What's New 2017

8 December 2017 » Recent favourite image (2017 #5)

Image: Crossing from Russia to Mangolia

Crossing from Russia to Mongolia (or thereabouts)
Ricoh GR camera
I intentionally included a part of the aircraft window in the image: I photograph while flying often, and I am getting a bit tired of pretending that I am just up there, photographing the scenery while hanging up in the air. Inclusion of the window reflects my experience and the mood at the time much better.

I fly a lot*, and yet the act of flying never stops fascinating me. What I find incomprehensible, though, is that most people, when flying, do not seem to fully grasp, or care about, the fact that they are actually, well, flying. Instead, they seem to believe that they just go into a massive tube with seats that stays on the ground but somehow, magically, changes its location from point A to a very, very distant point B. Otherwise, how do you explain that most folk pull down window blinds, stare into TV screens or tablets or phones, eat and then sleep as if they are in the process of something perfectly ordinary? Ubiquitous does not necessarily mean ordinary. I, on the other hand, keep staring out the window (which has become my second hobby after photography), invariably fascinated by the fact that I am looking at planet Earth from ten thousand meters above the ground while traveling at nearly one thousand kilometres per hour.

*You know you fly a lot when:

– You no longer need packing checklists: bringing all necessary items becomes second nature regardless of the purpose of the trip.
– Leaving checking in and choosing your seat until after arriving at the airport? Hell, no!
– You check aircraft type beforehand and know which seat to take exactly—depending on the direction and time of the flight.
– You laugh at inconsistencies between security checks of various airports (even though it is not funny at all).
– You bring your own eye mask. In fact, you have a few of them scattered in various bags to make sure you have one available at all times.
– You also bring ear plugs to get rid of the never–ending announcements in three languages, only one of which is without unbearable accent.
– You have your own ranking of lounges of various airports around the world.
– You know that when they announce boarding you still have around twenty minutes to finish your coffee or beer.
– You are the first one to board if you have a gold/silver membership of any kind, or the last if otherwise (if you do not have too much hand luggage, in which case you are the first again).
– You develop a rhythm of what and when to do during long–haul flights.
– You have learned to wake up upon aircraft touchdown, no matter how soft it may be (which usually is not the case).
– If you are lucky enough to have this option, you prefer to take... a Boeing 747–8F freighter. After all, it is better than business class: although you get no champagne, you have a bunk bed with a fresh bedding set, no one bothers you throughout the flight with do–not–do–this or do–that–immediately, and you get to use the kitchen as and when you like. You start hating taking commercial passenger flights.

14 July 2017 » Recent favourite image (2017 #4)

Image: Nanpu Bridge, Shanghai

Nanpu Bridge, Pollution (2017)
Ebony 45SU camera, Nikkor–SW 90mm f/8 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

Here is another example of a subject you can find gazillions of images of on the Internet. Just google it and spare yourself the trouble of dragging your camera to the shooting location. I have seen much better interpretations of the scene, and my friends have produced some truly futuristic–looking renderings. Why bother, then?

This image is not only ubiquitous, it is also imperfect. The sky is featureless, fugly even (air was heavily polluted on that day), and the lens should have been wider (which I do not have and do not intend to buy—situations where anything wider than 90mm required are few and far between in my shooting).

Still, I like my run–of–the–mill, lesser variation as, to quote myself, it resolves a quest: I have always wanted to photograph the bridge, just for the heck of it, but it is not a subject I am interested in enough to pursue in perpetuity. As they say, perfect is the enemy of good enough.

25 June 2017 » A different look at the Lumix G Summilux 15mm f/1.7 lens

A few days ago I thought of comparing the lens in question with... the one on the Ricoh GR camera. This juxtaposition is, of course, completely silly: the lenses are of different equivalent focal lengths and used on sensors of different sizes, aspect ratios, and pixel counts. And yet, it made sense to me as it could answer one very practical question: equivalent focal lengths are actually fairly close (30mm vs. 28mm), so which do I pick when I can only take one and want to get the best image quality?

