Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A geological yin and yang

In the heart of Peneda-Gerês National Park, after hiking for a few hours, one arrives to a green pasture surrounded by granite, known as Prado da Rocalva. Two of the rock formations that border it are quite intriguing, specially because they look so different from each other.

On the Western end of the pasture rises the Rocanegra (Black Rock). It is a menacing formation, with dark and almost vertical slopes, split by some ancient cataclysms.

On the opposite side, stands the Rocalva (White Rock). It looks like a melting ice-cream scoop, rounded and smooth, almost comical if it weren't for its massiveness.

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Distagon 25/2.8

Friday, June 26, 2009

Hiking again

Last November, I posted about my misadventure trying to hike on a particularly interesting area of Peneda-Gerês National Park (Northern Portugal) on an overcast Autumn day. Dense fog, wind and cold was pretty much all we got from that trip. Now that the weather seemed more reliable, we repeated the hike. We still got some wind, but the day was sunny and pleasantly warm. There was a mercilessly harsh sunlight coming from the cloudless sky, though. One is really never happy...

Ironically, on my previous attempt I had carried the K10D together with four prime lenses (25, 50, 85 and 135 mm). I was prepared for any photo opportunity that might have crossed my path! Needless to say, except for a few photos in the initial (relatively dry) stretch of the trail, all the gear stayed in the backpack for most of the time. This time I decided to be a bit more conservative and just carry the 25 mm and prove to myself the versatility of this focal length, equivalent to 37 mm on the K10D's sensor.

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Distagon 25/2.8

PS: Interestingly, a post has just come out on the blog A Scenic World, on the "problem" of choosing the right prime lens for a photography outing. Let me quote a particularly truthfull sentence: "The things that keep me from getting great shots is rarely the lack of the right lens - it’s the difficulty of getting out of the chair and out the door to shoot."

Monday, June 22, 2009

Wide-angle close-ups

We usually associate close-up photos to medium telephoto lenses (85 to 105 mm range). This way the subject dominates the frame and is properly isolated from the background. But what happens when a medium wide-angle lens is used for a close-up (in addition to having to stand much closer to the subject)? The background gains importance, adding a context to the image. This may establish new paths of interest for the viewer. On the other hand, the main subject may suffer in terms of image quality, since these lenses are not optimized for such short focusing distances. But this may not be significant, considering the global impact of the image.

Here are a couple of simple examples, taken during a recent outing with a 25 mm lens:

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Distagon 25/2.8

PS: It is funny how sometimes different blogs post similar ideas at the same time. On the same day that this post was published, another one came out on Alunfoto, illustrating the use of wide-angle lenses for flower closeups. I must say, however, that Jostein's example is much nicer than mine... It is also a beautiful implementation of flash in daylight.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Wooden piers

Images of wooden piers stretching over water, amid morning mist or sunset warmth, are a classic of stock photography. That's why I was so excited when we found these in a recent trip to Aveiro. But in the absence of mist or sunset (or photographic  talent?), there wasn't much I could do, except for documenting the fascinating construction technique. The piers seem to be precariously standing on toothpicks randomly stuck by a child.

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Distagon 25/2.8

Monday, June 15, 2009


Every year, as Summer approaches, I long for empty beaches.

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Planar 50/1.4

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Film ain't dead (yet)

I remember, back in the 90s, the ongoing discussions about film versus digital. Digital cameras were still in the early ages and the output they produced was not very impressive. The first commercial digital SLR had been launched in 1991: the Kodak DCS 100, featuring 1.3 Mp resolution. At the rec.photo.equipment newsgroups (the closest thing we had to a discussion forum at the time) many defended that film cameras would always render higher quality results and digital would never become the choice of serious/professional photographers. I was using a Contax SLR at the time, happily shooting slide film and ordering Cibachrome prints. I didn't even dream that someday I would buy a digital SLR.

Then, in 1999, Nikon launched the D1 with a 2.7 Mp sensor and things started to change. Digital SLRs were showing decent image quality for reasonable prices. That was 10 years ago.

Now the world is digital. But the "war" against film is not over. It might never end, actually. It's not like DVD replacing VHS, where the global improvement in quality and practicality was evident. Even though no one will question the capabilities of current digital SLRs, many argue that film is still technically better in some aspects, like highlight rendition, color range or grain quality. And then there is the attitude. The feel and sound of an all-mechanical camera, the excitement of scrutinizing a just developed roll of slide film, the vision of an image materializing on a sheet of photo paper...

