Saturday, October 14, 2017

Pentax Espio Mini

The Pentax Espio Mini is probably my favorite compact camera.

It's a very tiny 35mm autofocus camera fitted with a very high performance 32mm F3.5 lens. It's beautifully coated and capable of jaw dropping images. It can easily fit in a pocket.

The autofocus is fast an precise and the exposure is fully automatic from 2s to 1/400s, and there's even a B setting (but no external cable release!). It also has a slow sync mode for night shots.

There's a panorama 16:5 mask that can be used to create pseudo panoramic images. 




Thursday, October 12, 2017

Fujifilm X-TRANS processing workflow - Part 1

This is not a review. Just some short comments about the most important programs that can handle X-Trans raw files.


Updated on October 11th, 2017


X-Trans raw files are a pain to process. Really.

The complicated nature of its non standard demosaic algorithms are a real nightmare for both users and developers. 

From the user side, there are just a few programs that are able to extract the full potential of this new class of color matrix, and all of them, besides the awfully complicated RawTherapee and Fuji's OEM version of Silkypix are paid and usually expensive.

Things aren't different from the developer's point of view. There are almost no technical information about the mathematical methods for the decoding process, and many of the amazing sharpen and noise reduction algorithms used be well known programs just can't cope with nothing else than the traditional Bayer pattern. That's why, for example, DxO just gave up on any non Bayer sensors.

These are my own opinions based on my experience and needs. Of course opinions can vary from people to people.



The most practical options on market due this day are:


IRIDIENT DEVELOPER

It's a very powerful software and probably the best one in terms of extracting the highest detail from the raw files. It's really good on this and also on noise reduction and film profiles. The price is fair.

The drawbacks are a horrible interface and it's slow. By horrible and slow I meant really horrible and slow. Its features are sometimes hidden in non obvious places and I never managed to find how to apply setting on a group of images in real time. I suggest you to try to do this.

But it's the best program if you want to have extremely detailed images from the X-Trans sensors.

Don't forget to download the film simulation profiles.


FUJIFILM RAW FILE CONVERTER EX 2.0 (OEM SILKYPIX)

It's a stripped down Silkypix 4. It's free, so don't complain. =)

The interface is way better than the previous program but still have some serious problems with (maybe) the Japanese to English translation. Some terms are just too weird.

The overall results are pleasing but it's slow like hell. Can be upgraded to the las SP Pro version for $150. Not a cheap upgrade, but not awfully expensive.


SILKYPIX 5,6,7,8

The 8 Pro is a solid program, but the full price is in my opinion too high, about $250. 

The good thing is that it has support for the camera's built-in film simulation profiles. The sharpen algorithms are very good and way better than the equivalents found on Photoshop, Lightroom and Capture One.

Update: They offer upgrades for several OEM and previous versions for a reasonable price, from $250 to $100 in some cases. Worths checking.


RawTherapee

It's free, fast, well documented BUT it's the most complicated image processing program I've ever used in my life.

The sharpening and noise reduction functions are overwhelming and extremely comprehensive. Curves, color and histogram operations are on pair.

The results can be awesome if you don't go nuts using it.

There are film simulation profiles for it.


CAPTURE ONE and LIGHTROOM

Well, they work but honestly their raw engines are not a match for neither one of the above mentioned programs and they are very expensive for what they are. You need to do a true olympic marathon in adjustments to get "near" the image output from the other ones, so I won't even comment them. I just gave up on them.

Capture one is a solid option, but a bit pointless for a X-Trans camera. It handles X-Trans files reasonably well, but there are better options for less than the $300 they ask for it. The only reason I can imagine to buy it is IF you're a very heavy C1 Media Pro user AND also use a Canon or Nikon camera in tethering mode, otherwise is a complete waste of money. I've tried it by 60 days. 

Lightroom is almost a religion, and forgive me fanboys, its X-Trans support still  sucks. And I would never, ever use a subscription based software. It will be a money sink in the long run, just do your calculations and check by yourself.


AFFINITY PHOTO

This was a surprise. Its raw engine is still under development but I got some interesting results from it. I have to do some more experiments before giving it an honest rating.

