The Most Important Trip Ever – Prelude

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Over the years we have done many road trips around North America. Some of these trips brought us amazing memories and great imagery, which we often shared on this platform.

While we enjoyed them, our latest road trip was the most important we have ever taken. Not only did we capture great imagery, visit spectacular locations and enjoy great weather but we got to know special people. In particular, it was a trip that let us discover the family history of a very special person, without whom I wouldn’t be here today.

We took many images, which will help us to tell this story like no other. It is a personal story but also one that goes beyond one person. It came to our realization that this event means much more than we thought, so it must be told, over and over again.

Now as we go through the imagery shot over the last ten days, memories and emotions are being awakened. We will try to channel our thoughts into words and the flow of essential words should find its way into this blog. Stay tuned.

For now, let these few images be a prelude to the account of the most personal and greatest road trip ever.

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All images taken with the Fuji X100S, the Fuji X-Pro2, the XF 35mm F1.4, XF 14mm F2.8, XF 50-140mm F2.8.

  

2016 © Kasia & Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

Congratulations Portugal!

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All the images were shot with the Fujifilm X-Pro2 and the XF 35mm F1.4 lens.

 

2016 © Kasia & Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

 

Is the X-Pro2 for the heart and the X-T2 for the head?

Since we have already taken a dive into the dangerous world of G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), let’s beat ourselves up for one more post. I promise the next time we will return to the normal and important subjects (in fact later this month we will be leaving for a super road-trip across many states and provinces all the way to Winnipeg to complete a super important and personal project).

Along with the release of the brand new Fujiflm X-T2, as is usual in such a case, vigorous online discussions have been taking place about whether to upgrade or not and whether the X-T2 is preferable to the X-Pro2 or not, etc. As someone who has shot with both the X-Pro2 and the X-T2 I formed my own opinion on the subject.

However, I am well aware that providing a definitive answer to this question is impossible due to the fact that we all differ, not only in the way we see or interact with the camera, have different sensitivity to the aesthetics of our surroundings but also in our emotions and experiences.

Rational people could take a look at the specification list, what each camera can do, what it cannot do, prices, etc. and conclude that there is no contest: the X-T2 is newer, it has faster AF, a great, brand-new grip, shoots 4K and is cheaper than the X-Pro2 – therefore it is a better camera. Indeed, that could be the case but with one proviso: it is better for YOU.

In our highly opinionated review (or rather rant) of the X-T2 we said that the X-Pro2 and the X-T2 have become flagships of the X-series – but they are different cameras. After using both I know that for my way of seeing and working, I prefer the X-Pro2. Interestingly enough, Kasia, my partner in crime, prefers the X-T2. Our problem is to explain clearly and logically why.

I have been thinking about it for a while and yesterday I came across a fascinating piece by one of my favourite X-photographers, Patrick LaRogue, titled, “On Flagships: X-T2 and X-Pro2.” In his piece he quotes a friend from Tokyo who said, “The X-Pros are for the heart, the XTs are for the head.” Immediately a light bulb lit up over my head. Eureka! That is the answer I was looking for! Is it a bit far fetched? Yes! Is it irrational? Yes! Do I care? No!

Confused? You should be.

Here is the imagery shot with a pre-production Fujifilm X-T2, XF 35mm F2, ACROS (A) and Classic Chrome (CC) film simulations.

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…and truly yours at work

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2016 © Kasia & Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

Photography Re-Framed – The Fujifilm X-T2 Review

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There is a commonly held idea that the camera doesn’t matter. Indeed, it is hard to find a brave person who would argue otherwise. Certainly, I am not one of them. Unfortunately, some people misunderstand this overworked adage.

Of course the primary tool you use every day matters! Have you ever met a musician who says that an instrument s/he is playing doesn’t matter? What the “camera doesn’t matter” maxim really means is that the camera is not the primary determinant of your photography skill – it is your creativity and seeing! You certainly agree, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article right now.

