Chilies: germination 2020

My final chili seeds selection, season 2020.

Due to having a lot of other things in my mind and life this Spring, I am rather late in my chili pepper project – but as Juice Leskinen said “Kuule istuta vielä se omenapuu”. I will plant my plants.

As I wrote in January, because hydroponics make chilies grow so fast and tall, it is actually probably good to start a bit later, in any case. That way, the plants should hopefully still be of manageable sizes, when I am able to move them into the proper hydroponic setup in our greenhouse. Handling a full hydroponics system in my small basement “office” is really not that feasible, even under the best of conditions. I hope that this time it will be a warm and early summer (fingers crossed).

As said, I have two themes this year: taste and colour. Into the taste category, I finally decided two chili varieties: Hainan Yellow Lantern and Lemon Drop.

Placing the seeds – handling rock wool with gloves, due to it causing skin irritation when touched.

In the more exotic section, where interesting looks are the main criteria, I chose (finally in a pretty random manner) the following: Buena Mulata, Pimenta da Neyde, Chinese 5 Color, Kanon Pepper F2, Filius Blue, Numex Twilight, Bolivian Rainbow, and Purple Bhut Jolokia.

Since I do not have room to grow into large, fruit-bearing plants nowhere that number of chili peppers, I conceive this as a sort of speedrun style competition: those plants that germinate fastest, and produce promising saplings, will get into my AutoPot 4Pot system. I do not know what to do with the rest – maybe I will just put them into regular flowerpots with soil outdoors, and see if any of them will survive, too.

The germination follows pretty standard procedure again, except that IKEA had stopped selling accessories for their old hydroponic products (shame on them!) So, I picked some standard rock wool cubes from the local hydroponic gardening shop (luckily, I did this long before the coronavirus epidemic), and then just installed them into the covered water-tray system – which is on top of the electric heat mat, and under the LED lights. Let’s see how long it takes before the first plants will appear, this time.

I placed two seeds inside each rock wool cube. Let’s hope that it is enough for the most varieties time time, too.

All my chili seeds are coming from Fatalii this time. Here are some short characterizations of his, about these chili varieties:

  • Hainan Yellow Lantern: “This variety comes from Hainan island, China, where it’s actually quite commonly used for mainly a tasty hot sauce. Very prolific variety that has a strong chinense aroma, very similar to Harold st. Barts and few other yellow Capsicum chinense varieties.” (Link.)
  • Lemon Drop: “Lemon Drop represents hot, non-sweet,  slightly lemon-flavored types of baccatum peppers (as opposed to sweet, low-heat or only moderately hot Ajis). The plant is relatively compact and produces lots of bright yellow fruit even in non-ideal home conditions.” (Link)
  • Buena Mulata: “Very old heirloom variety from 1940’s. This plant looks absolutely gorgeous with all great colored pods! The flowers and pods start from purple and ripen to very beautiful colors!” (Link)
  • Pimenta da Neyde: “One of the strangest chile peppers I’ve ever seen! Mature pods won’t change the color, but stay purple instead.” (Link)
  • Chinese 5 Color: “Fantastic, very colorful ornamental chili pepper which is also quite hot with a decent taste to be used for cooking.” (Link)
  • Kanon Pepper F2: “This beauty is still unstable meaning the results growing this one will vary, which is a good thing when you want to find your favorite among them.” (Link)
  • Filius Blue: “So very pretty ornamental chili pepper which ripens from beautiful blueish purple to red with some fancy color stages in the middle! Quite hot.” (Link)
  • Numex Twilight: “An ornamental chile pepper that is so insanely pretty you simply can’t miss it. If you like to grow useful chile peppers that are a true eye-candy!” (Link)
  • Bolivian Rainbow: ” The dark green leaves will turn shiny deep purple, almost black. The cone-shaped, erect pods go through colors of green, purple, pink, yellow and orange before ripening bright red!” (Link)
  • Purple Bhut Jolokia: “One of the most amazing looking super hot varieties there is! Ripens from green to purple to red. Very heavy producer and the pods taste very good when ripe.” (Link)
Seeds, cubes, water, light, suitable heat – everything should be in place now.