I made some tests and, long story short, here is what I observe. In the centre, both lenses are plentifully sharp; the combination of the Summilux and the Panasonic GX8 shows more detail due to the higher resolution of the sensor and higher magnification of the lens. The difference is far from dramatic, though—both look great. In the corners, however, the picture is quite a bit different: the lens of the GR delivers notably sharper results. This is no mean feat, considering that the GR is at a considerable disadvantage in this comparison (focal length is shorter and magnification is thus smaller; resolution of the sensor is also not as high).

All things considered, it is a toss-up, more or less, even though overall I prefer the files from the GR (they offer more editing leeway, pixel–level acuity is better, base ISO noise is less pronounced, and high ISO performance is superior). Again, though, A3+ prints from both camera–and–lens combinations look remarkable.

Unexpectedly, the result of this exercise turned out to be different from the original intention. Instead of helping to choose one camera–and–lens combination over the other*, it has served to put things into perspective.

If anything, it has offered a fresh look at the Ricoh GR—the camera just does not stop amazing me. It is four years old, the rubber grip has started to come off, and the LCD screen cover is badly scratched; I had to repair the lens once, sent the camera in to Ricoh to clean dust off the sensor twice, and bought a new ring cap to replace the lost one; it is also certainly showing its age: autofocus is twentieth-century slow and the camera is decidedly disconnected. Yet, image quality remains highly competitive, and camera usability (controls and user interface) is still to be beaten in many respects. I just cannot let go of the camera despite its deteriorating condition and lack of modern features.

And now back to the subject of this post. The Summilux is a decent lens (again, only if you accept software correction of aberrations as part of the lens design). It will not disappoint you under most circumstances. You will be able to make beautiful prints from files shot with it. All this being said, optical performance of a lens does not exist in a vacuum, and, when considered in the context of other lenses' capabilities, I cannot say the Summilux is an admirable performer. Which is my final verdict: it is a good, but far from great, optic.

*Given that there is no clear winner in terms of image quality, each serves different purposes. Ricoh GR is so small and light it can be carried at all times while delivering stunning image quality; it is always with me on business trips and a perfect companion to my LF rig on dedicated photographic expeditions. The GX8, on the other hand, has a beautiful electronic viewfinder, much faster autofocus, touchscreen, wi–fi, 4K video—and, of course, it can take other lenses (unlike Ricoh GR's lens, I am not married to the Summilux).

14 June 2017 » Tripod upgrade

Tripods are truly strange objects: folded, they are never sufficiently light or compact; extended, they never seem robust or tall enough. Whatever point we choose between the two extremes—small and light but short and flimsy vs. tall and sturdy but large and heavy—it is always a compromise. While it is possible to find a tripod that works well for one's specific preferences, our preferences change over time. Materials, technologies and designs improve, too. Thus, it is highly unlikely that you can use a tripod, no matter how perfect it seems when you buy it, through your entire career.

A decade or so ago I did find a perfect tripod—for my needs at the time, that is—in the shape of the Gitzo GT3530LSV. I was looking for a best–in–class, no–compromise solution that could hold a baby elephant and extend well above my eye–level—and did it with only three leg sections and without a central column. An aluminium tripod satisfying these requirements would have been a monster, but, luckily, carbon fiber models were already widely available. Yes, carbon fiber was—and still is—expensive, but I wanted the best money could buy. As they say, a problem that can be solved with money is not a problem.

I always despised central columns, and I still do. They add extra weight, make carrying a tripod in one's hand awkward, and provide a questionable amount of extension at the cost of greatly reducing stability. Where things have changed, though, is in my perception of the number of leg sections. If in the past an extra leg section meant more fiddling in the field could make me miss the moment, I now realise that worthwhile moments are not that fleeting. I have also come to admit that using top–notch gear is part of the pleasure of the photographic process, so I do not mind slightly longer handling; looked at differently, it gives you a few more seconds to decide if you really want to capture what is unfolding before your eyes. What has changed most, however, is my diminishing tolerance of the bulk: a tripod left at home may as well not exist.

