Startrails in the city center

In my memory these past few weeks have been grey and dreary. Sure, there have probably been a few dry, nice and even sometimes sunny days as well, but on the whole, my impression has not been good. The forecast for the next week and Christmas is just as bad, I’m afraid. However, when my girlfriend took out the garbage on Friday night, she casually mentioned that the skies were clear, and she could see a lot of stars. She didn’t know what she started, but as I hadn’t seen a clear night sky in a long time, I was on my bike to the city center to execute a photography plan I’ve had for some time (fortunately the latest in Corona measures did not include a curfew).

Smack in the middle of the city center of Leiden is ‘The Burcht’. It’s an old medieval castle, and one of the main attractions of the city. I’ve been wanting to capture a milky way shot over this castle, or, if unsuccessful, startrails. However, the weather was threatening to disrupt my plans right from the start. I wasn’t even five minutes out before noticing threatening clouds on the horizon. A quick check of the wind confirmed my suspicions: they were moving my way. I would have to be quick!

On location I quickly fired off a few test shots. Unfortunately, these confirmed my expectations that a milky way shot was not in the cards. The spotlights illuminating the Burcht were so bright, that I would not be able to illuminate the night sky enough to capture a milky way without over exposing the building. Plan B then: Startrails. I had brought both the 9 mm Laowa and the 12 mm Samyang but decide to stick to the 9 mm to capture as much sky as possible. After quickly deciding on a composition, I put the camera on continuous shooting, plugged in my remote shutter release, and the appropriate exposure settings (in this case: f/2.8 and 30 seconds, at ISO200) and started the exposures.

And then we wait…

In my experience, a total exposure of an hour is a good length for startrails. 90 minutes would be better, but I almost never can get myself to wait that long. Fortunately, I brought a second body (the X-Pro1) and could entertain myself shooting in the vicinity while my main camera (the X-T2) was busy with the startrails. The clouds I had seen moving in arrived after about 10 minutes, but were thin and disappeared quickly, giving me a total exposure time of an hour before I decided to pack up, go home and go to sleep.

The next morning, I started to process the photographs. Because one photograph exposed for one hour would have been hugely overexposed the building of the Burcht itself because of the bright spotlights, I chose to take 120 separate exposures of 30 seconds and combine those in photoshop. There is an easy way to place the images into a stack, convert them into a smart image, and merge them with only the brightest parts (the trails) of an image showing in the final photograph. All it takes is patience and a large hard drive. Because of white balance differences between the lighting on the Burcht and the surrounding area, I also merged a photograph of the Burcht with a different (correct) white balance to the combined startrail image and got my final result.

I was a bit sad to see that Plan A could not succeed, but from the start I had feared as much. I’m happy Plan B did succeed, and the weather did not sabotage my plans. The final image is what I had expected and I’m happy with it. The only thing I think I could have done better in hindsight is setting the lens to a smaller aperture. This would have had 2 advantages: the image quality would have improved (the Laowa is not at its best at f/2.8), and two: the shutter speed would have increased. This is an advantage because with a longer shutter speed less photographs would have been needed to fill an hour, leading to less processing time in photoshop. A lesson for next time. You never stop learning.

So what’s the fuss al about? See below..

The final image: startrails over The Burcht. A total of one hour of exposures with the Fujifilm X-T2 and the Laowa 9 mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8.

[Snapshot] Light pollution

In the area around Leiden there are a lot of greenhouses. During the day you don’t notice them much, but at night, on a cloudy moment, you can easily pinpoint their locations by just looking for the light they emit. It is a beautiful sight, even if it is basically light pollution.

Light pollution above the Boterhuismolen in Leiderdorp

[Snapshot] Backlit city

The Hooglandse Kerk in Leiden, with significant backlight.

On a quick trip into the city to collect my Leiden Marathon medallion and get some Christmas presents I came across this archway that was brightly backlit. The lady with the bike completed the photograph. There was very little colour in the photo, so converted to black and white.

About assignments

An old tradition that is slowly starting to disappear due to the fact that most bridges are now remote controlled. The man controlling the bridge will swing a wooden shoe, or klomp, towards the boat in which you can deposit the money owed for opening the bridge.

December has begun, and that means the end of 2020 is in sight. A strange year, and in many ways a bad year. I cannot pretend that I personally have been hit very hard. I do not work in the entertainment or in the catering industry, nor in any other business dependent on large groups of people inside. We bought our new house at the end of 2019 and were fortunate enough to move just before the ‘intelligent lockdown’ in March, so had plenty of space and nature close by. That is not to say that I did not feel its effects. From March on all photography assignments dried up. Not being dependent on just photography for a living helps, of course, and my other graphical work could easily be done from home.