Looking very much forward to the summer.

On remote education: tech tips

A wireless headset.

The global coronavirus epidemic has already caused deaths, suffering and cancellations (e.g. those of our DiGRA 2020 conference, and the Immersive Experiences seminar), but there are still luckily many things that go on in our daily academic lives, albeit often in somewhat reorganised manner. In schools and universities, the move into remote education is particularly one producing wide-ranging changes, and one that is currently been implemented hastily in innumerable courses that were not originally planned to be run in this manner at all.

I am not in a position to provide pedagogic advice, as the responsible teachers will know much better what are the actual learning goals of their courses, and therefore they are also best capable of thinking how to reach those goals with alternative means. But since I have been directing, implementing or participating in remote education over 20 years already (time flies!), here are at least some practical tips I can share.

Often the main part of remote education is independent, individual learning processes, which just need to be somehow supported. Finding information online, gathering data, reading, analysing, thinking and writing is something that does not fundamentally change, even if the in-class meetings would be replaced by reporting and commenting taking place online (though, the workload for teachers can easily skyrocket, which is something to be aware of). This is particularly true in asynchronous remote education, where everyone does their tasks in their own pace. It is when teamwork, group communications, more advanced collaborations, or when some special software or tools are required, when more challenges emerge. There are ways to get around most of those issues, too. But it is certainly true that not all education can be converted into remote education, not at least with identical learning goals.

According to my experience, there are three main types of problems in real-time group meetings or audio/videoconferences: 1) connection problems, 2) audio & video problems, and 3) conversation rules problems. Let’s deal with them, one by one.

1) The connection problems are due to bad or unreliable internet connection. My main advice is either to make sure that one can use wired rather than Wi-Fi/cellular connection while attempting to join a real-time online meeting or get very close to Wi-Fi router in order to get as strong signal as possible. If one has weak connection, the experience of everyone will suffer, as there will likely be garbled noises and video artefacts coming from you, rather than good-quality streams.

2) The audio and video problems relate to echo, weak sound levels, background noise, or dark, badly positioned or unclear video. If there are several people taking part in a joint meeting, it might be worth thinking carefully whether a video stream is actually needed. In most cases people are working intensely with their laptops or mobile devices during the online meeting, reviewing documents and making notes, and since there are challenges in getting a real eye-to-eye contact with other people (that is pretty impossible still, with current consumer technology), there are multiple distancing factors that will lower the feeling of social presence in any case. Good quality audio link might be enough to have a decent meeting. For that, I really recommend using a headset (headphones with a built-in microphone) rather than just the built-in microphone and speakers of the laptop, for example. There will be much less echo, and the microphone will be close to speakers’ mouths meaning that speech is picked up in much clear and loud manner, and the surround noises are easier to control. But it is highly advisable to move into a silent room for the period of teleconference.

Another tip: I suggest always first connecting the headset (or external microphone and speakers), BEFORE starting the software tool used for teleconferencing. This way, you can make sure that the correct audio devices (both output and input devices) are set as active or default ones, before you start the remote meeting tool. It is pretty easy to get this messed up and end up with low-quality audio coming from the wrong microphone or speakers rather than the intended ones. Note that there are indeed two layers here: in most cases, there are separate audio device settings both in the operating system (see Start/Settings/System/Sound in Windows 10), and another, e.g. “Preferences” item with other audio device settings hidden inside most remote meeting tools. Both of those need to be checked – prior to the meeting.

Thus, yet one tip: please always dedicate e.g. 10-15 minutes of technical preparation time before a remote education or remote meeting session for double-checking and solving connection, audio, video or other technical problems. It is sad (and irresponsible) use of everyone’s precious time, if every session starts with half of the speakers missing the ability to speak, or not being able to hear anyone else. Though, this kind of scenario is still unfortunately pretty typical. Remote meeting technology is notoriously unreliable, and when there are multiple people, multiple devices and multiple connections involved, the likelihood of problems multiplies exponentially.