At some level, I think going for the best in class is also about pushing it just one step too far to resolve a quest: once you are satisfied that you do not want to go any further, you can take a step back and be happy there for the rest of your life. As just one example, I once used a Hasselblad 50MP digital back, and it turned out to be overkill for my needs: even printing at 360dpi with the use of my 17–inch printer, I had to down–sample all files to fit them in. I was satisfied that 39MP was my sweet spot and have never craved more pixels than that since then*. Likewise, a while ago I became ready to take one step back from the Gitzo GT3530LSV.

When I started looking at the tripod options available today, I was surprised how little has changed in ten years. Yes, certain things have been mildly improved and fine–tuned, but there is nothing of fundamental importance. If you think of how much digital cameras have evolved during the same period of time, the lack of progress in the domain of tripods is particularly stark. Which is a good thing, I think: it indicates product maturity.

Deciding on a tripod that would replace my rusty–but–trusty Gitzo was torturous—not so much so due to the lack of options, but because it is difficult to go by specification numbers alone when determining what would work and what would not. Using a ruler, I made the Gitzo impersonate prospective models, but it was not enough: while you can approximate some things (say, maximum height or folded length), other aspects remain elusive unless you examine them in person. And of course, approximating each individual factor cannot tell you what using the whole package would be like.

  Image: ReallyRightStuff TVC-24L tripod  

ReallyRightStuff TVC–24L tripod (image courtesy of ReallyRightStuff)

After a lot of theorising and impersonating exercises, one particular tripod came on top of the rest. I ordered it sight unseen. And the winner is... drum roll, please... ReallyRightStuff TVC–24L! Upon receiving the RRS and putting it side by side with the Gitzo, I breathed out a sigh of relief: the impersonating exercise was not in vain and my gamble paid off.

When folded, the RRS is quite a bit shorter than the Gitzo: the RRS and the Arca–Swiss p0 Monoball mounted on it are just one centimetre longer than the Gitzo without a ball–head; also, ball–head base of the RRS is notably smaller than that of the Gitzo. As a result, the overall package seems a lot smaller than the numbers suggested.

Yet, when extended, the RRS goes a lot higher than the Gitzo while offering equal load–ability (18kg—this number is nuts!). And equally crucially, after upgrading from the Gitzo and Kirk BH–1 combo to that of the RRS and Arca–Swiss, I can carry 600gr less. Not bad!

I am very happy with the new camera support system and, given how well it all went, this year is shaping out to be a period of some major upgrades for me. Earlier this month one of the hi–tech giants finally announced a product I had been waiting for, so I envision replacing another ten–year–old tool with a state–of–the–art system soon. More on that in due course.

*Of course, we photographers always want more; finding reasons and excuses to get more is hardly ever an issue. Acknowledging how much we need, and stopping there, is a much harder undertaking.

19 May 2017 » Recent favourite image (2017 #3)

Image: Fujisan, Japan

Fujisan from 10,000 metres
Ricoh GR camera

Ah, who would not want to photograph Fujisan? The caveat, of course, is that there already are gazillions of photographs of the mountain on the Web, and you may question the merit of adding one more to the pile. The image above offers a unique perspective, though. It is also cheaper to make than the usual variety: instead of undertaking a full–blown trip to Japan, all you have to do is fly from Shanghai to Detroit, take a window seat on the left side of the aircraft, and savour a glass of wine while staring out the window listening to Jazz Impressions of Japan.

Unfortunately, the Delta aircraft was not exactly in pristine condition and its windows have seen a better day: witness the slight streaks on the right side of the image. I reckon it is possible to remove them in Photoshop, but I do not have the foggiest how to do it. While we can control the quality of the filters we intentionally put in front of our lenses, we cannot do anything about the "filters" that aircraft windows impose upon us. Full–blown trips to Japan do have their merits, after all.

20 April 2017 » Recent favourite quotation

Today we shoot, and we look at the little screen, and we shoot again. We fill computers with thousands of identical pictures taken at arm's length with redeye–reduction flash. We revisit and re–level and fix the contrast and the color and sometimes the composition. But neither the process nor the result ever has the old magic: the twinkle in the eye of an old girlfriend or the firm confidence that the landscape was done right the first and only time.

