Tasmania, April 2018

I knew nothing about Tasmania before setting off; not even that it’s a whole separate island from mainland Australia. My schedule leading up to the trip was too busy for me to even think about it, let alone look it up on a map. Because everything had been planned by my in-laws, I just had to show up. All I knew was that I’d probably get a few good landscape photos out of it, and be horrified by the lack of fast internet access.

On the first point, it turned out to be quite a beautiful place indeed, if not very convenient to get around. You’re in for hours of driving between small towns if you want to visit the main attractions, and some of the windy roads literally border on death traps—you can slip down the side of a mountain with a swerve.

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Should I really have bought a new camera?

You never use the cameras you have as much as you do when there’s a new one ordered and on the way. I’ve just bought a Panasonic LX10 online to take the place of my 6(!) year old Sony RX100mk1—a compact travel camera with a big-enough 1″ sensor and useful 3x-ish zoom range.

Below: a recent shot from my RX100.

Raindrops shot with a Sony RX100

That the LX10 has been on the market for 2 years says something about my changing habits. Buying last year’s model used to be unthinkable, and I’d pay a premium for buying that way. But the industry has changed and now hardware updates come every few years instead of annually, and the average price has gone over the $1000 mark to compensate for the drop in sales. Buying late nets you a nice discount back to pre-smartphone prices.

Anyway, while waiting for that camera to come and prove wrong my fears that I’ve given my money to a scammy HK website, I’ve been using my iPhone X and RX100 a bit around the neighborhood and workplace.

I can’t stress enough how much the Halide camera app + Adobe’s new and improved Lightroom Mobile have changed the way I shoot and edit RAW images on iPhone. (I still love and use Darkroom too, it just doesn’t do RAW as well as Lightroom anymore.)

Shooting koi in a rippling pool with an iPhone requires you to go full manual, and while the thought of fiddling with shutter speeds and ISO and manual focus on a touchscreen used to make me shudder, it’s actually doable with Halide’s well-considered control layout and gestures. I just wish you could lock focus peaking to always-on.

Honestly, I had no idea you could get this kind of sharpness and microcontrast out of an iPhone. I’ll be saving JPEGs and Live Photos for quick grab shots and moving scenes from now on. Given that I’ve taken a few holidays with just my iPhone, this is all making me wonder if I should have bought a new dedicated camera at all.

Okay okay, while shooting in RAW preserves highlights and deals with tricky lighting such as the above shot in the late afternoon, I’ll admit to enhancing that flare with Lens Distortions. It’s all about creating the scene you saw with your eyes, right??

Assuming the camera comes on time, I’ll probably bring it with me to Tasmania when I go in a few weeks. Seems like a landscape kinda place, so I have doubts about bringing my other cameras: a Ricoh GR (28mm) and Fujifilm X100T (35mm). đŸ€”

31 Days of Black & White

I spent the month of January shooting photos only in black and white. Not just the ones I posted on Instagram, but everything in my camera roll got converted and saved in black and white. When I scroll through my timeline in the future, this block of 60 or so shots is going to stand out.

I got the idea from @espresso on Twitter who shot monochrome photos for the entire year of 2015. That’s dedication. It only came to my attention in December when he started mentioning how much he looked forward to color again in the new year. You can see his Storehouse collection of photos here.

It was absolutely worth it. You can always learn a lot in any creative endeavor by putting restrictions in place; I think because it’s too easy to try to grow in many ways at once, especially when taking photos, you can go from landscapes to close ups to street scenes in a single day, and play with a dozen photo processes and apps at a time. Taking away some options can make you focus long enough in one direction to notice something new. Taking color away immediately makes you think about lines and composition and texture. All the habits you’ve formed around what looks interesting and when to raise your camera are rendered unreliable, and you’re made to look at everything through new criteria that you’re forming through practice.

It reminds you that the absence of color is actually a powerful tool that has gotten too closely associated with making statements or establishing mood. It’s a legitimate way of directing attention, and a different set of skills when doing post-processing. And it frees you up from taking photos of every meal, because it’s quickly apparent that most won’t turn out very appetizing.

If anything, a month might be too little time, especially with the demands of work and other hobbies. Now that it’s over, I intend to keep doing it, maybe at a 1:3 ratio with color photos.

Everyone should try it out some time (with the #bwchallenge hashtag). I highly recommend the Darkroom app, as always, because it gives you a ton of control over how tones are converted and shifted, going beyond the emulation of simple color lens filters.

