Daydreaming

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Copyright © 2015 Olaf & Kasia Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

Death Valley – A Journey to a Visual Mecca

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There is no shortage of stunning places in North America and Kasia and I have hunted out many fantastic landscapes. Despite our travels, no other landscape has made such a profound visual and emotional impact on us as Death Valley. It is a visual Mecca for those who find beauty in remote, strange and rare places.

Death Valley is in California’s Mojave Desert. It is the lowest, driest and hottest place in North America. Death Valley holds the highest air temperature ever recorded on earth: 56.7 C.

While planning our trip, Death Valley was last on our list (after the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Route 66 and San Francisco). The only reason for that was efficiency and logistics. Since we had never visited Death Valley before, our intention was to soak up the atmosphere and gaze at the landscape.

Given that we entered the Death Valley National Park from the east, we stopped by Rhyolite Ghost Town.

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After taking a few photographs of the ruins, we stayed for the night at Stovepipe Wells Village. The weather forecast for the next day was not encouraging and the day turned out rainy and windy. Despite that, we decided to wake up early and hope for the best.

A stormy morning provided us with drama and occasional pockets of great light. However, the weather was deteriorating by the minute.

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After visiting a few spots we decided to head west toward Sierra Mountains – a visual gem on its own.

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Our first short encounter with this special place made such an impression on us that we are already planning our next, much longer trip to this area.

All images were taken with the Fuji X100T and Fuji X-T1 paired with XF 14mm F2.8 and XF 50-140 F2.8 and processed in LR5. Despite the deteriorating weather, we managed to keep taking photos with the Fuji X-T1 and XF 50-140 F2.8 – both weather sealed.

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Copyright © 2015 Olaf & Kasia Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

Driving along Route 66

For some, Route 66 is just a road sign. However, for millions of Americans it is the Main Street of America, a legend, the symbol of freedom, blue skies and the culture of the open road.

The purpose of Route 66 was to provide a way for those “Going West,” especially in the 1930s. Along with its popularity, many businesses and communities were created to serve those on the move.

Route 66 spans eight states from Chicago to Santa Monica in California. We only drove a tiny portion of this historic route to get a sense of what we had got ourselves into. Our interest is always in what is forgotten and abandoned so we decided to leave areas close to Santa Barbara, California, for the next time. While exploring Route 66 it is important to distinguish real history from commercial ventures that attach themselves to the legend of this incredible road.

As we said, we visited only a few places. We found some areas of Route 66 closed, with many historical sights in really bad shape. The distance between marked attractions and the condition of some sections of Route 66 made it difficult to explore in such a short time. We will certainly organize a trip dedicated to exploring this fascinating road in the future.

Here are a few images we were able to capture (Classic Chrome film simulation), all taken with the Fuji X100T, X-T1 paired with the XF 14mm F2.8.

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2015 © Olaf & Kasia Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

Two (amazing) hours in Monument Valley

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Fuji X-T1 & XF 14mm F2.8

During our recent photography trip south of the border, Monument Valley was not even on our itinerary. One morning we finished photographing the Grand Canyon and planned to head back. However, we knew that Monument Valley – a place that we have been always fascinated with – was only four hours away. We were not sure whether to go there since we would have only one or two hours before it got dark. We are glad we did.

Indeed, it is a magical place. When approaching the Navajo Nation Reservation you notice the cluster of huge sandstone buttes, the largest as high as 1,000 ft (300m) above the valley floor. The scenery is so different from what we have ever seen that you have the impression of visiting a different planet.

It should be no surprise that a place of such a beauty is one of the most photographed locations in the United States. As a result, it is difficult (especially in two hours) to capture the wonderful imagery. Regardless, equipped with the Fuji X100T and Fuji X-T1 paired with XF 14mm F2.8 and XF 50-140 F2.8 we thoroughly enjoyed photographing Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii (Navajo: The Valley Of The Rocks).

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Fuji X100T

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Fuji X-T1 & XF 50-140mm F2.8 OIS

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Fuji X-T1 & XF 14mm F2.8

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Fuji X100T

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Fuji X-T1 & XF 14mm F2.8

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Fuji X-T1 & XF 14mm F2.8

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Fuji X100T

Fuji X-T1 & XF 14mm F2.8

Fuji X-T1 & XF 14mm F2.8

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Fuji X-T1 & XF 50-140mm F2.8 OIS

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Fuji X-T1 & XF 50-140mm F2.8 OIS

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Fuji X-T1 & XF 50-140mm F2.8 OIS

 

Here is Kasia enjoying her favourite Fuji X100T.

