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!

Operating systems: now and then, what next?

Ubuntu on HP Elitebook x360 (screenshot).There are multiple operating systems you can operate. Some are feature-rich, some not so much. While those who are enthusiastic and passionate about these kinds of things continue to be passionate, the actual differences between systems where you can operate are growing less and less important, year by year.

The basics of digital environments are today “good enough”, pretty much everywhere you go.

There are certain significant differences still, of course. Windows has the legacy of great popularity over decades in highly heterogeneous, work and private use contexts. It has a huge backlog of software and hardware that has been created or supported in Windows computers. This is both a blessing and a challenge. It is very difficult to produce a new version of the OS that would not conflict with some software, or some driver-hardware combination out there, as the recent hurdles of Windows 10 upgrade installations have proved.

Apple Macintosh users have more often been left in the cold, as there has been many devices which never came with drivers to make them work with a Mac. There has been arguably a lot of high quality, professional software available for Macs, but in purely numeric terms, Windows software ecosystem is order of magnitude larger.

A bit similarly, iOS (the operating system for Apple mobile devices) is limited by design: there are many restrictions for modifying and customising the default operation and setup of an iOS system. On the other hand, the software developers can rely on highly standardised environment, and users get a very reliable (even if unified and rigid) experience.

There are thus obvious pluses and minuses with the various philosophies that operating systems have adopted, or have been based on.

The current leader, Windows 10 is overall strong in diversity, meaning here particularly the software and hardware support. Be it business software, services or games, Windows is the default environment with most alternatives. On the other hand, a Windows user is challenged by certain loss of control: both the operating system and much of available software and system add-ons and drivers are proprietary. The environment is effectively filled with black boxes that do something – and the user can in most cases only hope that what goes on is based on the right and correct principles. And as there are multiple actors in all Windows installations, the cumulative effects can be surprising: there is Microsoft, trying its best both to introduce new functions and technologies, while at the same time maintaining backward compatibility with their long history of legacy systems. Then there is the OEM (original equipment manufacturer), like Dell or HP, who typically configure their Windows computers with their own, custom-made tools and drivers. Then comes the user, who also installs various kinds of elements into this environment. There is the saying “tårta på tårta” in Swedish – cake upon cake. No-one is capable of carrying responsibility of how the entire conglomerate operates in a Windows computer. In many cases the results are good enough, and the freedom of choice and diversity of support for multiple use cases is what the users are looking for. On the other hand, there is also a well-documented history of bugs and problems related to the piling up effects of the sprawling and ineffective software ecosystem.

As the leading open-source alternative, Linux is known for rather effective use of computing resources. A typical Linux distribution runs well on even ageing computer hardware, and on modern, powerful systems one can really experience what a fast and reliable OS can mean. There are (of course) certain downsides to Linux, as well. The main challenges in this case lie in the somewhat higher threshold of learning. While there are increasingly easy distributions that come pre-configured with graphical tools that allow the non-expert user to take hold of their system, and configure it to their liking, the foundation of Linux is in command-line tools and text-format configuration files. Even today I find that after a new, out-of-the-box Linux distro installation, I feel the need to spend perhaps an hour or two in command line, hunting and installing the various tweaking tools, add-ons and other elements that are lacking in the default installation. But Linux is getting better. Particularly the support for new hardware is now much better than what it used to be ten years ago. While the laptop computer user of Linux in the past would in many cases find out that most of the controllers, special keys and other elements of one’s device would not work at all, or only after considerable efforts, today the situation is different. Most things actually work, which is great. But if something does not work in a Linux installation, one is mostly left to one’s own devices (and for hunting for help in the various community websites online). However, as an alternative example, Lenovo recently announced that they will certify their entire workstation portfolio to run Linux – “every model, every configuration” (see: https://news.lenovo.com/pressroom/press-releases/lenovo-brings-linux-certification-to-thinkpad-and-thinkstation-workstation-portfolio-easing-deployment-for-developers-data-scientists/).

I myself recently configured two laptops with a dual-boot, Windows/Linux setup: Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and HP Elitebook x360 1030 G3. I considered both more challenging devices from a Linux perspective, since these are both two-in-one, hybrid devices with touch screens, which means that they most probably rely on many proprietary drivers to keep all their functionalities running. There were certain challenges (in BIOS/UEFI settings, in configuring the GRUB2 system boot menu, and in the disk partitioning), but Linux itself actually did handle both devices just fine. I was using the most recent, 20.04 release of Ubuntu desktop distribution, but there are several other alternatives that could work just equally well, or even better. Elitebook x360 is my main daily driver, and while my Windows 10 installation makes it run burning hot, fans blowing, Ubuntu is snappy, quiet and cool. And I actually can operate both the touch screen and touchpad with gestures that I have fully customised to my own liking, the active pen is also working fine with the screen, and there are only a couple of things that fall short of Windows 10. The special keys for controlling brigtness do not work (I use control sliders instead), and probably neither does the infrared camera (for facial recognition & login) and the LTE modem (I have not tested it though). One thing that I noticed is that this system sounds currently much better under Windows – the sound system is Bang & Olufsen certified, and they have probably configured the sound drivers and equalizers for optimal sound delivery, as the audio quality of music under Windows perhaps the best of any laptop I have used. But there is a highly detailed software tool, called PulseEffects, available for Linux that allows one to create a customized audio profile – if one is ready to dedicate the time and effort for tweaking and testing. That is the reality of Linux still, for good or bad; but luckily most of the essentials for work use will run just fine, directly out-of-the-box.

