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.

Kiuas 2020

Ten years ago, 2010, I blogged about the new kiuas (stove) for our sauna, Harvia Figaro. Just before Christmas this year, this kiuas broke down. There was an electric failure (the junction box of kiuas basically exploded, there was an electric short circuit), and I am not an engineer enough to say whether some underlying failure in stove itself was the reason, or just the weakly designed connections in the junction box failing over time. Luckily our circuit breakers worked just fine – we just missed one fundamental Finnish tradition: joulusauna.

Looking inside the Harvia after 10 years of use was eye-opening. The heater elements (lämpövastukset) of kiuas were pretty much gone. Also, we could not really completely trust the controller, timer and other electronics inside Harvia after the dramatic short circuit. So I decided to get a new kiuas.

After some careful examination and discussion about the needs and priorities of our family, the choice was Tulikivi Sumu ST 9 kW model. This is specced for a 8-13 m³ sauna room, so hopefully it would be suitable for our case. (More, see: https://www.tulikivi.fi/tuotteet/Sumu_ST .)

The working class hero. – The sad final state of our Harvia Figaro, FG90.

One of the lessons from Harvia was that a long construction with an open side that exposes the stones is challenging: the small stones can easily even squeeze out through the steel bars, and the tall heater elements become strained among the moving stones. I blame myself for not being diligent enough to take the stones out at least a few times per year, washing them, and then putting them back – the heater elements would no doubt stayed in better shape and the entire kiuas maybe even lived longer that way. At the same time, it must be said that positioning stones among the heater elements inside a kiuas that is 94 cm deep, is hard. The inside edges or rim of the steel box were so sharp in Harvia Figaro, that it was bit painful to squeeze your hand (and stones) deep inside kiuas. And this kiuas took maximum amount of 90 kg of stones. This sounded great when we got it (in theory at least, a massive kiuas gives more balanced “löyly” – the experience derived from such elements as right temperature, the release of steam and the atmosphere), but in the end this design was one of the reasons we did not maintain the kiuas in the manner it should have been done (we did of course change the stones, but probably not as often as it should have been done).

The new kiuas, Tulikivi Sumu, is also rather tall, but the external dimensions hide the fact that Tulikivi relies on dual-casing construction: there are isolating cavities inside kiuas, and this model only takes 60 kg of stones (rather than 90 kg of Harvia Figaro). Together with the smaller internal dimensions, this is clearly easier kiuas to handle and maintain.

We also (of course) always use a professional electrician to install a kiuas. This time, the installed, new junction box was also a more sturdy and hopefully electrically safer and more durable model.

Our new Tulikivi Sumu ST, black 9 kW model.

The dual shell casing of Tulikivi means that it is also safer – this is something that the company also advertises, alonside with their expertise in traditional soapstone stoves (vuolukivi – they are based in Nunnalahti, Juuka, North Karelia). The outer surfaces of this stove get warm, but they do not get so hot that you would get burns, if you touch it while it is heating. Btw, this also means that the safe distances to wooden seats (lauteet) or walls can be very small. One could even integrate this kiuas inside lauteet, having the top of kiuas with its hot stones sticking out among the people sitting in lauteet. We are not going for that option, though.

One thing that I really tried to do carefully this time was positioning of the kiuaskivet – stones of the stove. I have become increasingly aware that you should not just randomly throw stones into the electric stove, and hope that kiuas would give good löyly – or that it would even be safe.

The instruction manual of Tulikivi even explitly says that their warrantly will be void, if the stones are positioned wrongly, and that if stones are too tightly or too loosely positioned, it can even cause fire.

The basic idea is that there should always be enough air cavities inside a kiuas, but also that the electric heater elements are not bare at any point. There should be a sort of internal architecture to the kiuaskivet: one needs to find large stones that fit in and work as supports in larger spaces, flat stones that are like internal “support beams”, taking the weight and supporting those stones that will come on the next layer. The weight of stones should not be focused on the heater elements, as otherwise they will become twisted and deformed under pressure. There should also be air channels like internal chimneys that allow hot air to move upwards, and transfer the heat from the heater elements into the kiuaskivet (stones) and also into the air of sauna room.