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Fuji X100T, Classic Chrome

 

Kasia captured this image of me running with the X-T1 toward our car. It is now one of my favourite images.

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Fuji X-T1 & XF 14mm F2.8

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Fuji X100T

 

 

 

 

2015 © Olaf & Kasia Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

X100T goes to jail

While choosing locations for our photo escapades, we usually prefer less-travelled roads. However, some places offer such visual temptation that skipping them would cause us sleepless nights.

Therefore, during our last photo trip of 2014, we couldn’t resist visiting the famous Alcatraz Island. We knew that we had to take the first sailing of the day to avoid the crowds and get the best possible light (although night tours would be even better).

Each time Kasia and I approach such a popular location, our objective is to capture the place in “our own way,” avoiding clichéd shoots. After all, we photographers should always try to contribute something new and personal to an already huge body of work.

We found that the best way to get creative is to limit your gear to a minimum. One camera and one lens is the best solution. We went for the Fuji X100T and X-T1 with the XF 14mm F2.8 lens. If I were alone, I would probably go with the X100T only.

In a compact location with such rich visuals, we found that composition, light and creativity are the key components of an interesting image. I often see photographers standing in one spot and shooting images like a madman with the proviso that “I am sure I will get something.” DON’T DO IT. It is the wrong way to approach photography. You will get a lot of junk and a little bit of mediocre imagery.

A good photograph requires a lot of mental and physical effort. The way we work is that we always look for composition and light first, without even touching the camera. Then when I visualize something interesting, I usually look into the viewfinder (still no pressing of shutter buttons) and examine a scene for its potential. If I like what I see, I start composing, which usually means changing my position in relation to a scene. I try to go as high or low as I can and walk around the scene. In most cases, I just walk away without taking a photograph. It just doesn’t work. However, if I find a great composition (more about this in later posts) and match it with interesting light, only then do I press the shutter button.    

We had only about three hours to walk around and try to create imagery that would be worth keeping. Given the dark nature of the place we thought to shoot in B&W and the latest film simulation from Fuji – Classic Chrome.

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2015 © Kasia & Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

Summary of 2014 and our favourite images of the year

First, we would like to thank you all for your continuous support and for taking moments from your valuable day to view our imagery and read our essays. We especially want to thank you for finding time to write a few words of commentary and for sharing your stories and experiences. We read every comment and try to reply to them all.  

If there were words to describe 2014 they would be: transformation, search and renewal. It was the year when we had to “Stop. Breath. Start Again.” We are glad we did.

Now we are confident that a time of doubt and self-reflection is a necessary element of growth as an artist and photographer. After all, the worst enemy of creativity is content and easefulness.

As we did last year, Kasia and I went through our photos and decided to choose our favourite images of the year. Here they are:

Kasia’s images:

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The Grand Canyon, Fuji X100T

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Bodie, Fuji X-Pro1 & XF 14mm F2.8

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Bodie, Fuji X-Pro1 & XF 14mm F2.8

17-Mile Drive, Fuji X-T1 & XF 50-140 F2.8 OIS

Barkerville, Fuji X100S

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Barkerville, Fuji X-T1 & XF 14mm F2.8

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Alcatraz, Fuji X100T

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Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Fuji X100S

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The Palouse, Fuji X-T1 & XF 55-200 F3.5-4.8 OIS

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The Palouse, Fuji X-T1 & XF 55-200 F3.5-4.8 OIS

 

Olaf’s images:

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Westminster Abbey, Mission, Fuji X-Pro1 & XF 14mm F2.8

Waterton Lakes National Park, Fuji X-T1 & XF 14mm F2.8

The Cowboy Trail, Fuji X-T1 & XF 55-200 F3.5-4.8 OIS

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Chilliwack, BC, Fuji X100S

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Alcatraz, Fuji X-T1 & XF 14mm F2.8

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Death Valley, Fuji X100T

Death Valley, Fuji X-T1 & XF 50-140 F2.8 OIS

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Monument Valley, Fuji X-T1 & XF 14mm F2.8

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Barkerville, Fuji X-T1 & XF 14mm F2.8

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The Palouse, Fuji X100S

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The Palouse, Fuji X100S

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The Palouse, Fuji X-T1 & XF 55-200 F3.5-4.8 OIS

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Port Moody, BC, Fuji X100S

 

Camera of the year: Fuji X-T1 – for its huge viewfinder that allows you to compose and mould images unlike any other camera. Also, its full manual controls put you in the front seat as the photographer (we just cannot go with the X100/S/T every year). 

