Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Pentax K10D + DA* 16-50/2.8

Last Summer we (myself, wife and two kids) spent five days in three of the Azores Islands (Faial, Pico and S. Jorge). We were amazed at how each island had such distinct landscape features and cultural elements.

The daunting view of Pico's volcano was almost constant and is something I will never forget. These photos hardly do justice to how impressive is seeing that massive mountain rise above the ocean, alway surrounded by different shapes of clouds. We'll have to go back there after our kids grow older, so that they won't forget this view either.

Pentax K10D + DA* 16-50/2.8

Monday, October 27, 2008

Hiking with a camera

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Distagon 25/2.8

I love hiking, even though I don't do it as often as I used to. Of course, I like to carry my camera with me. Back in the time of 35mm film, I had a Minox ML ("the smallest 35m ever made") as my second camera for hiking or just carrying around. I was always amazed at how this small little thing could take such sharp images.

Focusing was manual, based solely on the user's estimate of the distance to the subject. But at f8 and for landscape photography I couldn't go wrong. And that little collapsible lens was soooo cool! I took some of my best photos with this camera. I don't believe there is a digital equivalent nowadays. I mean, a small, resilient camera able to take high quality, high resolution, low noise images. And a classic squarish look would be nice too. The Sigma DP-1, for instance, didn't live up to its promise of becoming a small size alternative to a digital SRL.

Therefore, I have to carry my K10D and a couple of lenses with me. This means extra weight and volume. For short walks my good old Domke canvas bag has always worked fine and is quite inconspicuous. I load it with two or three lenses plus the camera body, sometimes a flash. But for longer hikes, having to carry water, food and a jacket, I need a backpack. I'm still unsure whether the best solution is a regular backpack adapted for carrying the camera + lenses or a specialized photo backpack adapted for carrying food + water. So far, I'll be carrying the camera and the lenses in my regular backpack, wrapped in a cloth, between the sandwiches and the bananas.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Macro photography

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Planar 50/1.4 + extension tube

My extension tube set finally arrived, all the way from China (got it on Ebay). Needless to say, I spent most of the past weekend in the garden, leaning over flowers with the camera in hand. I tried to resist the temptation to just do extreme close ups of pretty flowers and hairy insects...

I like the next photo, with saturated colors and just a dash of sunlight on top of the flower.

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Planar 50/1.4 + extension tube

In macro photography, depth of field (DoF) is very narrow and closing the diaphragm beyond f11 causes noticeable loss of sharpness due to light diffraction (you can read a clear description of this phenomenon here). A creative way to overcome this might be using high apertures and selecting the focus plane wisely, so as to have a sharp portion of the image contrasting with a blurred surrounding, hopefully in an interesting composition.

Easier said than done... The next photos are three of my attempts at using a narrow DoF creatively.

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Planar 50/1.4 + extension tube

I confess I’m not yet very confident about the quality of the results. I like the second photo best, with the sharp edge of the leave contrasting with the “hand painted look” of the flower above. But in the third photo I find that the intense red-orange blur on the left diverts attention from the little flower lying on the tip of leave. The background should have been chosen more carefully.

I'll have to keep trying…

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Software choices

I shoot only in RAW. My workflow consists mostly of cropping (when necessary for improving composition), exposure correction, contrast adjustment (using the tone curve for a finer control) and, when converting to B&W, color tuning (making blue sky darker, for instance). I don't have much time (or interest) for heavy Photoshop-like processing, so I decided to go for a simpler software.

I've been using Silkypix 3.0 for RAW editing and conversion for over a year now. I chose it after comparing it against Bibble pro and DxO. I liked the straightforward interface and the quality of the results. I've also tried a Lightroom 2 demo recently. It's packed with fancy features, some quite useful, like a dodge/burning tool or a healing tool for dust speck removal. However, I found it sluggish and prone to crashes on my old trustworthy portable (Pentium 4, 3.2 GHz, 1 Gb RAM), so I'm sticking with Silkypix.

