Welcome Back!

After spending a considerable amount of time on my company blog (studioimpossible.com), I’ve decided to create more content here that’s of a more unfiltered, personal nature that would be of less interest in those seeking weddings and photography.

You’ll find musings on software development, personal projects, various rants and raves on customer experience — all things dear to me.

Since this was a forced upgrade (no thanks to GoDaddy!) without an opportunity to transition easily from my previous blogging engine, there will be some broken images from old content.

I hope you’ll like what you see!


Vancouver Photo Marathon 2011: The Documentary


“Vague” – 2010. Nikon F5, 70-300VR, exposure unknown

Last year I competed in the Vancouver Photo Marathon (#12x12yvr) and ended up with a theme winning photo for “Vague”.

“Vague” happened to be one of the easier themes for me to devise as I instantly had an idea for what to do with it. Executing it along with the other 11 themes was a lot tougher, and the whole event really stuck with me in ways I probably don’t fully realize yet, leading me to think about being involved in some way this year.

Through various circumstances, but mainly due to vacillating about whether to do it or not, this year’s event sold out. Intrigued about other entrants’ experiences throughout the day, I pitched the idea to the organizers about doing a video documentary on the event by following some willing entrants around. Marathon day arrived, and it happened that I had to leave to film a cancer fundraising event later that day so I could only stay for seven themes. Still, better than nothing. I managed to hook up with Ryan Mah (#32) and Ruwan Fernando (#56) outside the cafe right after the first theme was announced, and we went filming along with their helpers (Sara, Garvin, and Jana). I wish I had a helper last year; what a luxury to have a willing model!

It was a lot of fun following them around, recalling some of the same agony I went through last year trying to come up with ideas for each theme. I love that they were so open and accepting of having me tag along and stick the camera in their faces, so I hope I’ve managed to capture some of that in the video. I had a ton of fun and laughs. Thanks, guys! I hope this brings back good memories, and to the other entrants reading this, I hope your day was at least as much fun as it was undoubtedly nerve-wracking, confusing, stressful, and…uh…vague. I know what it’s like.

Perhaps your shot came to you instantly and you executed it perfectly. Or more likely, you struggled, surfed the web on your phone, worked on an idea for a while, backtracked, refined, then nailed it. Or you totally got lost and copped out with a shot you knew in your heart wasn’t going to be great, but you needed to just get it over with? Let’s hear what happened!

Update September 16: At long last, the videos are done. I’ve kept them down to about 3 minutes each. Enjoy!

Warning: some coarse language and mature themes. PG-13 or so.

Ryan and Ruwan’s Story, Part 1

YouTube Link


Ryan and Ruwan’s Story, Part 2

YouTube Link


Ryan and Ruwan’s Story, Part 3

YouTube Link


Ryan and Ruwan’s Story, Part 4

YouTube Link


Ryan and Ruwan’s Story, Part 5

YouTube Link


Note: These videos might be subject to tweaking, and since YouTube doesn’t let you change videos in-place without creating a new one, if you link to them directly they may stop working. Just come back here!

A Brief Fling with Film at the Vancouver Photo Marathon


Last Sunday, I dusted off my trusty Nikon F5 film camera and several lenses, and took part in the Vancouver Photo Marathon, a 12-hour photo contest event in which participants were given 12 themes (one theme released an hour) with which to take pictures in the exact order of the themes.

Yes, this was a whopping single frame of film per theme, which added to the stress.

Tech bits:


  • Nikon F5 – Despite its 13-year age, it still has full compatibility with my new and old AF/AF-S lenses and the very reliable and familiar 1005 area RGB metering system still used today. I hadn’t fired off film in this baby for almost three years but given that it is built to last, I popped in a new set of batteries and hoped for the best. No time to really test further.


  • With 400 ISO Kodak film and rain in the forecast, I brought along some fast primes, like the 28/1.4 and 85/1.4 which also got me nice depth of field control. The 105VR macro lens made the cut, and a good thing too as I used it in at least three of my theme shots.  The 17-35/2.8 (my favourite film era lens, but not so happy on digital) and 70-300VR also made the cut. Two lenses didn’t get used at all – the fisheye and the 28. I was mainly able to shoot outside in decent light despite the weather so the fast lenses didn’t become as necessary.


  • The latest and greatest SB-900 does not work in TTL mode with the F5, setting itself to “A”, but the SB-800 does, so the SB-800 it was.


  • A Manfrotto monopod. A tripod would have been a better choice but mine is heavy and I didn’t have an Arca-Swiss plate for the F5
  • Point-and-shoot camera for stills and video. I mainly used my iPhone instead
  • A Joby Gorillapod for holding my digital camera or flash
  • An off-camera sync cord (SC-29)
  • Remote release
  • Backpack for the gear and a fanny pack for overflow

All in all, this was a pretty substantial load to carry along all day. Next time I might just have fun and use one or two lenses, or maybe a fully manual camera. However I was grateful for the sealed, water-resistant gear that day.

So on to the experience…

One word: GRUELLING! The “Marathon” name is well-deserved on many levels.

Physically gruelling because of my extremely heavy choice of gear. This isn’t much more than I’m normally used to lugging around, but when I’m forced to move around for 12 hours without much of a break in between, to hop up and down the Skytrain / Canada Line station stairs, and to dart in and out of the downtown core from Yaletown with a heavy backpack, it gets very tiring. Add to that mix the heavy rain that day, which had my feet and shoes soaked by about theme 2, and you have a pretty soggy, miserable time. Of course, as is the norm before a big event, I had trouble getting to sleep and had a listless night leaving me desperate for caffeine. But as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you … umm… hurt a lot.

Mentally gruelling because of the stress of getting that one frame, the frame that says it all, the frame that you start agonizing over the moment you get the hour’s theme, and the frame that you have to take full responsibility for every square millimeter of. Then in a click of the shutter, it’s all over. No going back to fix something that could be improved, no point in having any regrets. Just clear your mind and move forward to the next thing. If that’s not some sort of metaphor for life, I don’t know what is.

I did hear in my head the gentle, abusive tones of Jay Maisel as I went through the day – we’ll see if that helped my pictures or not. Maybe I was just a little low on sugar.

Highlights: Just being able to say I did it. Only other participants will likely understand the full extreme nature of the event. Being able to let go and just try new and funky ideas, like multiple exposure, without a clue as to how they would turn out. Getting a taxi driver to help me out with the last shot. Setting up a makeshift studio in an alley just out of the rain hoping nobody would wonder what I was doing. Buying props to shoot with. Winning a cool draw prize just by being present for the hourly theme draw. Having a chance to shoot film again!

Lowlights: My 17-35 lens decided to drop 2.5 feet out of my backpack onto the road, making a sickening glass crunchy sound. Amazingly there’s just a tiniest scuff on the lens barrel and rear end cap but the lens appears totally fine.

The organizing by the 12x12YVR gang was excellent, so I would definitely recommend it to anybody else to try. Would I do it again? Ask me once my body stops aching from the day! Now, I would be tempted to help out, for sure, so I can subject others to the same exquisite torture. 🙂

I hope to see the results and chat with the rest of this year’s gang at the big reveal and results announcements on October 16!

London Drugs Print Quality – Wet versus Dry Technology


I recently had a chance to compare some prints made on the new “dry printing” technology from the photo labs at London Drugs.  I had a print previously done by them on the traditional photographic chemical “wet” process (often referred as silver halide technology) and was able to informally compare with a new print done on their latest dry technology of the same digital file.  London Drugs’ photofinishing equipment supplier is Noritsu, who have provided both the wet and dry technology printers.  London Drugs recently received some publicity from Noritsu on the launch of their new printers.

In this blog post, I’ll outline my initial thoughts and impressions on the two technologies and do a bit of an informal shootout in a few categories.


Going beyond the marketing speak, Noritsu’s “dry print” process incorporates at its heart Epson’s four-colour inkjet technology, an excellent basis to start from.  I figure the term “inkjet” evokes the wrong image in the minds of consumers, specifically low-cost home printers, which are notorious for costing less than the cost of ink to refill them, and this association seems to compel marketers to substitute terms like “dry printing”, or in fine art printing circles, the term “giclée”.  This association is unfortunate, since there is a large gap between cheap consumer inkjet and high-end inkjet, as much as there is in between car makes and models.  Inkjet done properly can be very good indeed.

Inkjet technology, traditionally a higher-cost medium, is approaching a price point where prints from specialized high volume printers can start competing with the traditional silver halide minilab machines.  The environmental benefits of dry printing are also obvious — the wet process requires lots of chemical mixing and the printers discharge effluent that has to be treated, while the dry machines do not.  Colour inconsistency caused by variations in chemical strength is substantially less of a problem on inkjet, also helping to reduce overall waste from having to redo unsatisfactory prints.

The Prints

While scanned images of the prints don’t really convey what they’re like in person, I’ll show them here for completeness.  The inkjet print of Amy to the left is more faithful in colour to the original digital image although the real differences in colour aren’t as dramatic as it is here; I blame the scanner’s automatic exposure and colour settings in this case making the scan of the wet print a bit warmer in colour.  My descriptions are based on looking at the actual 4”x6” prints side-by-side, not at the scanned images, so you’re better off taking my word for it!

img010_resized img009_resized

Initial Impressions

The dry print gives an extremely good first impression.  When viewing the dry print after the wet print, there is an impression of greater clarity in the dry print that is instantly noticeable — the difference between is like viewing a scene with and without a glass window in the way.  The dry print paper also has a different surface texture and visual quality.  Depending on the lighting, the dry prints have less glare to them, adding to the extra impression of clarity.


Blacks are deep, dark, and black, without becoming the muddy brownish-bluish colour it is on wet prints.  Shadow details close to black are also rendered very well, keeping their details well.  This is probably the greatest difference I see between the two.  Amy’s dress is black, and details in the dark fabric definitely show better on the dry print than the wet.

The gamut (the range of colours that can be reproduced) of inkjet technology is wider than silver halide prints, so saturated colours like deep reds and purples that traditionally lost small nuances of details in a wash of similar colour are very well reproduced on the dry print.  Flower photographers should rejoice!

Compared to the original digital image on a colour-calibrated monitor, the dry print also matches the colours very well, so the overall ability to get a good colour match against what you see (presuming a colour-managed workflow) is good, thanks to the wide gamut and accuracy.

All in all, the colour on the dry print pops.  So much so that people might be a little surprised at first, sort of like when CD’s first came out and people were a little unused to the accuracy, clarity, and dynamic range of the sound.


Like most inkjet prints, fresh-off-the-printer dry prints have a slight vinegary smell that dissipates in a few days.  Fresh-off-the-printer wet prints have a similar sort of chemical smell, though less acidic, and also dissipate.

The wet print has a thicker, smoother coat on top of it that is shinier and reflects more glare back, while the dry print is a little grabbier in texture (it can squeak more if you run your finger over it) and better anti-glare properties.

The paper stock used for the dry print is not quite as thick as the Fuji Crystal Archive paper used for the wet print.  However, I’ve recently heard that the thick Fuji paper may no longer be available and that some thicker inkjet paper may be coming on the market.  So I think this concern may ultimately be resolved.

I did an informal scratch test on the paper surfaces using my fingernail.  I initially expected the grabbier dry print surface to perhaps be a little less resistant to scratching than the slicker wet print, but I was able to scratch both with about the same ease.  In fact, I think the wet print suffered more ultimate harm than the dry print as once you scrape to the paper below, the surface coating is easier to scrape off (just like if you are scraping paint, once you get through between the surface and the paint, the paint comes off easier).  It was a bit harder to do the same on the dry print.

Image details

Inkjet printers do not print continuous tone images — they are made up of microscopic dots of ink dye of one of each of the four ink colours.  The dots are more noticeable in large areas of lighter colour, where fewer ink dots are required and they stand out more in contrast with the white paper, and I find that it imparts a slightly grainier feel to the image in these areas.  Grain isn’t always bad thing as it can impart an illusion of high detail or texture even though they aren’t present in the first place.  Normal viewing of my prints shows good crisp, sharp details on both, and the only area where I saw any appreciable difference between the two was on an area of the image with fine hair (fine hair is always a good torture test for resolution and sharpness).

Below are the small crops (inkjet left, silver halide right) of that area.  As a reference, this is a magnification of an area of about 1/2” wide on the print.  There is difference in extremely fine details, such as in the fine strands of hair and eyelashes that is only just visible when viewing the print at normal distances.  I found this somewhat unusual since both prints seemed quite equal in sharpness except in this area.  I feel that these differences could be in part due to differences in the resampling of the original image to the specific printer resolution and sharpening algorithms applied to the dry and wet prints.  You can also start to see the individual ink dots, or at least the grain effect, as well.

image  image 


Extremely small banding artifacts are sometimes visible at very close inspection.  Banding is the appearance of faint horizontal lines caused by microscopic variations in the feeding of the paper through the printing mechanism (the print head traverses back and forth on one axis as it lays down the ink dots and the paper has to be fed through extremely precisely on the other axis).  Any subtle variation in the paper alignment or feed rate may show as a line in the print where a slightly wider gap or overlap with the previous print head pass occurs.  A similar problem with lines running through the print can also occur on inkjet printers if a print nozzle is clogged, but it is very obvious when this happens.  If you stare at the following image (about 1” wide on the real print) long enough, you might see a subtle, horizontal line about halfway down (right below her fingernail) that runs across the entire width of the image.


Again, in most normal print viewing distances this is usually not visible, but continuous areas of the same colour could make it easier to spot banding if it does occur.  I presume that proper maintenance and calibration of these machines will be extremely important to retain good performance.  Similar problems can happen with wet printing technology as well — dust or other grit can also get embedded into the soft parts of rollers or squeegees and cause scratches to occur on the print surface.  These problem prints are normally spotted by the operator and never get into the hands of customers.

Getting the best quality

Out of camera JPEGs should look really good on the new dry technology.  London Drugs’ philosophy of having the lab technicians colour correct and inspect each image does help to deliver overall pleasing images; their overall “look” favours punchy, contrasty, saturated, customer-friendly images. 

Having viewed and printed thousands of images myself, my personal feeling is that all images do need some level of adjustments for best results, and while automatic correction technology has come a long way, there’s still no substitute for the human eye to spot and correct colour variations.

So while most people are best off allowing the lab operator to colour correct images, there is always the option to request images, especially those with a deliberate colour treatment, be printed directly without corrections.  It goes without saying that if one is to use this option and perform the image corrections manually, then it should be done with a properly colour managed and calibrated system.  For example, laptop displays typically tend to be on the bluish side in order to provide an impression of brightness, and these tend to skew colour.  The best colourspace to set your files to for printing to get a good match, as with most photofinishers, is sRGB.

Though problems have been a rare occurrence in my own experience, London Drugs has always been very accommodating of reprinting items to my satisfaction.


The jump in quality of pictures on dry compared to wet technology is quite obvious and has to be seen to be experienced.  The ease of obtaining image quality previously only available through much costlier home inkjet printing is a great thing, and is as easy as submitting images to one’s local London Drugs.

While I have written about downsides such as the lack of continuous tone, detail loss, and potential for banding, in actual practice and normal viewing distances, they are hardly noticeable by most people (if they are present at all), so the edge goes to the dry technology for its superior colour fidelity.

For professionals, the ability to get high quality prints at competitive pricing may make the need to maintain ones’ own inkjet printer (and the associated cost of ink, paper, and wasted paper) a lot less compelling.  Personally, I’ve chosen not to have my own printer for that very reason.  I hope to test the London Drugs offerings in the future to see how their enlargement sizes compare to both high-end inkjets and traditional wet process.

Having had the (messy) experience of darkroom work, I do lament somewhat the passing of photographic paper, which, as I discovered in my analysis, still puts up an impressive fight against the newcomer.  But there’s no denying the stronger and more accurate colours that the new dry printing technology brings, nor is there denying or slowing down the inevitable march towards the new technology just as there was with digital imaging.  Also the “green” aspect of dry printing is something that we can all enjoy.

* Full Disclaimer:  London Drugs is a client of mine.  This evaluation was conducted purely on my own time and without any prior knowledge or pre-arrangement on their part.  I use London Drugs for my personal and professional printing needs and recommend my professional clients do the same.

Fairness at last? The Turing Apology

Last Easter weekend I watched the film The Tuskeegee Airmen (1995), the story of the struggles that black American aviators went through in order to fly WWII missions for their country. From automatically labeled as unfit to fly due to epilepsy by flight surgeons, to the levels of prejudice from their fellow servicemen, it was both a celebration of human spirit as well as a glimpse into the unabashed levels of racism existing a scant 65 or so years ago.

It reminded me of an equally sad event: The treatment of Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician who helped turn the tide of WWII.  Until its declassification in 1974, the fact that the Allies were able to decrypt enemy communications throughout the war was not known. This project, known as Ultra, involved the breaking of the codes generated by the Enigma cypher machine used by the Germans and Japanese.  The Ultra decrypted information gave the Allies crucial advantages such as being able to locate and sink the U-Boats that were strangling Britain’s supply links as well as direct aircraft to the right places in the Battle of Britain.  The counter deceptions used to disguise and safeguard the fact that the Allies had decrypted enemy activities and movements are also fascinating, and thanks to these efforts, Enigma was assumed to be secure throughout the war.

The Enigma codes had to be broken regularly and quickly so that the information contained in the encrypted messages would still be relevant.  Though the codebreaking was a painstaking team effort by thousands of people, Turing played a crucial role in developing methods to speed up the codebreaking, often by the same day.  It is widely mentioned that the breaking of the Axis codes helped shorten the European war by two years and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of lives.  Ultra’s contributions also extended to the war in the Pacific, where the Americans also were able to decrypt the Japanese communications and gain the strategic advantage.  Even with the insider information from Ultra, the very fact that the war lasted as long as it did with such a cost in resources and lives serves to show how narrow a victory margin it actually was.  Ultra may have made the decisive difference.

Besides his wartime contributions that were not known until three decades after the war, the field of computing owes a great debt to Turing’s pioneering work in cryptography and computer science, including the concept of the algorithm in programming and the Turing machine.  In 1999, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the 20th Century.

Given all this, it is incredibly tragic that his contributions to the world were repaid through a most horrifying and inhumane way.  In 1952, he was arrested and convicted of ‘gross indecency’ — of homosexuality, which was illegal in Britain at the time — when he reported to police investigating a break-in at his house that he was involved with a man associated with the crime.  His sentence was a choice of prison time or probation with chemical castratation through hormone injections (the prevailing belief being that he suffered from a lack of female hormones); he chose the latter.  Two years later, he was dead at age 41, from an apparent suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple.

His memorial statue in Manchester commemorates his life: Father of Computer Science, Mathematician, Logician, Wartime Codebreaker, Victim of Prejudice.  What else could the world have benefited from if his life had not been cut short?

Thanks to several online petitions and a Facebook Group, the Gordon Brown government did finally issue an apology last September 2009, noting his contribution to humankind, and calling his treatment “appaling”.  Regardless of the sincerity or motivation behind the apology (Some Britons called it a PR stunt), there is some strange justice that Turing’s legacy in computing was the catalyst for getting him the recognition and apology he never received while he was alive. 

So perhaps next Remembrance Day, we should make sure to acknowledge the contributions of civilians like Turing, whose fighting of the war was conducted not with firearms, but with sliderules, pencils, paper, relays, gears, wheels, wires, and valves.  And to acknowledge, I hope, how far our society has come from the days of Ultra and Tuskeegee.

13,000 Days

I attended a great session with wonderful photographer Sandy Puc’ this Sunday at WPPI.  Her founding of, and work with, the Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep organization is both heart-breakingly sad (I wasn’t able to go through the videos at www.nilmdts.org without getting teary) and inspiring.

She mentioned that at one time she had calculated that she had 13,000 days, or about 35 years, left to live given an average life span.  Of course, nobody really knows if something unfortunate could happen any time from living out that full time.  I’m not that much younger than she is either…so it’s reality check time!

What if days were dollars?  How quickly could someone blow through $13,000?  Would we carefully guard the remaining money, doling it out sparingly?  Or would we squander a few here, a few there, by doing not much of consequence?  Yet that’s what we do in the tiniest of increments each day with the time killers that pervade our life.  Should we treat people who steal the precious seconds and minutes of our time (and by extension, or lives) the same as if they had stolen money from us?  Telemarketers, email spammers, I’m looking at you….

Perhaps we do need that countdown clock, ticking away, a gentle reminder that while most of us have time to spare, life isn’t something to be wasted doing things you don’t enjoy, hanging out with people that you don’t like particularly, or nurturing resentment or guilt.

Maybe a limited lifespan is a gift, something that motivates us to accomplish great things with our lives.  It’s a wake-up call to dust off those dreams and pursue them with the same zeal as a person with a limited time left.

Nikon AF-S 50/1.4G and Sigma 50/1.4 DG EX HSM

I’ve had the fortune to have these two lenses to shoot with for a while now.  I own the Nikon (Nikkor to be exact) and the Sigma was a nice loaner from Gentec International, the importer for Sigma in Canada.  I figured I might write down a few thoughts.


The "normal" 50mm lens is typically one of the cheapest lenses, included with many a film SLR.  On full-frame, it is a normal lens, offering a perspective that is fairly close to what the human eye sees, whereas on a cropped sensor camera, it offers a medium telephoto view, quite suitable for portraiture.  That being said, I rarely use one!  Why?  Simply because I prefer to use either the wider Nikkor 28/1.4, the longer 85/1.4, or for weddings I’ll use a zoom for flexibility.  I have recently become reacquainted with the 50mm range with these two lenses and it’s been a nice change of pace.

Build Quality

The Sigma certainly makes an impression with its size and heft.  It is a hefty beast — you get the feeling that the Nikon could easily slip inside it.  It’s a bit hard to believe that these are both 50/1.4 lenses — in fact, the Nikon 85/1.4 is just about the same size as the Sigma.  It’s obvious that Sigma threw their technological know-how at this lens.  It has a huge 77mm filter diameter, a huge front element, and is packed with aspherical elements, none of which are to be found on the Nikon.  The balance is pretty good, and it has a decent, solid feel.  The surface finish is a slightly rubbery, textured finish that seems to be flocked on, but I’m left wondering how durable it is.  I’ve always found Sigma’s cosmetic details just not up to the same quality, and this has probably nothing to do with the internal quality, but just purely the little details that are different.

Nikon’s offering matches their cameras, as would be expected, with the same textured plastic housing as its consumer-grade lenses.  Its build quality is different from the Sigma — not necessarily better or worse, just different as it almost feels like a different target market.  It has a rear rubber gasket to help seal off the gap between the lens and lens mount, has a useful lens indexing dot on the housing to help align the lens properly when mounting it.


Both lenses are awfully close in performance in many, many respects.  I don’t test lenses methodically with resolution charts, rather with real-world subjects, so I can only give you a qualitative feel for them, but my findings appear to echo the general sentiment on the Internet.  So here goes:  Both are sharp wide-open in the centre, but the Sigma may have a tiniest of an edge.  The Nikon appears to better the Sigma in the corners.  Wide open, both lenses do have a slight veiled softness to them, as would be expected.  By about f/2 or f/2.2, both lenses have cleared up, with Nikon probably still a bit ahead in the corners.  Above about f/5.6, they’re really tough to tell apart.  They’re as sharp as can be, even on the D3x I was testing with.

One thing that struck me right away was that the Sigma isn’t a 50mm lens.  Or the Nikon isn’t.  The Sigma is maybe around a 45mm lens in relation to the Nikon.  The difference is definitely noticeable when comparing both lenses side by side from the same shooting spot.  This may be focus breathing (i.e. the focal length changing a little depending on focus distance), but my shots were taken over a distance so that shouldn’t be a factor.  My particular sample might suffer from a tiny bit of a centering issue, with sharpness not quite the same from edge to edge, but you would have to be pixel peeping the D3x image to see this.

Fall-off (vignetting) is noticeable on both, but the Sigma is definitely better than the Nikon.  The Nikon takes until about f/2.8 to be mostly visibly clear of the darker corners while the Sigma is similar by f/2.  The Sigma’s ability to evenly light the frame is impressive, no doubt due to the oversized front element.

Bokeh appears better on the Sigma as well, wide open anyway.  The Nikon isn’t too bad, and it’s certainly better than the AF 50/1.8, which I think is one of the uglier lenses in this department, at least in my lens collection.  However, the Sigma is definitely smoother and somehow able to generate larger blur circles than the Nikon.

The Sigma is a faster focuser than the Nikon, but louder.  The Nikon is extremely silent.  I may have noticed perhaps a little bit more AF hunting on the Sigma, but it might just have been me.

Bottom Line

Not too surprisingly, the lenses are quite similar.  Sigma has taken a bit of a brute force approach with the lens, probably with a mission to make it the best 50mm SLR lens for full- and crop-frame cameras.  The lens gives sharp, smooth images, focuses very quickly, and feels good in hand.  It feels more biased towards someone that has some very specific needs for shooting wide-open or close to wide-open and retaining very good bokeh and optical performance as well, especially corner fall-off.  You can definitely shoot some nice portraiture on this lens.   The downside is that it is a fairly chunky lens, something that one might think twice about putting in the bag.

Nikon, on the other hand, has opted to keep the spirit of the 50mm lens and kept it pretty compact and light, yet endowing it with excellent performance.  It gives a different combination of characteristics, favouring corner performance and small size and while giving up a little on bokeh, fall-off, and autofocus speed.  It’s perhaps a bit more of an all-rounder, jack-of-all-trades lens.  And it’s cheaper than the Sigma by over $100 CDN.

Which one to choose?  I think it’s pretty clear you’ll get stellar images from either and they’ll be pretty tough to tell apart if you stop down a few to f/5.6 or better.  If you’re shooting wide open to gain a specific look, like great bokeh, or really crave the best low-light performance, the Sigma does everything a pro or discerning consumer would want from a 50.  If that isn’t quite your cake and you simply want something to put in your bag for the rare occasions when you encounter low light, or you want amazing quality across the frame, then the lighter, cheaper Nikkor would be the way to go.

Jay Maisel’s Workshop

Friday night, New York City.  The body is aching, the stomach is still full, the brain is shot.  Welcome to the final day of the 5-day workshop by Jay Maisel.  I have mixed feelings:  I'm tired, mentally overloaded, and homesick, yet feeling sad that this all-too-brief little world of 8 people is coming to a close.  We've come from all over the world to learn: Sydney, London, Vancouver, L.A., San Francisco, Boston, and Connecticut.  We come from different walks of life: a doctor, a couple of pro photographers, me, a mining engineer, a barrister, a retired librarian, and a salesforce efficiency analyst.  A fun point: all the men shoot Nikon, all the women Canon.

We've been eating well and varied, too, part of the reason for being here — good food and drink, great company, and total photographic immersion.  Japanese, Italian, Greek, American, Jewish Deli, and Vietnamese to name a few.  "Good Food Poisoning", Joe McNally, one of the attendees, called it.  I feel I need to cleanse my system with some bread and water.

Why am I here?  Perhaps as a cleansing journey as well.  Many workshops show you how to do things, like work with lights, or to work with hard light, or how to pose people.  Few tackle the really hard question of what makes a good photo, or break things down into sterile rules.  I've been trying to figure that out recently, spending bits of time in topics related to human perception and gestalt, trying to get photos that can make people react.  Jay's workshop was very timely.

Jay's retired from commercial photography and is focusing his time on his personal projects and street photography now.  I have never been much for street photography, yet his workshop is all about street photography for the shooting exercises, so here is an opportunity to jump into the deep end.  So much of what I've seen is boring, voyeuristic captures with super long lenses of inane, uninteresting moments.  A quick grab of someone walking and talking on their phone just doesn't do it for me.  I'm dreading this, but I am approaching this with as open a mind as I can.  Empty vessel, empty vessel, I repeat to myself.  Jay sends us out into NYC alone, each person going his or her own way to find worthy photographic opportunities and to work them.

The light is tough.  Greyish overcast hangs over Manhattan for much of the time, only lifting one morning to provide glorious contrasty backlight.  When the skies finally open up with rain I'm happy as well with the new opportunities — it seems that there are way more umbrellas here per capita, compared to Vancouver.  But as I know from weddings, it's about doing the best you can with what's available, and the overcast gives a soft light quality for portraits.  It's easy to get fooled by great light and forget about the point of the picture, just like glorious sunsets are easy to photograph, but so many of them are empty and pointless.  I do things I didn't consider before, like stalking worthy subjects up and down the block, waiting for them to be framed perfectly, or to do something interesting.  Or stake out a good spot for 15 minutes for an actor to walk onto my stage.  It's a blast!

Back at Jay's bank-residence-studio, we go into the boardroom for daily critiques and presentations.  Juan Jose quips upon our first invitation, "someone is going to be fired."  Nervous laughter.  It isn't that bad.  If there's a nervous feeling about the quality of any picture, it's probably warranted, and normally results in a bad critique.  I learn to be objective about my work, taking all emotion out of them, and I get better.  Who cares how much effort it was to take a shot if it's bad?  Even so, I feel a bit nervous even with stuff I like, and handing in the USB stick of images each day brings back memories of handing in a test in university.  Though tough on his critique, you know he just wants to make you a better photographer: "It's the sin, not the sinner", "If you're not your own severest critic, you're your own worst enemy".  These and many other Jay-isms will stay with me, as will the anecdotes from a life of photography.  Straight and to the point "Boring", "Doesn't work for me", "What's all this shit in the corners?  You're responsible for every square millimeter of your frame!"  Yet one can't help but love the guy who guides and nags us along our journey using colourful aphorisms and streams of f-bombs. 

As the days go on, it becomes easier, I become bolder about getting the shot, which includes a lot of waiting, running after the prey, and putting up with the dirty looks that people give when they see you.  My critiques get better too, thankfully.  I realize that street photography is very similar to wedding photography, namely opening myself up to the multitude of photo-worthy places and moments around me, anticipating them, setting up the camera, composing the frame, focusing, and capturing the moment.  I'm learning to let go, to truly have fun, and to take the chance to either succeed gloriously or fail gloriously.  Each day the pictures get better and the honest critique is such a refreshing change from the inane "that's pretty good", "nice" platitudes that are so often uttered in hopes of not quashing feelings regardless of the quality of pictures.

Jay brings a fresh, child-like enthusiasm for life, not just photography, and realizing this is where the workshop goes past how to take better pictures to touch on how to live a richer, happier life.  As we go through his work and ours, we start gaining a sense of what makes a photo interesting.  Jay distills it down to three things: light, colour, and gesture.  While light and colour are pretty self-explanatory, gesture is really what gives the image its finishing touch, its soul, its sense of movement.  As we start to incorporate one or more of all these elements in our photos, they get better and better.  Looking back just to the start of the workshop shows definitive improvement for everbody.  Photos we were proud of on Monday now seem mundane and embarrassing.  Our baseline for what constitutes a good photo are forever changed. 

Surprise guest speakers drop by Jay's workshop; apparently nobody has refused him.  This time around, we had Barbara Bordnick, Duane Michals, and Walter Iooss.  I hadn't previously had the pleasure of seeing Barbara's work in various fashion magazines, but she has some of the best flower pictures I've ever seen; Duane is a hilarious, stream-of-consciousness speaker; and Walter is a celebrated SI sports and swimsuit photographer credited with bringing Fuji film to the US among other things.  All have had successful commercial careers, but they are also just as interesting for their personal work that they shared with us.

This post would be incomplete without mentioning Jamie, Jay's assistant, who made everything painless, had everthing organized, from the posters we all got to take home, to hand-stamping our name cards.  How he does all he does yet keep calm is a mystery to me.  Both Jay and Jamie make everything easy, pleasurable, and fun.  The overall experience is amazing, from the food, to the ever-changing artwork for us to admire, to the gifts like camera straps (an Upstrap, no less), memory cards from Sandisk, posters, T-shirts, and books.

A trip to the upper floors of the bank reveal room after room of stuff.  One floor looks like his overflow storage area.  Rooms are stuffed old tools, coral, seashells, gears, ball bearings, marbles, and other bric-a-brac held onto simply because they are interesting.  Interspersed with these are some artistic works-in-progress: a tray containing electric toothbrushes topped with rubber eyeballs anyone?  If it weren't so darned organized, somehow cohesive, and uncluttered, it might be a trip into a rogue hoarder's home.  Rooms on other floors are set up like galleries, with Jay's work adorning the walls.  The visual senses are stimulated past overload.

Tonight, instead of going out, we had a wonderful dinner upstairs in Jay's residence on the 6th floor.  His wife Linda is a great cook and host and we're all welcomed like old friends.  We chill out and also get to meet Joe and Jamie's wonderful wives Annie and Jenny.  We also have a chance to go up onto the 7th floor roof and shoot the NY skyline with Joe's 600/4 lens.

All too soon it is over and we're back downstairs packing up and saying our final farewells.  I'm sure as I reflect over the next few days on this workshop it will very likely join my list of pivotal, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.  It is a substantial investment in time, no doubt, but one I'm happy to say is supremely worth it.  To the other attendees: you guys rock, thank you for being a wonderful part of it.


D3x – first impressions

After much agonizing, I bought a Nikon D3x.  After owning the D3, unwrapping and getting started with the D3x is totally anticlimactic.  Everything is identical across the two cameras and instantly familiar.  This is definitely a good thing when using your muscle memory and working quickly under stressful situations.  I took it out, unwrapped it, slapped in a battery from the D3, and started shooting.

I took several frames with the lens I happened to have on hand, which was the 105/2.8VR macro lens.  Those first frames were stunning.  Out of my office window and down into the parking lot, I was able to easily resolve the expiry dates on license plates (and very nearly the smaller barcodes), and the subtle weave on a person's pair of sneakers.  They had extreme sharpness and bite and the per-pixel sharpness is better than the D3, which always looked a tiny bit soft without some sharpening.  Tonality, especially the crucial skin tones, seems to be extremely good.  I'd also noticed previously back around Christmas when I had one of the first D3x's in Canada on loan for a few days that the blacks were pure and noiseless.  I would extend that to say the D3x has incredibly low levels of noise across the board at its base ISO of 100 where it's noticeably less noisy than even the D3 at its base ISO of 200, where some noise can creep into the shadows and midtones.  This smoothness is visible when bumping up the overall exposure, and makes for a much more malleable file in post processing.

Noise does seem to creep in earlier than the D3, with a little graininess visible at ISO 400 and up.  Therefore you have to be more careful with exposure compared to the D3, which tolerated all sorts of sloppiness.  But the magic of having all these pixels is that if you resize downwards to D3 resolution, the noise essentially gets averaged out and the results aren't too far off the D3's sensor.  Now, some detail is being smoothed away by the D3x's default noise reduction that kicks in at ISO 400 and above (it can be turned off up until Hi-0.3 at which point you have no choice in the matter), but the final image does show more detail with very similar noise characteristics.  The D3x stops at Hi+2 or 6400 ISO, and while the D3 goes two stop higher, I wouldn't hesitate taking the camera up past 1600 with the downsizing in mind.

I can see that the camera is going to be extremely challenging on lenses, exposing any little flaw.  It'll be interesting to see what lenses fit the bill.  Even the 24-70 looks like it could be challenged, and it is an incredible lens.  It could well be that some decent primes are the way to get the best out of the body even though I'd pit the 24-70 up against the very best primes in its range, just as I would the 14-24.  Likewise, the camera is also going to expose every little flaw in shooting technique: Every bit of camera shake, lack of use of a tripod, focusing slightly off, and lack of depth of field control is going to show.  And don't think that increasing the f-stop to broaden the depth of field is going to cover up misfocusing because diffraction also kicks in at a lower f-stop and anything over f/8 is getting dangerous for sharpness; f/16 and above definitely are to be avoided.

Basically, I can say that if you don't invest in exemplary glass and technique, the D3x will be a disappointing waste of money.  You'd be better off with a D3, D700 or D300.

The D3x looks like it will be an extremely competent studio camera and I can't wait.  Its big draw, besides the resolution bump, was the native 100 ISO support, which helps in running larger apertures in the studio and in the many situation where studio lights can't be powered down enough and the D3's excessive sensitivity was an issue.  Running full-tilt at (only) 1.8fps in 14-bit RAW mode seems pretty workable, especially given that studio lights normally don't recycle that fast (except maybe the new Profotos), and faster shooting is possible in 12-bit mode.

For wedding or PJ work where high ISO is a must, the D3 is still the champion of course, and at usual print sizes I doubt most people will be able to tell them apart.  But I can definitely see using both D3 and D3x together and applying their complementary strengths.  They are different cameras, naturally, and it really does make a lot of sense for Nikon to release a camera like this in a role that is essentially a viable competitor to medium format, optimized for the best IQ at low ISOs, while the D3 excels at high ISOs.

As an aside, praise goes to Nikon Canada, who recently announced a free 2-year extended servicing period for D3/D3x owners.  This will take care of unlimited sensor cleanings, and one major tune-up per year.  This is a nice bonus for those who have shelled out for a professional body and often need the corresponding level of support.  In a great goodwill gesture, they've also included previous owners into the program by allowing the the servicing period to go to March 2010 or two years after the purchase date, whichever is longer.

Ancestral Journey: Day Three

When I awoke on the Saturday, it was with a bit of alarm, as the weather forecast had been for rain and the streets in Huizhou were wet.  I was concerned whether we’d be able to go visit the grave of ancestor #1 — not that it would really have stopped me (or probably many in our expedition!).  We had allocated an extra day for our trip in case we needed it.

Luckily, the skies cleared and things dried out.  We met up again at the Wing Wu shop, and after a while chit-chatting, we all got in the bus and headed south, away from Wing Wu and Tam Tong.  Several of the local relatives accompanied us.  In our bus were ten people from our original party, much more than we’d expected, as our original plan had only four of us (Chee Sing, my father, me, and Kim Seng) since we had anticipated a tough slog through the brush.  Obviously the excitement of finding ancestor #1 was infectious and the anticipation was in the air.

We turned off onto street that led to a school, parking outside the school gate.  Behind the school were several hills, with power transmission lines crossing them.  It became apparent that those were the hills we were going up.  After traversing a cleared section of land with several deep ditches, we ended up at a small creek at the base of the slope.  This creek was the source of water for the locals as there was a constant influx of people filling up their plastic containers from a hose.  We followed a path that paralleled the creek upwards for a while and then took a fork to go up a series of several steep paths that had some basic steps carved into them.  These would have been fairly tricky if they had been wet; as it was, the remaining damp helped to keep the dust down.

We met a few other people descending the path and it seemed likely that there were other graves in the area.  Just before the base of a transmission tower, our guides cut left across some low, springy undergrowth to a grave site about 50m from the path.

As we looked at the decaying gravestone, there were enough of the characters discernible to confirm that this was Chung Yuk Yen’s grave.  This was our holy grail!  It seemed inconceivable that only a relatively short while ago we had not even known where Tam Tong was.  Now we had found the very first recorded ancestor in our genealogy who lived from 1551-1622.  Again, this site has good views of the surrounding valley, though luckily its location seems to be less threatened at the moment by being directly under power lines and on a steeper section of hill.

We returned back to Tam Tong, humbled and glowing with achievement.  At the Chi Tong, we lit incense and placed them at the main and side altars and outside.  That day happened to be the start of Ching Ming, the special time of the year for Chinese when ancestral graves are cleaned, couples get engaged, and the spring renewal of life is celebrated.  The timing couldn’t have been better.  

When leaving, we took a leisurely stroll through the village, meeting up with other relatives, including one that worked in Huizhou and had an email address.  While doing so, some relatives rushed up to us, saying in effect that “everybody’s waiting for you back in the town!”  One phone call later, we had arranged to meet a new relative back in Wing Wu for a late lunch.

This new relative happened to a be a Mr. Lee.  He was Nai Yen’s oldest daughter’s son.  One of Nai Yen’s youngest daughters, Meng Yue, had later left for Malaysia to get married, and the age gap between the nephew (Lee) and his aunt (Meng Yue) was only a year, so they had grown up and played together as children in Tam Tong.  He hadn’t seen her since she left in around 1940, and he brought along a 20-year old wallet-sized picture of himself for us to give to her.  She had been asked to participate in the trip, but had sadly declined.  That day was also her 90th birthday, an auspicious occasion for Chinese.

Each day in Wing Wu / Tam Tong exceeded the previous one.  We’d achieved much, much more than we had ever anticipated on the trip.  More importantly, we’d forged links with the local relatives, and reacquainted them with their ancestry, something that had long been lost in time.  Hopefully we’ve planted some seeds of interest with them and perhaps some day we’ll get a call from China with some new information.