In the Footsteps of Gold Prospectors with the Fuji X-T1 and X100S

When we read about British Columbia’s Bridge River Valley and its rich history we knew it was going to be our next photo escapade.

Last weekend we packed our gear: Fuji X-T1, Fuji X100S, 14mm F2.8, 56mm F1.2, some spare batteries, detailed maps of the region and warm clothing. We made sure we had a spare tire and at 3:00 AM we left Vancouver for a great photo adventure.

First, we headed north on the Sea-to-Sky highway, past Whistler and toward Pemberton. We have visited this beautiful and photogenic town on many occasions but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to capture some images as the sun rose.

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From Pemberton we drove east on Highway 99 toward Lillooet. It may surprise you but in 1860, it was the second largest North American centre west of Chicago after San Francisco, and the main hub of the Cariboo Gold Rush. In fact, the St’at’imc people have lived here for more than 8000 years. Despite the brief stop, we were able to capture a few images, including the historic train station (rebuilt recently).

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Then we hit Bridge River Road, or Highway 40, which winds north along the west bank of BC’s Fraser River for about six kilometres before crossing the Bridge River gorge. About 30km from Lillooet, the Bridge River has scoured out a wide bend to create the stunning Horseshoe Canyon.

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Then we continued our trip past dams on the Bridge River and driving toward Gold Bridge along stunning Carpenter Lake.

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A historic bridge welcomed us to the Gold Bridge community. We followed a steep road climbing up to Bralorne and its rich mining history. How about this structure with a great address, “Sucker Lake,” and no exit?

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Next, we headed to Bradian Ghost Town. Bradian lies at an altitude of 3,700 ft with stunning scenery surrounding it. Lakes, rivers and mountain peaks are all around you (if you are interested, the town is for sale for 1.3 million dollars and is designated rural residential).

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Bradian was once a hub during the gold rush in the 1930s, when the Bralorne mine was at its peak. The mine closed 40 years later after producing 4 million ounces of gold and 1.2 million ounces of silver, more than any other mining operation in British Columbia. In 1971 the lower gold prices meant the mine closed and Bradian become a ghost town.

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After spending a short time at the site, we started back to Lillooet. On the way we encountered a traveller on the site of the road with a flat tire, which reminded us that it is a beautiful and vast region but rough and dangerous. Be prepared.

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Despite the fact that gold prospectors are no longer at work in this region, our search for great imagery paid off. We have many more images from this trip, which we will share with you in our next posts.

Gear Notes: Fuji X-T1 and X100S worked wonders during the trip. We were glad that the Fuji X-T1 is a sealed camera, given the dust we had to operate in during this trip. This trip reminded us how good the XF 14mm F2.8 lens is. Many of you ask us about the choice between the latest XF 10-24mm and XF 14mm. Both are very capable lenses. It is a matter of preference. If you are a hard-core landscape photographer you need to go as wide as possible, therefore, XF 10-24. We shoot with the XF 14mm and we love its smaller size and prime qualities.

The majority of images were processed in Iridient Developer and Lightroom 5. 

Next time…

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© Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

Sharpening – Monster Under the Bed – Debunked

Please keep in mind that in the artistic chain of creating a great image, a processing technique is only secondary to your creativity and your emotional connection with the subject. You should spend most of your time in the field concentrating on composition and light. Only when you master this part, can you complement your image with subtle processing techniques. The simpler and faster the method, the more time you will have to create great photographs. Don’t fall into a hole of never-ending alterations. Get the simplest processing software you can get. Playing for hours with your imagery in Photoshop won’t make you a better photographer; in fact, quite the opposite.

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There is no other topic that garners more attention in digital post-processing than sharpening. In fact, the question about “how to get sharp photos” is one of the most common we receive. What some photographers don’t realize is that the quest for sharp images doesn’t begin in front of the computer. It starts much earlier.

It begins in the field. Simple things like the way you hold the camera could have a huge impact on your photos. We admit that we are not big fans of tripods. Most of our work has been shot freehand. For us the freedom of movement and creativity that flows from it is much more important than laboratory-sharp photos. Having said that, even while shooting freehand, there are ways to get your photos sharp.

  • Avoid using the LCD at the back of the camera and instead use your viewfinder. Press the camera tightly to your body for stabilization.
  • Make sure your focus point is exactly where you want it to be.
  • Most importantly, pay attention to the lenses you are using. It is so common to see people with huge megapixel-count cameras with cheap zoom lenses attached to them. Get high quality lenses first; only then worry about the camera. For example, the Fuji primes are very sharp, so less sharpening may be required.

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All right. You are back at home with your stunning photos and they are ready for processing. Let’s get started.

The sharpening techniques listed below are discussed in the context of the Fuji X-series cameras but they apply to any camera. These are only suggestions and the technique could vary depending on personal preferences and subject matter.

In order to provide you with the best information, we went straight to Brian Griffith, the creator of Iridient Developer. Here is the information he shared with us:    

All of the methods in Iridient Developer are very high quality implementations done with 32 bit/channel floating point processing using a special perceptual colour space where the colour/chroma is separated from the luminance detail to avoid colour artifacts. All of them can give very, very good results; finding what works best for you just takes experimentation and practice. To get a feel for the “character” of the various methods, it helps to push the adjustments to the extremes (right end of the sliders) and then maybe 1/2 and then fine tune from there. Most people will quickly find a method and a range that works for them.