Positioning the rough-cut olivine diabase rocks on top of each other, trying to create a suitable labyrinthine, yet also solid internal structure inside the kiuas.

We use olivine diabase as the sauna stones – this is what Tulikivi also recommends. This is a rather durable and heavy rock material, meaning that it will not break under temperature change strains quickly, and since it is a heavy stone, it will also store and release heat. We use also small number of rounded olivine diabase stones at the top of kiuas. This is mostly for decorative purposes, even if some experts claim that rounded stones will also spread löylyvesi (water you throw into kiuas in Finnish sauna to get löyly), as water flows smoothly from rounded stones, end up deeper inside kiuas, and thereby produce more smooth löyly.

It should be said that selection of löylykivet, their positioning, and all such details of “sauna-knowhow” are subjects of endless passionate debates among the Finns. You can go e.g. into this good site (use the Google Translator, if needed) and read more: https://saunologia.fi/kiuaskivet/ .

Now, we’ll just need to take care of those lauteet, too. – Meanwhile: Hyviä löylyjä!

Ensimmäisiä löylyjä odotellessa…

“Soft” and “sharp” photos

Christmas decorations, photo taken with f/1.2, 50mm lens.

As holidays are traditionally time to be lazy and just rest, I have not undertaken any major photography projects either. One thing that I have been wondering though, has been the distinction between “soft” and “sharp” photos. There are actually many things intermingling here. In old times, the lenses I used were not capable of delivering optically sharp images, and due to long exposure times, unsensitive film (later: sensors), the images were also often blurry: I had not got the subject in focus and/or there was blur caused by movement (of target and/or the camera shaking). Sometimes the blurry outcomes were visually or artistically interesting, but this was mostly due to pure luck, rather than any skill and planning.

Later, it became feasible to get images that were technically controlled and good-looking according to the standard measurements of image quality. Particularly the smartphone photos have changed the situation in major ways. It should be noted that the small sensor and small lenses in early mobile phone cameras did not even need to have any sort of focus mechanisms – they were called ‘hyperfocal lenses’, meaning that everything from very close distance to infinity would always be “in focus” (at least theoretically). As long as you’d have enough light and not too much movement in the image, you would get “sharp” photos.

Non-optimal “soft” photo: a mobile phone (iPhone) photo, taken with 10x “digital zoom”, which is actually just a cropped detail from the image optically created in the small sensor.

However, sharpness in this sense is not always what a photographer wants. Yes, you might want to have your main subject to be sharp (have a lot of details, and be in perfect focus), but if everything in the image background shows such detail and focus as well, that might be distracting, and aesthetically displeasing.

Thus, the expensive professional cameras and lenses (full frame bodies, and “fast”, wide-aperture lenses) are actually particularly good in producing “soft” rather than “sharp” images. Or, to put it slightly better, they will provide the photographer larger creative space: those systems can be used to produce both sharp and soft looking effects, and the photographer has better control on where both will appear in the image. The smartphone manufacturers have also added algorithmic techniques that are used to make the uniformly-sharp mobile photos softer, or blurry, in selected areas (typically e.g. in the background areas of portrait photos).

Sharpness in photos is both a question of information, and how it is visually expressed. For example, a camera with very low resolution sensor cannot be used to produce large, sharp images, as there is not enough information to start with. A small-size version of the same photo might look acceptably sharp, though. On the other hand, a camera with massively high-resolution sensor does not automatically procude sharp looking images. There are multiple other factors in play, and the visual acuity and contrast are perhaps the most crucial ones. The ray of light that comes through the lens and falls on the sensor produces what is called a “circle of confusion”, and a single spot of the subject should ideally be focused on so small spot in the sensor that it would look like a nice, sharp spot also in the finished image (note that this is also dependent on the visual acuity, the eyes of the person looking at it – meaning that discussions of “sharpness” are also in certain ways always subjective). Good quality optics have little diffraction effects that would optically produce visual blur to the photo.