There are many third party photoshop plug-ins that will run on Affinity. It's also compatible with Nik's collection.




Okay, let's talk about the workflow.

The main problem is to get all detail and colors the X-Trans can deliver. Based on the above mentioned softwares, I went into three different approaches.

1) The Silkypix way

Do everything in Silkypix and pray to get what I expect.

Pros: Just one program, generally good results IF you find out how to master the sharpen and noise reduction process. Image detail can be much better than Lightroom, Capture One and even Iridient. 

Cons: Horrible if you need to fix very noisy images or severely overexposed ones.

2) The RawTherapy way

Pros: Can deliver stunning results.

Cons: Extremely complex and you need do be cross between a Zen monk and a Image Scientist to master it. Not kidding. 



3) Iridient alone

Pros: Generally very good results if you don't need to push too much sharpness.

Cons: Annoying interface and SLOW. Sometimes the sharpening adds artifacts that looks like noise.


4) Iridient + Something else

The idea is to do just the sharpening / noise reduction / film profiling using iridient then export to TIFF and do whatever you want using another program of your choice.

I just created a default profile for the used camera, for example a X30, with just the Iridient Reveal sharpening, hot/dead pixel auto removal and auto white balance. Then I batch process all my images this way and save them as TIFF. 

If you use Windows, you can use the Iridient Transformer the same way.

Then I process the TIFF files with DxO, but you may use whatever you want.

It's much faster than any other option I had tried.

5) Apple Aperture

If you're an Apple user and still have Aperture installed and updated, it is capable of very good results, pairing even with Iridient. Images tends to have less noise. You need to add the raw fine tuning  control.

For film simulation, I use DxO Film pack Aperture plugin. The response is a bit different than Silkypix's but I'm very pleased with it.

 


Bottom Note:

In the end, after some years using the X Series, theX-Trans matrix doesn't appears to make any real improvement over a Bayer (without the AA filter) besides maybe some higher detail on high frequency zones. But the Fuji's package is very powerful considering the price and final result. Still a very good and solid option.

Fuji always liked to try some different approaches on sensor design, like the Super CCD and its numerous incarnations and I respect this. At least, like Sigma with the Foveon, they try.


Soon: Some examples using Iridient Developer, Silkypix, Capture One and Aperture. 

  

  

Monday, October 9, 2017

Olympus 35RC

This is a very nice and compact 35mm film camera.
It has two operating modes, shutter priority and full manual.


Olympus 35 RC



I got mine for $35 and it just needed a viewfinder and lens cleaning. The meter and mechanical parts were perfect. I also ordered a custom cut light seals from Aki-Asahi.

The camera has a top shutter speed selector on the top plate and it's possible to choose from 1/15s to 1/500 plus B. It's a fairy limited range but it's amazing how you can do if combined with a razor sharp five element E.Zuiko 42mm F2.8 objective and a good 400 ISO film. 

The lens is EXTREMELY sharp at F5.6 and F8 and still a very good performer at F3.5 with some corner softness at maximum aperture.

Focusing is done manually by a nice coincidence image rangefinder. The viewfinder is very clear (when clean) and shows the selected speed and the calculated aperture.

The shutter priority mode needs a battery to work. The original one is a PX-625 1.35V mercury battery, now banned, but you can use a Zinc-air Wien battery and it works very well. Another option is to adapt a silver oxide battery (1.55 V) and have the light meter recalibrated by a technician, or just compensate the difference selecting a higher ISO. I do not recommend 1.5V alkaline batteries as the voltage drops during its life time. The difference from 1.35 to 1.5 V can result in a +2 stops exposure error. 

The manual mode is meter blind. You will need an external light meter or an exposure table to properly expose the film. It's possible to use the manual mode without the battery.

Also very interesting is the "Flashmatic" system used on several Olympus cameras from this era. It's a very clever approach. The idea is to set the camera with the flash guide number (luminous power) and the camera will automatically set the aperture based on the film ISO and focusing distance. Works like a charm and it's not fooled by the background. It can sync in any speed.