I'm not shooting film anymore. I'm too lazy to do it now. But I find it refreshing to look at the work of those who are still doing "analog" photography. Somehow, I feel they are dealing with a "purer" form of photography. One of the sites I enjoy visiting is www.thiaps.com, home of The International Analogue Photographic Society, apropriately subtitled "Film is not dead it just smells funny." It is dedicated to "35mm, rollfilms, sheets and plates, with Polaroid or Liquid Light, with Large Format or any tool whatsoever, as long as chemical processing is involved."

Take a look, it might make you curious or nostalgic enough to take a short break from digital.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

High voltage across the landscape

High voltage power lines and poles can be often found in the "modern" rural landscape. Instead of trying to keep them out of the picture or to eliminate them in post-processing, it is sometimes interesting to actually use these elements as part of the composition.

Pentax K10D + Zeiss Planar 50/1.4

Thursday, June 4, 2009

In defense of the Zeiss Planar 50mm f/1.4

After trashing the quality of  the bokeh rendered by the Planar 50/1.4 in my previous post, I now feel the need to defend the reputation of this classic lens. I will not enumerate a list of technical qualities, but just present an image that summarizes it all:
Pentax K10D + Zeiss Planar 50/1.4

A redesigned version of this lens is currently made by Carl Zeiss for Pentax, Canon, Nikon and M42 mounts (see link here).

Monday, June 1, 2009

Bokeh disease

Lets make a test. Please look at this photo for a few seconds and then answer the question below.

What was your first thought when you looked at this photo?
Select your answer from the list:
A) Nice flower, I wonder how it's called.
B) Hey, there is a little bug inside the flower!
C) Oh no, another flower shot! I wonder why I keep reading this blog...
D) Hmmm... that's not a very good bokeh... I wonder what lens he used.

If you answered A, B or C, your heart is pure and you should stop reading this post now.
If you answered D, then you've been in contact with the concept of "bokeh" and you've been contaminated. There is no known cure and you'll never be able to look at a photo without paying far too much attention to the out of focus areas.

The photo above was taken with the Zeiss Planar 50mm f/1.4 (C/Y mount version), a lens that is known for producing a barely acceptable (leaning more towards "bad") bokeh. This means that when shooting with large diaphragm apertures (shallow depth of field) the out of focus parts of the image are not as homogeneously and softly blurred as they would be with a lens capable of a "creamy" bokeh. The image above is not actually such a bad example. For a particular lens, the look of the bokeh depends, in addition to the aperture used, on factors like the distance, complexity and contrast of the background. And, contrary to what many believe, the evaluation of bokeh cannot be simply reduced to the way how shiny points of light are rendered. Look at the next image, taken with the same lens:

Awful, isn't it? Something out of a sickening nightmare! The background is full of unpleasant dark lines and spots that distract the viewer from the photo's main subject. Wouldn't the image look so much better if it were taken with a Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2.0 or the new Pentax DA* 55mm f/1.4? Well, not really... This photo is bad not only because of bokeh. It's a lame composition and the low depth of field is not even appropriate. That diagonal straw (which I forgot to remove before the shot) does not help either. The reason why the bokeh is so obviously bad in this image is that everything else fails in attracting the viewer's interest. A bad bokeh is not usually that distracting in an otherwise good photo. On the other hand, a boring photo with a magnificent bokeh is interesting only to those who suffer from the aforementioned condition (myself included)...

Except for specific situations (some portraits or close-ups come to mind), where the out of focus areas intentionally represent a large and evident portion of the composition, I believe that many cases of discomfort with a lens bokeh would be cured if the photographer's eye could be "deprogrammed" to look at an image without being conditioned by the concept of "bokeh". In the same note, I find that the "obsession" of many with fast lenses (f-numbers below 2.8), for getting highly blurred backgrounds and "creamier" bokehs in portrait photography, is usually excessive. The results obtained using f/2.8 (or even higher), an interesting model and some creativity are often perfectly good. After all, most viewers of our photos are not contaminated with bokeh disease and can actually appreciate an image even when the bokeh isn't at its creamiest condition.

Generalizations are dangerous and the evaluation of the quality and importance of bokeh in a particular image is, of course, a subjective matter. This article by Mike Johnston at The Luminous Landscape website effectively shows how, in certain cases, the look of the out of focus areas can be relevant to the viewer's perception of an image.

By the way, for an example of a very nice bokeh, take a look at this previous post.

PS: [June 2009]  On the "obsession" with using very large apertures for getting low depth of field in portraits and on how "fast" does a lens have to be nowadays, Mike Johnston has recently posted a very interesting (and polemical) article. I quote: "O, if I could but count the number of out-of-focus dog's noses I've seen because the earnest but hapless photographer was trying to blur the background..."