Daytime photo of naakka (jackdaw) in winter, taken with a 600mm telephoto lens (SIGMA), f/7.1, exposure 1/400 seconds, ISO value at 6400 – with some EOS 550D body/sensor’s visual noise removed in postproduction at Lightroom. Note how the sharp subject is isolated with the blurry bacground even with the f/7+ aperture value, courtesy of long focal-range optics.

Similarly, the sharp and soft images may be affected by “visual noise”, which generally is created in the image sensor. In film days, the “grain” of photography was due to the actual small grains of the photosensitive particles that were used to capture the light and dark areas in the image. There were “low ISO” (less light-sensitive) film materials that had very fine-grained particles, and “high ISO” (highly light-sensitive) films that had larger and coarser particles. Thus, it was possible to take photos in low-light conditions (or e.g. with fast shutter speeds) with the sensitive film, but the downside was that there was more grain (i.e. less sharp details, and more visual noise) in the final developed and enlarged photographs. The same physical principles apply also today, in the case of photosensitive, semiconductive camera sensors: when the amplification of light signal is boosted, the ISO values go up, faster shots or images in darker conditions can be captured, but there will be more visual noise in the finished photos. Thus, the perfectly sharp, noise-free image cannot always be achieved.

But like many photographers seek for the soft “bokeh” effect into the backgrounds (or foregrounds) of their carefully composed photos, some photographers do not shy away from the grainy effects of visual noise, or high ISO values. Similar to the control of sharpness and softness in focus, the use of grain is also a question of control and planning: if all and everything one can produce has noise and grain, there is no real creative choice. Understanding the limitations of photographic equipment (with a lot of training and experimentation) will eventually allow one to utilize also visual “imperfections” to achieve desired atmospheres and artistic effects.

Chocolates were shot with f/1.4 value (50mm lens) – the ‘dreamy’ look was desired here, but note how even the second piece of chocolate is already blurred, as the “zone of acceptable sharpness” (also known as the “depth of field”) is very narrow here.

Photos in the dark

Winter is dark here. It is a bit challenging to engage in photography under such conditions. For example, the dark translates into long exposure times, or blurred or underexposed photos, or both. On the other hand, difficult conditions can also function as creative challenges. It is interesting to find tones in the dark, hues and feelings in a grainy scenery. But the laws of composition and the effort required to find interesting topics to photograph remains.

Testing Sigma 150-600mm/5.0-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary

I have long been thinking about a longer, telephoto range zoom lens, as this is perhaps the main technical bottleneck in my topic selection currently. After finding a nice offer, I made the jump and invested into Sigma 150-600mm/5.0-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens for Canon. It is not a true “professional” level wildlife lens (those are in 10 000+ euros/dollars price range in this focal length). But his has got some nice reviews on its image quality and portability. Though, by my standards this is a pretty heavy piece of glass (1,930 g).

The 150-600 mm focal range is in itself highly useful, but when you add this into a “crop sensor” body as I do (Canon has 1.6x crop multiplier), the effective focal range becomes 240-960mm, which is even more into the long end of telephoto lenses. The question is, whether there is still enough light left in the cropped setting at the sensor to allow autofocus to work reliably, and to let me shoot with apertures that allow using pretty noise-free ISO sensitivity settings.

