New cameras: what we’ll get vs what we want

It’s been a pretty quiet year or two in the Canon world, at least for those of us who aren’t in the market for Cinema EOS. Nikon, Panasonic and Sony have all announced or shipped some distinctively different cameras (the Nikon Df, Sony A7r, Panasonic GH4), while from Canon we’ve had the 6D (protecting their position at the low end of full frame) and a bunch of low-end Rebels. Even going back a bit further, the 5D3 – currently my main camera – was undoubtedly a less dramatic introduction than Nikon’s D800. So I’ve been mulling over what we might expect from Canon this year, along with what I might actually want, given that the 5D3 satisfies pretty much all my current photographic needs.

What we’ll likely get from Canon is probably the easier question to answer. Nikon and Canon remain, for now, a virtual duopoly in the market for high-end cameras, and duopolies stay that way by paying close attention to each other’s moves. By all appearances the Nikon D800 has been very successful, so the chances of the next Canon full frame body having a substantially higher pixel count must be high. Whatever Canon might espouse about 18 or 22MP being the “right” resolution for full-frame, they’ll surely seek to stop Nikon having a monopoly on a high resolution body as soon as it’s technically feasible (all of Canon’s current full-frame sensors are apparently manufactured on a less than state-of-the-art 0.5 micron process). Likewise dropping the anti-aliasing filter hasn’t led to howls of complaint from Nikon D800E or Sony A7r users, and I’d expect Canon to follow suit. The logic of Canon’s own recent products (the 6D and 70D) says we’ll get phase detection on the sensor, built-in WiFi (and maybe GPS), and 4k video. The last might get delayed a generation to continue to differentiate the 1DC, but with the GH4 on the way it’s virtually certain the flagship Cinema EOS DSLR will go upmarket, perhaps with RAW, 10 bit color, Apple ProRes codec, or similar features appealing to the video crowd. On the lens front there’s been quite a bit of innovation lately, but there are still plenty of “L” lenses awaiting their makeover to make them sharper wide open for current digital bodies. More telephotos with built-in extenders is also a pretty safe bet.

Just this me-too and evolutionary stuff would actually be pretty useful, even if it’s not very exciting. As I’ve mentioned before, I was struck over the summer by how obvious an edge the D800E has over the 5D3 in resolution, even when shooting handheld with high consumer-grade glass. I’m also plenty happy to let video cognoscenti pull focus manually, and switch to autofocus enabled by phase detection in live view and video modes. As for 4k, I’d rather play with 120fps slow motion, but we’ll probably get both as a package.

What we won’t get is also predictable. If Canon and Nikon perceive any threat from Sony, and possibly others, launching serious mirrorless cameras, that threat is most likely to come from the inherent cost advantages of simpler systems rather than better image quality or even lower weight. So we won’t see any additional mechanical complexity being added to DSLRs, even if built-in ND filters say would be a nifty feature for video. I also don’t see a “Canon Df” as being very likely – nostalgic Canon types already had their hearts broken way back when Canon dumped the FD lens mount.

What I want is trickier. My 5D2 had an achilles heel – it broke when I tried to use it hiking the Berg Lake trail in heavy rain – but the 5D3 handles the photographic situations I’ve personally encountered satisfactorily. What I most want is some Steve Jobs-like innovation I don’t know I want! In the category of disruptive changes, I’ve read enough favorable reports about the Sigma Merrill cameras, from people whose opinions I respect, to be interested in a body with a non-Bayer multi-layer sensor. I’d certainly sacrifice a stop of high ISO performance for what is said to be a subtler color rendition. Three stops? Well at that point I’m not so sure. I’d also like to see a hybrid viewfinder. The recent addition of grid lines and electronic levels into the viewfinder is already a very useful feature, but more broadly the whole raison d’être of a DSLR is that looking into the viewfinder gives you your best view of the world. Camera companies know this, and take some pains to design the controls so that you don’t have to take your eye away to change them. But of course in the real world we mostly take our eyes away from the viewfinder after almost every shot, to check how it looks on the rear LCD! Logic says we should be able to review images in the viewfinder, and while we’re about it switch from an optical to live view in the finder when it gets gloomy (anyone with a modern body knows all too well that one can take perfectly good pictures long after one can no longer see clearly through the lens).