But there is a fly in the soup. It is the process of selecting a camera! Unfortunately, this important undertaking has been reduced to meticulous studies of technical details, columns and specifications. There are scores of websites offering you “help” with choosing a camera. It is common to show two cameras side by side comparing all possible technical particulars. Of course this technical carousel wouldn’t be complete without until-my-eyes-bleed 100% crop examination.

I disagree with this approach. As the tool with which I, the photographer, interact in the creative process, a well-designed camera should bolster me up to pursue my passion for seeing and make the mechanics of capturing visuals intuitive and fluid.

With this in mind, the process of choosing an instrument of seeing must include more than just studying charts and technical specifications. When I was given the opportunity to work with a pre-release version of the X-T2 camera I was thrilled. Unlike with previous cameras, I could shoot and bond (or not) with this new camera without all the Internet noise, without any prejudgments or expectations – I was just free to roam, create and see.

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SEEING – AN UNOBSTRUCTED VIEW

Dorothea Lange famously said: “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” She was right! In fact during our workshops we encourage people to explore and learn to “see” even before touching a camera. The next step involves repeating the same process of seeing, composing and re-framing – this time using your camera’s viewfinder.

The X-T2 elevates the concept of EVF to another level. Early EVFs were slow and noisy – a sort of technical novelty rather than a real window to seeing. The X-T2’s huge, bright, super-fast viewfinder sorted out most issues and put the EVF at the centre of the mirrorless revolution.

The X-T2 window is much brighter than its predecessor. Even when shooting in the dark, the usual grainy mess is gone. Most importantly, the refresh rate has reached 100fps – very close to the human ability to recognize motion (around 120fps). An EVF of this size and quality transforms the way you compose and create a photograph. Having such a large frame to operate in, you naturally engage with the scene and are better able to rearrange the elements even in distant corners, which all leads to a better-thought-out image.

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The X-T2’s EVF puts you in a comfortable visual chair – as if you were watching your favourite movie on the big screen. Then it projects your vision, but you haven’t even pressed the shutter button yet! In addition, any changes to exposure, white balance and depth of field can be assessed and re-examined by eye. Not only does this arrangement allow the photographer to achieve the desired look but it also eliminates the need for the time-consuming habit of scrutinizing the image on the back of your LCD.

If there was one challenge left for the X-T2’s EVF, it would be difficulty adjusting the EVF brightness. When we took photos we often found the scene too bright so we adjusted the exposure only to find that it was unnecessary. The brightness of the EVF tricked us. Mind you, we were working with a pre-release version of the camera and it may well be that the final version will deal with this issue. In addition, there is always a menu option available to adjust the brightness of the EVF to your liking.

After composing through the X-T2 viewfinder, there is no question in my mind that the days of the optical viewfinder are numbered. In fact, given the sophistication and quality of EVFs offered today, it is beyond my understanding why major SLR producers still stick with small, cramped, uninformative optical viewfinders.

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BUILD AND MECHANICS REVAMPED

One thing that surprised us was the extent to which Fujifilm engages photographers in their development process. When talking with fellow photographers who shoot with the X-line, I hear many great ideas tossed around about how to improve a specific camera. Many of these ideas somehow find their way into new models. There is no question that Fujifilm listens and acts on constructive feedback.

For those of us who photograph daily, mechanics, build and the inner workings of a camera are of paramount importance. In general, the external design theme of the X-T2 has been carried forward from the X-T1 but not without some changes. Among others:

  • The X-T2 is slightly larger than the X-T1 (although this is barely noticeable).
  • The D-pad buttons have been vastly improved – they are more prominent and much easier to feel/press.
  • The infamous “movie” button is gone! The FN button is in the same spot between exposure compensation and the ISO dials. Although getting rid of the movie button was a great idea, we are not sure about leaving the FN button in the same place. We often found it difficult to reach this button while shooting.
  • The Focus Assist button at the back of the camera has been replaced with the Q button.
  • The Exposure Compensation dial gained the “C” option, which allows you to adjust the exposure from -5 to +5. A welcome addition!
  • The larger and higher ISO dial gained a new 12,800 option. Yes, you can use it!
  • The shutter and ISO dials gained a new lock mechanism at the top that can be pressed to lock/unlock the dials, preventing accidental change. It works great.
  • In place of the Q button, Fujifilm put in the joystick, which allows you to control focus points, a solution first implemented in the X-Pro2. It’s one of the best design ideas for a very long time! We use the joystick all the time.
  • The buttons have been enlarged, raised and tightened to the point that some of you may find them too stiff; however, there is no perfect solution here. For us they feel just right.
  • The X-T2 gained a second slot for the memory card – backup, backup, backup!
  • The door’s locking mechanism has been changed. I know personally many photographers who have had issues with the X-T1 door opening accidentally in the bag.
  • The bottom of the camera has been rearranged. The tripod socket is placed further toward the centre. Unfortunately, the original grip for the previous model won’t work with the X-T2.

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INNER WORKINGS REFINED

In observing the progress of the X-series line, it has become apparent that Fujifilm tries to unify button placement and menu items over all X-series cameras. Kasia and I often shoot with two or three X cameras at the same time, so continuity over the entire line is very important.

One area that we often hear complaints about, especially from the SLR-convert-to-mirrorless-crowd, is that the speed and accuracy of the X-series cameras’ autofocus system lags behind those of SLRs. It has never been a problem for us but our shooting style is slow and deliberate (we rarely photograph moving subjects).

The X-T2 has gained new options, which should improve the performance of its autofocus system. There is a new array of continuous autofocus settings allowing you to tune the system to certain situations. Here are the options (all self-explanatory):

  1. Multi-purpose
  2. For accelerating/decelerating subjects
  3. To ignore obstacles and continue to track the subject
  4. For a subject that suddenly appears
  5. For erratically moving and accelerating/decelerating subjects

Although we entertained ourselves with these settings it is hard to draw any conclusion. We are sure you will find plenty of tests on the Internet done by photographers who use the continuous autofocus system more often than we do. However, we do prefer simplified menus and adding such an array of options might be detrimental to solving problems and would confuse the end-user, as many of the listed situations could overlap. The multi-purpose option should be enough but hey, this is just our angle.

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IMAGE QUALITY – STANDING ON ITS OWN

I am sometimes perplexed by conversations about the image quality of a particular camera. In most discussions, the image quality is reduced to a hermetic blend of sharpness and resolution. In the meantime, there is an array of other characteristics that contribute greatly to final, real-life “image quality.” These include the “look” of the files, the tonality, the quality of lenses, the quality of grain (ACROS film simulation with “weak” grain settings), colour accuracy, etc. As the industry becomes more and more concentrated, the real world differences in sensor quality are most likely to continue diminishing between brands. The design, mechanics of the camera, film simulations, software, lenses, customer service (especially for professional photographers) and the “fun” factor will become a real identifier.

And so is the 24.3MP X-Trans APS-C sensor, which found its way to the XT-2 from the recently released X-Pro2. One of the advantages of the X-Trans sensor is the ability to capture light even if there is very little of it. The ISO performance of the X-T2 paired with the XF fast primes challenges some full-frame cameras with its capabilities (every six months we take many new cameras on the market for a ride, mostly FF, to stay in the loop).

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The real standout feature of all Fujifilm X cameras is the JPEG processing engine. There is a growing spectrum of photographers who are sick and tired of spending hours before the computer trying to process images to their liking. For many, this element of digital photography causes the most frustration.

The X-series cameras, including the X-T2, tackle this problem head on. Backed by their in-depth expertise in film, Fujifilm armed JPEG photographers with a rich array of life-like film simulations. Fuji’s JPEGs not only look stunning straight from the camera but their skin tones are unmatched. Many develop-in-house film simulations such as ACROS (A) or Classic Chrome (CC) are truly standouts and they quickly became must-haves for many photographers, including us. Do it in-camera? Hell YES!