Note: the four major methods of sharpening found in Iridient Developer (and in some other programs) are discussed in the context of the characteristics of the X-Trans cameras. Brian writes:

The X-Trans cameras lack anti-aliasing filters and use a sensor that has more “green” coloured photosites, which tends to have a strong correlation with luminance detail versus colour and is often used with prime lenses that are quite sharp. These three factors all contribute to the X-Trans cameras in general being quite sharp to begin with and needing less aggressive sharpening than most other digital cameras. For any of the sharpening methods that take a radius parameter (USM, DoG, RL) you’ll want to keep it fairly small, as there just isn’t much blur in these images to begin with. For RL Deconvolution I recommend around 0.30 to 0.5 for the X-Trans cameras and this is a decent starting range I think for USM and DoG too.

Unsharp Mask

This is a very, very popular sharpening method. Some people have used unsharp masking in Photoshop for many, many years and are just incredibly comfortable with this method and its parameters. There are numerous books, magazines and online articles that have been published over the years that cover USM so it tends to be one of the better known and understood methods. Using too much amount or too big a radius can lead to “halo” artifacts, a little of which can actually sometimes be a good thing for printing. But when viewed at high resolution on screen, “halos” can quickly get a lot of criticism online as “poorly” done sharpening.

Hybrid

Super fast, only two sliders and can often get away with just adjusting the sharpen strength so this is probably the easiest to use and is the default option for most cameras including the X-trans models in Iridient Developer. This method can also produce “halos” like USM when overdone, but tends to be subtler.

DoG

A Google search for “difference of Gaussians” will turn up lots of info on this one. WikiPedia says, “Difference of Gaussians algorithm is believed to mimic how neural processing in the retina of the eye extracts details from images destined for transmission to the brain.” It’s a popular form of edge enhancement for microscopic imaging. This and the hybrid are quite similar. DoG provides a bit more fine control over the parameters, and has more slider adjustments than Hybrid. Typically you’ll want the Sharpening Radius to be greater than the Noise Radius by a factor of 1.5 to 3.0 or so… it can be used to approximate a Laplacian of Gaussians filter (yet another edge-sharpening method).

R-L Deconvolution

It’s more of a “deblur” process than the others, which tend to be more edge-contrast enhancing. Can really improve fine micro detail like natural textures (sand, stone, leaves, hair, etc.), artificial textures and fine patterns much better than the traditional edge-sharpening methods, but if you are really looking for crisp sharp edges, it may not quite give that same super sharp look either. Can avoid some of the “halo” type over-sharpening artifacts unless really super overdone, but can have some “swirly” sort of “false grain” artifacts of its own.

Some people really, really like the look of RL Deconvolution. In some programs, similar deconvolution-type sharpening methods may be termed “smart” sharpening. If you are after a more natural look of detail without quite so much edge sharpness and contrast and really want to bring out very fine texture details (hair, eyelashes, leaves, grass) RL Deconvolution is one I would definitely recommend.

The RL Deconvolution is the method we use. After experimenting with different tools we found this process the best in treating the X-Trans sensor files. With the most recent X-T1 and Fuji X100S cameras we use 0.39. Indeed, we confirm Brian’s point that this method significantly improves micro contrast and details.

Finally, let me finish where I started. Don’t pull your hair out over sharpening or any other processing dilemma. First, make sure you capture a strong photograph. Pay attention to your subject, composition and light. Only then can you complement your visual masterpiece with some processing technique, if it’s even needed.

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All images presented here were captured with the Fuji X-T1, XF 14mm F2.8 and XF 56mm F1. 2.

Sincere thanks to Brian and his team at Iridient Digital for sharing his insights about this important subject with us.

 

2014 © Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

Composition – “The Strongest Way of Seeing”

One of the greatest advantages of film cameras was cost (you are probably rolling your eyes but please stay with me). The roll of film, 24 or 36, provided the photographer with limitations and forced her/him to operate within those limits. As a result, each scene was evaluated quite carefully before the shutter button was pressed. In fact, many of us didn’t press the button at all, if an attentive examination of a subject, frame and light didn’t warrant a strong outcome.

Digital photography changed everything. Sure, for those who subscribe to strong discipline and constraint, the immediate feedback could be a superb learning tool. Unfortunately, the ease of pressing the shutter button associated with the “it doesn’t cost me anything” notion has created a huge mass of thoughtless, poorly made photographs or rather snapshots.

Recently, I showed a set of photographs to a group of people. Some of the images were very carefully crafted but the majority were snapshots taken without much thought. Interestingly enough, most of those images were viewed at a very fast pace, while those taken with thought and effort caused viewers to pause and stare at them a little bit longer than the others. Why? What drew people to those few images?

They all had one thing in common: everything in the photo was organized in a way that was somehow pleasing to the eye. Each element in the photo served a purpose. There was no waste, no unnecessary clutter. In other words, those images had a very strong composition.

