Category Archives: Photography

Panasonic G9. Close? Yes. Cigar? No.

Beware, bears! Russian strongman and former commando Mikhail Shivlyakov “psychs up” friend and fellow competitor Konstantina Janashia from Georgia, ready for a successful 480kg deadlift.
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 31-05-2018 15:07 | Resolution: 5017 x 3763 | ISO: 640 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/250s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 300.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6

This article was also published as a guest article on "The Online Photographer".

My Panasonic GX8 arrived pretty much on the day of official availability and has been my primary camera for almost three years, including two major photographic trips, and innumerable other opportunities in between. It improved on the already good GX7 with "just right" sizing, a better sensor and higher speeds. Like many other owners and fans I was looking forward to a fairly straight replacement – all Panasonic had to do was fix the awkward exposure compensation control and improve the action autofocus and it would be pretty much perfect. Fat chance.

Instead, and not for the first time, Panasonic have shaken up the Lumix G range, with the GX9 effectively moving down the range, and all the new goodness going into a new "stills flagship" the G9, which sits at the top alongside the video-centric GH5 and its variants.

After a bit of prevarication, I decided that I was due an upgrade, and plumped for the G9. My new camera arrived a few days ago. This review is based on the first few days’ moderately heavy use. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive, or dispassionate blow-by-blow review, but a set of personal impressions from a long-standing Panasonic user and fan.

Body Style and Size

At first the G9 looks like quite a different camera, larger and more expensive, and more of a "DSLR ethos" than the rangefinder-style GX8. I’ll come back to cost, but the size issue is deceptive: put the two cameras side by side and it’s clear that the only real difference is the G9’s DSLR "hump", and a slightly deeper grip, which is academic unless you use a very small pancake lens. Given that similarity it’s surprising that the G9 is a significant 171g (about 6oz) heavier. The camera offers better weatherproofing and a bigger battery, and does feel a bit more rugged, so that’s acceptable. Unlike its predecessor, but like my old Canon 7D, it feels like it might take the odd knock without problems. In practice, you get used to the weight quite quickly.

Like every new flagship camera the G9 is initially priced high, but this gives Panasonic and their dealers some room for manoeuvre with discounts, trade-ins and freebies. Depending on how you look at it my G9 cost me only about 2/3 of the advertised price, or the 5 year lifetime cost of my old GX7 net of trade-in was about £250. I can live with that.

Controls and Ergonomics

Back in early 2016 I wrote an open letter to Panasonic regarding the GX8, acknowledging its good points, but identifying opportunities to improve the ergonomics and usefully extend its stills capability. They clearly ignored the letter for the GX9, but either great minds think alike, or it did influence the G9.

Ergonomically, I am a fan of "electronic" control, by which I mean the ability to set camera functions fluidly between on-camera buttons and wheels including your choice of programmable controls, the menu system, and stored custom values. By contrast "fixed switches" break this free control model and cannot be included in stored settings for custom shooting modes. In addition, I am short sighted and wearing my "distance" glasses the tiny markings on such controls are effectively invisible.

The GX8’s exposure compensation control is a good (or should that be bad?) example of the latter. Apart from breaking my preferred control model it is also badly placed – I found that to operate it I either have to take my right hand off the camera and reach in from above, or somehow slide my thumb behind the camera, which usually results in both adjusted exposure and smeared glasses! No such problem with the G9 – you can quickly set up the camera so that the rear wheel, under the right thumb, controls the primary exposure value (aperture or shutter speed as appropriate), while the front wheel, easily in reach of the shutter finger, controls compensation. Vice-versa if you prefer. Perfect.

Unfortunately, however, Panasonic have perpetuated, and even aggravated one of the GX8’s other ergonomic failings, and arguably introduced a new one! The perpetual horror is focus mode. The G9, like most of the G series, has four main modes: manual focus (’nuff said), autofocus "single" (half press the shutter button to focus, then full press to expose with that focus), "follow" (another single shot mode, but if the primary subject moves while the shutter button is half pressed, the camera refocuses), and "continuous" (aligned to the high-speed shooting modes, refocuses for each exposure). The ideal solution would be a button which toggles between the modes. That’s good enough for a lot of very good cameras. However the G9 has a switch.

If you must have a switch, then surely it should have four modes? Nope. You select manual, continuous or single/follow on a three position switch, then have to dive into the menus to choose between single and follow, or the several variants of continuous. To add insult to injury, at least in the GX8 you could set the button in the middle of the focus switch to toggle between single and follow. Not on the G9, at least not with its initial firmware – this is set to AE/AF lock (which I personally never, ever use) and not programmable. The obvious fix is to make that button programmable so that when in the single/follow position it toggles between the two, when in the continuous position it toggles between the various variants of that mode, and when in the manual position it does something equivalently useful like turning focus peaking (highlighting) on and off. This could be fixed in a firmware update – I will just have to write to Panasonic and cross my fingers.

