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.

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.

montage1

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).

montage2

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.

sunset

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.

Dawn to dusk at Mount Rainier

One of my goals for this summer’s vacation with my brother was to get out and about in the wilderness for photography at dawn and dusk. We hadn’t managed many sunrises or sunsets for several years, in part due to wariness about venturing into prime Alaskan or Yukon grizzly habitat at night, and in part because a good night’s sleep is hard to pass up after a long day’s hiking! With no grizzlies in Mount Rainier National Park, though, we managed to overcome laziness for one spectacular dawn on the mountain, here photographed from the roadside along Highway 410 near the Sunrise entrance. Some high clouds would have made this image better, but just the dawn and the softer light on the river were well worth getting up for.

Sunrise, Mt Rainier

At the other end of the day, this image is a stacked composite of frames taken after dark at Myrtle Falls, a short walk away from Paradise on the south side of Rainier. You need faith with this sort of effort as it rapidly gets too dark to see anything, but the final image is quite close to the one I’d visualized. With this sort of composite you have enormous “artistic” freedom to adjust the balance between the sky, the stars, and the foreground, and I’m still agonizing over which of several version I prefer! The frames were shot at 30s, f/8, ISO 800, so the noise is not too obtrusive and a large print ought to be possible…

Star trails, Mt Rainier

As it turned out, shooting the final frame of the stack was only the start of the evening’s excitement. With that finished, I set up for a shot of my brother walking along (and illuminating) the trail beneath Rainier against an ultra-deep exposure of the moonless sky. We were ready to go, when we spotted the glint of eye shine in the bushes off to the right. A bit of discussion at slightly louder than normal volume ensued, and I donned my own headlamp. The eyes vanished, and then reappeared, quite a bit closer! And closer. At this point it seemed opportune to retreat, talking loudly and with frequent glances over our shoulders…

What spooked us? On reflection, probably a deer, as we’d gotten some cute pictures of some very tame deer at the same spot just before sunset. Once you start thinking bear or mountain lion, though, it’s time to call it a day on the photography in my book!

Bear viewing at Anan Creek

A couple of years back my brother and I, more or less on a whim, decided to spend a few days visiting Stewart on the BC / Alaska border to see what the bear viewing was like at Fish Creek. We didn’t have much idea what to expect, but it turned out to be way more interesting than we could have imagined! Thus began a mild obsession with bears, which last year saw us visit Pack Creek near Juneau, and this year saw us snag lottery permits for Anan Creek on 9th August.

The best way to visit Anan Creek, IMO, is to stay at the Forest Service cabin at the site. The web booking is first come, first served, and you need good luck as it’s understandably popular. We failed, and instead visited on a day trip from Wrangell. We flew with Sunrise Aviation – the only air charter option in Wrangell (though boat trips are also possible) – who were great. I still find the whole idea of hiring a float plane to get places rather cool!

Black bear in cave at Anan Creek

Once at the creek, the bear viewing was first rate. It’s mostly black bears (though we saw a couple of browns), and apart from one lull around mid-day of maybe an hour there were bears out fishing throughout the time we were at the site. The far side of the creek opposite the viewing area is a jumble of mossy rocks and caves, and it’s pretty easy to get the standard Anan shots of bears peering out of dark crevices and fishing below the waterfall. The cub peering out of the cave above was my favorite shot. Lens-wise, 300mm on full frame works pretty well. I had a 1.4 teleconverter but didn’t use it at all; my brother used a 2x for a few shots but also mostly shot with a bare 300mm. You can sign up for half hour stints in a hide down at the water level, and there 200mm is plenty.

Brown bear at Anan Creek

Overall it was a great day of bear viewing, and of the places I’ve been to the easiest to take good standard pics of bears fishing. I’m not sure what sort of unique images you could hope for there, though I guess with enough time you might get lucky and catch some interesting interactions between bears. Compared to Pack Creek, the photography was easier at Anan but it didn’t feel quite as wild and remote a setting – at Anan Creek there are a lot of visitors coming and going on brief commercial tours that you don’t get at Pack Creek.

If you’re interested in visiting, here’s the link to the Anan Creek info from the Forest Service.

Night at the Boulder Flatirons

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I’ve noticed previously that it never gets truly dark at the Boulder Flatirons. Even on a moonless night, light from the city illuminates the rock and any clouds above. Tonight there were light patchy clouds drifting south, which tempted me to try another stacked exposure but this time with the added element of the clouds. I think this might have been better if the cloud had been low enough to roll over Green Mountain (in which case I’d have gone for a tighter shot), but happy with the result.

Technical details: 20 x 30s exposures, 18mm, f/3.5 at ISO 400, stacked with StarStax.

Merseyside

Quick trip over to West Kirby in the Wirral yesterday. An oddity here is that the tide goes out a long way, and there are three islands (one big enough to have houses) that you can walk out to at low tide. Lots of people do. Of course there are plenty of tide pools, and I had in my mind an image similar to this one of refelctions in Death Valley. Too much wind (and cloud) meant there weren’t any reflections, however, and my favorite image was instead a wide angle shot processed for a slightly dreamy look:

west_kirby600

Meanwhile the Mann Island development on the Liverpool waterfront continues to provide amusement. With some low clouds and light pollution it takes on a Bladerunner-like look:

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Looking for a new angle…

Just back from a long weekend in Pisa. It was my first visit to the city, but of course I had a pretty good (!) idea what to expect. The central area – the Piazza dei Miracoli – was more beautiful than I expected, and the Leaning Tower is, well, remarkably non-perpendicular. As ever at such a place, it’s a fun but basically hopeless challenge to come up with a new photographic angle. Failing that, I followed the usual advice: at an iconic locale, you only need to hint at where you are. My best pic, I think, was this piece of whimsy… tourists posing for the humorous photo of holding up the tower.

tower_phil

Dada did better. With a small sensor Nikon compact low in the grass, she came up with this image than may not be original but was at least new to me!

(I tried to replicate this with a DSLR but it can’t be done… it really only works with a small camera.)

Photography to one side, Pisa and the nearby towns (Siena and Lucca) were simply wonderful. A great weekend.