Silkypix 3.0

A major limitation with Silkypix, though, is the primitive photo management capability. To overcome that, I'm using Photo Mechanic 4.5 as image browser and cataloger. It is extremely fast sorting and previewing RAW files and Silkypix can be configured as an external editor.

Photo Mechanic 4.5

I know that most people are probably using Lightroom these days, but hey, I like being different (as long as I get the job done properly). I'm using a Pentax, remember?...

Oh and I almost forgot! For backing up my photos to an external hard drive I use Clone 2.1. It's a very simple little program that allows me to keep an updated backup copy of my RAW files.

Photographing the hard way

As I mentioned before, I have adapted manual focus lenses from my previous Contax SLR film system to the Pentax K10D. Not only focusing is manual, but the diaphragm cannot be operated by the camera anymore. Therefore, I have to do “stopped down” metering – the light is measured with the diaphragm manually closed to the position it’ll be at when the photo is taken. This turns the photographic process into a somewhat laborious, yet worthwhile, task:

1) Turn on the camera and select the lens focal length, so that the K10D’s Shake Reduction system can compute the appropriate stabilization amount to the sensor.

2) Frame and focus manually through the viewfinder, with the diaphragm open to at least f2.8. Even though I could, under bright lighting conditions, focus with the diaphragm closed (f8, for instance), this way I have better control over the location of the focus plane.

3) Manually close the aperture ring to the desired value. I do this without having to look at the ring, since I’ve memorized the sequence of stop numbers in the lens. The camera now displays the shutter speed computed for the light going through the diaphragm (I’m in Av mode).

4) Press the shutter button.

5) Check the histogram for correct exposure. The camera tends to overexpose heavily when the light is measured with the diaphragm closed beyond f4. -1.0 to -1.5 EV compensation is often necessary in contrasting light scenes. I believe this has to do mainly with the split prism focusing screen I’ve installed, which is affecting the light measurement. Its manufacturer (Katz Eye Optics) reports that evaluative metering (which I use) is not changed when using auto-aperture lenses with f5.6 or faster maximum apertures. The problem is that I’m using manual aperture lenses and the light has to be measured with the diaphragm closed (often at f8). However, I’m already accustomed to adjusting the compensation before taking the shot, taking into account the lighting conditions, and I obtain quite consistent and sufficiently accurate results.

6) Go back to step 2 for the next photo.

It seems hard, but it isn’t. Manual focusing is fast after some practice. Manually controlling the aperture ring forces me to think about which aperture I want to use before each shot. And since I have to close the diaphragm before taking the photo, I end up always seeing the actual depth of field and correct it if necessary. In the end, all this becomes part of a mental process that helps me stay aware of the different aspects of making a photograph.

“This might be fine for landscape, but what about action photography?” - the skeptical reader might ask. Well, I’m practicing that taking photos of my kids! So far, it’s been ok…

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Distagon 25/2.8

This is, of course, a very subjective point of view and may not work well with others. I believe it’s worth trying, though. There are many excellent manual focus lenses for sale in the used market that can be mounted on digital SLRs. Adapters for different types of mounts are also widely available nowadays.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The last days of Summer (II)

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Planar 50/1.4

When I first posted this photo I didn't intend to add any comment. However, I recalled that when browsing through other people's photo blogs, I find it interesting to read their comments on their own photos. Who knows, whoever might be reading this (hello?... is anybody out there?...) may find my comments of some interest.

This particular shot was taken in a seaside cafe in Northwestern Portugal, at sunset, in October. The days were still reasonably warm so we still felt that Summer was not completely over yet, except for the fact that all the tourists were gone. I liked the red-orange-blue color combination in the photo. I didn't have time to try many composition options, since I had to look over my kids (they kept insisting on leaning
dangerously over a parapet) and light was fading fast.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Death in the fields

Some photos are just asking to be black and white...

Pentax K10D + DA 18-55/3.5-5.6

We found this cow skull during a hike in the Douro region. It was so "picture-perfect" that I've actually considered bringing it home for using later on other photos... Nah!

