vimrc forever

autocmd BufRead,BufNewFile,BufAdd *.php setlocal ft=php

Looks sane enough. Turns out BufAdd is a bad idea here. From the docs:

NOTE: When this autocommand is executed, the current buffer “%” may be different from the buffer being created “<afile>”

Oops, this means that this command will run in the context of the current buffer, not the new buffer being created. In practice, this meant that sometimes when I opened php files, the file I was currently looking at would get it’s filetype set to php, which was super confusing.

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Fun with VIM: autocmd

Here’s a fun gotcha. I had this snippet in my vimrc, which kills trailing whitespace in buffers full of programming code, right before the buffer gets written out…

autocmd FileType c,css,cabal,cpp,haskell,javascript,php,python,readme,text
   autocmd BufWritePre <buffer>
   :call setline(1,map(getline(1,"$"),'substitute(v:val,"\s\+$","","")'))

Which is all well and good. Except when your kind of anal like me, and you end up editing your vimrc often, and you have a keymap just for re-executing your vimrc. The fun thing about autocmd’s is that they don’t replace previous autocmd (there’s no way for vim to tell that things should be replaced, since there’s no naming). So each time I re-ran my vimrc, yet another filetype hook which sets up the pre-write hook.

That’s not so bad in it of itself, except that elsewhere in my vimrc, I had similarly accumulating autocmds which set the filetype based on the buffer. Lots of refreshes and reloads later, I discovered that some files literally had hundreds of passes of the white-space munging routine attached to it, causing saves to take 10+ seconds.

Anyhow, long story short, if you like autocmds (and who doesn’t!?) make sure you use the augroup facility to group them together, name them, and clear old ones out each time you define a bunch in a script. This will keep things from accumulating and leading to weird problems.

Here’s an example:

augroup kill_trailing_whitespace
  au!
  autocmd FileType c,css,cabal,cpp,haskell,javascript,php,python,readme,text
     autocmd BufWritePre <buffer>
     :call setline(1,map(getline(1,"$"),'substitute(v:val,"\s\+$","","")'))
augroup END
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Perhaps I spoke too soon about Mountain lion. I discovered a pretty bad bug where the OS doesn’t remember the arrangement of your external monitors. Seems pretty bad, especially since they’re up to .2 and haven’t fixed it yet.

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