The CdS light meter sensor is positioned inside the filter thread, allowing automatic compensation for the filter factor.

It's a very precise meter and capable of good exposures even with positive film, but remember it's center weighted, so you must compensate manually for strong backlight or the classic bride on the snow and black cat in a coal mine situations. The shutter release also acts as an exposure lock when pressed half way.

And last but not least, the filter size is 43.5 mm, and not very easy to find. Like many other people, I decided to use a 43.5 to 46 mm step-up ring.

Much more information about the 35RC below:

Andrew Yue website
Camera Quest
    
This camera is much better than the classic Olympus Trip 35 and, in my opinion a better choice than the Olympus 35 DC. The later one has a more luminous lens but it's totally autoexposure within almost the same parameters. The manual mode of the RC is a killer difference.

The best one from the series is the RD. Think about a RC with a huge 40mm F1.7 lens and a shutter capable to go down to 1/2s.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Kodak Retina IIS

The Kodak Retina IIS (Type 024) is a simpler camera if compared to the IIIc (type 028). It's not a folder and it can't have the front lens group of the objective changed to make a wide angle or a telephoto lens. The IIIS (type 027) is like the IIS but like the IIIc has an interchangeable lens mount.


Kodak Retina IIS
The photo sucks, I know and I'll change it when I have time. 


Like all Retinas, it's made in Germany by Nagel. It's a sturdy camera, but, oh boy, its project has some stupid complications, like coupled aperture and shutter speed controls aka LVS. When you change the speed, the aperture is also changed to keep the same exposure. This is really annoying. Also terrible is the very primitive "auto" exposure control. To be honest, it's better to ignore it and do everything manually. Curious ? It's something like this: 

1) Set ISO properly by a very strange system, keep pressing the button at the top of the light meter assembly and turn the aperture setting at the camera bottom simultaneously until the right iso matches the index. You need to repeat this every time you use a different ISO film

2) Choose a shutter speed

3) Now point the camera to whatever you want to photograph and check the meter needle position. Then turn the aperture adjustment control (bottom of camera) until a white triangle matches the meter needle

4) Ta-daaahhh the camera now has the correct speed and aperture settings needed for the moment.

Really ? Just get a hand held light meter and be happy.

Not to mention the mechanism needed to do this is extremely complicated and prone to break.

Resuming Retinas: Very good optics but dreadful mechanics and stupid complications

The selenium light meter is linked by an intricated cables and pulleys system to couple it to the aperture control. To be honest, forget it exists. The selenium cell is almost certainly dead by now. If one of those strings break, the aperture/shutter mechanism almost certainly will be jammed.

Like the IIIc and many other Retinas, the film frame counter is a nightmare, some sort of a sadistic joke from the designers. I'll not dive into details, better check the manual and see by yourself.  More information on Camera Quest (IIIS). 

Quoting Stephen Gandy from CameraQuest:

"The film counter is among the worst ever designed.   My theory is that it was really a CIA experiment to find out how long it would take to drive Photogs insane.  The film counter is manually set by 1st pushing down on that little button besides the film counter, and then moving the nearby chromed button on the back side of the top plate in the direction indicated by the arrow.  Each push resets counter 3 frames at a time.   That's right, 12 pushes are required for 36 frames, lovely, just lovely.   The frame counter shows how many exposures are left on the roll, counting DOWN to 1.  It then LOCKS, forcing you to stop and either reload the film, or re-set the film  counter to get that extra shot on the roll.  Arrgggh. - Stephen Gandy - CameraQuest" 


But the viewfinder is not bad, has a coupled rangefinder and moving parallax mask.

The lens is an excellent single coated 4-element Schneider Xenar 45mm F2.8 and very Tessar like, with excellent contrast and very sharp at mid range apertures. There's also a very neat depth of field indicator over the distance scale. Pray to not have it jammed, because it's another freaky mechanism. 

Last word: Forget about Retina's built in meters. They are all horrible. Also avoid any autoexposure Retinas. It's very unlikely to have one working properly.