Please be considerate and patient towards other people. No-one wants to be the person having tech problems.

3) The discussion rules related problems are the final category, and one that might be also culturally dependent. In a typical remote meeting among several Finnish people, for example, it might be that everyone just keeps quiet most of the time. That is normal, polite behaviour in the Finnish cultural context for face-to-face meetings – but something that is very difficult to decode when in an online audio teleconference where you are missing all the subtle gestures, confused looks, smiles and other nonverbal cues. In some other cultural setting, the difficulty might be people speaking on top of each other. Or the issues might be related to people asking questions without making it clear who is actually being addressed by the question or comment.

It is usually a good policy to have a chair or moderator appointed for an online meeting, particularly if it is larger than only a couple of people. The speakers can use the chat or other tools in the software to make signals when they’d want to speak. The chairperson makes it clear which item is being currently discussed and gives floor to each participant in their turn. Everyone tries to be concise, and also remembers to use names while presenting questions or comments to others. It is also good practice to start each meeting with a round of introductions, so that everyone can connect the sound of voice with a particular person. Repeating one’s name also later in the meeting when one is speaking up, does not hurt, either.

In most of our online meetings today we are using a collaboratively edited online document for notetaking during the meeting. This helps everyone to follow what has been said or decided upon. People can fix typos in notes in real time or add links and other materials without requiring the meeting chairperson (or secretary) to do so for them. There are many such online notetaking tools in standard office suites. Google Docs works fine, for example, and has probably the easiest way of generating an editing-allowed link, which can then be shared in the meeting chat window with all participants, without requiring them to have a separate service account and login to do so. Microsoft has their own, integrated tools that work best when everyone is from within the same organisation.

Finally, online collaboration has come a long way from the first experiments in 1960s (google “NLS” and Douglas Engelbart), but it still continues to have its challenges. But if we are all aware of the most typical issues, dedicate a few minutes before each session for setup and testing (and invest 15 euros/dollars into a reliable plug-and-play headset with USB connectivity) we can remove many annoying elements and make the experience much better for everyone. Then, it is much easier to start improving the actual content and pedagogic side of things. – Btw, if you have any additional tips, or comments to share on this, please drop a note below.

Nice meetings!

Valokuva, taide – taidevalokuvaus?

”Jänö” (Frans Mäyrä, 24.2.2020)

Ystävä kutsui pohtimaan, mikä tekee valokuvasta taidetta. En sen enempää seikkaile tässä taideteorian alueelle, mutta koetan vastata kuvaparilla. Molemmat ovat eilisen iltapäivän “kamerakävelyltä”: jänön kuvasin ensin, erään naapurin puutarhassa, marjapensaan alta mietiskelemässä. Toisessa kuvassa olen kuvannut teleobjektiivilla ojanpenkalla olevia ruohoja ja sammaleita – makuuasennosta, jotta sain tämän (oudon/uhkaavan) leudon helmikuun matalalta paistavan iltapäiväauringon valon muotoiluominaisuuden ja lyhyen syväterävyyden hyödynnettyä. Molempia oli ilo kuvata – ne siis tuottivat itse luomisprosessillaan iloa ja tyydytystä.

”Tutkimaton tie 3” (Frans Mäyrä, 24.2.2020)

Painotukset olivat kuitenkin hieman erilaiset. Toisen kohdalla oli ennen kaikkea mukava kohdata arka villieläin ja onnistua teknisesti saamaan suht terävä kuva siitä; pensaiden välistä siilautuva valaistus ja sommittelu ovat tietysti iso osa kuvaa, mutta tässä otoksessa ei juuri ole mitään erityisen kokeilevaa – sen estetiikassa dokumentoiva funktio on keskiössä. Sen sijaan tuon ojanpenkan kuvan kohdalla syttyi hieman enemmän nimenomaan oivalluksen iloa. Valokuva taidemuotona on aina tietyn hetken ja olosuhteiden luoma jälki käytetyssä välineessä (filmissä, valokuvapaperissa, digitaalisella kuvasensorilla), ja sen luovat mahdollisuudet elävät kiinnostavassa jännitteessä toisaalta itse kohteen ja olosuhteiden tarjoaman tilanteen, näkymän – ja toisaalta valokuvaajan luovan panoksen kuten kuvakulman, sommittelun, rajauksen, syväterävyyden, valitun sävyjen ja värien maailman kaltaisten tekijöiden välillä. Likaiseen ojaan makaamaan ryhtyminen ei olisi jotain mitä tavallisessa arjessa tekisin – eikä ojanpenkan kuivat ruohot ja hiekansekaiset sammaleet ole jotain mitä oikeastaan päivittäin pysähtyisi kohteena ihailemaan tai ihmettelemään. Kun siis siirryn itse dokumentaarisuudesta hieman taidevalokuvauksen suuntaan, siirrän painopistettä kuvassa oman luovan panokseni ja kohteelle itse antamani merkityksen puolelle.