Also check out my friend Cong’s feed, who did the challenge with me and stuck with it even through a trip to Osaka, which took some guts.

Edit: Forgot to add an observation. A lot of these photos were taken with my iPhone, and I found that turning a photo black and white negates the weaknesses of small smartphone sensors. Noise and muddy colors in dark scenes are no big deal, and the quality of available light (in gradations) seems to increase when you combine the color channels.

   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
   

First Photos From a Fujifilm X100T

I was in the market for a Sony RX1R because I’d heard that the price had come down to as low as $2,400 SGD at third-party retailers, whereas Sony’s own retail stores still sells them for about $3,800. I know that’s a lot of money for a fixed-lens camera, but it was intriguing. I bought a Ricoh GR earlier this year as a birthday present to myself, and have only used it sparingly. The guilt! How could I justify a camera for Christmas too?

This particular fit of consumer madness began when a friend started looking at the new model, confusingly named the Sony RX1RII, or RX1Rm2, and which costs $5,000, for his own needs (isn’t that how it always starts?). He eventually decided to go even further upmarket with a Leica, but that’s a different story.

In the end, I hesitated too long because of the asking price and the unbearable judgment of my already adequate camera shelf, and discovered earlier this week that the older RX1R was no longer available at every third-party camera store I called and visited. My guess is Sony wanted better control of the price, and to remove competition for the new $5,000 model. It’s better, but it’s not $2,600 better.

So after a bit more research and the use of a friend’s Fujifilm X100S for a few days, I got the beautiful X100T you see above. It’s nearly a thousand dollars cheaper than the Sony would have been. It’s not a fair comparison because the sensor is APS-C sized instead of full frame, but its 35mm prime lens barrel is a lot shorter and less conspicuous as a result. Fuji’s color reproduction and JPEG quality is also quite lovely, and I’m happy with the way things look straight out of the camera. I often find the Ricoh GR series’ 28mm field of view too wide for most purposes, and with many other compacts now starting at 24mm (like Sony’s RX100), it feels great to finally shoot with The Standard.

A quick recap of the specs, if you have the time:

  • Fixed 35mm f2 Fujinon lens
  • 16mp CMOS sensor with phase detection autofocus
  • An integrated hybrid viewfinder that switches from optical to electronic with the flick of a switch (only the new RX1R has an EVF)
  • Built-in WiFI for transferring photos to a smartphone via Fuji’s barely functional app
  • Software emulation of Fujifilm’s classic film stocks (perhaps more in name than reality): Provia, Velvia, and Astia
  • A little bigger than the RX1R, although more compact on the whole thanks to a smaller lens
  • An ND filter and electronic shutter mode for really fast captures in bright light

Here are some shots from a photo walk I took yesterday, which happened to coincide with the Hello Kitty Fun Run. I never knew it was such a big deal. Two observations: Having a camera around your neck makes you more liable to be asked to take someone’s photo, and if people notice you pointing one in their direction, they’re more likely to flash you a peace sign.

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Unboxing: Moment Case for iPhone 6S Plus

Today I received my new Moment Case (Dark Walnut Kickstarter edition) for iPhone 6 Plus after a long wait following the Kickstarter campaign. They hit a snag with manufacturing, and the release of the slightly thicker 6S series of phones necessitated holding back to make sure the original designs fit.

It works as advertised and is very easy to hold; slips into my jeans pocket comfortably enough too. Here’s a quick unboxing and look at the startup photo taking workflow. Note that you must use the Moment Camera app if you want to use the shutter button. It does NOT function as a regular Bluetooth remote shutter like the kind you use with a selfie stick.

Really Nice Images (RNI) Photo App for iOS

   
 

I came across this app a couple of weeks ago but can’t remember how, and since then it’s struck me as somewhat criminal that more people aren’t talking about it. So this is just a quick post to help you, my reader, discover a new app that brings realistic analog film simulation to your iPhone photos.

Sure, we already have VSCO, Rebelsauce, Faded, Afterlight, Litely, Priime… but there’s always room for one more if it does the job really well; the job being accurate reproduction of film characteristics. Then it’s a much shorter list. Mattebox (when it was for sale and updated) did a marvellous job of handling exposure adjustments in a very film-like way, VSCO Film in their desktop products are designed to emulate certain classic stocks, and a couple others like PicTapGo come from companies that also produce pro-grade Lightroom presets for a day job.