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MOVIE – PLAYED

I will be blunt. I have zero interest in gaining any camera movie-making prowess. As a pure photographer, I always view movie buttons/settings as an unnecessary distraction. However, I do understand that the market views it differently and there is a growing number of photographers and videographers who want to have this capability. Here you go – the 4K has arrived!

Talking about movies, I had a chance to interact with actors from a new series “The Man in the High Castle.” It was a great experience to meet so many talented people. Make sure to check out the series currently available on Amazon Prime (see a trailer here). All images – the X-T2 and XF 35mm F2 lens, Classic Chrome (CC) and ACROS (A) film simulations.

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PRICE – LESS IS MORE

When assessing the price of a camera the following logic prevails: “Camera Y has 4k/(put here any function you want) and Camera X doesn’t, therefore the X should be less expensive.” Many agree that the prime determinant of the price is the number of features a camera offers.

We beg to differ. Leaving out some options, avoiding clutter and resisting the do-it-all mantra is a very difficult time-and-money consuming process. I don’t mind paying a premium price for a product that is beautifully designed, does one thing well and saves me from a plethora of choices. I only hope that Fujifilm will avoid the temptation of entering the never-ending we-too-offer-this-option race. Photography is the art of creation, awareness and deep thought. Clutter and technical overload contradict this state of mind.

XF LENSES – THE WHOLE PACKAGE

The X-T2, even with all its advancements, would be just a box if not paired with great glass. Fortunately, photographers have access to first-rate lenses. Not only are they well built (metal!) but most importantly they are fast and sharp. The majority of XF lenses, especially the primes, feel perfectly balanced on the X-T2 camera. Sure, some zooms such as the excellent XF 50-140mm F2.8 could feel a bit heavy but with an optional battery grip this imbalance could be reduced.

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X-T2 – MIRRORLESS – RE-FRAMED

Barring less expensive models such as the X-T10, Fujifilm now offers two flagship cameras, the X-Pro2 and the X-T2. Although the image quality is identical, there are major differences in approach and design.

  • I found the X-Pro2 design cleaner, less cluttered.
  • The X-Pro2 has both the EVF and Optical. The XT-2 has the EVF only.
  • The X-T2 EVF is much brighter, bigger and faster than the X-Pro2.
  • The X-T2 EVF is placed centrally while the X-Pro2 EVF is located on the left of the camera. I personally prefer the latter placement.
  • Both have a joystick to select the focus point.
  • The X-T2 can shoot 4K video; the X-Pro2 cannot.
  • The X-T2 has a dedicated ISO dial while the X-Pro2 uses a wheel solution. Unlike most X-shooters, I don’t mind the latter.
  • The X-T2 has a much firmer grip.
  • The X-T2 offers an additional brand new grip, which holds two extra batteries. There is no such option for the X-Pro2.

That’s great, Olaf, but which one should I get?

I personally prefer the X-Pro2. Interestingly enough, Kasia prefers the X-T2 – look for her perspective in one of our upcoming posts. It is not that one camera is better than the other; it is a matter of preference and a way of shooting.

We strongly recommend trying out both cameras. The preference is highly personal. You may well prefer the X-T2 to the X-Pro2. Those of you who come from the traditional SLR camp may find the X-T2 a more natural companion.

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FINAL WORD

With the introduction of the X-Pro1, the X-T1 Fujiflm re-framed the conversation about digital cameras. With the fusion of the latest technology advancements such as EVF, traditional proven-by-time controls and particular film simulations, Fujifilm put forward a very different idea as to how a camera should look and how a photographer interacts with it while creating an image.

Once this new design philosophy was put in place, Fuji needed to polish their flagship X-series cameras. A few months ago Fujifilm did just that with the X-Pro2. Now the X-T2 has received a similar treatment. The latest high-tech improvements have been implemented (higher resolution sensor, vastly improved EVF, 4K), the majority of rough edges smoothed out (button design and placement, two memory cards, doors, etc.) and new ideas transplanted (the joystick!).