The other fixed switch on the G9 is for the drive mode (single, high speed, timer etc.) On the GX8 this is on a button, which is much better as you can include infrequent or situation-specific settings (like high speed mode) in appropriate custom shooting modes, and just leave the main aperture-priority settings or equivalent on single-shot, with a much reduced risk of going to take a shot and being in the wrong mode. The G9 arrangement seems like a retrograde step, but liveable.

Strengths


Krzysztof Radzikowski sets a new world record with a 150kg dumbell lift

That brings us from some arguable weaknesses of the G9 onto its real strengths. It’s fast – so fast it has three high-speed modes: high (about 5FPS), super-high 1 (about 15FPS) and super-high 2 (about 20FPS). The two super-high modes also have a very useful feature for sports and wildlife photography: hold the shutter half pressed and they will continuously store a few frames (about 0.4s worth) in the buffer, and write these to the card when you press the shutter, so if you are fractionally late clicking, you don’t lose the event. The downside is that you need to use the super-high settings with caution: if you are saving RAW + large JPEG files super-high 2 will chew up your memory cards at roughly 1GByte every 1.5 seconds. Another reason why I’d prefer to lock this to a custom mode!

Autofocus is much improved over the GX8, although I have to admit that my first sporting event with the new camera didn’t give it that much of a workout: in absolute terms, strongmen don’t move fast. it’s impressive to see a 150kg (330lb) man jogging with the same weight in each hand, but it’s not the harshest test of autofocus! However I can report that the G9 seems to adjust focus very quickly in continuous mode and seems to have missed relatively few shots. If there’s any pattern to the misses they tend to be the first shots of longer sequences, when I may have been moving the camera into position on the action. I’ll have to try and find something involving horses or fast cars for a better check.

Sensor readout also appears to have been improved, with a bit less banding on pictures of LED displays, and no obvious rolling shutter effects so far, although a higher-speed subject will really be required to confirm that.

The other area where Panasonic seem to have listened to my prior pleas is in support for bracketed and multi-shot images. In addition to the established support for exposure bracketing (for HDR), the new camera now does focus bracketing/scanning, as well as bracketing for aperture and white balance. Intelligently, even in single-shot drive mode you can choose to have the bracket shot at high speed to minimise the effect of subject or camera movement. The focus bracketing capability is something I have been seeking for a long time, and records full RAW files, a completely separate capability from the camera’s other ability to do in-camera focus stacking or post-shot focus selection from within a 6K movie file. Bracketed photos are clearly marked in their metadata, which makes it quite easy to build a script to sort them out from the rest of a day’s shooting.

Battery life is excellent – at the aforementioned strongman competition the camera was on for most of the five hours of competition and took about 600 shots. It used one battery and was about 30% into the second, much better than the GX8 would manage. I can also confirm that the two card slot arrangement works fine, effectively doubling the memory capacity, so I wasn’t fiddling with cards.

Two other ergonomic points are worth making. The rear display can be manually set to a nice bright setting for outdoors, but it’s automatic setting is far too dim. The EVF is large, detailed and bright, but as adjusted for my glasses has an odd pincushion distortion, with noticeably curved edges. This is nothing to do with the lens, which the camera corrects as required, but the way the EVF display is presented to the eyepiece. It’s not a major problem, but annoying to an inveterate picture-straightener like myself, especially as I haven’t had that problem with any of the predecessors.

Otherwise it’s pretty much business as usual. Image quality appears to be just the same as the GX8, much as expected given the common sensor, and the camera has a nicely familiar feel even if some of the controls are different and it’s definitely a bit heavier. Stabilisation is at least as good as the predecessor, with no noticeable penalty from the increased weight, but it’s clear that the full multi-second goodness of "dual IS 2" will have to wait until I can afford to start replacing my lenses with the new Mark II versions.

Conclusion

Would I recommend it? If you’re a committed Panasonic user, or have no existing mirrorless camera affiliation, and you want a very high capability, stills-centric camera, then absolutely. However if video is your thing, the GH5 may be better, and if you really don’t need the high speed or new advanced stills features, then a GX-series camera will save you weight and money. This is a very good camera, but not perfect. Panasonic still have room for improvement…

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Posted in Micro Four Thirds, Photography, Thoughts on the World | Leave a comment

The Decisive Moment

My old mum has recently moved from her house to a smaller retirement flat, and is still in the process of sorting out some of the accumulated lifetime’s possessions. On this visit, I was presented with a large carrier bag of old cameras.

I have to say, I wasn’t expecting miracles. Mum and Dad never spent a vast amount on photographic equipment, usually buying a mid-range "point and click", using it till it stopped working and then buying another.