Olen joskus miettinyt, että “taiteella” on itselleni aina kahtalainen luonne: toisaalta se on jotain kulttuurista ja jaettua, jolloin voidaan keskustella esimerkiksi taiteellisista arvoista ja arvottamisesta yhteisöllisesti muodostuvien kriteerien kautta. Mutta itselleni vähintään yhtä tärkeää on taiteen tekemiseen ja kokemiseen liittyvä yksityisen kokemisen ulottuvuus. Näillä kahdella on varmaan jotain kosketuskohtia, mutta ainakin omalla kohdallani melko usein jokin (esim. institutionaalisen taidekäsityksen näkökulmasta hyvinkin arkinen, vähäpätöinen tai mielenkiinnoton) asia onnistuu synnyttämään henkilökohtaisen taide-elämyksen. Tässä on vähän ehkä samaa henkeä kuin vaikkapa ITE (“Itse Tehty Elämä”) -tyyppisessä, kouluttamattomien taiteentekijöiden naivistisessa tai “arkitaiteellisessa” luovuudessa.

Tai, toisessa suunnassa, vaikkapa situationistisen taidekäsityksen vallankumousajattelussa: taide pitää irrottaa kapitalistisen yhteiskunnan tuoteajattelusta ja galleriataiteen kahleista, ja nähdä se ainutkertaisina elämyksinä, tapahtumina, kokemisen tapoina ja performansseina – jotka kuuluvat kaikille, kaikkialla, arjen esteettisyyden ja merkityksellisyyden elämistä syventävinä ulottuvuuksina.

Niinpä tuossa “makaan ojassa ja kuvaan epätarkkoja sammaleita auringon laskussa” -jutussa on itselleni merkittävänä juurikin itse performanssin ulottuvuus: että pistän itseäni edes hieman, tämän verran likoon, ja katson jotain pientä ja vähäpätöistä ilmiötä hieman eri silmälaseilla kuin rutinoidun arkikiireen keskellä. Toisaalta näin itse näissä sammalissa jotain hieman sadunomaista – ehkä hehkuva ruoho ja sammal ovat oikein tarkoin silmin katsottuna sittenkin suunnattomia asioita? Ehkä ne ovat osa loputonta ja ääretöntä metsää, luontoa, olemassaolon käsittämättömyyttä, jolle vain jokapäiväisessä elämässä yleensä on sokea?

Ja ehkä valokuvataiteen alueelle siirtyminen itselläni voisi merkitä juurikin tällaisia oivalluksia, tilaisuutta nähdä ja kokea toisin, syvemmin, kuin yleensä.

Mutta kyllä minä silti aion kuvata noita jänis- ja oravakuvia ihan tyytyväisenä myös, edelleenkin. Kun jotain asiaa tekee harrastuksena eikä vakavana ammattiprojektina, on helpottavaa juurikin että voi siirtyä rekisteristä toiseen ja leikitellä – välillä tehdä jotain pienimuotoista, tai täysin tavanomaista, käsityönomaista – välillä irrotella, tai tuottaa vaikka vitsejä jotka eivät avaudu välttämättä kenellekään muulle. Ja olla siihen tyytyväinen. 🙂

Enlightened by Full Frame?