Then there are the minor things that would surely be useful, but which require software changes that Canon seems reluctant to provide. I do a fair bit of time lapse and night photography, and it’s faintly ridiculous that I need to buy various triggers and gizmos to accomplish what a Canon engineer could code up as an in-built feature in literally a day of work. More substantially, the “Dual ISO” Magic Lantern hack strongly suggests that Canon’s imaging pipelines have qualitatively different modes, that in some circumstances would be of real benefit to the photographer. Certainly there are downsides too. But we already have options – like ISO 50 – that are useful despite lowering image quality, so it would be great if Canon let us officially use more of what their hardware is capable of on a caveat emptor basis.

Finally there are lenses. I’m happy with Canon’s recent and legacy offerings, though along with every man, woman and child on the planet I wonder when the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L will be updated. There’s also an obvious gap in somewhat more affordable super-telephotos. At 300mm, the f/4L is old. At 400mm, the f/4 DO occupies a lightweight / expensive / optically not-so-great niche of questionable interest, while the f/5.6 is so old it doesn’t even have IS. Beyond 400mm, nothing. It seems obvious that some updating and rationalization of the 300mm and 400mm offerings is due, and that a 500mm f/5.6 would be an interesting optic. Losing a stop of light is hardly a big deal with current bodies that are at least two stops more sensitive than early pro models, and that sacrifice would be more than outweighed by the lower weight and likely significantly lower cost.

A star trail panorama

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Moonrise at Bear Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park

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Took advantage of co-operative weather this weekend to have a first go at a star trail panorama, at Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. I’ve visited this place many times: it’s beautiful, dark, and close to a huge parking lot that so I could retreat from the cold and wind while the cameras were firing away. The setup went as planned, though with two DSLRs mounted to the rail tripod stability was not great. I packed snow around the legs to try and cut down on vibration. For star trails dark frame subtraction is a no-no, so I set the exposure at what was intended to be a balance between depth and noise – 30s, f/3.5, ISO 1600. Once it got dark enough (for future reference that’s about an hour after sunset) I locked down remote releases and retired to the car for dinner! (Not without some irrational unease at abandoning all this gear in the backcountry.)

I ran for two and a half hours, with the Moon in the sky to illuminate the peaks for the last half hour. The result was a set of 280 images from each camera, which were processed in Lightroom and stacked with StarStaX as usual. The nearly full Moon proved to be pretty bright, so I used only about two hours of exposure. Here are the individual stacks.

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Pointing ultra-wide lenses up toward the sky gives a lot more distortion that I’d realized, and despite the generous overlap Autopano Pro balked at stitching this automatically. The problem was mostly noise and a lack of clear features in the foreground, and the stitch improved dramatically after I added back the EXIF data (removed by StarStaX), lightened the foreground, and applied noise reduction before stacking. Even then the stars were a mess, but that’s easily fixed by adding manual control points to the sky.

I reckon more sky and less foreground would have been better, and even thought as much while setting up. But I wimped out seeing the unexpected distortion and fearing that my tripod might topple in the wind if pointed any further skyward. Happy with the result for a first effort though!

Stitching images shot at different focal lengths

Stitched Panorama

This is a test. This is a test… The boring panorama of my apartment building is a stitch of two frames, on the left a full-frame shot from a Canon 5D3 with an 18mm lens, on the right a crop sensor frame from a 7D at 10mm (16mm equivalent). The only point is that it works! My stitching software (Autopano Pro) combined two frames, taken on different cameras with different pixel scales using lenses of different focal lengths, with no problems. (It seems to interpolate to the smaller pixel scale, so I ended up with an enormous 66 MP image.) The panorama here has a horizontal field of view of about 120 degrees, but that was with a lot of overlap, and in theory with these two lenses you can get close to 180 degrees horizontally.

Normally of course you’d shoot a panorama like this with one camera. I’m testing using two cameras because I want to try shooting star trail panoramas, for which the left and right frames have to be shot simultaneously. Originally I feared this would need two identical cameras and lenses (which I don’t have), but at least for a scene like this the software can cope with different cameras and lenses without difficulty. A plate to mount two cameras to my tripod is on order, and once it arrives I’ll see how it works with the night sky…

Rome

Saw in 2014 with a long weekend in Rome. As you may have heard there’s quite a lot to see and do in Rome, so on this, my first visit, I was mostly occupied with the famous historical sites. Well known or not, the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the rest are incredible.

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Glimpsing the Pantheon

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Basilica of St Paul’s outside the walls

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At the Colosseum

Stitched Panorama

The Colosseum, twilight

I shot everything with the Canon 5D3 and 24-70 f/2.8L lens, hand held, stitching where necessary. It’s a good combination for church interiors and night scenes. In practice, ISO 12,800 seems pretty clean and potentially useable for a good-sized print, while 25,600 is OK but a stop too far without serious work on noise reduction.