Bruce Barnbaum in his excellent book, “The Art of Photography,” defines composition as “an arrangement of the parts of a work or art so as to form a unified, harmonious whole.” Indeed, very often we see a really simple image, which at first sight appears to be easy to capture, but that’s far from the truth. In fact, the simplest images are the most difficult to make!

I always think about composition as a type of puzzle but with a catch. You must fit all the elements in but you cannot move them around. The only way to arrange available pieces into one harmonious whole is to reposition yourself. By moving around the subject, getting closer or further away, higher or lower, you are able to arrange the elements and solve the puzzle. The fewer elements you use in the picture, the stronger the composition becomes.

Indeed, it is a very difficult task. It not only requires concentration but also intense intellectual and artistic effort. Many times when I speak about composing and framing I hear, “Come on, I’m just taking snapshots.” That’s fine with me but if you are already operating a camera, why not put at least minimal effort in arranging elements in the frame to get the most impact.

While viewing images, fine art photographs or a birthday party snapshot, I can immediately tell whether or not the photographer paid attention to composition.

After each trip or a photo session, Kasia and I sit down and discuss our work. We point out our failures (and there are many) and underline our successful compositions. I find this self-assessment is a great exercise.

The subject of composition is one of the most important in the art of photography. Therefore, this year we will write extensively about it, share with you our thoughts and provide you with relevant examples. Stay tuned.

Here are a few images I took during my recent morning drive along highway 7 from Coquitlam to Hope, BC, Canada. It is a very pleasant drive mostly through rural scenery, with the type of vistas that require very careful arrangement in order to produce a strong photograph. I have taken this route many times and each time I see new opportunities.

All images were captured with the Fuji X-T1, XF 14mm F2.8, XF 56mm F1.2 and Fuji X100s.

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Chawathil First Nation Sacred Heart Church – I have photographed this church on several occasions but I have never been satisfied with the results. While it is beautifully located, the landscape is quite busy with buildings, poles and other elements, which makes composition difficult. The most recent photo is my favourite. I arrived at the location quite early in the morning and just after heavy rain. I immediately noticed a small puddle of water in the front of the church, creating a reflection. With the church positioned in the middle of the photograph with slightly darkened corners, I was able to put emphasis on the church and minimize the clutter. While positioning your subject in the middle of the frame is not usually recommended, here it works wonders. Also please note the choice of 1:1 format. This way I was able to keep the composition intact and eliminate unnecessary elements on the right and left.

 

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Photographed from the side, this bridge seemed boring. Going below it and shooting a wide-angle lens facing up made this composition much more exciting. I had to watch both corners to make sure I didn’t include any unnecessary elements. I placed the main pillar at the bottom of the photograph to emphasise the structure. Stormy skies also helped.

 

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Many farms in the area contain a large number of elements and therefore pose the danger of clutter (we never ever remove anything from photos in Photoshop – it’s our rule!). The curved path caught my eye and I had to choose only a few elements on the right and on the left to complete the composition. 

 

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There were a few houses on the left and on the right. I focused on the red structure and groups of three. It works well with the blue sky and green grass.

 

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2014 © Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

A Don Quixote Photographer

This week Fujirumors dropped a bomb – Fujifilm is preparing an FF camera – most likely the successor to the X-Pro1. It didn’t take long for the Internet to go berserk. Immediately two opposing camps emerged. Some people reacted with outrage using words like “cheated” or “abandoned” as if the release of an FF Fuji camera somehow posed a threat to their photographic wellbeing. Others embraced the news, put their current cameras back into their boxes and started to prepare for the new arrival.

We admit this mass hypnosis affected us as well. After all, we do like the Fuji philosophy and their cameras; we use them every single day for our personal and professional work. We enjoy reading about them (here and here). We are aware of the advantages and disadvantages of APS-C and Full Frame cameras. Would we want to try a Full Frame camera from Fuji? Of course!

However, we must keep things in perspective. The occasional Internet hysteria around any camera release and us photographers’ role in it, reminds me of a famous novel, “Tilting at Windmills” by Cervantes. Like Don Quixote, who got himself embroiled in pointless endeavours, many photographers embroil themselves in imaginary battles. Instead of embracing their current tools and putting them to work to create stunning imagery, they indulge in a litany of false suppositions such as “If I only had this camera, I would take much better photos” or “If I had an FF I could…” Unfortunately, those internal struggles take away from your creativity. They could bite you so hard that you forget what this journey is all about. I know it from my own experience.  

The truth is, there will be always another camera around the corner. If this frenzy gets hold of you, however, today’s opportunity to grab your camera and find this one magic stream of light, to make a composition of your lifetime, to create a stunning photograph will be gone forever. Each time I am excited about an upcoming camera, I just grab the tool I have, go outside and let my mind and eyes wander. After all, this may well be the day to create a perfect image.

The right time to deal with a new camera will come later, Full Frame or Not.

 

And here is the imagery we just captured with the Fuji X-T1, XF 14mm F2.8 & 56mm F1.2.

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… and some B&Ws

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© Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.