The X-T2 has taken on a much more grown-up persona. As a package, with an amazing line of prime lenses, gorgeous EVF, one-of-a-kind solutions (joystick), manual controls and exclusive film-like simulations, the I-am-still-shooting-SLR crowd should feel no remorse leaving the traditional SLR world behind.

We present you with an array of imagery from our weeks of working with the X-T2. Most of the images were shot with the XF 35mm F2 lens. We also worked with the XF 14mm F2.8 and the XF 50-140mm F2.8.

Please make sure to check out reviews/thoughts of fellow Canadian X-photographers (just to clarify – I am not an official Fujifilm X-photographer):

Don Craig
Dyaane Wilson
Ian MacDonald
Scott Grant
Patrick LaRoque

Watch this space for more coverage.

Disclaimer

We have never believed in so called “objective” reviews and we don’t even pretend to write one. A camera is such a unique and personal tool that pretending total detachment from it appears to us foolish and naive. Every year we handle many cameras from different brands and our only rationale for choosing a camera is how we bond with it and how it helps us to facilitate our way of seeing. We never choose cameras solely on image quality or resolution. It is much more personal than that.

At the same time we are 100% independent. We do not receive any compensation for stating certain opinions. We don’t accept any ads or kickbacks (look around on our blog!). Sometimes, we do receive cameras for review as in the case with the Fujifilm X-T2 but with no conditions attached. We can say and write whatever we want. Period.

 

2016 © Kasia & Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

 

Going Into The Curve

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It has been a very busy few weeks. Kasia and I have been working on a new photography platform – an idea that was formulated in our heads a long time ago but never got onto the drawing board. This year, that all changed.

We have both enjoyed running this blog and we cherish and value your readership and continuous patronage. However, we are aware that this form of presentation and interaction has its limits. And these are not the only obvious limitations in regard to content production, the publishing schedule or even interaction with our readers. Most importantly, there are restraints in relation to the lack of time and funding to provide new and original content.

From the start we decided that we want to share premier content without burdening you with ads and unnecessary visuals. To achieve just that, we made this blog 100% ad free. Our goal was to put imagery and the written word at the centre of our blog.

Last year, we came to the conclusion that an additional platform was needed. Many of you indicated this and encouraged us to go beyond the blog in the form of workshops or some other ideas. We listened.

Today, we are nearing the completion of a brand new, subscription-based travel, educational and mentoring platform. This special photography resource is based on a one-of-a-kind program that we have designed from the ground up. But it will be much more than that.

While most photography offerings are centred on technical know-how, Simplicity-In-Seeing provides a personal approach to photography, creativity, mastering composition skills, exploring natural light and interacting with the subject. The platform will also offer exclusive guides to the most magnificent photography locations in North America.

Most importantly, the goal of Simplicity-In-Seeing is to help photographers from all walks of life to experience the real joy of photography. Did we mention creating exceptional imagery?!

As we near completion, we feel excited and we cannot wait to share this new platform with you. Stay tuned for an official announcement early July.

In the meantime, please find more imagery (below) taken on our recent trip to Palouse (the Fuji X-Pro2 paired with the XF 50-140mm and Fuji X100S).

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next time…Palouse in…B&W!

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2016 © Kasia & Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

Fifty Shades (and Colours) of Palouse

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The problem is that at this time of year the hills and valleys in the Palouse put on an amazing display of greens and browns, enough to excite even the most demanding colour photographer. However, once you add the right lighting to the mix, you think you have landed on the set of the Alice in Wonderland movie.

At one point Kasia and I found ourselves on one of the hills and we couldn’t believe our eyes. Stormy skies allowed the sun to peek through, revealing an abundance of shapes and patterns, creating dream-like visuals. Already strong greens turn into fable-like greens and browns and yellows turned golden as if a child had coloured the land with an entire box of crayons.

