Why take bird photos?

I have always enjoyed moving in the nature and taking photographs, but I have never been a particularly passionate ”birder” – someone who would eagerly participate in bird observation, or learn details about bird species and their lives. Nevertheless, for some time now I have taken bird photos in an increasingly active manner. Why – what is the fascination in bird photography?

A fieldfare (räkättirastas).

I can only talk for myself, but in my case this is like combining location-based game play of Pokémon Go with my love of photography. While living still mostly under self-quaratine style conditions of pandemic, it is important to keep moving, and taking my camera and going out is as good reason as any to get fresh air and some exercise. And birds bring the important aleatory element into this: you never know what you are going to see – or not see.

A swan (laulujoutsen).

Mostly my short walks are in the close neighbourhood, and the birds I will see are thus the most common ones: the great tit, the sparrow, the magpie, a flock of fieldfares. But then the challenge is to get a new kind of photo of them – one with a nice disposition, interesting lights, great details or posture. And sometimes there will be more rare birds moving in the area, which brings additional excitement with it: how to get close to the shy jaybird, get good details on the dark dress of blackbird, or a woodpecker.

Blue tit (sinitiainen).

There is also a very nice lake for birdwatching rather near, Iidesjärvi, which means that it is possible to go there, and try getting some beautiful pictures of swans, goldeneyes, goosanders or many other waterfowl with a rather short trip. Which is important, since I typically need to get back soon, and make kids breakfast, dinner or such. And this is also why I call myself a Sunday Photographer: I mostly take photos in weekends, when there is a bit of extra time that weekdays do not currently allow.

Blackbird’s eye (mustarastas).

This Sunday was a day of achievement, when I got my first decent photos of goldcrest – the smallest bird in Europe! It is not that rare actually, but it is so shy and so skilled in hiding itself within foliage, that I was mainly able to locate it with the faint, high-pitched sounds it makes. And even while I knew the bird was there in the trees, front of me, it took a long time, c. 200 frames of missed photos and some quiet crawling from spot to spot to finally get an unobstructed view and a sharp photo of this tiny, elusive bird.

Goldcrest (hippiäinen).

Thus, taking photos of birds combines so many different interesting, challenging and purely luck-based elements into one activity, that is just perfect diversion – something rewarding, surprising, joyful that can even have addictive holding power: a hobby that is capable of taking your thoughts completely away from everything else.

Goldcrest (hippiäinen).

My old camera

I wanted to revisit my old gear tonight, so I dug up my trusty EOS 550D, coupled with the BG-E8 battery grip and the classic, Canon 70-200mm f4L USM lens. The Friendly Cat provided again the modelling services.

I was immediately reminded by the obvious strengths of this older, bigger camera body: the ergonomics are just so much better when you can really hold the camera comfortably and steadily in your hand, and have large, mechanical control knobs that you can quickly and effortlessly experiment with.

On the other hand, the limitations were again also immediately obvious; in particular, the mirrorless digital camera (EOS M50) that I am mostly using these days allows one seamlessly move from using the viewfinder to the live view in the rear display, while making the composition. 550D also has rear display live view, but you need to specifically switch it on, and it is slow and imprecise, and the autofocus in particular is just terrible when shooting with it.

The optical viewfinder, on the other hand, is excellent, and the very limited nine (9) AF points do their job just well enough for this kind of slow “portrait” work. The low maximum ISO of 6400 also does not matter when taking pictures under the bright evening sun, and sharpness of that old Canon L lens fits nicely the 18-megapixel image sensor’s resolution capabilities.

Thus, if I would think about a “perfect camera” for my use, I would be happy with current M50 image sensor resolution (24,1 megapixels), but I would be really happy for a bit more capable autofocus system, and for more low-light performance in particular. The single most beneficial upgrade could however be a body with larger physical dimensions, with better/larger mechanical controls for selecting the program mode, aperture, and making the other key adjustments.

While the new EOS R series Canon cameras provide exactly that, the issue for me is that those are full frame cameras; and I am very happy in taking my photos with APS-C (the “crop sensor”). Full frame lenses, and new Canon RF lenses in particular, tend to be both large and expensive to a degree that does not make much sense for my kind of “Sunday photographer”.

There are alternatives like Fujifilm, with their excellent APS-C camera bodies (X-T30, X-T4, for example), and their sharp and relatively compact and affordable lenses. But I am deeply invested in the Canon ecosystem – it would be so much easier if Canon would come up with a well-designed camera like Canon 7D Mark II, but updated and upgraded into current, mirrorless sensors’ and image processors’ capabilities. One can always make wishes? Happy weekend, everyone!

Specializing or diversifying?

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Pikkutylli (c) Frans Mäyrä, 24/5/2020.

Having more ambition in photography often translates into developing some specializations: becoming expert in some topic, developing a unique and personal style. On the other hand, if there are no professional ambitions or pressures in one’s photography hobby, one can just continue diversifying: having fun in creative experimentation and testing one’s hand and eye in multiple different topics and styles.

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My photobook experiment, Spring 2020.

While the latter path can have a certain vague and drifting effect on one’s photography, there are also the positives: total creative freedom, constant possibility for new directions, and the sense of discovery.