First out, an ancient Canon Powershot, for 35mm film. It probably works, but I tried explaining to Mum that there’s no longer any real market for such items.

"No-one really wants the bother of getting films developed. You don’t – you have a digital camera yourself now, you were using it last night."

"But surely there are people who love old cameras."

"Yes there are, but they have to be a bit special. If this was a Leica, with a little red dot on it, it would probably be worth some money, but not an ancient cheap Canon."

To settle it, I opened up my laptop and had a look on eBay. There were a couple, for about £15 and about £12, both with no bids.

Next up, a similar Panasonic. This still had a film in it, which was suspicious as it probably meant that the camera had died mid-holiday and been abandoned. eBay suggested an asking price somewhere in the range £8 to £11.99. Getting worse.

"I could offer it to the charity shop" said Mum, hopefully.

"Well you could, but don’t be surprised if they are underwhelmed." I told her about my recent experience of having a perfectly good 32" flatscreen TV rejected by our local charity shop, which didn’t encourage her.

"But surely if things still work?"

"I keep on saying, Mum, things have to be a bit special. You know, a Leica or something, with a nice red dot."

Next out of the bag was a Konica. This was a slightly different shape and had the rather ominous indicator "110" in the model number. That’s definitely not a good sign, I mean can you actually still get and process 110 film? (That’s assuming that you can see any point in shooting a format which is distinctly inferior to 35mm in the first place.) Amazingly enough there is one on eBay. £2.99, no bids…

"OK", says Mum, deciding that there’s no point in arguing that one. "There’s one box left in the bag."

What? Hoist by my own petard! I mean, what were the chances??

Sadly it’s actually only a slide box, and eBay suggests that it’s going to get £20 at best, but I am now honour-bound to do my best to find it a good home.

Be careful what you wish for…

Posted in Humour, Photography, Thoughts on the World | Leave a comment

A "False Colour" Experiment

Infrared trees with false colour
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX7 | Date: 05-07-2017 09:54 | Resolution: 4390 x 1756 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0.33 EV | Exp. Time: 1/640s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 17.0mm | State/Province: Swinhoe, Northumberland | See map

This is a bit of an experiment, but I think it works. I started with an infrared image in its standard form: yellow skies and blue foliage. I then performed a series of fairly simple colour replacement operations in Photoshop Elements: yellow to red, blue in top half of image to dark green, blue in bottom half of image to pale green, red to blue. The result is a bit like a hand-coloured black and white image. I like it, do you?

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Infrared White Balance

Alnwick Castle Reflections in the Infrared
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX7 | Date: 05-07-2017 14:29 | Resolution: 4653 x 2908 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/800s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | State/Province: Alnwick, Northumberland | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

"I’m shooting infrared. My main output is RAW files, and any JPGs are just aides memoire. Between my raw processor and Photoshop I’m going to do some fancy channel mixing to either add false colour, or take it away entirely and generate a monochrome image. So I’m assuming my white balance doesn’t matter. Is that right?"

Nope, and this article explains why. If you’re struggling with, or puzzled by, the role of white balance in infrared photography, hopefully this will help untangle things.

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3D Photos from Myanmar

Small temple at the Swedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 10-02-2017 08:22 | Resolution: 5240 x 3275 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/80s | Aperture: 14.0 | Focal Length: 21.0mm | Location: Shwedagon Pagoda | State/Province: Wingaba, Yangon | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

I’ve just finished processing my 3D shots from Myanmar. If you have a 3D TV or VR goggles, download a couple of the files from the following link and have a look.

https://www.andrewj.com/public/3D/

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Posted in Myanmar Travel Blog, Photography, Travel | Leave a comment

Travel Blogging and Photo Editing

Weaver's hand
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 17-02-2017 11:39 | Resolution: 5184 x 3456 | ISO: 1600 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/40s | Aperture: 4.5 | Focal Length: 30.0mm | Location: Weaving village at In Paw Khone | State/Province: Inbawhkon, Shan | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

I’ve been asked a number of times recently how I manage to write my blog during the often hectic schedule of my trips. It is sometimes a challenge, but it’s something that I want to do, and so I make it a priority for any "down time". I don’t see it as a chore, but as a way of enhancing my enjoyment, re-living the best experiences, working through any frustrations, and building valuable memories. If I’m travelling without Frances then there’s a lot of overlap with my report home, and if we’re travelling together then drafting the blog has become an enjoyable joint activity for coffee stops and dinner times.

That said, there are a few tricks to make the task manageable, and I’m happy to pass on some of those I have developed.

There’s no great magic to the writing. The main ingredient is practice. However I do spend quite a lot of time thinking through what to say about a day, trying to draft suitable paragraphs in my mind. If it was good enough for Gideon it’s good enough for me :). It is useful to capture ideas and even draft words whenever you get an opportunity, even on the go: travel time in buses and coffee stops are ideal. I just start drafting an email to myself on my phone, which can be saved at any time, reopened to add more as the day goes on, and sent before I start writing the blog.