—The Machine Planet, "Verichrome, I do mind dying"

16 April 2017 » Lumix G Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 ASPH. lens (non–)review and post–optics

Whenever I buy a new lens, I first run some basic tests. Properly done, lens testing is a weighty undertaking: you need to examine a number of performance factors at different distances and for a handful of lens copies to account for sample variations (and if you buy a zoom lens, good luck). I do not have access to multiple lens copies, and I am usually not interested in performance at close distances. Thus, the purpose of my tests is not to pronounce the ultimate verdict; instead, it is to determine whether my copy of a lens is an overall decent performer, how well it performs wide–open, what aperture setting delivers best image quality, as well as what aperture I choose for maximum depth of field*. I further look at a lot of real–life images to see if any peculiarities draw my attention. Once I am satisfied that a lens is a keeper and know what I need to know, I move on.

  Image: LUMIX G LEICA DG SUMMILUX Lens, 15mm, F1.7 ASPH., Professional Micro Four Thirds Lens  

Lumix G Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 ASPH. lens (image courtesy of Panasonic)

I should first mention that the Summilux is a sexy lens. Design is clean and consistent with Leica's established and easily recognised aesthetic. The lens is made of metal and, while not heavy, has a nice heft to it. Operation of the aperture and focus ring is smooth as butter, and it balances very well on the Panasonic GX8 (although it is a relatively large camera in the M4/3 camp, I envision the lens would be right at home on any Panasonic or Olympus body). Overall, the Summilux exudes an air of a high quality product and reminds me of some of the better–built lenses of film era.

Looking at test files in Adobe Lightroom and prints from converted files, I was quite impressed. Essentially, there is no light fall-off or distortion, and only a slight touch of chromatic aberration is noticeable every now and then. Centre sharpness is already quite good at f/1.7, improves slightly and peaks at f/5.6, and diffraction starts taking its toll from f/8 onwards. Corner sharpness largely follows the same pattern and, as expected, is somewhat worse than in the centre. Flare can be a big problem at certain angles to light sources, but it does not occur often and is easily solved by moving the camera a bit. All things considered, not too bad at all if you ask me.

Pixel–peeping various real–life images, however, I started noticing minor artefacts and sometimes inconsistent sharpness at micro–level. For lack of a better way to explain it, there were random areas of worse, or strange, sharpness where you would not expect it. It is fairly subtle and does not happen all the time, but, if you look at enough images, it is clearly there.

I then found the following hidden notice in Lightroom: "This raw file contains a built–in lens profile for correcting distortion and chromatic aberration. The profile has already been applied automatically to this image." Applying the profile cannot be turned off in Lightroom. As I suspected, there is no free lunch after all: uncorrected files in DxO Optics Pro showed a very different picture.


Lumix G Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 ASPH. lens: distortion prior and after correction

First, the lens produces massive barrel distortion: the image above shows the corrected version; roll your mouse over it to see the uncorrected original. Note that correction of distortion involves quite a bit of cropping. Second, the lens produces a notable amount of chromatic aberration as shown below. Although I did not check it, I suspect the same goes for light fall–off.

  Image: LUMIX G LEICA DG SUMMILUX Lens, 15mm, F1.7 ASPH.: uncorrected chromatic aberration  

Lumix G Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 ASPH. lens: uncorrected chromatic aberration

Considering the notice in Lightroom and that distortion is of a simple barrel kind (i.e., relatively easy to correct in software), I can only deduce that post–processing software corrections were a part of the lens design**. The benefit is obvious: correcting these aberrations optically would have required adding extra glass element(s), which would have made the lens bigger and more expensive. The downside, however, is not exactly pleasant: artefacts and sharpness degradation caused by correction of the aberrations in post–processing.

Which brings us to the main point of this post: we are entering the era of post–optics***. In other words, it is now half–optics, half–software, and optics are increasingly taking a back seat****. Software will be getting better and better, allowing increasingly more room to relax optical design. From this perspective, traditional lens tests have become inconclusive: while you can dissect what optics deliver of and by themselves, the conclusions will largely depend on the philosophical notion of whether you accept after–the–fact software corrections as an inseparable part of your lens.

Where do I stand? In all honesty, I feel conflicted.