I have only made one photo walk with my new setup yet, but my feelings are clearly at the positive side at this point. I could get decent images with my old 550D DSLR body with this lens, even in a dark, cloudy winter’s day. The situation improved yet lightly when I attached the Sigma into a Viltrox EF-M Speed Booster adapter and EOS M50 body. In this setup I lost the crop multiplier (speedboosters effectively operate as inverted teleconverters), but gained 1.4x multiplier in larger aperture. In a dark day more light was more important than getting that extra crop multiplier. There is nevertheless clear vignetting when Sigma 150-600 mm is used with Viltrox speedbooster. As I was typically cropping this kind of telephoto images in Lightroom in any case, that was not an issue for me.

The ergonomics of using the tiny M50 with a heavy lens are not that good, of course, but I am using a lens this heavy with a monopod or tripod (attached into the tripod collar/handle), in any case. The small body can just comfortably “hang about”, while one concentrates on handling the big lens and monopod/tripod.

In daylight, the autofocus operation was good, both with 550D and M50 bodies. Neither is a really solid wildlife camera, though, so the slow speed of setting the scene and focusing on a moving subject is somewhat of a challenge. I probably need to study the camera behaviour and optimal settings still a bit more, and also actually start learning the art of “wildlife photography”, if I intend to use this lens into its full potential.

My SIGMA 150-600 mm / Canon EOS M50 setup.

The Rise and Fall and Rise of MS Word and the Notepad

MS Word installation floppy. (Image: Wikipedia.)

Note-taking and writing are interesting activities. For example, it is interesting to follow how some people turn physical notepads into veritable art projects: scratchbooks, colourful pages filled with intermixing text, doodles, mindmaps and larger illustrations. Usually these artistic people like to work with real pens (or even paintbrushes) on real paper pads.

Then there was time, when Microsoft Office arrived into personal computers, and typing with a clanky keyboard into an MS Word window started to dominate the intellectually productive work. (I am old enough to remember the DOS times with WordPerfect, and my first Finnish language word processor program – “Sanatar” – that I long used in my Commodore 64 – which, btw, had actually a rather nice keyboard for typing text.)

WordPerfect 5.1 screen. (Image: Wikipedia.)

It is also interesting to note how some people still nostalgically look back to e.g. Word 6.0 (1993) or Word 2007, which was still pretty straightforward tool in its focus, while introducing such modern elements as the adaptive “Ribbon” toolbars (that many people hated).

The versatility and power of Word as a multi-purpose tool has been both its power as well as its main weakness. There are hundreds of operations one can carry out with MS Word, including programmable macros, printing out massive amounts of form letters or envelopes with addresses drawn from a separate data file (“Mail Merge”), and even editing and typesetting entire books (which I have also personally done, even while I do not recommend it to anyone – Word is not originally designed as a desktop publishing program, even if its WYSIWYG print layout mode can be extended into that direction).

Microsoft Word 6.0, Mac version. (Image: user “MR” at https://www.macintoshrepository.org/851-microsoft-word-6)

These days, the free, open-source LibreOffice is perhaps closest one can get to the look, interface and feature set of the “classic” Microsoft Word. It is a 2010 fork of OpenOffice.org, the earlier open-source office software suite.

Generally speaking, there appears to be at least three main directions where individual text editing programs focus on. One is writing as note-taking. This is situational and generally short form. Notes are practical, information-filled prose pieces that are often intended to be used as part of some job or project. Meeting notes, or notes that summarise books one had read, or data one has gathered (notes on index cards) are some examples.

The second main type of text programs focus on writing as content production. This is something that an author working on a novel does. Also screenwriters, journalists, podcast producers and many others so-called ‘creatives’ have needs for dedicated writing software in this sense.

Third category I already briefly mentioned: text editing as publication production. One can easily use any version of MS Word to produce a classic-style software manual, for example. It can handle multiple chapters, has tools such as section breaks that allow pagination to restart or re-format at different sections of longer documents, and it also features tools for adding footnotes, endnotes and for creating an index for the final, book-length publication. But while it provides a WYSIWYG style print layout of pages, it does not allow such really robust page layout features that professional desktop publishing tools focus on. The fine art of tweaking font kerning (spacing of proportional fonts), very exact positioning of graphic elements in publication pages – all that is best left to tools such as PageMaker, QuarkXPress, InDesign (or LaTex, if that is your cup of tea).