The other important tool is a blogging app on your device which works offline and can save multiple drafts locally. I use the excellent Microsoft Live Writer on my PC, and the WordPress app on my phone and tablet, but any decent text editor would do. I would strongly counsel against trying to do travel blogging directly onto an online service – you will just be too obstructed by connectivity challenges.

Images are the other part of the equation. It’s very easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of images, especially if you shoot prolifically like I tend to do, and if you have a relatively slow processing workflow. The first trick is to shoot RAW+JPG, so you always have something which you can share and post, even if it’s not perfect. As I observed in a previous post, you don’t need perfect in this context, and it would be rare if you didn’t from a day’s shooting have a least one image good enough in camera to share.

However, as long as I have at least some time, I do try to perform a basic edit (filter) on my shots, and process at least the one or two I want to publish to my blog. That requires a robust but quick and efficient workflow. Different photographers work different ways, but the following describes mine.

Importantly, I don’t use LightRoom or the image management features in Photoshop. Neither do I use Capture One’s catalogue features. All my image management takes place directly in Windows, supported by the excellent XnView and a few tools of my own making. I find that this is both quicker, and puts me in direct control of the process, rather than at the mercy of a model which might not suit.

The first step is to copy (not move) the images off the memory card. If I have only used one card in a session, I find it perfectly adequate to just connect the camera via USB – this works quite quickly, and avoids fiddling with card readers. As long as I have sufficient cards I don’t re-format them until I’m home (just in case something happens to the PC), nor do I do much in-camera deleting, which is very cumbersome.

In terms of organisation I have a top-level directory on each laptop called "Pictures" under which is a directory called "Incoming". This is synchronised across all my computers, and holds all "work in progress". Under that I have two master directories for each year or major trip, and then subdirectories for each event. So for Myanmar I will have top level directories called "Myanmar 2017" (for output files and fully-processed originals) and "Myanmar 2017 – Incoming" (for work in progress). Under the latter I would typically have a directory for the images from each day’s shooting, e.g. "Lake Inle Day 2". On the "output" side I will typically have a directory for each location, plus one for all the originals (RAW files and Capture One settings), but I could easily also end up with others for video, and particular events or topics such as the group.

Having copied the pictures over to the right working directory, I fire up XnView. The first step is to run a batch rename process which sets each image filename to my standard, which includes the date (in YYYYMMDD format), the camera and the number assigned by the camera, so all shots from a given camera will always sort alphabetically in shot order, and I can immediately see when an image was taken and on which camera. After that I run a script which moves all "multi-shot" images into sub-directories by type (I shoot panoramas, HDR, focus blends and 3D images each using a distinct custom mode on the camera) and takes these out of the main editing workflow.

The next step is to "edit" the images, by which I mean filtering out the bad, poor, and very good. Because I have JPG files for each shot, I can set XnView to sort by file type, and quickly scan all the JPG files in full screen mode, tagging each (using shortcut keys) on the following scheme:

  • Two stars means "delete". This is for images which are beyond use: out of focus, blurred, subject not fully in the frame. These will be moved to the wastebasket, and once that’s emptied, they are gone forever.
  • Three stars means "others". This is for images which are technically viable but which I don’t think merit processing. The obvious candidates are things like alternative people shots where the expressions weren’t ideal (but I have a better shot) or where I took a few slightly different compositions and some obviously don’t work. However this is also where I park duplicates or the unwanted frames from high-speed sequences. When I get home the JPGs will be deleted and the RAW files moved to an old external hard drive to free up disk space.
  • Four stars means "OK". This is for technically and compositionally adequate images, albeit which may not be the best, or may need substantial processing work.
  • Five stars means "good". These are the images which leap out at a quick viewing as "yes, that’s going to work".

Having tagged the images in the working folder, I have another script which deletes the two star images, moves the "others", and creates a .XMP file marking the five star images with a colour tag which can be read by Capture One. I can also copy the in-camera JPG versions of the 5 star images as a starting point for my portfolio, although these will be replaced by processed versions later.

The thing about the tagging process is to keep going, quickly, but err on the side of caution (so tag borderline delete as 3 star, and borderline others as 4 star). I can usually work through at an image every one or two seconds, so the first filter of an intensive shoot of 500 images takes less than 20 minutes. At this point I have typically reduced the retained images by 40-60%, but that varies by subject matter and the percentage of rejects can be much higher for challenging subjects such as high-speed action but also people other than professional models, where a lot get rejected for poor expressions. The reason I’ve chosen the image at the top is that I love trying to capture hands at work, but that’s another subject with a high "miss" rate. I also find that I fairly consistently mark about 4-5% of shots as 5 star.