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Tiny spider (macro photograph, (c) Frans Mäyrä, 9/5/2020)

My own experiments during the past month alone have included some insect and macro photography, testing the design and curation for a hardback photobook of my own, bird photography, black and white landscapes and nature photos. And it has been definitely fun, and this free-roaming style of hobby has also the benefit of being easy to adapt within changing conditions, such as the pandemic restrictions of this Spring.

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Winter plant telephoto (c) Frans Mäyrä, 26/2/2020.

Art of Photography: Vivian Maier/Ted Forbes

One of the vloggers that I regularly follow is Ted Forbes, the creator of “The Art of Photography” Youtube channel. He is a welcome alternative among all nerdy, pixel-peeping camera and lens technology focused voices there, as he actually is discussing photography as an art form.

One of Ted’a videos that I watched during this weekend was discussing Vivian Maier. This was originally published already six years ago, in March 2014, but remains interesting for reasons relating to Maier, Forbes, and to several questions of photography and as art more generally.

While listening to Ted talk about Vivian Maier’s work, it soon becomes clear that he is in a way struggling here – trying to be polite and repeatedly acknowledge the skill and significance of this self-educated, amateur photographer’s work, while also suggesting that there are reasons why he does not place Maier particularly high in his canon of great photography artists. These fundamental and underlying reasons are nowhere very explitly stated aloud in this video, though.

My interpretation is that there are two main reasons behind the hesitation of Ted Forbes – and probably many other art professionals who have somewhat similar backgrounds as Ted has. As listed in his short online cv, Ted Forbes has been educated in the Booker T Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and the University of North Texas, and he has also spent several years as a professor at Brookhaven College, and as the Head of Digital Media at the Dallas Museum of Art, among other things. His perspective is thus not only coming from a photography aficionado, but one who has been educated in the history and practice of the arts, and who has long served both as an art educator and a gatekeeper for an art institution.

Vivian Maier is an interesting borderline case for anyone holding up the more “serious” and professional, institutional perspective into arts, since she never aimed to display her photos in art galleries, or anywhere else, publicly, and kept her practice as a secret to herself alone. It was only after her death, when certain collectors (most notably John Maloof from Chicago) bought her negatives from an auction, and started publishing them, first online, then in exhibitions and printed art books.

The first hesitancy about the photography of Vivian Maier as works of art (as expressed by Ted Forbes) relate to the fact that Maier herself had not edited and organised the photo negatives into prints, exhibitions and books herself. There is a subtle undertone of authorial intention in play here: if the person taking the photos did not conceive her work as (institutional) art, and did not complete the necessary steps involved in submitting and getting accepted as a published artist, then it is questionnable whether the photos in question are indeed art. There is sort of “other half” missing: the final process of selecting, editing and filtering the abundant raw materials (captured in estimated 150,000 surviving negatives) into actual artistic ‘oeuvre’ – cohesive vision and flow of expression as a practicing artist.

The other question mark implied by Ted Forbes’s video review is sort of extension of the first one. He repeatedly says that while he acknowledges Vivian Maier as a talented photographer (though probably into the category of “talented amateur”, rather than a “proper photography artist”), he is putting a lot of doubt over the expertise and intentions of collectors (John Maloof and Jeffrey Goldstein are explicitly mentioned), and while he tries to put it nicely, he evokes questions about non-professional, non-talented, non-artistic people having produced the “Vivian Maier as great photography artist” as a phenomenon by making sensationalist claims for maximizing publicity and their opportunities for commercial exploitation.

I have zero role these days in official, institutional art world (just to disclose, I used to study art history, among other subjects, and worked for an art museum in Tampere, during my student years). So, I do not take any stand in the debate about the status of Vivian Maier as a proper artist and the artistic value of her work. There are many art professionals and critics who have taken a more positive stance towards Vivian Maier’s work than Ted Forbes, though. It was also interesting to compare the Vivian Maier video to another one which was also dedicated to posthumous reconsideration or “rediscovery” of a photographer’s work – in this case that of Daan Hansen, an enthusiast photographer / photo hobbyist from Utrecht, who died in 2013, but whose work was published in a large-format, self-published book just before his death. In this case, Ted Forbes is in his video openly emotional and enthusiastic about the range, diversity and value of Daan’s work, even while it is obvious that (somewhat similarly to Vivian Maier), not all of Hansen’s photos are of similar artistic quality. Ted is of course also honest that Daan being both an online and offline friend of his, no doubt somehow affects his reactions to seeing Daan’s published work after his death.

One could perhaps conclude, that for people who operate within, or at some of the multiple frameworks of “art world”, the question of how something becomes valued and valuable as “art” is not a simple one. The person and personal circumstances of the artist affect deeply the perception of their work – even decades after “Biographic Fallacy”, or “Death of the Author” were first introduced into the art criticism. Also, the conditions and processes of publishing and displaying of something as art, do play an important part, as some of these kinds of processes are more prone to adding “authenticity” and value into works of art, whereas others can appear questionable and lead into overall negatively tilted evaluation – as seems to have happened for Vivian Maier, at least to a certain degree, in eyes of a critic like Ted Forbes.

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.

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.

“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.