Lens of the year: Last year it was the wide-angle XF 14mm F2.8. This year without a doubt it is the XF 56mm F1.2 lens. It is one of the finest lenses we have ever owned. Not only does it allow you to photograph in near-dark conditions, its bokeh is natural and poetic. We also like its size and weight. It is a joy to shoot with.

Book of the year: “Road to Seeing” by Dan Winters. It is a well-written autobiography with beautiful imagery and priceless thoughts about the purpose of seeing, how to find it and what’s really important in this visual journey we are all on. We highly recommend it.    

Plans for 2015: Pushing our own boundaries of seeing. We want to go outside our comfort zone. There will be more failures but we are sure that the outcome will be imagery unlike anything we have done so far. We trust we will achieve it together.

Truly Yours

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2014 © Olaf & Kasia Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

The Freedom Camera – A personal rant about the Fuji X100T

Disclaimer: If you are looking for an objective, technical-oriented review you won’t find it here. Photography is an art and as a result personal emotions and experiences play a vital role. Therefore, the views presented here are only mine. They are deeply personal and biased and that’s how it should be. I have never been interested in objective reviews since I find them boring, uninspired and pretentious. So I am not going to bore you with one.  

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The Fuji X100T is NOT the fastest camera on the market.

It is NOT the most responsive camera on the market.

It is NOT a great video camera. It is NOT even an interchangeable lens camera.

Despite all that, in our view it is THE BEST DIGITAL CAMERA on the market by far. Let me explain.

As many of you know, for most of my photographic life I was a Nikon shooter. Life was stable and easy back then. From time to time a new model came out with a slightly better interior but in general it was the same old same old. Then, one day a brand new Fuji X100 fell into my hands and before I knew it, my photography world turned upside down. For those interested in the entire story please check out our review of the Fuji X100S here.

Why am I going back to the original X100? Because writing an X100T review without mentioning an original X100/S would be like writing an autobiography starting at age 30.

I don’t know how Fuji came up with the idea of the X100. Now it is hard to believe that there was no such camera before. You woke up in the morning, picked up a bag full of gear and soldiered on for the entire day. Sometimes you left your camera at home because it was too much hassle. It was just too heavy and inconvenient to carry around. Sure, there were some compacts available but the quality and functionality of those cameras were not suited for serious photography.

The Fuji X100 changed all that.

For quite some time I had the Fuji X100 and my SLR gear at home. At first I had mixed feelings about this new arrival. When I think about it now, I know it was years of SLR brainwashing that prevented me from realizing this little camera could replace a whole bag of gear.

But somehow, in time, my SLR gear stayed home and I ventured out with my X100 everywhere. It was quickly established that I would not leave the house without it. Out in the world, I would walk, crawl, climb and enter places that were not possible with a traditional SLR. And the images I captured were better composed, more creative and different. What gives?

Let’s start with its physique. I did a mini experiment by putting three cameras on the table: one SLR, one compact and the Fuji X100. For some reason, visitors always picked up the X100 first. Its fusion of classic look and modern technology draws people’s attention. What’s even more interesting, I noticed women love this camera. Kasia, my wife, rarely grabs our larger X-T1 – she always prefers the Fuji X100S/T.

I am glad Fuji didn’t change the design. The new Fuji X100T looks almost identical to previous versions of this camera. Once you have it in your hands, it feels very solid and expensive. I like its traditional, classic look with a layout that immediately connects with the photographer but doesn’t intimidate your subject.

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Then there are controls. While the SLR world moved away from traditional knobs and controls, the Fuji X100/S/T was all for them. As a photographer, the ability to operate a dedicated exposure compensation dial, aperture ring and shutter speed is crucial. I found that this physical movement is a very important part of the whole scheme of image creation. While the key knobs remained unchanged, some buttons have been moved to standardize the layout in the X-series line. One change that I don’t like is the playback button, which in previous versions was placed at the top and was green – very easy to hit quickly. Now it is the same colour as the other buttons and I found myself looking for it on several occasions. There are a number of changes including more customization options; for example, you can customize the Q menu. You can find more technical details here and here.