When I look at photographs printed at 300dpi to A3+ size from files produced by the Lumix GX8 and the Summilux, they look marvellous. Are correction artefacts visible in prints? They may be, if you know what and where to look for and examine prints very closely; non–photographers would not notice them, though, so for all intents and purposes the prints are flawless. So if you are interested in photography as an art form and photographic content, who cares how technical perfection is attained? As they say, whatever works.

With this being said, however, I do appreciate and value fine optical design in the pure, traditional sense. I do care for lenses that deliver outstanding results without relying on software corrections. Somehow, deep down inside—and I know this may be quite irrational—what the Summilux offers seems, well, dishonest. It makes me want to take out my Hasselblad 503CW, mount one of the superb Zeiss lenses on it, and shoot some film.

So is the Summilux a good lens? Hmm... the answer will depend on which day of the week you ask me on.

*I am essentially a minimalist who only needs three aperture settings: wide open for maximum light gathering and/or shallow depth of field, the aperture where image quality is best, and the setting where depth of field is deepest while diffraction is still not too bad. I would be happy to remove the rest of apertures from my lenses. Imagine the lens pictured above with just three settings: f/1.7, f/5.6 and f/11. Beautiful!

**This is not exactly new: I observed the same phenomenon a few years back when testing the Sony RX–100 camera. What I did not expect, however, was that this would spread to high–end lenses and flagship camera models.

***In this context the prefix post means that something belongs to a time in which it has become less important or relevant, as in post–truth.

****Witness the same with the iPhone: with computational photography now a fact of life, we no longer need fast lenses, or round aperture blades, to get beautiful bokeh (we still need larger apertures to gather more light, but I wonder how long this will be necessary).

6 April 2017 » Recent favourite image (2017 #2)

Image: Reclaimed Land (George Town, Penang, Malaysia)

Reclaimed Land
George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Ricoh GR camera

We often travel to remote corners of the world, or roam city streets for days, or wait for magic light for hours only to come back home with a handful of forgettable images. If worse comes to worst, we return empty–handed. Every once in a while, however, photographic Gods put photogenic scenes right in front of us—and it usually happens when we least expect it.

I was in Malaysia in the end of March, and the view above was offered to me together with fruits and other usual niceties of hotel welcome packages. While one can expect gratifying sights from hotel rooms every now and then, what I did not expect was the gift of kaleidoscopic light during my short stay in George Town.

I woke in the morning to a glorious sunrise, grasping my camera before doing what you usually do first upon getting up. I came back at lunch to witness the sky featuring complex, subtle clouds with equally intriguing reflections. Although I could not see the sunset from the hotel window, cloud reflections put on yet another sublime show just before I was about to head out for dinner. Picking one of the three interpretations for this post was tough.

I reckon my Ricoh GR camera finds me a most boring master—it often spends days, weeks even, in various bags and pockets without seeing daylight. When it is switched on, though, it knows it can expect to see something worthwhile.

19 March 2017 » Ball–head upgrade

My Kirk BH–1 ball–head has been on top of my tripods for well over ten years. In fact, it is the oldest piece of gear that I own today. Its operation is very smooth and, once locked, nothing ever moves—there is no creep whatsoever regardless of tilt angle and even with fairly heavy camera–and–lens combinations. BH–1 is also extremely well made and essentially indestructible: I have used it in all sorts of adverse conditions, dropped it a number of times, and yet, after all these years, it has only acquired a number of scars and continues to function as new; heck, I got more scars, even though they may be not as tangible, in the same period of time. Ironically, this may be viewed as a downside: it is difficult to find solid reasons to replace the BH–1 with another model.

Although it may become evident only over a longer period of use, the BH–1 still is imperfect. Here, you may be picky about a few things but, to me, two aspects stand out. First, the tension knob does not have any marks and gets dislodged easily; consequently, you have to check or re–tune it pretty much every time you use the ball–head—and it gets tiring. Second, the BH–1 weighs in at 850gr, which is far from light if you hike with your gear often. Come to think of it, the BH–1 is only a teeny bit lighter than the Nikon D810 camera or the Hasselblad CFi 250mm f/5.6 lens. Clearly, my attention was focused on the wrong item when I was contemplating cutting off the handle of my toothbrush to lighten my outfit.