As all these three practical fields are rather different, it is obvious that a tool that excels in one is probably not optimal for another. One would not want to use a heavy-duty professional publication software (e.g. InDesign) to quickly draft the meeting notes, for example. The weight and complexity of the tool hinders, rather than augments, the task.

MS Word (originally published in 1983) achieved dominant position in word processing in the early 1990s. During the 1980s there were tens of different, competing word processing tools (eagerly competing for the place of earlier, mechanical and electric typewriters), but Microsoft was early to enter the graphical interface era, first publishing Word for Apple Macintosh computers (1985), then to Microsoft Windows (1989). The popularity and even de facto “industry standard” position of Word – as part of the MS Office Suite – is due to several factors, but for many kinds of offices, professions and purposes, the versatility of MS Word was a good match. As the .doc file format, feature set and interface of Office and Word became the standard, it was logical for people to use it also in homes. The pricing might have been an issue, though (I read somewhere that a single-user licence of “MS Office 2000 Premium” at one point had the asking price of $800).

There has been counter-reactions and multiple alternative offered to the dominance of MS Word. I already mentioned the OpenOffice and LibreOffice as important, more lean, free and open alternatives to the commercial behemot. An interesting development is related to the rise of Apple iPad as a popular mobile writing environment. Somewhat similarly as Mac and Windows PCs heralded transformation from the ealier, command-line era, the iPad shows signs of (admittedly yet somewhat more limited) transformative potential of “post-PC” era. At its best, iPad is a highly compact and intuitive, multipurpose tool that is optimised for touch-screens and simplified mobile software applications – the “apps”.

There are writing tools designed for iPad that some people argue are better than MS Word for people who want to focus on writing in the second sense – as content production. The main argument here is that “less is better”: as these writing apps are just designed for writing, there is no danger that one would lose time by starting to fiddle with font settings or page layouts, for example. The iPad is also arguably a better “distraction free” writing environment, as the mobile device is designed for a single app filling the small screen entirely – while Mac and Windows, on the other hand, boast stronger multitasking capabilities which might lead to cluttered desktops, filled by multiple browser windows, other programs and other distracting elements.

Some examples of this style of dedicated writers’ tools include Scrivener (by company called Literature and Latte, and originally published for Mac in 2007), which is optimized for handling long manuscripts and related writing processes. It has a drafting and note-handing area (with the “corkboard” metaphor), outliner and editor, making it also a sort of project-management tool for writers.

Scrivener. (Image: Literature and Latte.)

Another popular writing and “text project management” focused app is Ulysses (by a small German company of the same name). The initiative and main emphasis in development of these kinds of “tools for creatives” has clearly been in the side of Apple, rather than Microsoft (or Google, or Linux) ecosystems. A typical writing app of this kind automatically syncs via iCloud, making same text seamlessly available to the iPad, iPhone and Mac of the same (Apple) user.

In emphasising “distraction free writing”, many tools of this kind feature clean, empty interfaces where only the currently created text is allowed to appear. Some have specific “focus modes” that hightlight the current paragraph or sentence, and dim everything else. Popular apps of this kind include iA Writer and Bear. While there are even simpler tools for writing – Windows Notepad and Apple Notes most notably (sic) – these newer writing apps typically include essential text formatting with Markdown, a simple code system that allows e.g. application of bold formatting by surrounding the expression with *asterisk* marks.

iA Writer. (Image: iA Inc.)