Magpie (Harakka), 15 February, 2020.

I have long been in Canon camp in terms of my DSLR equipment, and it was interesting to notice that they announced last week a new, improved full frame mirrorless camera body: EOS R5 (link to official short annoucement). While Canon was left behind competitors such as Sony in entering the mirrorless era, this time the camera giant appears to be serious. This new flagship is promised to feature in-body image stabilization that “will work in combination with the lens stabilization system” – first in Canon cameras. Also, while the implementations of 4k video in Canon DSLRs have left professionals critical in past, this camera is promised to feature 8k video. The leaks (featured in sites like Canon Rumors) have been discussing further features such as a 45mp full frame sensor, 12/20fps continuous shooting, and Canon also verified a new, “Image.Canon” cloud platform, which will be used to stream photos for further editing live, while shooting.

Hatanpää, 15 February 2020.

But does one really need a system like that? Aren’t cameras already good enough, with comparable image quality available at fraction of the cost (EOS R5 might be in 3500-4000 euros range, body only).

In some sense such critique might be true. I have not named the equipment I have used for shooting the photos featured in this blog post, for example – some are taken with my mirrorless systems camera, some are coming from a smartphone camera. For online publishing and hobbyist use, many contemporary camera systems are “good enough”, and can be flexibly utilized for different kinds of purposes. And the lens is today way more important element than the camera body, or the sensor.

Standing in the rain. February 15, 2020.

Said that, there are some elements where a professional, full frame camera is indeed stronger than a consumer model with an APS-C (crop) sensor, for example. It can capture more light into the larger sensor and thus deliver somewhat wider dynamic range and less noise under similar conditions. Thus, one might be able to use higher ISO values and get noise-free, professional looking and sharp images in lower light conditions.

On the other hand, the larger sensor optically means more narrow depth of field – this is something that a portrait photographer working in studio might love, but it might actually be a limitation for a landscape photographer. I do actually like using my smartphone for most everyday event photography and some landscape photos, too, as the small lens and sensor is good for such uses (if you understand the limitations, too). A modern, mirrorless APS-C camera is actually a really flexible tool for many purposes, but ideally one has a selection of good quality lenses to suit the mount and smaller format camera. For Canon, there is striking difference in R&D investments Canon have made in recent years into the full frame, mirrorless RF mount lenses, as compared to the “consumer line” M mount lenses. This is based on business thinking, of course: the casual photographers are changing into using smartphones more and more, and there is smaller market and much tighter competition left in the high-end, professional and serious enthusiast lenses and cameras, where Canon (and Nikon, and many others) are hoping to make their profits in the future.

Thus: more expensive professional full frame optimised lenses, and only few for APS-C systems? We’ll see, but it might indeed be that smaller budget hobbyists (like myself) will need to turn towards third-party developers for filling in the gaps left by Canon.

Systems in the rain…

One downside of the more compact, cheaper APS-C cameras (like Canon M mount systems) is that while they are much nicer to carry around, they do not have as good ergonomics and weather proofing as more pro-grade, full frame alternatives. This is aggravated in winter conditions. It is sometimes close to impossible to get your cold, gloved fingers to strike the right buttons and dials when they are as small as in my EOS M50. The cheaper camera bodies and lenses are also missing the silicone seals and gaskets that are typically an element that secures all connectors, couplings and buttons in a pro system. Thus, I get a bit nervous when outside with my budget-friendly system in a weather like today. But, after some time spent in careful wiping and cleaning, everything seems to continue working just fine.

Joining the company. 15 February, 2020.

Absolute number one lesson I have learned in these years of photography, is that the main limitation of getting great photos is rarely in equipment. There are more and less optimal, or innovative, ways of using same setup, and with careful study and experimentation it is possible to learn ways of working around technical limitations. The top-of-the-line, full frame professional camera and lenses system might have wider “opportunity space” for someone who has learned how to use it. But with additional complexity, heavy and expensive elements, those systems also have their inevitable downsides. – Happy photography, everyone!

Black-and-grey photography?

Sunday morning walk.