I don’t just delete the "others", because there is the occasional case where my selected shot of a group turns out to have a major flaw, and it’s worth reviewing the options. More importantly, for family events, weddings and the like there’s the occasional "didn’t anyone take a picture of Aunty Ethel?" I rescued a friend of mine from a serious family bust-up when it emerged that the official photographer at his wedding hadn’t taken a single photo of my friend, the groom’s parents! On the case, I found a shot in "others" which after processing kept everyone happy.

At this point, and only then, I start up Capture One and navigate to the target working directory. It takes a minute or two to perform its first scan, and then I can change the sort order to "colour tag", and there are the best of the day’s images, right at the top of the list ready to select a couple for the blog and process them. 90% of the time I restrict processing changes to the crop and exposure (levels and curves) – I wouldn’t usually select for the blog any image needing more than that. Finish the words, and I’m ready to post my blog.

From plugging in the camera to posting typically takes around an hour. There’s some scope for multi-tasking, so I can work on the words (or get a cup of tea) while the images are downloading from the camera, or while posting the images to my website (which in my case is a separate step from posting the blog). As a by-product, I have performed my first edit on the shoot, and have more or less the best images prioritised for further processing.

And I have an enduring and sharable record of what I did on my holidays!

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Posted in Myanmar Travel Blog, Photography, Thoughts on the World, Travel | Leave a comment

Myanmar Musings (What Worked and What Didn’t)

Scarf seller at Thaung Yoeu
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 15-02-2017 17:37 | Resolution: 3888 x 3888 | ISO: 1600 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/25s | Aperture: 9.0 | Focal Length: 33.0mm | Location: Thaung Yoeu ladies and pagoda ru | State/Province: Indein, Shan | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Well, I’m back! Apart from a mad dash the length of Bangkok airport which got us to our plane to the UK with only a couple of minutes to spare, the flights home were uneventful and timely. Here’s my traditional tail-end blog piece, with a combination of “what worked and what didn’t” and more general musings.

This was a truly inspiring photographic trip, with a combination of great locations, events and people to photograph. We had a very capable “leadership team” who got us to great locations in great light, and the Burmese people were only too happy to participate in the process. No praise can be too high for our local guide, Nay Win Oo (Shine), who is not only a great guide and competent logistician, but has a good feel for what makes great photography, and a real talent for directing the local people as models.

If I have a minor complaint, it’s the observation that the trip was largely focused on interiors and people to the occasional exclusion of landscapes and architecture. I had to declare UDI a couple of times to get a bit more of the latter subject matter in front of my lens. Bhutan was perhaps a better match to my own style, but that didn’t stop this trip being a great source of images.

Cameras and Shot Count

The Panasonic GX8 was the workhorse of the trip, and took approximately 3690 exposures. That’s about 20% higher than either Bhutan or Morocco, both of which were slightly longer trips, and reflects the more “interactive” nature of the photography, with a rather higher discard ratio than normal. As usual the total also includes raw material for quite a lot of multi-exposure images, mainly for 3D and panoramas. I expect to end up with 100-200 images worth sharing, which is about the norm.

I took around 84 stills on the Sony RX100, mainly “grab shots” from the bus, but it came into its own for video, and I have a number of great video clips, more than  on previous trips. I also took a handful of images using the infrared-converted Panasonic GX7, but whether due to the subject matter or the lighting they weren’t terribly inspiring.

I used my Ricoh Theta 360-degree camera several times, mainly in the markets and at the group mealtimes. I’m treating this as “found photography” – I haven’t had much of a look yet at what was captured, and will look forward to exploring the output over time.

My equipment all behaved faultlessly. I used all the lenses a reasonable amount, with the Panasonic 12-35mm doing the lion’s share as expected, but the 7-14mm, 35-100mm and 100-300mm all getting substantial use. I didn’t use the camera on my new Sony Experia Ultra phone, but its excellent GPS was a vast improvement over the Galaxy Note’s poor performance in Bhutan.

I also did not use the Panasonic GX7 which I was carrying as a spare, but was able to lend it as a complete solution to another member of the group when her Canon L Series zoom lens started misbehaving. Having been burned previously I always carry a spare everything, and that’s a lot easier with the diminutive Panasonic kit.

Human Factors

While technology was broadly reliable, human systems were more challenged. The combined effects of the intensive schedule and the expected risk of tummy bugs led to as fairly high attrition rate. At least half the group missed a shoot or a meal, and a couple were quite ill for a couple of days. I was lucky that my own “wobble” was brief and started within a quick walk of a five star hotel. I would advise most travellers to think in terms of “when” not “if”, and definitely avoid all uncooked food.