The big question of course is, that are such (sometimes rather expensive and/or subscription based) writing apps really necessary? It is perfectly possible to create a distraction-free writing environment in a common Windows PC: one just closes all the other windows. And if the multiple menus of MS Word distract, it is possible to hide the menus while writing. Admittedly, the temptation to stray into exploring other areas and functions is still there, but then again, even an iPad contains multiple apps and can be used in a multitasking manner (even while not as easily as a desktop PC environment, like a Mac or Windows computer). There are also ergonomic issues: a full desktop computer probably allows the large, standalone screen to be adjusted into the height and angle that is much better (or healthier) for longer writing sessions than the small screen of iPad (or even a 13”/15” laptop computer), particularly if one tries to balance the mobile device while lying on a sofa or squeezing it into a tiny cafeteria table corner while writing. The keyboards for desktop computers typically also have better tactile and ergonomic characteristics than the virtual, on-screen keyboards, or add-on external keyboards used with iPad style devices. Though, with some search and experimentation, one should be able to find some rather decent solutions that work also in mobile contexts (this text is written using a Logitech “Slim Combo” keyboard cover, attached to a 10.5” iPad Pro).

For note-taking workflows, neither a word processor or a distraction-free writing app are optimal. The leading solutions that have been designed for this purpose include OneNote by Microsoft and Evernote. Both are available for multiple platforms and ecosystems, and both allow both text and rich media content, browser capture, categorisation, tagging and powerful search functions.

I have used – and am still using – all of the above mentioned alternatives in various times and for various purposes. As years, decades and device generations have passed, archiving and access have become an increasingly important criteria. I have thousands of notes in OneNote and Evernote, hundreds of text snippets in iA Writer and in all kinds of other writing tools, often synchronized into iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive or some other such service. Most importantly, in our Gamelab, most of our collabrative research article writing happens in Google Docs/Drive, which is still the most clear, simple and efficient tool for such real-time collaboration. The downside of this happily polyphonic reality is that when I need to find something specific from this jungle of text and data, it is often a difficult task involving searches into multiple tools, devices and online services.

In the end, what I am mostly today using is a combination of MS Word, Notepad (or, these days Sublime Text 3) and Dropbox. I have 300,000+ files in my Dropbox archives, and the cross-platform synchronization, version-controlled backups and two-factor authenticated security features are something that I have grown to rely on. When I make my projects into file folders that propagate through the Dropbox system, and use either plain text, or MS Word (rich text), plus standard image file types (though often also PDFs) in these folders, it is pretty easy to find my text and data, and continue working on it, where and when needed. Text editing works equally well in a personal computer, iPad and even in a smartphone. (The free, browser-based MS Word for the web, and the solid mobile app versions of MS Word help, too.) Sharing and collaboration requires some thought in each invidual case, though.

Dropbox. (Image: Dropbox, Inc.)

In my work flow, blog writing is perhaps the main exception to the above. These days, I like writing directly into the WordPress app or into their online editor. The experience is pretty close to the “distraction-free” style of writing tools, and as WordPress saves drafts into their online servers, I need not worry about a local app crash or device failure. But when I write with MS Word, the same is true: it either auto-saves in real time into OneDrive (via O365 we use at work), or my local PC projects get synced into the Dropbox cloud as soon as I press ctrl-s. And I keep pressing that key combination after each five seconds or so – a habit that comes instinctually, after decades of work with earlier versions of MS Word for Windows, which could crash and take all of your hard-worked text with it, any minute.

So, happy 36th anniversary, MS Word.

Stretching the little Canon to the max

There has been these endless discussions among photography enthusiasts on the strengths and weaknesses of various camera manufacturers for decades. It has been interesting to note that as the history-awareness has increased, some of this discussion has moved into a sort of meta-level: rather than talking about the suitablity of certain camera equipment for (certain kinds of) photography, the discussion has partly moved to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of entire philosophy or product-line strategy of various manufacturers.

