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

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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

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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.

David vs Goliath

In the red corner: the Sony RX100m2, weighing in at 265 grams

In the blue corner: the Canon 5Dmk3 with 24-70mm f/2.8L lens (version 1), weighing in at 1975 grams

As I recounted earlier, I used a Sony RX100m2 large sensor compact exclusively on a recent trip to Istanbul. I was very happy with the image quality. So happy in fact, that on my return a nagging doubt set in: was the diminutive Sony actually better, at least in bright light conditions, than my “real” camera, a Canon 5Dmk3? Such heresy is not inconceivable, especially as my standard lens is a version 1 of the 24-70 f/2.8L. It’s a nice lens, but not one of Canon’s best performers (the version 2 is said to be substantially better), and my copy has seen some significant abuse over the years.

Testing cameras and lenses is a tricky business, and although I am a scientist what follows is not at all scientific. Rather, I shot a few frames from my office with parameters mimicking what I would consider to be my “normal” usage of these two very different tools. For the 5D3, I would hardly ever shoot wide open in broad daylight as the depth of field would be too shallow. So I set the camera to f/5.6 at 28mm at the base ISO 100. Depth of field is less of a concern for the Sony, with its small sensor, so I stopped down about one stop from wide open for an exposure of f/3.2 at 28mm at its base ISO of 160. Departing a little from the “real world” theme, both cameras were mounted to a tripod and three frames were shot using the self-timer to minimize vibration. Frame-to-frame variation was negligible. The RAW images were then minimally processed in Lightroom to set equivalent white balances, and 100% crops of the center and corner regions exported with “low” output sharpening only.

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And the winner is… Well, as far as center sharpness goes, there’s really not much in it to my eye. The Canon image has slightly more contrast, but if one adjusted the Sony file to match that I suspect it would be hard to tell them apart in a real world situation. In the corner the Canon image is clearly sharper, though there’s also more than a bit of chromatic aberration that from now on I’ll try and remind myself to correct (quite possibly the Sony is correcting this silently in post, but if Sony and Lightroom are having a tete to tete and improving the image without telling me I have no complaints).

What about at higher ISO? To my mind, ISO 3200 and beyond is for situations that are pretty seriously dark, and unlikely to be encountered casually. If I go somewhere with the thought of taking pictures by moonlight, for example, I’d certainly pack my 5D3 (and a tripod!). ISO 1600, on the other hand, is a setting you might often need in an interior with not too much light – in fact I used it quite often with the Sony in churches and mosques in Istanbul. Here are 100% crops of frames shot later in the day at ISO 1600 (these are at about 1/30s, so long exposure noise considerations are not a factor here).

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Obviously the Canon’s full frame sensor dominates over the Sony here. There’s markedly less noise, and better resolution.

Evidently I’m comparing apples with oranges here, so there’s no real conclusion to be drawn. It’s no surprise that the laws of physics have not been repealed, and that a state of the art full frame sensor returns a better high ISO image than a compact, even one with a relatively large sensor. If you have both cameras, as I do, it’s also somewhat reassuring that even under bright conditions Goliath has the edge over David. That said, the center sharpness of the Sony lens – which much of the time is the only thing that really matters – seems for practical purposes to be as good as my Canon L glass at typical shooting apertures. Given that the battle is not really David vs Goliath, but rather a situation where you have to carry either David or Goliath into battle, there’s clearly a use case for both.

Oh My God Road

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Little trip to Central City and then on to Idaho Springs via the Oh My God Road (actual name: Virginia Canyon Road). It’s a nice drive on a good dirt road past numerous old mines and several semi-abandoned small settlements.

Istanbul with the Sony RX100m2

In addition to occasional vacations where photography and / or hiking are the main goal I travel – a lot – for work. Oftentimes, my Canon 5DmkIII gets left home alone. The difficulty and stress of travel is a monotonically increasing function of the amount of stuff you cart around, and I just don’t want to bother with the weight of my DSLR kit if I’m only going to have a few hours of free time in a location. Thinking this way though loses you photographic possibilities, and there have been plenty of images I’ve snapped with my iPhone that could have been nice photos with a better camera. So I’ve been thinking for a while about supplementing my existing gear with a camera that’s lighter and more likely to be with me when I travel.