Hotels and restaurants were clean, and even out and about most washrooms were acceptable. Similarly temple areas were kept clean, with the fact that all shoes are removed at the entrance a clear contributor. The challenge is in the more general areas, especially in the towns and cities, where any surface you touch may also have been touched by many others. Money is a particular challenge. All you can do is to keep sanitising your hands, but also bags, cameras, wallets and other items which you may have to touch with dirty hands.

Our Burmese travel agents certainly did everything they could to reduce stress.  Once we arrived in Burma responsibility for our large luggage and travel documents began and ended with putting our bags outside the room at the appointed time. Then we just got on the bus, walked through the airport picking up a boarding pass as we passed Shine, and that’s about it! I could get used to travelling that way…

With someone else doing the “heavy lifting” (quite literally in the case of my case), you can get around with two phrases and 3 gestures:

  • Minga-la-ba, which is a polite “good day” exchanged between any two people who make eye contact. The choruses in the school and markets were fascinating! This can be used to cover a multitude of sins, and works very well as “please can I take your photograph?”
  • Che-su-ba, which means “thank you”. ‘Nuff said.
  • The smiley face and thumbs up, which work when you’re not close enough to use Minga-la-ba and che-su-ba.
  • A gesture consisting of the left hand held out at table level, palm up, with the right hand held about a foot above it, palm down. This is universally interpreted as “I would like a large Myanman beer, please” 🙂

Burmese Bizarre

Myanmar is a bit bizarre in a number of ways. Let’s start with the name. Myanmar (pronounce “mee…” not “my…”) is a relatively recent invention, and is not universally adopted. It doesn’t help that Aung San Suu Kyi (the popular and de-facto leader) tends to use “Burma” herself, and there’s no common adjective derived from Myanmar, whereas “Burmese” works, and is officially valid if it relates to the dominant ethnic group and language. It wouldn’t surprise me if “Myanmar” goes the way of “Zaire” and “Tanganyika”, and we’re all back to “Burma” in a few years.

The Burmese really do “drive on the wrong side of the road”. In another anti-colonial dictat a few years ago, one of the madder generals decided to change from the British practice, and instructed the country to drive on the right. On it’s own, that’s not a problem. It works fairly well for the Americas and most of Europe. However the Burmese are trying to do it with the same almost completely right-hand-drive vehicle supply as the rest of Asia and Australasia. So all of the drivers are unable to see round corners or larger vehicles in front, and every bus has a “driver’s assistant” who’s main job is to stop passengers being mown down by passing traffic as they disembark into the middle of the road!

At a daily level Myanmar is almost entirely cash-based, with effectively three currencies in circulation. Major tourist transactions are conducted in US Dollars. These must be large denominations and absolutely pristine – they may be rejected for a tiny mark or fold. Next down, most day to day transactions by tourists and the more wealthy are conducted in Kyat (pronounced “Chat”), in round units of 1000 Kyat (about 60p). 10,000K and 5,000K notes tend to also be quite tidy. Transactions with and between the poorer people are in tens or hundreds of Kyat and the money is quite different. It’s absolutely disgusting, clearly and literally passing through a lot of hands in its lifetime. It’s all slightly reminiscent of the two currency system in Cuba, but with one currency used two distinct ways.

Uniquely among the countries I have visited, Myanmar has no international GSM roaming. However we had good straightforward Wifi connectivity at reasonable speeds and without any obvious restrictions at all the hotels and in several other locations. I suspect this is a transitional state, as the enthusiastic adoption of mobile phones in the local population will inevitably drive a standard solution fairly rapidly.

One thing which did amuse me – one of the primary providers of Internet services is a company called SkyNet. Shine say’s they’ve all seen the films, so I’m assuming the founder is a Terminator fan…

The usual Asian approach of throwing people at any problem showed mixed results. Bangkok Airport is an enormous hub trying to run on small site processes which don’t scale just by adding people. The role of “bus driver’s assistant” does find employment for young lads with a helpful attitude but few exams. However we did have one very delayed meal where the problem seemed to be one of short staffing, despite a lot of people milling around the restaurant with nothing to do, most of the order taking, cooking and serving was being done by one or two individuals who were run ragged. It will be interesting to see how the approaches vary as the economy grows.

Guide books describe the food as “a rich fusion of unusual flavours” and “a repertoire of ingredients not found in any other cuisine”. Yeah, right. I’ll admit that I was being a bit cautious and avoided some of the more unusual fish and hot curry dishes, but basically it was Chinese or Thai food with a few local variations (more pineapple), alongside a number of Indian, Italian and Anglo-American favourites. One member of our group survived almost the whole trip on chicken and cashew nuts, and I’ll admit to a couple of pizzas!

To Sum Up

Lovely country, lovely people, great photos, but keep cleaning your hands and stick to the Chinese food (and beer)!