While the new ‘lockdown light’ is in progress and will probably continue until March 2021, this week I had my first assignment since a very long time, for Zeilen Magazine. It felt strange to do a sailing photoshoot, after so much time, but familiar at the same time. Of course the day in question was one of the coldest and wettest of the year yet, but hey, in these cases you don’t get to pick and choose. The assignment was the first time I could test my now not so new Fujifilm X-T4 in the field, and I was not disappointed. The only thing, and that is a major thing, is still the flippy screen, which is annoying. I’m still not a 100% convinced the camera is right for my kind of shooting, maybe more on that later.

So, while I do not expect a lot of assignments in the near future (winter usually is quiet anyway), it was nice to be out and about again. No photos of the job, as the magazine will not be out until February, but an iPhone shot of the day at the Bridge of Sloten can be included!

Our daily walk

Spectacular clouds during sunset at the local windmill.

Ever since the start of the corona measures in the Netherlands, which, incidentally is also since we moved and live in our new home, we’ve started taking daily walks. To compensate for the gym being closed and the loss of our 15-20 min bike ride to work, but also because it is a fun way to relax and get out of the business of work. Our goal is to reach the 10.000 steps each day. I usually win, as my watch is less conservative about what constitutes a step, but I think I also do make more steps in general. We are fortunate to live close to the edge of the city and have this view just a 5 minute walk away.

[Snapshot] Corona break

Genieten van buiten en zon tijdens corona tijd. Taken with the Fujifilm X-Pro1 | 27 mm | f/4.0 | iso 200.

Recently my girlfriend and I had to go into town. I was in need of a haircut and she was in need of some new clothes. Neither of us are very fond of busy shopping streets, and this aversion has only increased with the situation around Corona. We were therefore somewhat unpleasantly surprised when the city centre was busy (wednesday, around 14:00). In our minds busier than usual. Apparently shopping is part of what people consider ‘essential’. Mind you, we were there too, so have no right to judge.

My haircut was done fairly quickly, and after hanging around a bookstore, deliberating wether or not to buy Jimmy Nelson’s ‘Before they pass away’, I waited for my girlfriend, ready to go home. This group of people caught my attention. They were clearly enjoying the outside, and the sun, while they still could (at a distance). I also noticed the great number of people carrying plastic coffee cups. According to the news, buying coffee to go is the new ‘going out for lunch’. I’m afraid this Corona year has undone most of the good progress we had reducing our plastic waste, with all those disposable masks and coffee cups..

Navigating the maze

Someone I met today on a photography forum said it quite eloquently: ‘Yikes, soo many settings!’. He was speaking about the new Fujifilm camera, the Fujifilm X-S10. I don’t know anything about it, and don’t feel the need to. I have given up on the numbers and letters Fujifilm uses to give all it’s camera-lines a name. Names which are evolving and changing as well, so it is difficult to keep track of. Each new camera has a slightly different set of features to distinguish it from its neighbour. We should make a flowchart! Does it have a flip-up/down screen, follow the arrow to the T section. Is it weather sealed? Follow the arrow to the T-single digit section, that sort of thing. One thing, however, is shared by most, if not all of these new cameras . The abundance of settings!

I admit I did not grow up at the height of the digital era. We got our first computer when I was about 12 I guess, and I got my first mobile phone when I was 16. It was not a very smart phone. It could switch its cover, you could somehow get it to use an mp3 as ringtone, and you could text and call. After that, progress began to do its thing, and before long I was the proud owner of an iPhone 4, a laptop, a digital camera, and all the rest of modern necessities. I consider myself to be quite tech-savvy, in that I can usually operate these digital devices without much trouble. This is especially true for cameras, of which I have owned many, from many brands, and as such can usually find my way around quite easily. As I have been using Fujifilm as my camera brand for almost 9 years now, I can navigate their cameras blindfolded, helped by the fact that their design philosophy is quite tactile, so long as you don’t need to dive too deep into the menus. Every new generation has been thus been welcomed with open arms, and the menus were quickly explored to set up the camera to my exact needs, and to make the most of new features possible. Until now.

I can sympathise with the comment made by the anonymous guy at the photography forum (a Fuji forum, no less, with visitors used to Fuji cameras). Because I also recently bought a new camera. Not the X-S10. I bought the X-T4, whose simple naming I can understand, as it is the fourth generation of the T line. I have owned the X-T1 and the X-T2 before the X-T4, therefore the naming was familiar. The settings, however, weren’t. Somewhere between the time I bought my X-T2 (January 2017) and the X-T4 (June 2020), Fujifilm somehow found a bunch of extra settings lying around that they thought would fit perfectly in their new camera. It is not just that there are more things that you can set, it is also that those settings can be set, and tweaked, and even different settings that are set can then be sub-set. It’s like navigating the labyrinth of The Maze Runner. Or, for those of less youthful persuasion, the Minotaur.