Natural green

In Northwestern Portugal, Autumn does not bring very intense colors. Except for vineyards and some trees, a lot of the vegetation (pines and eucalyptus, for instance) remains green throughout the year. I long for those New England's Autumn colors, with unbelievable intense oranges, reds and yellows. I'll have to go back there some time (when I retire?...).

I've always thought that green foliage (around here at least) alone does not work well in photographs. I find it to be a cold, a bit unpleasant, color. The photo below was "saved", I think, by some patches of reddish-brown in the water, a few leaves and the roof top. These bring some warmth to the image.

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Distagon 25/2.8

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


You don't take a photograph, you make it.

Ansel Adams, American landscape photographer (1902 – 1984)

You press the button and we do the rest.
Kodak slogan, coined by George Eastman in the late 19th century

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Not very often

Back in the days of 35 mm slide film, I would estimate that about 20% of my photos were worth keeping and not even 1% of those would be marked for later re-evaluation and decision on Cibachrome print ordering. This would make my wife quite upset, seeing hundreds of badly exposed, out of focus, poorly composed slide photos being thrown in the trash. She always felt there had to be something worth keeping in there...

Very rarely, there was one photo that made me stare a few seconds at the lightbox and think "Wow! Did I take this shot?!"

Now, in these digital days, my wife does not know exactly how many photos I trash, but the estimates are pretty much the same, despite being able to rescue some badly exposed photos in post-processing.

Very rarely, there is one photo that makes me stare a few seconds at the monitor and think "Nice!"

Even more rarely, there are two photos in the same day that make me stare...

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Planar 50/1.4


There are three things one has to do in order to become a decent photographer:

1) Take a lot of photos
2) Look for reference and inspiration in books or exhibitions by (good) professional photographers
3) Learn the essential rules of composition and design

I believe the last item is often neglected. We tend to rely on our sensibility and good taste, often forgetting that a good composition actually obeys to some well known "laws" that the master painters of the Renaissance new so well. One way to study this is Michael Freeman's book "The Photographer's Eye."

Freeman is a professional photographer and author of many books on photography. I still have his "35 mm Handbook", which I found very useful in my beginner years.
"The Photographer's Eye" is a more "theoretical" approach to photography, presenting a systematic view on the different "non-technical" elements that contribute to a good photograph. It is clearly written and full of excellent examples. Periodically I reread parts of it, trying to better assimilate the concepts, hoping they will become a natural part of my "photographic process."

Monday, October 13, 2008

20000 Leagues Under the Sea... the fish market.

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Planar 50/1.4

What's about Zeiss lenses?...

What's about Carl Zeiss lenses that makes them so special - to some people, at least?
I'm not experienced enough to be able to respond in an objective manner. The contrast, sharpness and color accuracy of my Zeiss lenses satisfies me completely. This way I don't have to waste time and patience "pixel peeping" my photos, looking for chromatic aberrations, vignetting or peripheral softness. Of course, I still have to make the right "technical" decisions when taking the photo, like choosing an appropriate aperture. No lens in the world can compensate for a careless photographer. (As was the case in the second photo below, where insufficient depth of field caused lack of sharpness in some areas of the image. I think it would have been a really pleasant photo otherwise...)

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Planar 50/1.4

Probably I would get also very good results with Pentax prime lenses, some of which are said to be truly excellent. But still, once you feel a Zeiss in your hands, I don't think you would want to change it for anything else...

I've converted old Zeiss lenses from the Contax/Yashica mount to the Pentax K mount. Except for some special collector's items, the Zeiss-Contax lenses can be purchased for reasonable prices in the used market. But if you want to buy new and take advantage of an automatic diaphragm, Zeiss is now releasing slightly redesigned models for Pentax mount ("ZK" models), as well as for Nikon F and M42 screw mounts. Focusing is still manual, though.

Shooting flowers

Flowers make great models for photography. They are beautiful, can stand still for a long time and attract bees and other insects, which usually also look good in the picture. My problem with taking pictures of flowers is composition. I’m not talking about macro photography, where the flower itself is usually the sole object in the picture. Organizing the different elements present, selecting the appropriate depth of field, choosing the best perspective, all that represents a complex challenge to me.