Canon is an example that I am interested here, particularly as this is the manufacturer whose products I have been mostly using for the past two decades or more. The dominant criticism of Canon today seems to be that they (as late adopters of mirrorless systems camera technologies) are now spreading their efforts into too many directions, and thereby making it hard to provide anything really strong and credible for anyone. The history of Canon is great, of course, and I think that they still have the best user interface for their digital cameras, for example, and the back catalogue of Canon lenses is impressive. The problem today nevertheless is that it is difficult to see if Canon is still committed to continuing the DSLR camera and lens development in professional and enthusiast levels long into the future (as their recent releases of EOS 90D and 1D X Mark III DSLR bodies seems to suggest), or if anyone with an eye towards the future should invest into the RF mount lenses and EOS R series full-frame mirrorless cameras instead. (RF system is the most recent Canon camera family, it was announced in September 2018; Canon’s full-frame DSLR cameras have used the EF mount lenses since from 1987.) And what is the destiny of APS-C (“crop frame”) cameras, and the EF-M mount system (introduced in 2012) in all of this?

I have long used crop frame system cameras and either EF or EF-S (yet another Canon lens family) lenses, due to the nice balance that this combination provides in terms of versatility, compact sizes, image quality and price – which is always an important concern for a hobbyist photographer. Few months ago I made the move into the “mirrorless era”, deciding to invest into the most affordable of these alternative systems, the Canon EF-M mount family (my choice of camera body was the tiny, yet powerful EOS M50).

The initial experiences (as I have reported in this blog already earlier) have been mostly positive – it is easy to take a good photo with this system and some decent, native EF-M lens. And it is nice that I can use an adapter to attach my older, EF mount lenses into the new, EF-M mount body, even while the autofocus might not be as fast that way. But the fact is that most of the new Canon lenses now appear to be coming out to the other, mirrorless Canon system: the full-frame RF mount cameras. And it is particularly the “serious enthusiast” or advanced hobbyist category that seems to be left in the middle. Some, more sports and wildlife oriented Canon lenses and cameras that would suit them are being published in the DSLR (EF mount) ecosystem. Some of the most advanced lenses are coming out in RF system, but the prices of many of those are more in the professional, multiple-thousands of euros/dollars category per lens. But the R system bodies seem to be missing many of the features that true professionals would need from their camera systems, so that is not really working so well, either. And those amateur photographers (like myself) who have opted for Canon EF-M mirrorless mount system are mostly provided with compact lenses that do not have the image quality or aperture values that more advanced photography would profit from. And investing into a heavy EF lens, and then adding adapter to get it to work with the EF-M body does not make particularly good sense. That lens is not designed for a mirrorless system to start with, and the combination of ultra-compact camera body and heavy, full-frame DSLR lens is not a balanced one.

So, the advanced hobbyist / enthusiast crowd is sort of asking: Quo Vadis, Canon?

Some people have already voted with their feet, sold their Canon cameras and lenses and bought into a Sony or Fujifilm ecosystems instead. Those competing manufacturers have the benefit of simpler and more clear mirrorless (and APS-C) camera and lens strategies. They do not have so many millions of existing users with legacy camera and lens equipment to support, of course.

I am currently just trying to make the best out of my existing cameras and lenses. My lakeside camera walk today involved mostly using the Canon L-series 70-200 mm f/4 EF lens with the old APS-C, DSLR body (550D), which has better grip for handling a larger lens. And the landscape photos and detailed close-ups I shot with the new M50 and the sharp 22mm f/2 EF-M lens.

Maybe the third-party manufacturers will provide some help in strengthening the EF-M ecosystem in the future. For example, SIGMA has announced that it will soon port three of its good quality prime lenses into EF-M system: Sigma 16mm, 30mm, and 56mm F1.4 DC DN Contemporary. Hopefully there will be more of such quality glass coming up – also from Canon itself. Producing good quality lenses that are also physically small enough to make sense when attached into an EF-M camera, and which have also affordable enough price, is not trivial achievement, it looks like.

SIGMA lenses.
New SIGMA lenses for the Canon EF-M mount cameras.