As a complete opposite of the high “tweakability” of Linux, iOS/ipadOS systems limit the user possibilities to a radical degree. The upside is then that an iPhone or iPad is very easy to use, one can always find the same settings from same places. It used to be that Apple mobile devices had excellent battery life and system reliability, but could only do one thing at a time. With the launch of iOS/ipadOS 13 (and coming version 14), multitasking became a certain kind of option in iPad Pro devices particularly. One cam also buy (a premium, and rather expensive) “Magic Keyboard” add-on to iPad Pro, and it will come with really nice scissor keys, plus a touchpad that allows mouse-and-keyboard style control of iOS. With iOS 14 there will be some more user-configurable elements added, such as (Android-style) widgets into the desktop. There are inevitable complications related to the added capabilities. iPad Pro which is constantly polling the touchpad (or, burning the back-light in the keyboard) does not have as long battery life as one without it. The multitasking and various split screen modes in ipadOS are rather clumsy and hard to control without considerable dedication into learning new gestures and skills of touch control.

Thus, I would say that we are currently in rather good situation in terms of having several good alternatives to choose from. I myself prefer to have both Windows 10 and Linux installed in my main computers, and keep them updated to their most recent versions. But I also use iOS, ipadOS and Android daily, and all of them have their distinctive strengths and weaknesses. If something does not work in one environment very well, it is often better to try something different, rather than trying to force the operating system out of its own “comfort zone”. I suspect this basic situation will remain the same in the foreseeable future, too.

PC Build, Midsummer 2020

I have followed an about five-year PC upgrade cycle – making smaller, incremental parts upgrades in-between, and building a totally new computer every four-five years. My previous two completely new systems were built during a Xmas break – in December 2011 and 2015. This time, I was seeking for something to put my mind into right now (year 2020 has been a tough one), and specced my five-year build now in Midsummer, already.

It somehow feels that every year is a bad year to invest into computer systems. There is always something much better coming up, just around the corner. This time, it seems that there will be both a new processor generation and new major graphics card generation coming up, later in 2020. But after doing some comparative research for a couple of weeks, in the end, I did not really care. The system I’ll build with the 2020 level of technology, should be much more capable than the 2015 one, in any case. Hopefully the daily system slowdowns and bottlenecks would ease, now.

Originally, I thought that this year would be the year of AMD: both the AMD Zen 2 architecture based, Ryzen 3000 series CPUs and Radeon RX 5000 GPUs appeared very promising in terms of value for money. In the end, it looks like this might be my last Intel-Nvidia system (?), instead. My main question-marks related to the single-core performance in CPUs, and to the driver reliability in Radeon 5000 GPUs. The more I read, and discussed with people who had experience with the Radeon 5000 GPUs, the more I heard stories about blue screens and crashing systems. The speed and price of the AMD hardware itself seemed excellent. In CPUs, on the other hand, I evaluated my own main use cases, and ended up with the conclusion that the slightly better single core performance of Intel 10th generation processors would mean a bit more to me, than the solid multi-core, multithread-performance of similarly priced, modern Ryzen processors.

After a couple of weeks of study into mid-priced, medium-powered components, here are the core elements chosen for my new, Midsummer 2020 system:

Intel Core i5-10600K, LGA1200, 4.10 GHz, 12MB, Boxed (there is some overclocking potential in this CPU, too)

ARCTIC Freezer 34 eSports DUO – Red, processor cooler (I studied both various watercooling solutions, and the high-powered Noctua air coolers, before settling on this one; the watercooling systems did not appear quite as durable in the long run, and the premium NH-D15 was a bit too large to fit comfortably into the case; this appared to be a good compromise)

MSI MAG Z490 TOMAHAWK, ATX motherboard (this motherboard appears to strike a nice balance between price vs. solid construction, feature set, and investments put into the Voltage Regulator Modules, VRMs, and other key electronic circuit components)

Corsair 32GB (2 x 16GB) Vengeance LPX, DDR4 3200MHz, CL16, 1.35V memory modules (this amount of memory is not needed for gaming, I think, but for all my other, multitasking and multi-threaded everyday uses)

MSI GeForce RTX 2060 Super ARMOR OC GPU, 8GB GDDR6 (this is entry level ray-tracing technology – that should be capable enough for my use, for a couple of years at least)

Samsung 1TB 970 EVO Plus SSD M.2 2280, PCIe 3.0 x4, NVMe, 3500/3300 MB/s (this is the system disk; there will be another SSD and a large HDD, plus a several-terabyte backup solution)

Corsair 750W RM750x (2018), modular power unit, 80 Plus Gold (there should be enough reliable power available in this PSU)

Cooler Master MasterBox TD500 Mesh w/ controller, ATX, Black (this is chosen on the basis of available test results – the priorities for me here were easy installation, efficient air flow, and thirdly silent operation)

As a final note, it was interesting to note that during the intervening 2015-2020 period, there was time when RGB lights became the de facto standard in PC parts: everything was radiating and pulsating in multiple LED colours like a Xmas tree. It is ok to think about design, and aim towards some kind of futurism, even, in this context. But some things are just plain ridiculous, and I am happy to see a bit more minimalism winning ground in PC enthusiast level components, too.

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.

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!

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.

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…