A good example is the continuous autofocus. Even my first Fuji X-E1 camera, back in 2012, had continuous autofocus. It is set by the switch on the front left of the camera, and this switch has not moved since. It was there, very familiar, M, C, and S, when I took my Fuji X-T4 from its box. Continuous autofocus was always a bit of an adventure. It could go well, and you would love the results. It could also go horribly wrong, delivering a heap of pictures that were al out of focus and could go straight into the trash. They have worked on this since the X-E1, and now you can set your continuous autofocus to custom settings, of which there are 5. Each setting for a different kind of movement. Great. And then there is the 6th setting, where you can sub-set all parameters for your own kind of movement. And the continuous autofocus is just one setting that you can tweak. Then there are the video settings, ranging from HD to 4K to 24.95 frames per second to 59.9 to F-log recording and who knows what else.

All of this makes the X-T4 (and I guess the new X-S10) a very flexible and capable camera. It is probably one of the best cameras out there, and certainly the best camera Fuji has produced up to this point. At the same time it is the reason I have not used any of these settings. I fully admit I am of the generation that never reads a manual, and without this, there is just too much menu to navigate to fully research, find, and adjust all the settings that are possible on this camera. I have had this camera now for 6 months, and I have not even looked at most menus. Maybe, somewhere, sometime, I will have no choice to take the manual, and go through all the settings one by one. See what they do, see what fits best with my shooting style, and create my own continuous autofocus settings. But for the first time since I have owned cameras, this is a thing. 

I’m sure that most of these settings will be very useful to some, and maybe there is even someone out there who will use it all. I think however, that 97% of users do not. Nothing wrong in this, of course. Better to have it, and not use it, than need it and not have it, though you do feel this multitasking capability in your wallet.I bought my X-T4 for two main reasons: the image stabilisation, which I ‘need’ for video, so that I don’t need a dedicated lens with stabilisation, and the photo-video switch, so that I can quickly switch between photography and video, something that is very handy during assignments. Aside from that, for what I do, the video features in the X-T2 were good enough and I think I may never get around to tweaking all things in the menus.

The good thing about all this is that even without doing all of that, the X-T4 remains a great camera. You don’t need to tweak settings you’ve never heard of to have a great shooting experience, and I’ve even found two more reasons to justify having bought it. The fact that you can name focal length and lens manufacturer to non electronically coupled lenses so that they appear in the exif data, and the shutter sound. Or rather, the lack thereof. The shutter has become my favourite feature since I had to photograph a defence ceremony where you could hear a pin drop, but not my camera!

Last but not least: this complicated digital beast of a camera makes me appreciate the simple experience of shooting with the old (old, it is barely 8 years since it was announced) X-Pro1. You can not choose between electronic of mechanical shutter, there is only mechanical. Too many focus points to focus quickly with the joystick? Not a problem, there is no joystick, and very few points. Video settings? It doesn’t even have a dedicated video button. And yet, this simplicity gives a sense of satisfaction. Satisfaction that you don’t need to think about settings. The satisfaction that you can just shoot, and all other things go away. The satisfaction that you don’t need to find your way out of the maze: there is no maze!

I hope everyone is in good health in these strange times. Keep happy, keep shooting. As I’ve not added any photographs to this post, I promise to post some images soon 😉

[snapshot] Autumn

The trees are turning yellow and orange, and the mushrooms are popping up: it’s autumn!

Fujifilm X-T2, Helios 44M-4 at f/2. Acros + green film simulation.

Vintage lenses: flawed but beautiful

Over the years I have acumulated quite a lot of gear. While I will probably never stop lusting for new shiny cameras and lenses, with my current collection I can fulfill any project to my, and my clients, satisfaction. From photography to videography, from macro to landscapes to watersports, it is all there. As the mirrorless photography world matures, upgrades are less interesting each year, and I will keep working with what I have for the foreseeable future. 

However…

Where the new modern models and lenses start to loose their attraction, the vintage photography world does not. Over the years I’ve bought and sold quite a few old vintage lenses, ranging from the 50s to the 80s and to modern non-autofocus products. When I started out with my very first dslr (the Canon EOS 1000D, for those interested), manual focussing was something from the stoneage. Outdated and obsolete. I’m from a generation that had never seen cameras without autofocus. As such, it was hard to imagine the tactile feeling of focusing a lens, and the joy that this can bring. It took me a while to get into the idea of using vintage lenses on modern bodies, and that this could give a different experience from using autofocus lenses. Not necessarily always better, but different and pleasing nonetheless. 