  Arca-Swiss p0 ball-head  

Arca–Swiss p0 Monoball (image courtesy of Arca–Swiss)

I kept leisurely looking at alternative options, but they all seemed lukewarm—slightly better in some respects, a bit worse in others; overall, none looked undeniably worth upgrading to. Until I became aware of the Arca-Swiss p0 Monoball, that is.

At first, the design of the p0 seems counterintuitive or even weird: of and by itself, the ball–head appears top–heavy and unbalanced. But of course, no ball–head is meant to be used "of and by itself": once you add a tripod and a camera to the equation, the design starts making a lot of sense. And it grows on you faster than you expect—after using the p0 just for a few days, its usability benefits over the traditional ball–head designs are obvious. In particular:

  • Instead of a locking knob, the p0 features a locking ring that applies pressure to the head via a set of "planetary gears" along the perimeter. This has two advantages. On the one hand, you do not have to look for the locking knob or position it as you like—the ring is always there, the same from any angle. On the other hand, it makes for more robust locking if all else is equal.

  • There is no tension knob—the locking ring is used to control tension instead. For very light cameras such as, say, Ricoh GR, the tension is fine when the ring is unlocked. Turn the ring 20–30 degrees clockwise, and the tension is just right for my Hasselblad 503CW. Turn it 20–30 degrees further, and the tension is perfect for my Large Format Ebony 45SU. In practice, this operation is very intuitive—and having one less knob to fiddle with certainly helps.

  • The camera sits on the locking panoramic base, which in turn sits on the ball. Consequently, the camera is closer to the centre of movement, which allows for more precise camera positioning. Further, once levelled, the camera can be panned without change in levelling.

  • This feature is common to many Arca–Swiss ball–heads, not just the p0, but it still has to be mentioned: the p0 uses an aspheric ball, so that the load on the head meets greater resistance as the angle of tilt from the upright position increases. This partially prevents your camera from flopping inadvertently.

  • The p0 is small and weighs only 416gr—half the weight of the Kirk BH–1! Despite the light weight, however, it is rated for 20kg load (vs. 23kg of the BH–1). I have tried locking my heaviest camera–and–lens combination (the Ebony 45SU with bellows fully extended) at the most challenging and impractical angles that I will never use, and the p0 performed without a flinch.

  • Last but not least, the p0 is relatively inexpensive—at least for how it is built and what it does and in relation to other available options. And no, it is not crippled in any way.

Only time will tell if the p0 will continue performing as flawlessly and whether I can use it for over ten years, but so far I am a happy camper. Quite interestingly, I have noted that some of my friends also use this ball–head; they seem to have bought is quietly and been using it happily: the lack of any remarks perhaps is the best compliment there is.

Having learned that notable improvements over what may be perceived as ultimate designs are possible, I am now looking at the possibility of upgrading my Gitzo GT3530LSV tripod. Like the BH–1, it is super steady, essentially unbreakable, and has served exceedingly well for years; alas, it is not exactly small or light. Thus far I have not found any compelling alternatives, but I promise I will start researching lighter outdoor underwear only after I exhaust this quest.

9 March 2017 » Recent favourite image (2017 #1)

Image: Shanghai, February 2017

Shanghai, February 2017
Panasonix Lumix GX8 digital camera and Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 lens

At first glance, there is nothing special about this image. If you look closer, however, you may notice a number of things that are typical to present life in Shanghai if you are familiar with it: you have old architecture of French Concession with laundry drying on bamboo sticks and recent, faceless, fugly buildings beyond them; you have people riding old bicycles and driving modern Mercedes cars; looking at bicycles, you have rusty ones, both ridden and piled, alongside the orange and blue wonders of the newly–sprang sharing economy; you have a red light screaming "stop!" and yet someone running it while looking at something other than the traffic; you have air pollution visible in the colour and degree of transparency of the sky and yet no awareness of it among most people in the street (I check pollution index daily and was wearing a mask on that day); you name it.

Perhaps there is not much art in this image, but, to me, representativeness of today's Shanghai is certainly there. And that alone makes it noteworthy.