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It didn’t come easy. On the first day, the Palouse exhibited dull light and overcast skies. Although such weather, if persistent, could turn any trip into a non-event, we knew that cloudy skies could provide us with what we want – if the sun found its way to peek through – even for a moment.

So, we waited and waited – for three days straight! No, we didn’t stay in a hotel. Instead we drove 1,600 kilometres around the Palouse to search out the right spots – mapping them and preparing material for our upcoming book. We also tried to get creative with the available light (below please find my personal favourite from the entire trip – well done Kasia!).

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Most importantly, each morning and evening we waited for this one moment of magic. On our second day we got it – for about five minutes – but it was enough. In fact, the lighting was so crazy that after looking at our images we were afraid we were just inches away from becoming “rainbows and unicorns” photographers. “So cheesy!” Kasia said.

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On our last day we got a few hours of dark clouds and sun which was exactly what we wanted. These conditions provided us with an abundance of opportunities and an amazing visual experience. Indeed, truly fifty shades of colour! Thank you, Palouse.

We travelled with the Fuji X-Pro2 paired with the XF 50-140mm and Fuji X100S. We were debating which film simulation we should use and we decided to go all in colour-wise – Fuji Velvia it is! And yes, it was refined with the recent update (click each image for a larger view). We will be sharing much more material (not only landscape!) over the next few posts. Stay tuned.

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and truly yours at work…

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2016 © Kasia & Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

 

Training Your Eye

Although I love music, I am well aware of my shortcomings, politely speaking, in this matter. If I hired a music teacher and practised for years, I might be able to sing one song without turning the audience hostile and violent. I am well aware that singing will never be my strong suit, and that’s fine; however, I do have other strings to my bow.

It is not a secret that “seeing” comes naturally to some people. Others have to work hard to achieve similar results. In either case, taking care of your seeing is a must. I often see talented photographers who stop challenging themselves, training, or practising their seeing. Over time, their seeing becomes lazy and stiff – more of a habit.

On the other hand, I have met some people who had a rough start in the world of photography but they persisted and challenged themselves over and over again. I can’t believe how their seeing has evolved. Such a challenge requires enormous self-determination but, most importantly, personal honesty.

Why am I writing about this? To remind ourselves about the importance of training and keeping our seeing in shape. Similarly, just as you walk, exercise and eat well to keep your body in great shape, seeing requires training and challenging. Here are a few exercises to help:

  • Slow down when you look at your favourite photographer’s work. Examine every inch of the frame. Ask questions: Why would s/he place the elements in this particular way? Observe how light interacts with the subject. Look for interconnections between the elements in a photograph. Don’t jump between images too quickly.
  • Go out and shoot something that you don’t usually shoot. If you are a landscape photographer, do some street photography. If you are a portrait photographer, go to remote places in the country and photograph scenes without people.
  • Use a focal length you rarely use and focus primarily on your composition.
  • Shoot with one focal length for one month. Don’t use any other lenses! (Hint: the best way to start is to use 35mm (50mm in FF).  
  • If you are primarily a colour photographer, shoot some imagery in black & white or vice versa.
  • Go out with your camera and limit yourself to 10 exposures.
  • Challenge yourself to break at least one rule of composition (for example, the 1/3 rule) and work hard to create a great image.
  • Pick a subject or place in which you feel uncomfortable (do not confuse this with unsafe).
  • Meet with friends (who do not have to be photographers) and show them your five best recent images. Ask them to list five things that they DO NOT like about them. No compliments are allowed.
  • Set your camera on AUTO and concentrate on the light, composition and your subject. Forget about technicalities.
  • Find a simple scene with a maximum of five elements and create as many visually appealing compositions as you can (hint: by moving around).

These are only a few ideas to train your seeing. You will find more in our upcoming book on this subject. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here are some images we shot recently on the streets of Vancouver. They are all taken with the X-Pro2 and the XF 35mm F1.4: one camera and one lens – our favourite way of shooting.   

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and some in B&W…

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2016 © Kasia & Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

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