RNI Films falls into this general category easily. Their Lightroom presets are based on close study of classic films, they use real film grain scans and simulate old lenses with blurring, individual packs retail for $49 each (there are 5?), and online chatter from professionals indicate that their work is well-regarded as being competitive with and maybe even better than VSCO Film, now the biggest player thanks to the profile of their iOS app.

Unlike VSCOcam, which intentionally avoids naming its iPhone filters to match/cannibalize their more expensive Lightroom presets, RNI’s new app offers the same film simulations by name: Kodak Gold 200, Fuji Velvia 100, etc. I haven’t compared them, but I’ll guess that the iOS app produces results very close to the desktop product, at a fraction of the cost. Perhaps they have been tuned to the qualities of the iPhone’s camera for best results. At about $3 per in-app purchase pack, they are more expensive than those in most other filter apps on smartphones, but come on. In comparison to $49, we’re talking about a near giveaway.

I’ve been very pleased with the presets, and they look the way I expect them to. The app could use a few more features and a streamlined editing UX that allows for people who’d want to save versions, for example, but as of right now it gets the basics done about as well as the earlier generations of iPhone filter apps. Load > Stage 1 Edits > Stage 2 Edits > Save as new copy. It’s still faster at this workflow than VSCOcam! Hopefully the team at RNI are still iterating on it right now, although I sort of doubt it.

   
    
    
 

RNI Films by RNI (Free, with IAP)

https://appsto.re/sg/Wg7N8.i

Darkroom Photo App Shows Why UX Details Are Everything

A new photo editor for iOS launched today, and it’s called Darkroom (free, with a $2.99 in-app purchase to unlock Curves).

“Another photo editing app? What does this one bring to the table?” I’ve seen a few early reviews of Darkroom begin along those lines. It seems a sense of fatigue has set in amongst people watching this space, and it interests me to find that I don’t feel the same way. I’ve dived into every new release with optimism, because there are still so many ways to improve upon what we can currently do on our mobile devices.

The Verge mentions Darkroom in the same breath as VSCO Cam, suggesting that the latter has a new challenger. That’s somewhat wrong-headed; they aren’t anymore alike than, say, how Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda are as ways of passing time. Both apps allow you to tune the look of a photo, and apply presets, but it’s how they’ve been engineered to do it that counts.

Darkroom’s most exciting development, if you listen to what people are saying, is that it allows you to edit photos by adjusting RGB curves. Except that’s not especially new in the iPhone app space — Photoforge did it years ago, Filterstorm has that and much more in the way of professional tools, and there are others. The next feature to get attention is that you can save any of your adjustments as a custom preset, ready for future photos, and it’s like making your own filters. Again, this is territory that Mattebox, PicTapGo, Mextures, et al pioneered awhile ago.

The reason Darkroom is exciting, is that it seems to have absolutely nailed the UX of these features, and made them feel manageable, comfortable, and pleasurable to use as a whole. I want to emphasize that this is hard, and that their solutions are so subtle and executional, they might not have convinced anyone of their worth if presented as bullet points on a slide at some early point in the process.

Using other apps with curves and pro adjustments can feel claustrophobic and stressful on a small screen. I’ve hated almost every single one (Adobe’s own Photoshop Touch is so awful at it) and keep them on my phone as last resorts. If I’m on holiday and take a problematic photo with potential, I’m more likely to wait till I get home just so I can do it on a Mac than try to fiddle with it on the go. Snapseed is one powerful exception, but that uses its own control metaphors, not curves.

Darkroom’s UI is blissfully open in design. It will likely get more complicated as they add more promised features, but I’m hopeful the team finds a way to keep this incredible simplicity. As you page through its 5 key sections (composition, filters, adjustments, curves, history), you never lose your place in the mental model. Nothing is buried in a submenu or out of sight.

You don’t have to click a checkmark to save an adjustment before tapping another, because everything can be undone to an infinite degree, and one can undo hundreds of minute actions back to the beginning of an edit if necessary. Because that step (so annoying in apps like Afterlight, Faded, and VSCO Cam) has been eliminated, using Darkroom’s tools feels close to direct manipulation of the colors and pixels on your screen. One more nice touch: you can tap to the left or right of a slider knob to nudge it in that direction. Simple, but I can’t remember the last time a photo app let me do that.