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Enlightenment

Inside the Painted Hall at Greenwich. HDR from 3 base images
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 25-03-2016 20:35 | ISO: 200 | Exp. Time: 1/80s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 23.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

I have to confess, this post is a conflation of two fairly separate topics, and I struggled to find a common theme, but I think I’ve just about pulled it off. Apologies if you disagree.

I’m just working through some photos I took last year, including a trip to Greenwich. When I first started using the latest generation of Panasonic cameras and Capture One software, I publicly questioned whether we still needed HDR techniques. The answer, I have discovered, is still very much "yes", but maybe only in more extreme circumstances than in earlier years. The dynamic range between the day-lit buildings outside the Painted Hall, the splashes of direct sunlight inside, and the dark shadows away from that direct lighting was considerable, and no single image could cover them. To process this I took a series of images covering a 4 stop base range, and then applied Capture One’s highlight and shadow correction to them, squeezing probably another two stops in each direction, before feeding into Photomatix to merge into one. I’m pleased with the result, and happy that it justifies keeping those tools in my software "kit".

This post is also a bit of a test of another returning technical capability. I very much mourned the passing of Google Currents in 2012. If you don’t remember, this was a beautiful news and feed reader with two key capabilities: offline working, and presenting the headlines of available stories as a mix of text and highlighted images, in the idiom of a paper magazine. However, Google killed it off in favour of the brain-dead "News-stand" app which has neither of these features. At the time I struggled to find a replacement. Feedly offers roughly equivalent feed management capabilities and equally pretty content presentation, but it doesn’t work offline, which is a key capability for me, as I often catch up on news in low-connectivity environments. The available independent off-line readers were not a great bunch, but I settled on Press, which handled content caching very well but was never very inspiring in terms of the presentation of content, or its reading environment. For reasons I haven’t ascertained, it recently stopped displaying the headline images from my own feed, which is rather annoying.

I have occasionally tried to find a more complete replacement for Currents, and last night, 5 years on, I may finally have found one. It’s called Paperboy, and it may do the trick. Like Press, it runs on top of Feedly to allow common feed management across multiple apps, and it looks like it has similar offline capabilities, but the display and reading environment is much more like the lamented Currents. However, I need to check how it handles my own feed, and that means making sure I have a new post. So that’s the other purpose of this item.

I’ll let you know how it works.

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A "Found" Quadtych

Four supporting gargoyles at the Thimpu Dzhong, Bhutan
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX7 | Date: 15-11-2015 14:54 | Resolution: 13696 x 3265 | ISO: 1600 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/200s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 103.0mm | Location: Tashichhoe Dzong | State/Province: Thimpu | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO PZ 45-175/F4.0-5.6

The blog has been looking a bit light on pictures recently. Meanwhile I’m beavering away trying to finish tidying up the Bhutan pics before I’m off to Burma in February. This morning I discovered a series of four similar close-ups on supporting "gargoyles" (I suspect that’s not quite the right term in the Bhutanese context, but close enough) which I never originally envisaged as a multi-shot combination, but which I think actually work quite well as a "quadtych" (which is exactly the right term, apparently).

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Night-Time Photography with the Sony RX100 Mk IV

The Pump House and End of Albert Dock, Liverpool
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M4 | Date: 29-11-2016 20:20 | Resolution: 5718 x 3574 | ISO: 250 | Exp. bias: -0.7 EV | Exp. Time: 1/30s | Aperture: 1.8 | Focal Length: 8.8mm (~24.0mm)

Last night was crisp, clear, cold and very still – theoretically ideal conditions for photographing the lights at Albert Dock with reflections in the water. I couldn’t get out any earlier, but did manage to take my Sony RX100 with me on the way to a dinner meeting.

Unfortunately I was well past "blue hour" so there was no light whatsoever in the sky or its reflection. This presented a bit of a problem, in that it’s a real challenge to a camera’s dynamic range, and the tendency is to over-expose the highlights (lights). The RX100 also insisted in the longer views in defaulting to ISO 6400 (because of the low overall light levels), and in the cold I didn’t have the patience to fix this properly.

The result is that the best shots were those with a reasonable level of foreground light, like the one above. The image quality is excellent, as is the control of the highlights, especially considering it was taken on a small sensor camera in what would be low light by most standards. However I did have success with a couple of longer shots, typically where there was an illuminated building to lift the overall luminosity. The one below is a decent example.

The moral of the tale – try and get out a bit earlier, and set the auto-ISO limit a bit lower!