I was just reading reviews of the new, Leica M10 Monochrom – a rangefinder style (“retro”) camera by the venerable German company (with history going back to 1914, and even further), which is designed to shoot only black-and-white. There are certain benefits to making dedicated b&w cameras, most importantly in the fact that all image sensors actually are black-and-white ones, with just different techniques such as applying “Bayer filter” on top of the b&w photosensors. This means that there is a grid of RGB colour filters on top of the sensor, so that some pixels in the final image are produced with only the red, green, or blue wavelenghts of light. This then needs to be further processed, with a demosaicing (or “debayering”) algorithms to construct the colour image out of (filtered) b&w information coming from the different parts of the image sensor.

And then, when this kind of colour digital camera is used for taking black-and-white photos, there needs to be further processing, as the colour values are removed to get back into a monocrome image.

A dedicated monocrome digital camera has the dual benefits of getting more light to the sensor, since there is no coloured filter layer on top of the sensor. This means that it can have perhaps 1 to 1.5 EV stop better light sensitivity. And also, there is usually slightly better dynamic range than in (filtered) colour sensors – e.g. in scientific equipment non-filtered monochrome sensors are often used, as they can capture higher range of wavelenghts, and operate better in low-light conditions.

The monochrom digital camera body by Leica has price tag of over 8000 dollars, and a good lens on top of that is perhaps 2000+ dollars more, so we are talking about 10 000+ dollars/euros investment. Also, the retro style ergonomics, old-school focusing system and lack of many features that are common in today’s digital cameras means that this camera is not for everyone. I would say that the main point of this kind of device is in producing social and cultural class divisions (relaying Bourdieu here). That M10 Monochrom surely would look nice on top of the dashboard of your Classic Porsche 911…

It is also true that at some point camera tech is like Hi-Fi audio tech: you can pay more and more, and at some point the final gains are so minor, that only those who are true believers are capable of noticing anything. (There are, after all, cameras like Phase One XF IQ3 100MP Achromatic, where the digital back alone costs over 50 000 dollars/euros.)

In my style of amateur photography, such factors as ease of use and flexible camera controls mean more than Hi-Fi sensor quality, so for my purposes even my Canon EOS M50 is capable of delivering “good enough” quality in b&w, particularly when shooting RAW. Here, below, are some early hour experiments from today, my Sunday morning walk.

It is obvious that as the proper winter seems to be largely gone, as another sad side effect of global climate change, the outdoor conditions here in wintertime are more like an “eternal November”. The low-light capabilities certainly matter now for a photographer, as do sharp and wide-aperture lenses. But I am personally hunting for certain mood and feeling, and thus I am not so concerned about blur or softness – it can even positively play a part in the artistic style I am looking for.

Towards the chili season 2020

Chili seeds.
Chili seeds.

There are already few hours of (dim) sunlight per day, so it is again time to start thinking about the next chili season. There were some lessons to consider from last year (one of new hydroponics approach – you can read more in my garden thread/category of this blog: https://fransmayra.fi/category/garden/).

One of the lessons was that “slow” chilies and the cold Finnish summer do not go together very well. I am not willing to use electric heaters for extended periods just to keep my plants alive in the greenhouse. Thus, I have decided to remove Rocoto varieties from my selection. They are nice, large chili peppers, but many are also too slow to grow and ripen for my approach.

Another lesson from last year was sort of “positive problem”. The hydroponics is almost “too good” cultivation system for me. The plants really grew large in the new AutoPot 4pot system I got year ago. I had trouble last spring when plants were already so large in April that move from my basement into the outdoor greenhouse would have been necessary, but there was a “takatalvi” (cold spell, with more snow), and I was stuck with them. And when it was warm enough in May, the plants were far too large to be safely carried around, and had suffered from lack of direct sunlight. It was a sort of minor disaster. (See my post at: https://fransmayra.fi/2019/05/30/chilies-in-the-greenhouse/.)

Thus, while I can start thinking about the varieties to grow, I will not germinate them yet.