Loading up a photo is seamless. The app starts with a view of your entire photo library. Tapping a photo pulls it forward, straight into editing mode. At this point, you can swipe to either side to start editing adjacent photos in your library. Flicking a photo down tosses it back into the pile, and you’re looking at all your photos again. In use, it feels gloriously fast and uncomplicated. As that bullet point on a slide, “Seamless browsing and editing flow” wouldn’t have done it justice. This is the kind of feature that needs to be designed, prototyped, tweaked, and tuned over and over to create something subtle, but innovative. A team rushing their project out would have missed the opportunity.

The difference between Darkroom and apps that require stepping in and out of different editing modes, especially when the placement of those modes is obscured, is like Apple’s own (now discontinued) iPhoto for iOS and the new built-in photo editing options in Photos.app. The former was a confusing mess with plenty of user-undiscoverable gestures and submenus, while the latter gives most users all the power they need in a more approachable UI.

iPhoto Photos

I’ve stopped using half of the other apps I’ve listed above as problematic, and forgotten the names of twice as many more. The ones I remember tend to be the ones I really wanted to succeed; I’ll unfairly single out Mattebox as an app with great technology and features, but suffered from confounding UX design. Countless times, I actually got lost inside the mess of buttons and menus that were hidden at the “back” of its camera mode. Thinking about the Darkroom icon sitting on my homescreen now doesn’t fill me with the same dread. I’m dreaming about using it later tonight, and tomorrow, and anticipating what will be new in the first update. Although its name is generic, I don’t think I’ll be forgetting it soon. I imagine it’s the beginning of a new phase of using my iPhone as a camera, one in which I can send better photos home while still on holiday.

Hipstamatic Vault Reopens — Old Friends for Sale

The Hipstamatic iPhone camera app is in the habit of releasing new “HipstaPaks” of gear (each one typically has a new “lens” and “film”; occasionally a “flash”) every month. Some of these disappear awhile later, to keep the available collection manageable and, I suppose, to create some artificial scarcity around their releases.

I discovered this a couple of weekends ago when I wanted the Swedish-themed Södermalm Pak and discovered it missing. I regularly buy everything they offer, not the idea of not having some drove me crazy. I promptly bought the remaining two or three I did not already have, proving their marketing technique works.

So if you also have an obsessive nature and need to have a complete Hipstamatic pack collection, this weekend will feel like Christmas has come early because they’re opening their “HipstaVault”, with almost everything from the past available once more.

As far as I can tell from Googling, the last time this happened was in 2012. I didn’t know it would actually happen again, so… predictably, I’ve now bought everything I missed.

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Shuttered Out

At a recent office balcony party, I spoke to a colleague who’s also into photography (by which I mean he’s also afflicted by the coin-draining hobby of buying cameras), and realized that maybe I’ve made some progress. My last purchase was the Sony RX-100, which he also bought, and then sold, and then bought a Fuji X20, and then sold, and then bought a used Fuji X100S (pictured). The urge has not visited me lately, unless you count the $200 Q Camera which no amount of money on Earth can buy at the moment because they’ve only made one sold-out and poorly handled batch.

I’m doing really well on just my iPhone 5S and excellent apps like the new Mattebox (do try my Velvius filter), and Cortex Camera. You can also explore all my posts tagged ‘Photography‘.

Cortex Camera is your best bet for quality iPhone photos

Original iPhone capture
Original iPhone capture
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Cortex Camera capture

It’s hard to believe that you can get different results from the same hardware—the same smartphone camera—just seconds apart. The first photo was taken with the iPhone 5S’s built-in camera app, which employs some impressive software techniques to improve most photos. In this case, a low-light scene forced an ISO sensitivity of 1000.

The second photo was taken with Cortex Camera, which takes a series of images over 2 seconds or so (you don’t have to keep your hands perfectly still, but still-as-possible helps). These are then combined for far less noise, more accurate colors, and higher resolution (12mp on the iPhone 5/5S, which normally take 8mp images). The default Camera.app also combines up to four captures for better photos, but is optimized to work for all situations. For any scene without moving subjects and where you have the luxury of time, Cortex delivers better results.

Camera.app 100% crop
Camera.app 100% crop
Cortex Camera 100% crop
Cortex Camera 100% crop

The shots above are 100% crops from the same scene. Note that the Cortex Camera version is both larger and more detailed. It has more potential for processing, and beats a fair few prosumer point and shoot cameras at the pixel level.