5 February 2017 » Images from Western Sichuan, China, part 3

The second half of the trip took me to Larung Ngarig Buddhist Academy in Sertar County (also known as Seda, 色达). I had been meaning to go there for a long time—I had heard a lot about the place, it looked mesmerising on the Web, and it pretty much was the last major location in Western Sichuan I had not been to. The place did not disappoint: the known, calm and deliberate of the first part of the trip was substituted by unchartered and fascinating in the true sense of the word. Unexpectedly, it was also mind–stretching.

The Academy truly boggles one's mind, and does so on a number of levels. On the macro level, it seems to be a neat, elaborate and purposeful creation—with a perfect spot on a mountain top for photographers to capture its beauty to boot. At close examination, however, it is chaotic, spartan and incomprehensible. When you further look at the people who reside there, you realise quickly that their minds inhabit an entirely different universe. For one thing, it is clear that their mindset is not dominated by the largely materialistic values of the West or other parts of China; one has to have an entirely different worldview to purposefully choose the hardship of residing in such harsh conditions for reasons most of us know of only theoretically. Now, all of this is far from unknown, but there is a massive difference between knowing something abstractly and experiencing it in person. And this complex first impression was cemented for good when I went to see a sky burial.

This naturally raises the question of how you approach photographing such a multifaceted subject. Some photographers capture it from afar, in beautiful light or in snow, romanticising the place as we often do with landscapes. I, however, felt that a romantic depiction of such unromantic place would be too much of a stretch, perhaps even bordering on deception. Other photographers focus on photographing people, again mostly romanticising their circumstance. I, however, found this akin to exploiting the subject, not depicting it, similar to photographing homeless people in the street without the slightest clue about their condition.

In the end, I decided that the most fitting approach was to record the multifaceted–ness of the Academy in the most strait–forward manner possible. Even though I do have a few images that smack of romanticism and some pictures with people in them, I did my best to impose as little of my mindset as possible. Although this possibly deprived me from the chance to capture "artistic" images, it only seemed fair.

Image: China, Sichuan Province, Seda, Sertar

Sertar #1
Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon CM–W 135mm f/5.6 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film


Image: China, Sichuan Province, Seda, Sertar

Sertar #2
Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon C 300mm f/8.5 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film


Image: China, Sichuan Province, Seda, Sertar

Sertar #3
Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon CM–W 135mm f/5.6 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film


Image: China, Sichuan Province, Seda, Sertar

Sertar #4
Ebony 45SU camera, Nikkor–SW 90mm f/8 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film


Image: China, Sichuan Province, Seda, Sertar

Sertar #5
Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon C 300mm f/8.5 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

15 January 2017 » Images from Western Sichuan, China, part 2

The Lumix GX8 camera hanged around my neck through the entire trip–and I mean this literally, as I did not have even an extra inch of space in my ThinkTank Airport Essentials backpack to accommodate it. I do not think I will get down to writing a review of the camera as we usually keep quiet about things that work, which is why I never wrote reviews of the Hasselblad 503CW and the Ebony 45SU. Reviews of successful designs tend to boil down to listing specs and features and essentially saying, it just bloody works!

Image: China, Sichuan Province, Danba village

Lunch, Danba
Panasonic Lumix GX8 camera and Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 ASPH lens

The GX8 was a perfect companion to the Ebony. Take the images in this post, for example: there is no way I could have taken them with a large format camera. Heck, I reckon I could not have taken them with any other camera, as the tilting viewfinder and totally silent shooting mode of the GX8, a combination of features unique to the GX8, was an absolutely instrumental factor. Also, camera connectivity works well enough for me to no longer use the iPhone to take images intended as visual notes or for immediate sharing*. And I love that the GX8 and large format have almost the same aspect ratio: your brain does not have to re–tune as you switch between cameras and the images are easier to put alongside each other.