Lens: Schenider Kreuznach Xenar 45mm F2.8 (4 element)
Shutter: Synchro Compur with speeds from 1s to 1/500s




Friday, September 22, 2017

Kodak Retina IIIc








Kodak made Retinas from 1934 to 1960 in 12 flavors. Retinas are mainly folders and Retinettes aren’t, but some Retinas from after 1957 aren’t folders. Confusing eh ! Add to this, different lenses and shutters and you have chaos...
 
They were made in Germany by Nagel Kamerawerk and usually well made, but nothing like the Zeiss standard. Retinas are fair. The only drawbacks are the shutter cocking mechanisms, strangely odd in design and very fragile. Triple check before buying one !

The one above is a IIIc (not IIIC “big c”). The objective is a very good Schneider Kreuznach Xenon 50mm F2, capable of superb images. It's a bit prone to flare, so using a hood is a good idea.

One useful and important tip is to check if the objective had one or more elements changed, because they are hand matched. Aways check the serial number on front element, on the rear element and on the body, near the front lens mount, the numbers must be the same. If they're different someone changed one of the elements and my adivice is to avoid.

Some of the IIIc came with the Rodenstock 50mm F2 instead of the Xenar. Both objectives are excellent. 
 
The IIIc has an interchangeable front lens element to convert the normal Xenon to a wide angle Curtar Xenon 35mm F4 and a Longar Xenon 80mm F4 (both with 9 elements counting with the fixed ones in the body). When using those extra lenses, it’s also needed an external viewfinder. But the external rangefinder is not compensated automatically and you need to use a correction scale making its use very awkward.

It's a cute folder, my advise is not to ruin its "pocketability" by using that very clumsy lenses and viewfinders. Keep it simple.  

Retina's motto is something like "It's too simple, let's make things complicated just for fun". The nearest camera to the IIIc/C I can remember is the Zeiss Contessa. But the Contessa is much better in design, craftsmanship and engineering.

The selenium light meter is not coupled and honestly, it sucks even in working condition. Fortunately there is a reasonably good usable rangefinder.

For more information, check Karen Nakamura’s website.

Lens: Schneider Xenon 50mm F2 coated, 6 elements
Shutter: Synchro Compur (B, 1s - 1/500s) X-Sync
Film type: 35mm
Filter: 32 mm snap-in


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Apple Aperture is Not Dead (for now)

We all know by this time that Apple stopped to maintain its image editor and DAM software known as Aperture.

There are many rumors about why Apple decided to discontinue it, from supposed deals with Adobe to cut the costs with future updates. Who knows ?

The fact is that Aperture still rocks. And rocks well.

DAM

Aperture is one of the best ever Digital Asset Management softwares ever made. It can handle very large collections and organize them in projects, catalogs and albuns, with extensive use of keywords and also tag by star and color rating, rejection and flagging.

The search tool is nothing less than amazing. Maybe the most comprehensive ever. It's possible to search by the combination of whatever you want.

It can handle huge collections. I tested it with 60K+ images from 8 to 30 megapixels each without any problem with them imported into Aperture's library. If needed you can have more than one library and it's also possible to work by referencing external files to the Aperture internal database. 

There is a very neat backup system called "Aperture Vault". It's a library snapshot that can be sent to anywhere you want, to a local folder, external hard disk and even networked drives. 


Editor

If you don't need to work with layers or do cut-paste-make-boobs-larger and such things, it's a good tool for photo adjustments, like colors, tones, retouching, levels, etc.

The retouching and cropping tools are simply perfect.

The raw engine is part of the operational system and it's updated according with Apples policy to the OS you have installed. It includes literally hundreds of camera models and the updates comes as a OS update.

If you need, it's possible to use an external editor with Aperture. I use Affinity Photo.

Recently, Google released the whole Nik Collection for free and they work as plug-ins for Aperture.

The Nik Collection is made of:

Analog Efex Pro: Simulates film/vintage look
Color Efex Pro: Effects, retouching and correction tools
Silver Efex Pro: Simulates Black and White film
HDR Efex: Self explanatory
DFine: Noise reduction tool
Viveza: Simple sharpening tool
Sharpener Pro: A more complete sharpening tool 

There are other cool plugins that deserve a look:

DxO Film Pack: Professional film look simulation
DxO View Point: Professional geometrical corrections
Noiseware Professional: Professional noise reduction

The later versions of the RAW engine can handle fairly well the Fuji X-Trans raw files. Much better than Adobe Camera Raw. 