The first app to do this “supersampling” was Occipital’s ClearCam, which I used to swear by. However, like their other app 360 Panorama, ClearCam hasn’t received any updates in the wake of iOS 7, and appears to have been abandoned as the company pushes their new Kickstarter-backed project, the Structure Sensor. At this time, ClearCam makes you wait longer and has a cumbersome alignment and enhancement process. Cortex Camera just takes the picture and saves it all in one step. It’s a damn shame, because both Occipital apps were among the first and best of their kind, enabling users to do things with their iPhones that seemingly defied the capabilities of the hardware. They clearly have a knack for clever imaging technology; I just hope they take a longer view of supporting their products some day.

If you’re in the market for a new app to take and share those 360-degree panoramas, Sphere (formerly Tour Wrist) does a good job and is free. Bubbli is also promising, but captures video instead of photos to stitch a scene together, which means you have to pan slowly to get an even exposure. If you’ve got the cash and a love of new gadgets (mustnotbuymustnotbuy) Ricoh’s new Theta camera does the trick in a single click. It’s the first consumer-ready spherical capture camera and looks like a presentation remote. Simply hold it above your head and hit the button, and it takes in the entire scene. What’s more, the $400 device has built-in wifi and beams photos over to your iPhone for instant sharing. It’s not hard to imagine this feature on an iPhone a decade from now.

VSCOcam 2.0 — A New High-Water Mark In Mobile Photography

I’ve been a fan of VSCO products for awhile, and have written about using their VSCO Film presets with JPEGs from consumer compact cameras, and recommended the last version of their VSCOcam iPhone app in my rundown of Essential iPhone Photography Apps.

In the latter post, I said of version 1 of VSCOcam:

As flawed as it is capable, this low-priced alternative to the VSCO company’s pricey desktop plugins is pretty good at giving photos a realistic film look; no light leaks and crazy cross-processing here, just subtle color shifts, fade operations, and real grain overlays. Skip the other basic editing tools included; they’re not up to scratch yet, but the package is an easy buy at $0.99.

The good news this week is that version 2 of VSCOcam [iTunes] greatly improves upon those editing tools (specifically by giving operations such as adjusting brightness more precise ‘steps’ of control, and making them non-destructive within the app; new adjustments like rotation have also been added), and takes the original’s 10 built-in film looks to another level.

The new version of VSCOcam (a separate download in the App Store) is a free download, and now contains a store with 16 packs of “presets” for download at 99c each. A pack consists of 3 presets, which are really more like filters since their results cannot be accomplished by tweaking any of the editing parameters. Presets is a strange term to carry over from VSCO’s Lightroom and Aperture products, where they really are Presets.

Owners of the previous paid app can unlock the original 10 legacy filters in the new app, which is a nice touch. And as a launch special, all 16 packs can be bought for the price of 6.

The new app is essentially a ground-up redesign and rebuild. All operations are significantly faster, the built-in lightbox mode is nearly unrecognizable and has some very nice power-user features like flagging and filtering by flagged/edited states. The camera module is now good enough to use as a camera replacement, with separate focus/exposure locking, a “big shutter button” mode, high ISO boost support for iPhone 5, and other improvements. There’s also a proprietary photo publishing platform called VSCO Grid built in that I haven’t had the chance to try because accounts are being rolled out slowly as they test it.

In this week’s issue of The Round Down newsletter (subscribe!), I said:

This is a new high-water mark in mobile photography apps. […] It’s almost too good to be true, and too good to give away for nothing.

And it really is. At one point on the mobile photography timeline, taptaptap’s Camera+ app was king of the hill as an all-in-one solution because few others did as much as it did, as inoffensively as it did. However, its shortcomings in editing and effects processing have never been addressed, and the pace of development seems to have slowed down considerably in the past year. With VSCOcam 2.0, I think its successor has arrived. It has the power to fix shortcomings in photos as well as or better than Camera+ ever did, and the professional desktop editing pedigree of its filters is unmatched by competitors.

A few bugs and metadata issues notwithstanding, if I had to delete every photo app on my iPhone bar one, this would be my choice to keep.

Not the best example, but one photo I took last night.
Not the best example, but one photo I took last night.

Camera Noir x HK

A couple of interesting people I follow on Twitter got together and formed an app company awhile back, called Pacific Helm. They released their first iPhone photography app today, Camera Noir, and it’s rather nice.

It takes (and imports existing) photos in B&W only — a sort of black-heavy, rich sort of processing. It’s been called high-contrast in every review I’ve seen today, but that term usually implies a hard, noisy look; Camera Noir’s output retains subtle gradations and shadows. In some light, the results look almost like infrared film. It’s a look well-suited to landscapes and urban scenes, as these examples from my Hong Kong set show.

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