I need to get my priorities sorted out first. As shown in the above image, I have a lot of chili seeds (these are all ordered from the trusty FataliiSeeds.net store, I think). It makes no sense to try growing too many varieties at the same time, when in reality I have room for maybe 4-6 fully grown plants in the greenhouse.

My initial idea for this year is try to find more compact varieties – so I dropped any chili which says “Mammoth” in its name, for example. After that, there are just two main principles this year:

  • one or two chilies that are just of right strength and taste for actually eating
  • one or two chilies that are beatiful and interesting.

My current “shortlist” of chili seeds of different kinds is shown in the image below. In terms of taste, I really like both Lemon Drop (C. baccatum), and then yellow habanero style chilies (e.g. Hainan Yellow Lantern – the Chinese “Emperor Chili”, and Madame Jeanette, which is probably a related, Habanero style yellow chili but which originates from Surinam – these are all C. chinense chilies).

The “visual chili” department is much larger and difficult to sort out at this point. I am considering of trying out some new, multi-coloured varieties. I have experience from Bolivian Rainbow (C. annuum) and Numex Twilight (C. annuum) already. Both are nice, but there are just so many interesting plants out there! If you have any recommendations, please feel free to drop a comment below.

Chili seeds.
The current, “shortlist” selection of varieties to consider for the Chili Season 2020.

Compact lenses, great photos?

Sports and wildlife photographers in particular are famous (or notorious) for investing in and carrying around lenses that are often just huge: large, long, and heavy. Is it possible to take great photos with small, compact lenses, or is an expensive and large lens the only option for a hobbysist photographer who’d want to reach better results?

Winter details, captured with Canon EOS M50, and the kit lens: EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM.

I am by no means an authority in optics or lens design, but I think certain key principles are important to take into consideration.

Perhaps one of the first ones is the style of photography one is engaged with. Are you shooting portrait photos indoors, or even in a studio? Or, are you tripping outdoors, trying to get closeup photos of elusive birds and animals? Or, are you rather a landscape photographer? Or, a street photographer?

Sometimes the intended use of photos is also a factor to consider. Are these party photos, or something that you’ll aim to share mostly among your friends in social media? Or, is this that important photo art project that you aim output into large-format prints, and hang to your walls – or, in to a gallery even?

These days, digital camera sensors are “sharp” enough for pretty much any purpose – one of my smartphones, Huawei Mate 20 Pro, for example, has a 40 megapixel main photo sensor, with 7296 × 5472 native resolution. That is more than what you need for a large poster print (depending on viewing distances and PPI settings, a 4000 x 6000 pixels, or even 2000 x 3000 pixels might be enough for a poster print). There are many professional photographers who took their commercial photos for years with cameras that had only 6 or 8 megapixel sensors. And many of those photos were reproduced in large posters, or in covers of glossy magazines, and no-one complained.

Frozen grass, photographed using Huawei Mate 20 Pro smartphone.

The lens and quality of optics are more of a bottleneck: if the lens is “soft”, meaning that it is not capable of focusing all rays of light in consistent, sharp manner, there is no way of achieving very clear looking images with that. But truth be told, in perhaps 90 % of cases with blurry photos, I blame myself rather than my equipment these days. There are badly focused photos, I had a wrong aperture setting or too long exposure time (and was not using a tripod but shooting handheld) and all that contributes to getting a lot of blurry looking photos.

But it is also true, that if one is trying to achieve very high quality results in terms of optical quality, using a more expensive lens is usually something that many people will do. But actually there are “mainstream” photography situations where a cheap lens will produce results that are just – good enough. It is particularly the more extreme situations, where one is for example trying to get a really lot of light into the lens, to capture really detailed scenes in a very consistent manner, where large, heavy and expensive lenses come to play a role. This is also true of portraiture, where a high-quality lens is also used to deliver good separation of person from the background, and the glass elements, their positioning and the aperture blades are designed to produce particularly nice looking “bokeh” effect (the out-of-focus highlights are blurred in an aesthetically pleasing manner). And of course those bird and wildlife photographers value their well-designed, long telephoto range lenses that also capture a lot of light, thereby enabling the photographer to use short enough exposure times and get sharp images of even moving targets.