Crazy stacking experiments

What would it look like if you shot 250 frames over about 8 hours, starting at night and continuing until just after dawn, and then stacked them using star stacking software (which retains the brightness pixel across the stack)?

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If you answered “it would look weird!” you’d be right. That’s the Moon you can see in the extreme upper right. However with the right scene – maybe ideally with no clouds – there could be potential for some interesting images with this technique.

Update: once one gets into the spirit, interesting images are not so hard to find. Here’s a stack made from the time lapse I shot in Rocky Mountain Park the other night. No night to dawn transition here, but the clouds rolling through result in some hallucinogenic sky effects…

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Munich, christmas

In Munich for work over Thanksgiving, I stopped by the Christmas Market. No sign of the feuerzangenbowle that was such a highlight of last year’s trip to Braunschweig’s Christmas Market, or even any half-meter sausages. But I like this picture.

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Utah’s San Rafael swell

A weekend in early November hiking in Utah’s San Rafael swell, a large swathe of essentially wilderness that lies mostly south of I-70 as you head west from Green River. This is one of Utah’s less well-known areas of canyon country, there are no national parks or monuments and access, although straightforward, requires negotiating lengthy stretches of mostly good dirt roads. The highlight was the Chute of Muddy Creek, which despite its rather uninspiring name is a truly spectacular canyon! (It is damn muddy though, so whoever named it knew what they were doing.) If you imagine a far remoter and only slightly less remarkable version of the Zion Canyon Narrows, you’ll get the picture.

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We hiked about 12 or 13 miles out and back from the Tomsich Butte trail head, in the course of which we met no other hikers (in fact, we didn’t even see any other cars on the 60+ miles of dirt roads to and from from I-70!). Substantial stretches of the hike call for river wading, which in November was not too deep (rarely more than knee deep) but cold. Neoprene socks were very helpful! It’s a great hike.

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I’m sure there must be other great hikes in the San Rafael swell, and probably also in the Book Cliffs area north of I-70 in the same general area. More exploration here is on my to-do list!

Moon set time lapse

Over the last year or two I’ve been engaged in a very on again, off again project to shoot enough time lapse sequences to make a short movie. The slow progress has been occasioned both by dithering as to what I actually want to convey in such a film, and lack of time to actually go out and shoot anything at all! Nonetheless hope springs eternal, and I made it up to Rocky Mountain National Park this weekend for the first time since the devastating September floods to see what was going on at Many Parks Curve. This is highest point along Trail Ridge Road that can be reached in winter, and it has a nice view across to Longs Peak. With a roughly half-full moon setting at 11:20pm, I had in my mind a sequence showing Longs illuminated by the setting moon, fading as the moon set with the Milky Way above.

Here’s what was actually achieved (click on the image for the movie)…

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It didn’t work quite as planned. Or at all as planned! The clouds built steadily as the night wore on, and there was a lot more light pollution than I had expected (that’s the yellow color, the sequence was white balanced off the early moon light and then pushed a little further to the blue). And I’m not sure the Milky Way would have been in frame even if it hadn’t been cloudy! I’ve rarely been disappointed after a trip to the park though, and this was no exception. The dynamics of the clouds was very interesting, and it was fun to apparently have the park entirely to myself – from 10pm through 1am I saw a coyote, a fox and numerous elk, but no other cars or people.

(Technical details: 15s exposures at ISO 6400, f/3.5, 17mm, no dark frame subtraction.)

Back to Moab

It’s 15 years I think since I first visited Moab. On that first trip, with a friend from grad school, I hiked the Confluence Overlook trail in Canyonlands, and saw Delicate Arch and Landscape Arch in Arches. This weekend saw me back in Moab again – for maybe the 8th time – to run the Moab trail half marathon (a fun but pretty tough race!). Photography wasn’t really on the agenda, but some friends hadn’t been to Utah before so with what energy remained after the race we headed into Arches National Park. The hike up to Delicate Arch is a can’t miss, of course, but the best photos were from the Windows area. It was one of the best sunsets I can recall seeing in the park.

Twilight, Arches National Park

Twilight, Windows region, Arches National Park

Sunset, Windows in Arches National Park

The South Window

Sunset sky, Arches National Park Utah

Sky color after sunset, Arches

Coot Lake, Fall

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Pretty much the last weekend with leaves on the trees here in Boulder. Headed out to the Boulder Reservoir with the thought of a tricksy image of Fall colors in the foreground fading into a cold night sky. Didn’t quite work, but shooting almost directly into the setting sun at the nearby Coot Lake (very reliably mirror-like) produced a nice dreamy image.