Image: China, Sichuan Province, Danba village

Afternoon meal, Danba
Panasonic Lumix GX8 camera and Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 ASPH lens

There were also landscape images shot with the GX8, but this is where things get a bit complex: somehow, I resist to acknowledge that they may be as valuable as those shot on large format film, even though aesthetically they probably are. Theoretically, cameras are just tools and do not matter—images do—so I should put the photographs together in the same collection and be done. And yet, deep down inside I refuse to do it and treat landscapes shot with the GX8 as inferior. Technically, I could give you a million reasons: image quality, image geometry, meticulousness of composition, overall portfolio consistency, you name it; and yet, I feel that there is something irrational at play here as well. By the same token, would you put images taken with your full–frame DSLR alongside those captured with the iPhone? Probably not. Plus, if both are in the same portfolio and thus are equally good, why bother with the larger, unwieldy camera at all? I am not sure I have a clear answer to this conundrum. But my inner reaction is putting the landscapes taken with the GX8 aside, out in the cold for the time being, in hope one day I will figure out a way to make use of them.

*As I sorted through all images shot in 2016, I noticed that the number of pictures taken with the iPhone dropped by half from 2015. This is largely because I had well–connected cameras at my disposal through most of the year (Fujifilm XT–10 first and, later, the GX8). This goes to show that dedicated cameras, if properly sorted, can hold their own against phone cameras exceedingly well.

6 January 2017 » Images from Western Sichuan, China, part 1

I thought I would start this post by saying that the trip to Sichuan Province, China that I undertook in November last year was "fascinating", but this of course would be a bit of a cliché. More to the point, it was not really "fascinating" in the usual sense of the word, at least not the first half of the expedition; if anything, it was somewhat predictable and lethargic. Perhaps this is because I have been in that part of China quite a numbers of times and the excitement of new and unknown had worn off; or perhaps this is for the reason that the roads have been greatly improved and a tunnel under Mount Balang has been drilled, so that the trip from Chengdu to Mount Siguniangshan, which used to take eight to ten hours and, just before arriving at the mountain, took you atop of Mount Balang offering a breathtaking view, now is a smooth, uneventful journey that deprives you of the spectacular vista; somehow it resembled taking the metro from one side of a city you know well to another: you look out the window every now and then, recognise familiar surroundings, maybe take a nap, and disembark in a listless fashion. The only thing that surprises you when you alight is the unexpected question of, how could this journey be so different from what it was in the past? The passing of time is indeed embodied not so much in how many minutes, hours, or years pass—this measure fails to offer adequate benchmarking beyond simple, obvious things and never offers any reason or rhyme—but in the degree of the fundamental change of state of one's mind. Clearly, I have not been there in a long while, and it is not only the place that has changed.

Image: The map of Oleg's trip to Sichuan, China in 2016

The map of the trip. First half: Chengdu to Danba via Mount Siguniangshan
(marked as Rilongzhen on the map) and Jinchuan; second half: Sertar.
We took a different road on the way back to Chengdu,
but it is unimportant as it literally was just driving back to civilisation.

We passed Mount Siguniangshan at around midday. Sun was high, light was flat, and sky was cloudless blue. And yet, I took a picture of the mountain with the Ebony camera. Ever since I moved to large format, I have unintentionally developed a new category of imaging I call "I must have this on LF film": it may not be the best place or light or season, and yet I feel compelled to have it shot on large format film, whatever the underlying reason. Perhaps just to express my respect to the subject and acknowledge the importance of the moment.

Photographing in Danba, the most beautiful village of China according to Chinese National Geography, was equally devoid of excitement. Nonetheless, stillness of heart offered a valuable advantage: you know when not to photograph, and when you do photograph, you do it in a much more deliberate manner. The risk, of course, is that the images end up appearing calculated and arid. But now that enough time has passed—in terms of the change of state of mind, or, in this case, distancing myself from the emotions of the shooting circumstance—I can say that I am as happy with the photographs as I am with those I took in the past when my heart was pounding.

Image: China, Sichuan Province, Danba village

Danba village, 2016, #1
Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon CM–W 135mm f/5.6 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

Image: China, Sichuan Province, Danba village

Danba village, 2016, #2
Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon C 300mm f/8.5 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

Image: China, Sichuan Province, Danba village

Danba village, 2016, #3
Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon C 300mm f/8.5 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

Image: China, Sichuan Province, Jinchuan

Pear Gardens of Jinchuan
Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon CM–W 135mm f/5.6 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film


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