Take the next three shots as an example.

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Planar 50/1.4

I think my favourite is the second one. I like the effect of surprise created by finding the bee sitting in the shadow. The third, on the other hand, was a bit disappointing. When I made the shot, I thought the tilted V pattern drawn by the flowers would draw attention to the flower in focus and make it stand out. In the end, however, I think the photo is too congested with those intense pink petals.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The last days of Summer

Pentax K10d + Zeiss Distagon 25/2.8

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The circular path

My first (film) camera was a Pentax P30n with a 50mm lens. My initial idea was to get a point&shoot, but a good friend convinced me to by a SLR. He also had a P30 and that's how I became a Pentaxian.

Those were the 80s and we were young. Every photo had a reason, a story to tell. And I sure loved my Pentax. Compact, sturdy, reliable. At the time, image sharpness was not a relevant issue and I never complained about just having a 50mm lens. The value of a photo was in the timing, composition and dramatic content.

A few years later the camera was stolen. That's when I made my first mistake: buying a Canon EOS 100. Not that it was a bad camera, not at all. But I was becoming a bit too interested in technical sophistication. These were the times when cameras were becoming "inteligent", with fuzzy-logic algorithms and auto-everythings. And I bought two zoom lens too (forgot which). Auto-focus and ultrasonic!

After a while I realized I wasn't having as much fun with that setup as with the Pentax. Something just was not right. There was no strong connection between me and the camera (yes, I think it is an emotional thing!).

After some thought, I had a revelation (helped by a comment in a photography newsgroup): the most important (technical) part of making photographs is the lens, not the camera. Good optics on a reliable body, that's all you need. The rest has to do with your personal creativity and taste. That's when I redeemed myself from the first mistake: I sold the Canon gear and bought a Contax 167MT plus two Carl Zeiss lens (25/2.8 and 85/1.4), all used. These were still the times of film. Digital photography was blooming but people were sceptical that it would replace film someday. I started using Fuji Velvia and Provia, depending on whether I was shooting nature or portraits. The Contax was built like a rock and the Zeiss lens were very good. Well, the 85/1.4 is actually legendary! I started having fun with photography again. Later on I got more used Zeiss glass: 35/2.8, 50/1.4 and 135/2.8.

Contax 167MT + Zeiss Distagon 25/2.8 + Fuji Provia

Then came the new century and, for personal reasons, I stopped taking photos for a while. By 2007 digital photography had reached a very good quality level and most companies quit producing film cameras. So I decided on buying a DSLR. Contax had closed a few years ago, so that was not an option anymore. After going through several reviews, the choice became clear: the Pentax K10D was very reasonably priced, well built and cleverly designed in terms of features and ease of operation. So I became a Pentaxian again and my Zeiss lenses continued collecting dust in a cardboard box.

But that's when I made my second mistake: I bought two zoom lenses (DA* 16-50/2.8 and DA* 50-135/2.8). Not that these are bad lenses, not at all. But, once again, something was not right. Instead of evaluating aesthetic quality, I was looking at my photos in terms of sharpness, contrast and focus accuracy. I was making many sharp, nicely focused, not very interesting photos.

And then something happened and everything changed: I found out that David Llado, in Barcelona (, was commercializing an adapter kit for converting Zeiss lens to Pentax K mount! This implies removing the original Contax bayonet and replacing it with the new one, but it can be easily done. Unfortunately, my beloved 85/1.4 has a slightly different bayonet and cannot be converted, as well as my 35/2.8, which has the older AE mount. But my 25, 50 and 135 are now fitting my K10D! And I hope to soon get a used 85/2.8.

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Planar 50/1.4

Of course that focusing is manual. But I replaced the original focusing screen with a split prism from Katz Eye ( and it works quite well. For exposure, I have to do stopped down metering, since the camera cannot operate the diaphragm. But I'm getting used to it. And all this makes me think more about the important things: composition, visual impact, emotional purpose.

So this is how I came back to Pentax and Zeiss.