Over the years since my first MF lens, the Samyang 12 mm f/2 (which I’m still using professionally, in favour of the Zeiss Touit 12 mm with autofocus), I’ve collected quite a lot manual (vintage) lenses, and it is not seldom that I step out of my front door with a bag that contains more manual focus lenses that native autofocus lenses. 

A distinction must be made here between vintage and non vintage manual focus lenses. Some manufacturers still make modern lenses without autofocus (Leica, Voigtländer, modern companies like Samyang), which are manual focus but specially designed for modern digital bodies. These lenses are made with modern machinery and contain the newest coatings, and therefore deliver optimal image quality on a digital body. Vintage lenses are designed for analog cameras and are usually made without the newest developments in lens technology. As such, the usually have characteristics that would not be tolerated in mondern lenses: flaring, colour shifts, abberations. Some older lens designs cause less sharpness than we are used from modern lenses. Others are just as sharp, but are less contrasty than we are used to. Every vintage lens is different and has characteristics that you can like or hate. The results you get are not perfect, but that is not the point. An images does not need have the perfect image quality to be a good photograph, as our veneration of the old photography masters proofs. 

A few months ago I bought another vintage lens that is legendary in vintage photography circles: the Helios 44M-4. This lens is a 58 mm f/2 lens that, together with its brother, the Helios 44M-2, was produced with an M42 mount in the Sovjet Union from 1958 to 1992 on a massive scale. It is one of the most widespread lenses in the world today, and because of this, it is quite affordable. The main attraction for many is the ‘swirly bokeh’ effect that this lens offers (instead of perfect round bokeh balls in the out of focus areas, the bokeh has a circular pattern to it, with squashed ‘cats eye’  bokeh). On modern lenses, an inexcuseable effect, in vintage lenses hightly sought after. I was curious what the fuss was about and got one. And hated it..

The lens itself is ugly. I used it a few times, got other projects, and put it in my lens drawer with the intention to sell it again. Not helping was the fact that the 50-ish focal length is the most found focal length in my lens drawer. Nor did I really manage to create the ‘swirly bokeh’ effect that I expected (a full frame sensor would probably help in that regard). Recently I was looking for something different and gave it a second chance. I put it on the Fujifilm X-T4 for a few walks in the neighbourhood, and this time I did fall in love. I have the suspicion that the M42-Fx adapter that I use has a slightly wrong thickness, as the lens is very good at close focusing, but does not reach infinity unless you stop down to f8. This allows you to photograph quite close up, giving you smooth and beautiful bokeh (not necessarily of the swirly type). As I love close focusing lenses, this one has just climbed my favorites ladder and has surpassed the Voigtlander 50 mm f/1.5 Nokton, which is stunning to look at and delivers excellent image quality, but can not focus as close, and was 10 times its price. Also surprising was the resolution this lens delivers, details are clear even at high magnification.

I will continue to put the lens trough its paces, and will also check the drawer for other forgotten gems (like the 50 mm Meyer-Optik Oreston f/1.8 that I haven’t used in ages but has the same close focusing strengths and is razor sharp). Some results from this lens are below.

And here it is: the Helios 44M-4 on my trusty Fujifilm X-T2. The lens itself is quite compact, but with the M42 to FujiX adapter makes the lens a bit longer.
A Jpeg image, straight from the camera and decreased in size. I liked the contrast and sharpness of this image. Taken at f/2 with the X-T4 with film simulation Acros + green.
Taken with the X-T4 at f/2, film simulation Eterna. I’ve never really used Eterna except for video. The muted colours really made this image for me though.
A bokeh test. Taken with the X-T4 at f/2. Not sure of the film simulation.
Another bokeh test. Straight from the camera and resized, Fujifilm X-T4 at f/2 with film simulation Acros + green.
I liked the symmetry of this image with the striped poles flanking the winding path and the dogs flanking the biker. Fujifilm X-T4, probably taken at f/8. Not sure of the film simulation.
Fujifilm X-T4 at f/4 in Acros + green. When I walked past the goat had a magpie on its back. I liked the black and white combination of the goat and the magpie, but the magpie flew off and didn’t return. Still liked the image of the goat..
A resized close-up of the goat, showing the amount of resolution this lens has!
Another bokeh and resolution test: Fujifilm X-T4 at f/2. Based on Classic Chrome, but edited.