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Taking the All-Round View

Between the Echo Arena and Jury's Inn, Liverpool
Camera: RICOH THETA S | Date: 22-11-2016 18:11 | ISO: 800 | Exp. Time: 1/30s | Aperture: 2.0 | Focal Length: 1.3mm

Apologies if it’s been a bit quiet here recently, but I’ve been submerged under a tidal wave of new (to me) technologies, and it hasn’t left much space in this bear’s brain for blogging. In the last month or so I’ve had to get my head around OpenLDAP, C#, Java development (OK, I’ve done that before, but not for about 8 years), microservices, Java Server Faces, Primefaces, and that’s just for one client. The other’s been a bit quiet, but even there I’ve had to outline and prove the concept of how to interface with an external expert systems framework.

However, that hasn’t stopped me “investing” in a few new toys. After the Cornwall trip I decided that with my changing eyesight I needed an infrared camera with an electronic viewfinder, and commissioned the guy in the USA who supplied the Panasonic GF3 to source and convert a GX7. Setting aside a nearly two-week delay through customs, mainly due to ParcelForce insisting on sending the charge note by second-class post (grr…), this turned up very promptly and works beautifully. It does appear to be a bit more fussy than the GF3 regarding whether autofocus will work in low-contrast scenes, but as I’m not likely to be using it to capture fast-moving action that’s not a major issue.

More recently, I’ve also plumped for a 360 degree camera, the Ricoh Theta S. This is a fun little gadget about the size of a small chocolate bar, with a lens on each side, and takes a 360 degree panorama in a single click of the button. It will do both video and stills, but the latter is probably more immediately interesting from my viewpoint.

There are some interesting dynamics to using this device. Firstly, it’s a return to much more of a “click and wait” process, on a shorter timescale than but otherwise not dissimilar to film photography. You can use it tethered to a phone or tablet, but a much more natural way to use it is to look for an interesting scene, hold it above your head and click, then look later at what you captured. This requires a discipline of “pre-visualisation” as Ansel Adams called it, but with the variation that you can’t just focus on what’s in front of you, but also need to be aware of what’s behind, above and below as well. A line of subjects on the horizon won’t produce a very good 360 panorama if you have an ugly or boring sky, ground or scene behind you. My usual policy of “getting high” may work fairly well, although that will produce images with much of the interest below the horizon line.

On the other hand, you do get a fascinating opportunity for what I call “post exploration”. Having downloaded the images, you can explore round them, looking at details which were invisible to you at the point of clicking, and trying to find a perspective which makes an interesting shareable static image. I’m becoming quite fascinated by the “small world” perspectives like the above, but there’s a lot of scope to go back to a favourite image and explore it again.

This process does also mean that I’ve had to join the selfie culture. At best, there are going to be a lot of shots of my thumb and the top of my bald head. However there’s a temptation to hold the camera lower and include yours truly in shot, so you have been warned 🙂

Editing is a bit tricky, as so far I haven’t found very good tools for the PC. There are reasonable tools for the tablet, which provides a fast and flexible way to view and explore the image, but the two-way export process if you want to return a cropped image (like the one above) to the PC is a bit fiddly. My search continues.

I went for the Ricoh Theta S, a slightly more expensive option, as reviews promised better image quality. It’s not bad, but like most small-sensor point and shoots there’s not much dynamic range, and so far I’m getting a lot of shots with blown highlights and muddy shadows. If there was ever a device which would benefit from in-camera HDR then this is it. There may also be some settings to explore, but given the very simple user interface I don’t hold out much hope in that direction. If I really get into this I’ll just have to find a grand for a Panono…

If you’re viewing this on a phone or tablet, have a go at exploring round the following by sliding and twisting (I haven’t worked out how to enable pinch to zoom, but I’m working on it.) Please let me know what you think.

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Taking the Long View

Charlestown Harbour, Conrwall. Stitched from 6 pictures using Autopano Giga
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 25-09-2016 10:02 | Resolution: 17167 x 3410 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/800s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | Location: Charlestown | State/Province: Charlestown, Cornwall | See map

I’m aware that I’m a slightly lazy photographer. I’m not a great one for pre-dawn starts or rushing out the minute the weather changes, and I do tend to walk around with a single zoom lens on my camera making the scene fit the lens rather than rushing to change it every shot. The other thing which can happen is I get "stuck" seeing lots of shots with a similar dynamic, rather than looking for variations.

On our recent trip to Cornwall, I kept on seeing potential panoramas, and made lots of them. A few, like this one, I’m quite pleased with, although others were middling. I took almost no 3D shots. A week later I was in Winkworth Arboretum, and I could only see potential 3D shots, almost nothing else.

This may not be a problem. There are plenty of people who focus their photography on a single subject and style, and try to become the real experts in that, like that German couple (Bernd and Hilla Becher) who just took low-contrast photos of water towers. However I do try to be more diverse, but don’t always succeed. I’m not sure what the cure is, or even whether a cure is strictly necessary. If I’m working on a more formal basis a shot list can help, but I think mainly I just need to spend more time shooting and training my eye to see the shots. Here goes…

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