One improvement over the X100S is speed. The Fuji X100T is noticeably faster than its predecessor. We have travelled with the X100T and didn’t have any problems with autofocus but then our photography is “slow” and deliberate. Of course, it doesn’t have the D4 speed but this camera was never intended to be a sport shooter camera (which is where SLR excels).

Another area that stands out from its predecessor is the viewfinder. Several improvements have been made. The most noticeable is the ability to project a small area of focus in the Optical Viewfinder. In general, the idea of a hybrid viewfinder is relatively new but already I cannot imagine having a camera without it. If you observe those who shoot SLR you will notice that they are constantly checking their LCD after each shot. You don’t need to do that with this camera. While composing your image, right in the EVF you see your final photo BEFORE you take it, including any adjustments. It is especially important for students of photography as they see changes to exposure or emulation in real time.  

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Another key feature of the Fuji X100T is its total silence. Once you turn off the sound, as I always do, this camera doesn’t make any noise. Sometimes when Kasia and I travel, I hand the camera to strangers for a photo and I see confusion in their faces once they press shutter button. Everyone is used to some kind of sound. Nothing. Nada. Zero. And I love it. It means I can take photos in places where photography is frowned on!

Due to its silent operation coupled with its unique look, I have been able to get into situations where professional photography is not usually allowed. The security staff ignores me, as they view me as just another tourist with a point-and-shoot. I would much rather be perceived this way than as a pro-photographer.

It also helps in interactions with strangers. When starting conversations, they see me as a person genuinely interested in them before they see my camera, whereas carrying an SLR with a big lens intimidates some people.

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All right, but how about the image quality?

The image quality always starts with a good quality lens (a great sensor with poor glass is no use). At its core, there is an excellent 23mm (35mm in FF terms) F2.0 lens. If you would like to buy a lens of this quality for your SLR you would need to spend at least $1000. The rest you pay for the camera. Not bad.  

Looking for superb JPEGs? You got it. The in-camera JPEGS are the best in the industry, period. I have used Nikon, Canon, Olympus and many other brands and I have never liked JPEGS straight from the camera. Fuji is the only company that does it right. The colour is accurate, the skin tones are beautiful and the texture is right on. The Fuji X100T adds a brand new film simulation, Classic Chrome, which immediately became our choice for documentary and some travel photos (look for our upcoming photo essay on Alcatraz, exclusively shot in Classic Chrome).

If you prefer RAW files, you have plenty of leeway. There has been so much written on X-Trans post-processing techniques that if you know what you are doing you can achieve amazing results.

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There is no question that Fuji has worked hard to improve the X-series cameras. However, there are different ways in which the X-series could evolve. I am really happy that Fuji is providing regular updates and adding features. I feel they care and listen to photographers.

I have noticed a recent trend among camera companies to add features to please the video crowd. I hope Fuji won’t get into this race. In general I prefer simple cameras that focus on photography. I don’t want more features. I don’t want video or in-camera processing options. I don’t want panorama or other useless oddities. I want only essentials that relate directly to photography. In a recent interview, Fuji management pointed out a proposed direction toward the high-end market. I believe that professionals are looking for a precise tool with a simplified menu. I want a quality lens, quality sensor, dedicated controls, a simple menu and compact size. Period. To finish my rant, a little bit of weather sealing and double card slots would be the icing on the cake.

 

Let’s go back now to the title of this piece. Freedom camera? Isn’t it true that the camera doesn’t matter? It shouldn’t. When you are in a beautiful place or just walking along a street your senses should be dipping into the world around you. You should become an integral part of the place. You should get closer to people, get to know them, feel the vibe and awaken your senses. Then you should look for a perfect composition or a beautiful ray of light or maybe a unique and fleeting moment. You should!

But instead of doing that, you are busy worrying about which lens to put on or which camera settings to choose. Then you are constantly staring at your back LCD to make sure your settings are right. You are not sure whether you should re-shoot with a different lens. You are distracted by the plethora of functions and buttons. You wonder whether it would be better to put your camera on a tripod. So many pixels, so many things to think about! Or maybe you are too tired from carrying all your gear so you decide to pass on this moment. Or maybe you don’t have a camera at all.

The connection is gone. The moment is gone.

Do you get it?!

When I have finished writing this piece I am going for a walk to get some fresh air. On the way out, I am going to grab my Fuji X100T. That’s all I need.

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All images presented in this article were shot with the Fuji X100T, Classic Chrome (except the Grand Canyon photo – LR5).

 

2014 © Olaf & Kasia Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

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