It's also extremely stable and very fast.




But honestly, read the manual. There are so many features that you can overlook. I know that reading manuals sucks, but at least try.


There are other quite neat features, like dozens of high quality plug-ins and a fantastic degree of integration with Apple Automator and Applescript.

The bad thing is that Apple removed it from Application Store, but if you purchased it before, you'll be able to download it again. My advice is to make a backup copy of the application itself and keep it in a safe place. 

So, if you have a Mac, take a look on it while you still can.

Update 1: Tested on El Capitan and running. 
Update 2: Tested on Sierra and running.


I will be using Aperture until it stops working. I'm not a big OS upgrade enthusiast and I never do it just for fun.

Having thousands of dollars in program licenses, it's always a potential headache and loss of money in the case of some of them are not compatible with a new OS version. Think about this before doing something you may regret later.





Monday, August 21, 2017

Olympus XA and XA-2

Olympus engineers made two gems in the 1979-1985 period and the best examples were the XA and XA-2, designed by the legend Yoshihiza Maitani. There were other models like the XA-1, XA-3 and X-A4, but I'll comment just the ones I mentioned before, since I didn't own the other ones.

Olympus XA
(C) Olympus Optical Co.

The XA is a very compact camera with a classy design in black plastic and a sliding protection cover for the lens that turned into a design signature for many other Olympus cameras.

It's a manual focus, aperture priority exposure camera. The focus is done with the help of a short base coincidence rangefinder, visible at the viewfinder center. Also present in the galilean viewfinder is a scale and a needle for shutter speed indication and a red led for low speed alert. To be honest, it's a wonderful idea to have a rangefinder but this one was not very precise for wide open apertures at close range.

The aperture is set by a sliding control on the camera front and can be varied from f2.8 to f22

Focus adjust is done by moving a lever just under the lens and there's also a film ASA adjustment near it.

The lens is a razor sharp 6 element 35mm F2.8 F.Zuiko, and by sharp I mean sharp, but there's some vignetting at F2.8.

There are other controls under the camera body, like the self timer, a +1.5 stop backlight compensation and the battery test.

The good thing is the fact it uses two LR44 alkaline batteries and they last very long.

It's a quiet camera, very discrete and small enough to fit inside your pocket.

It can be fitted with a small electronic flash unit. It can be screwed on the camera side. It has no hot shoe. There are different flash models, and the more common are the A11 and the A16.

My XA had a recurrent problem with the shutter button. For some reason the plastic cover sometimes got stuck and need a poke to pop back.


Olympus XA2
   

Some people complaint about the XA being slow to use due the focus adjustment and aperture setting, and to make those people happy, Maitani decided to design a simpler model.

The XA-2 has a 35mm F3.5, four element Tessar like lens. The shorter focal length and smaller maximum aperture made it possible for use without a built in rangefinder. Focus was done by selecting the proper pictogram. When closed, the distance was automatically set to zone 2 (about 5 meter) and thanks to the generous depth of field, it was practically fool proof. The infinity and close focus were there just in case.

There's no information on the viewfinder besides the red led for camera shake warning.

The exposure is full automatic, varying from 2s at f3.5 to 1/750s at f22 and ASA setting from 25 to 800, a very wide range.

Back to the XA2 lens, it's simpler but not worse than the XA one. Actually my impression is that the XA2 lens is sharper than the XA's one.

One drawback of this camera family is the inability of using filters. It would be great to be able to use a yellow or orange filter for black and white photography.


Olympus XA2 with A11 flash
For me, it's much better than the Minox 35 and the Lomo LCA and costs a fraction of them.

I think that the XA2 is a more pleasant camera to use than the XA.

The XA series eventually evolved into the mju (Stylus) series of autofocus cameras from the '90s with the same clamshell design and wonderful optics.