A cropped detail, photo taken with SIGMA 150-600 mm f/5-6,3 DG OS HSM Contemporary tele-zoom lens on a dim winter’s day.

In many cases it is actually other characteristics rather than the optical image quality that makes a particular lens expensive. It might be the mechanical build quality, weather-proofing, or the manner the focusing, zooming and aperture mechanisms, and how control rings are implemented that are something a professional photographer might be willing to pay for, in one of their main tools.

In street photography, for example, there are completely different kind of priorities as compared to wildlife photography, or studio portraiture, where using a solid tripod is common. In a street, one is constantly moving, and also trying not to be very conspicuous while taking photos. A compact camera with a compact lens is good for those kinds of reasons. Also, if the targets are people and views on city streets, a “normal range” lens is usually preferable. A long-range telephoto lens, or very wide-angle lens will produce very different kinds of effects as compared to the visual feel and visual experiences that people usually experience as “normal images”. In a 35 mm film camera, or “full-frame” digital camera, a 50 mm lens is usually considered a normal lens, whereas with a camera equipped with a (Canon) “crop” sensor (APS-C, 22.2 x 14.8 mm sensor size) would require c. 30 mm lens to produce similar field of view for the image as a 50 mm in a full-frame camera. Lenses with this kinds of short focal ranges can be designed to be physically smaller, and can deliver very good image quality for their intended purposes, even while being nicely budget-priced. There are these days many such excellent “prime” lenses (as contrasted to more complex “zoom” lenses) available from many manufacturers.

One should note here that in case of smartphone photography, everything is of course even much more compact. A typical modern smartphone camera might have a sensor of only few millimeters in size (e.g. in popular 1/3″ type, the sensor is 4.8 x 3.6 mm), so actual focal length of the (fixed) lens may be perhaps 4.25 mm, but that translates into a 26 mm equivalent lens field-of-view, in a full-frame camera. This is thus effectively a wide-angle lens that is good for many indoor photography situations. Many smartphones feature a “2x” (or even “5x”) sensor-lens combinations, that can deliver a normal range (50 mm equivalent in full-frame) or even telephoto ranges, with their small mechanical and optical constructions. This is an impressive achievement – it is much more comfortable to put a camera capable of high-quality photography into your back pocket, rather than lug it around in a dedicate backbag, for example.

Icy view was taken with Canon EOS M50, and the kit lens: EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM.

Perhaps the main limitation of smartphone cameras for artistic purposes is that they do not have adjustable apertures. There is always the same, rather small hole where rays of light will enter the lens and finally focus on the image sensor. It is difficult to control the “zone of acceptable sharpness” (or, “depth of field”) with a lens where you cannot adjust aperture size. In fact, it is easy to achieve “hyperfocal” images with very small-sensor cameras: everything in image will be sharp, from very close to infinity. But the more recent smartphones have already slighly larger sensors, and there have already even been experiments to implement adjustable aperture system inside these tiny lenses (Nokia N86 and Samsung Galaxy S9 at least have advertised adjustable apertures). Some manufacturers resort to using algorithmic background blurring to create full-frame camera looking, soft background while still using optically small lenses that naturally have much wider depth of field. When you take a look at the results of such “computational photography” in a large and sharp monitor, the results are usually not as good as with a real, optical system. But, if the main use scenario for such photos is to look at them from small-screen, mobile devices, then – again – the lens and augmentation system together may be “good enough”.

All the photos attached into this blog post are taken with either a compact kit lens, or with a smartphone camera (apart from that single bird photo above). Looking at them from a very high resolution computer monitor, I can find blurriness and all kinds of other optical issues. But personally, I can live with those. My use case in this case did not involve printing these out in poster sizes, and I just enjoyed having a winter-day walk, and taking photos while not carrying too heavy setup. I will also be posting the photos online, so the typical viewing size and situation for them pretty much obfuscates maybe 80 % of the optical issues. So: compact cameras, compact lenses – great photos? I am not sure. But: good enough.

More frozen grass, Canon EOS M50, and the kit lens: EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM.