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Category Archives: Technology

Over the years, I have designed and revised a one-page nature photography primer.  The purpose of this “cheat sheet” has been to help organize my developing thoughts regarding the mechanics of the craft.  I recently came across several results from the Wordle website.  Wordle is a free service that generates word clouds based on passages of text.  I could not resist plugging my nature photography primer into Wordle.  Here is the resultant cloud.

A good friend recently brought to my attention a rumor of a 16.7MP Canon body on the way to market.  What impresses me about this potential development is that the camera is stated to be full-frame.  As any regular reader of this blog has likely noticed, I tend to think a lot about matters related to image quality; I am especially intrigued by diffraction (see here and especially here for my previous relevant comments).  Diffraction seems to be a big deal these days among photographers, especially among nature photographers intent on squeezing the last once of image quality for large prints out of their small sensors.

Yet, among the numerous books I have read over the years by such luminaries as Rowell, Shaw, and Adams, I do not recall any major diatribe regarding the evils of diffraction on image quality beyond more than a side-note.  I suspect this relative absence of concern is an artifact of the difference between digital sensors and their emulsion-based predecessors.

Film emulsions based on silver halide technology featured individual light-sensitive grains in the submicron range.  Even the dye clouds around the individual grains manifested at this extremely small scale.  Contrary to the pixels of current digital camera sensors, which range from 5 micros to more than 100 microns and are separated by quite discreet boundaries susceptible to the effects of diffraction, the silver halide crystals of film benefitted from their minute size and essentially random orientation throughout the emulsion.  The result was that the effects of diffraction, which physics assures us were certainly present, were largely washed out across the subatomic interstices of the emulsion.

The difference is further complicated by the fact that the typical digital camera sensor relies upon a Bayer array to replicate via interpolation the eye’s response pattern to visual light.  Film provided three separate color-responsive layers in the emulsion.  What so intrigues me about the Sigma’s Foveon sensor is that it offers a digital analogue to this aspect of film.  Nonetheless, the Foveon sensor is still limited by the size of its pixels.

Perhaps the most intriguing possibility of relevance on the horizon is the advent of quantum dot technology.  Its application to photography has the potential to surpass the grain limit of silver halide crystals while obviating the need for a Bayer array.  Such arrays of nanocrystals might be the next major evolution to photography since the rise of the first CCD and CMOS sensors.

It should be an interesting next few years.  In the meantime, I shall continue to look toward the horizon while remaining quite satisfied with the tools already at hand.


I recently purchased a new wide-angle lens to replace my previous primary lens, and have been very pleased with the initial results.  The new lens is so sharp and has such better control of chromatic aberrations compared with its predecessor in my camera bag.  Needless to say, I am pleased.  This recent equipment upgrade has also motivated my thinking about sharpness in photography.  I realize this is a topic to with I (too) often return.  However, this time I have been pondering the historical treatment of sharpness in nature photography.

I began in nature photography about 7 years ago, when John Shaw’s print books were still relatively new and Galen Rowell’s death was still felt by many in the photographic community.  I read many of these gentlemen’s books, as well as the works of a number of other gifted and knowledgeable nature photographers.  Never do I remember anyone giving significant attention to the concept of sharpness beyond:  (a) use a tripod, (b) use the sharpest lens you can afford, and (c) use the finest-grained film (i.e., Fuji Velvia).  Indeed, since (a) and (c) were often given as assumptions, the written discussions often appeared to focus on lens choice.  I do not think anyone today would seriously argue with this point that the lens is the ultimate arbiter of image quality.

What was entirely absent from the discussion was which camera was sharper than the others.  Everyone seemed to shoot one of a few choices of chrome, be it on 35mm or large format.  The issue was how steady one could keep the camera and on how well they could focus (hyperfocal distance not withstanding).  Diffraction was something understood to be a tradeoff with depth-of-field.

Today, the landscape is different.  The molecular composition of film offered amazing potential sharpness in the emulsion.  This was not true of the original digital sensors.  Digital sensors were more obviously limited in their sharpness than was film up until the past year or two with the 20+MP cameras.  There are therefore now more issues to consider when debating sharpness.

Yet, at the end of the day in the real world, color is still color.

Canon today introduced a list of new high-end lenses.  Although I plan to purchase none of them, I am particularly impressed with the MTF charts of the EF 8-15mm f/4 L:

At least in theory, this lens offers better resolution than many of the famed EF primes.  It appears optical technology has finally reached the point where zoom lenses are every bit as good, if not better than, prime lenses.  I look forward to seeing the next step.

I have previously enumerated the photography websites I frequent.  Earlier today I came across a free web-dependent application written by Stephen Trainor entitled The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE).  The visual interface allows for truly impressive depth when it comes to considering the solar and lunar ephemerides upon a topographical map.  I have wanted to make a sunset photograph from that point for several years, but have found the shooting of it (especially at night) to be more productive than shooting from it.

I plan to utilize TPE to help me previsualize a sunset shot for later this summer.  Here is a screenshot of that location for today’s date:

Notice the colored lines representing sunrise (yellow), sunset (orange), moonrise (light blue), and moonset (dark blue).  Clicking on the “Twilight” button will provide times for civil, nautical, and astronomical twilight.  I must admit that the amalgamation of nature photographer and amateur astronomer in me enjoys playing with these tools just to observe the potential changes on the landscape.

Although I do not consider myself one of the Apple Faithful, I am a devotée of Apple technology and have been so since first being introduced to the Apple IIe.  I have even made pilgrimage to the Apple Company Store.  A few days ago, the Apple iPad was released for purchase.  I do not (yet) want one, but do think it presents itself as a potentially interesting medium as a digital portfolio.  Image being able to carry your entire photographic work in an 8×10 in display that weighs only 1.5 lbs, features beautiful resolution, and allows a prospective viewer or buyer to hold that piece of art in his or her hands.  The possibilities are intriguing.

Brooks Jensen, on the LensWork Technology Blog, just posted a brief set of comments on the importance of the lens as the ultimate arbiter of image quality.  The notion that the glass in front of the sensor is more important than any other part of the camera system (save for the sensor itself) is understood by almost every serious amateur or professional photographer who has read anything about photographic technology, or who has simply compared his or her images across lenses.  So, why do many photographers invest so much time, effort, and even money into camera bodies that feature incremental but always “remarkable” new features?  One has to wonder if the corporate tale is wagging the consumer dog.

Pentax has just announced the 645D, a 40MP medium-format digital SLR slated for release in May 2010.  The anticipated price tag of $9,400 will pale in comparison to the approximately $30,000 required to obtain a Hasselblad H4D with 40P, 50MP, or 60MP back.  I agree with Brooks Jensen that there will eventually be a limit to meaningfully noticeable improvements in image quality from digital sensor technology.  However, cameras such as the 645D demonstrate that such a ceiling remains some way off.

Traditional medium-format photography relied on shooting 6×4.5cm frames (or some variant, e.g., 6x6cm, 6x7cm) on 120 film.  This resulted in a 4:3 frame ratio (cf. the 3:2 frame ratio of 35mm).  In contrast, or in complement, the Pentax 645D features a 44x33mm CCD sensor.  All three Hasselblad H4D models also offer the same 4:3 frame ratio, albeit with larger sensors.  More importantly, these digital medium-format cameras feature sensors with 6.0μm pixels.  These are larger pixels than available in 35mm digital cameras.  Couple with the size of the medium-format sensor, such large pixel pitch should result in far larger printed images free from the negative effects of diffraction than available with the best 35mm digital SLRs.  Of course, the same could be said of prints from medium-format film versus 35mm film.

What most impresses me about cameras such as the 645D, however, is neither their sensor size nor their pixel size.  Instead, I am intrigued by the blurring of the lines within what were historically considered discrete photographic formats.  The 35mm format was once the purview of the 36x24mm frame.  The 35mm format now includes not only the relatively rare cameras with 36x24mm “full-frame” digital sensors, but also those cameras with various APS-C and APS-H crop-format sensors which preserve the original 3:2 frame ratio.  There is also the increasingly popular Four Thirds digital sensor format which offers a 4:3 frame ratio in a more compact SLR body.  The medium format was similarly restricted to the realm of the 6×4.5cm or related frame.  Yet, the medium format now includes those digital SLRs with 44.2×33.1mm, 44x33mm, 49.1×36.7mm, 53.7×40.2mm, and similar sensors.

With the rapid development of digital sensor technologies (i.e., CMOS, CCD, Foveon), it appears as if the photographic formats are each becoming varied within their ranks.  Looking back at today 10 years hence, perhaps it will be determined that the greatest benefit to photography of digital sensor technology was its ability to deconstruct the traditional boundaries of format and photographer which reigned for so many years.

I recently had the good fortune while at the neighborhood library to stumble upon America the Beautiful, a photographic portrayal of American wilderness by Clyde Butcher.  The book contains a range of elegant black-and-white landscapes, to include an especially impressive portrayal of a giant sequoia.  Indeed, that Mariposan photo demonstrates the much broader range of focal plane options available to the large format photographer than to those of the 35mm persuasion.  One of the things that has always impressed me about large format photography is the use of a ground glass.  This strikes me as a such a “pure”, unfettered approach toward seeing through the lens.  At the very least, it provides a sufficiently capacious viewing area that one can more clearly discern fine discriminations in focus before tripping the shutter.  Perhaps we are finally witnessing a greater recognition of the importance of a large “ground glass” among 35mm camera manufacturers with the increasing availability of 100%-coverage viewfinders among digital SLR models.

I am therefore given pause by the notion of a mirrorless SLR.  I am attracted to the mechanical simplicity and absence of low-frequency  vibrations from mirror slap such a design would provide.  Yet, a mirrorless camera must necessarily place the camera’s sensor between the lens and the eye.  It interrupts the interaction between light and photographer with some (potentially significant) degree of preprocessing.  Such a system seems sensible for the traditional point-and-shoot camera when the user either is not a photographer or simply wishes to make quick snapshots.  Yet, the situation with SLR work is theoretically different.

I will admit to personally finding the live-view feature of my camera useful when shooting wide-angle landscapes in low light.  Yet, even doing so does not give the same feel as looking through the viewfinder and seeing the light of the landscape interrupted by no more than glass.  So, I shall remain interested to see what mirrorless cameras the manufacturers release in the coming years, but perhaps not with bated breath.

One of the best ways I have found to improve my photography is through online research.  I do not mean to suggest that anything can replace the central importance of spending time behind the lens, but instead that times between photographic outings can be ones of cognitive fecundity.  There is no doubt that Wikipedia provides the nature photographer with a wonderful range of information.  However, I have derived major utility and enjoyment from reading a number of other websites dedicated to photography:

1.  The Cambridge in Colour Digital Photography Tutorials provide a wealth of detailed, yet highly accessible, articles on topics ranging from metering and exposure to digital sensor technology and how to read an MTF graph.  The site also features a number of useful calculators (e.g., diffraction limits, hyperfocal distance, effects of crop sensors on focal length).  It is also worth noting that the site offers a growing list of tutorials on photography techniques.

2.  Digital Photography Review provides regular updates on all things photographic.  More importantly, the lens and camera reviews are second to none.

3.  Photozone also provides reviews on a wide range of cameras and lenses.  My experience is that the pages often require a click of the “reload” button to load properly, but aside from this peculiarity the reviews are quite informative.

4.  As a Canon shooter, I make it a point to daily check Canon Rumors.  The site is authored in a surprisingly humble manner.

5.  The LensWork Technology Blog is a relatively new resource.  Written by the editor of the eponymous magazine, the blog provides what might be described as a more mature and artistic perspective on the technologies and toys often relevant to photographers.

As I said above, the ultimate classroom for the photographer is in the field.  However, any worthwhile class requires significant reading.