The occasion of a trip to Istanbul to lecture on planet formation brought these thoughts to a head. I imagined – not entirely accurately as it turned out – that Istanbul would be a busy and somewhat chaotic city where having a camera smaller than a DSLR would not only be lighter, but also advantageous in terms of being more discreet. I consider the ability to shoot raw a must, and since the whole point was to get a camera substantially more portable than a DSLR the ability to fit it into a pocket was a major plus. The Sony RX100m2 fit the bill on both counts, and not without doubts I headed to Turkey with a brand new compact as my sole camera…

Stitched Panorama

How did it work out? In one word: great. The famous historic sights of Istanbul – Hagia Sophia (above), the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Galata Bridge, and the rest – are actually much more “European” than I imagined, and you wouldn’t be out of place shooting street scenes there with a full DSLR setup. That said, a light and pocketable camera feels much better at the end of a day of sightseeing than a DSLR, and – with just a couple of caveats – I don’t feel I sacrificed many photographic possibilities with the baby Sony as compared to my usual Canon. Most importantly, I felt more comfortable shooting on the street with what appeared to be a “snapshot” camera rather than a pro-looking outfit.

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What worked and what didn’t? In general, I was fully satisfied with the basic image quality and usability of the Sony:

  • Image quality – since the Sony was the only camera I had, I haven’t tried (yet) any head to head comparisons with the 5DmkIII. Informally though, the files look quite fine at 100% in Lightroom, and there’s reasonable latitude to bring up the shadows or recover highlights. I took some care to avoid going beyond ISO 800 or 1600, but that was enough for hand held daylight interiors of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
  • Usability – generally excellent. The camera arrived a couple of days before I left for the trip, and I spent maybe an hour with the manual configuring the settings to my liking. In use, the autofocus was fast and accurate, and the menus easy to navigate. It takes a couple more steps to adjust ISO than I’d like (with my setup), but that’s a minor gripe that could be fixed if you used the lens dial for ISO rather than aperture or some other function.
  • Overall feel – also excellent. The camera is small, but solid – “dense” is the word that comes to mind.

Of course you don’t get all this good stuff without having to make some compromises too. As a longtime SLR and DSLR user, there were a bunch of things I missed:

  • No viewfinder! In the abstract I’m pleased there’s no viewfinder, because small size and weight were the things I wanted most in my second camera. That said, it takes some getting used to. I mis-framed a bunch of shots, and although some of those were just due to inexperience I think it’s genuinely more difficult to compose on the screen than in the viewfinder under daylight conditions.
  • Electronic zoom. It doesn’t work well if you’re used to a mechanically coupled zoom lens. You want to zoom in just a little, and you overshoot. Go back, and again you miss. There’s an option to change the zoom from (pseudo) continuous to a finite set of fixed focal lengths, and I think I’ll end up doing that – better to have definite constraints rather than imprecise freedom to set the focal length.
  • Battery life. It’s half a day in real life. Not bad, but not what you get with a DSLR.
  • 28mm at the wide end. I wish it was 24mm, and I’d willingly sacrifice some of the telephoto reach to go wider. I did a lot of stitching.

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Everyone’s photographic needs are different, but I see a clear place for a high performance (and relatively large sensor) compact alongside a DSLR in my camera arsenal going forward. It seems clear to me that we’re still at least a generation or two from reaching the point of diminishing returns in the performance of full-frame DSLRs. On our summer trip, I got to compare images shot with my 5DmkIII with those my brother took using a Nikon D800e, using comparable “high end consumer grade” 70-200mm f/4 lenses. The Nikon gave very obviously higher resolution images, even with hand held shots taken with relatively inexpensive glass and no special attention to shooting at optimal apertures. With the very best lenses that promise near diffraction limited performance – perhaps a Canon 300mm f/2.8 or the forthcoming Zeiss 55mm distagon – I envisage in the not too distant future shooting reference images (and probably 4k video) that take advantage of 50 or even 100MP sensors. Clearly though that’s overkill for many many shooting situations. If I go hiking on a bright sunny day with harsh lighting, the chances of capturing an image that I’ll want to print at 30×20 inches are close to zero. A compact camera that’s “good enough” is probably going to be the right tool – for me – for such situations, and in the current generation the Sony RX100m2 does the job very creditably.