Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review: The Art of Black and White Photography by Torsten Hoffmann

The Art of Black and White Photography: Techniques for Creating Superb Images in a Digital WorkflowThe Art of Black and White Photography: Techniques for Creating Superb Images in a Digital Workflow by Torsten Andreas Hoffmann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Art of Black and White Photography is written as a series of chapters that are short lessons on individual topics. While it starts out like many photography tutorial books discussing equipment, once past the initial chapters it changes form. It becomes a set of lessons that are built around the creation of photographs, from the initial scene to adjusting composition and tone to achieve a final result. And in that it is much better then the usual set of tips and tricks. Because to teach an art involves leading someone through the mental steps of discovery, not telling someone how to do it.

That is me playing the pianoArt is traditionally taught by master to student, and the context in conservatories, schools, and classes around the world is the studio. Where aspiring artists can gather and present and critique their work under the guidance of a master. Because this exposure to criticism in an environment intended for the growth of the student is how the student's skill at a craft is honed. But in the modern world where people think that mastery can come quick and easy by learning a few secrets and tricks, this is bypassed. And that is my criticism of most photography instructional materials, they attempt to teach a set of rules for each situation. And while this at least provides examples of good photographs, it does not lead the reader through the craft of looking and evaluating scenes, and then of taking a scene and looking for improvements along the way.

Bench by Benedum Hall after a little rainHoffmann does something different. In each chapter he takes you through a series of scenes. And leads you through the way showing how a change in view, composition, focus can lead to an improved picture. One example is a market in a courtyard. First a picture of a few stalls. Then a discussion of how clutter detracts. Then as the composition gets tighter and tighter it becomes essential elements. Then a picture with essential elements is improved by a dynamic element of a person walking through, with the moment captured at exactly the right time so that the movement is apparent in a still picture.

Columns outside Amos HallHe does this in various forms throughout. Yes, he hits the 'rules' like everyone else (there is a chapter on the Golden ratio that has many pictures with many drawn lines illustrating various applications of the Golden ratio), but what makes this book different are the discussions that lead you through how to view the scene and compose to make a distinctive photograph.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through the O'Reilly Press Blogger Review program.

More information on this book can be found at the O'Reilly website.
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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Three months with the Lumix GF2

Panasonic GF-2 with Voigtlander LTM lensesMy wife and I both have the same start in photography. The manual focus, manual exposure SLR manufactured by Cosina as an OEM. In my case it was the Ricoh KR-5 Super II (Pentax K mount) and her's was the Nikon FM10. And we've made the switch to digital, with my buying a digital SLR when my favorite film was no longer available at the local photography store. In addition, we've stopped using digital compacts when we both switched to using iPhone, since the camera included in that was close enough in quality to make a digital compact superfluous. To this I've added one of the new class of cameras, a mirrorless interchangable lens camera (MILC). Specifically, the Panasonic Lumix GF-2, which is a Micro Four Thirds (M4/3) camera.

Rows of bread in My OfferingThe GF-2 is positioned within Panasonic Lumix Micro 4/3 line as the consumer (vice enthusiast) MILC without a built in electronic viewfinder (i.e. composition etc. has to be done through a back panel LCD) (Note: it has been superseded by the even smaller GF-3. When buying consumer electronics, I tend to buy one generation behind the current. It is alot cheaper.) (The enthusiast counterparts are the GF-1/GX-1) What makes this feasible is the fact that the back panel LCD screens have reached a level of quality that makes them competitive with traditional SLR viewfinders for composition, focusing, and judging exposure. However, it is not quite as good. And the fact that the viewfinder is not integrated means that you are composing and shooting with the camera held in front of you rather than in contact with your body, which reduces the potential stability. But not having the reflex mirror based viewfinder means that there is no need to accomodate the mirror, so the camera can be very small (front to back).

The lights in the Mattress Factory CafeThe other major compromise is the use of the M4/3 sensor, which has 1/4 the area of a traditional 35mm film (compared to most digital SLRs, which use an APS-C sensor with 1/2 the area of a traditional 35mm film). While this is many times greater than digital compacts, so comparing with digital SLRs makes more sense than comparing it to compacts, the difference is noticeable in low light. The advantage of this is, again, the camera could be made smaller.

There are plenty of places for technical reviews and reviews from the point of view of a range of photography styles. But what follows is where the Micro four-thirds Lumix GF-2 fits into my photography.

Playing a melodic section1. It is small and still takes reasonable quality pictures. I can tell the difference on sight between my Digital SLR pictures and compact or iPhone pictures. The micro four-thirds not as much. The GF-2 in particular is so small, I can put it in a jacket pocket when I use my Panasonic Lumix G 14mm F/2.5 lens. Doing this, with a second lens in the other pocket used to be the ideal style for going on a photoshoot with rangefinders, but 35mm film based rangefinders required a very big pocket. I've even put the GF-2 in my front pants pocket (but it is rather snug in there).

Water vases in Westin, Charlotte2. There is a saying, the best camera is the one you take with you. I can take the GF-2 with me when I am carrying a bag that has other things, like my diaper bag when I'm with my son. My digital SLR basically demands its own bag because of its size (and I have a Pentax K-x, one of the smallest digital SLRs on the market). I bring it with me on work trips, because it does not take a lot of room. Similarly, we keep this camera out on a shelf so that it is readily accessible. It also means my wife will use it, since she never considers it worth the effort to bring the digital SLR.

Rehearsing One Hand, One Voice3. Composition, focusing, and shooting can be done from the LCD screen. This picture of the dancers was taken while holding my 1 year old son in my lap. When using M4/3 lenses with auto focus and auto exposure, you can touch the point on the screen that should be where focus and exposure should be evaluated. And this is important if I happen to be holding something else. Like a baby. So putting a camera to my eye is not practical.

Vince playing the fiddle4. Use of other system lenses. One of the side effects of being able to make the camera small and the lack of the mirror means that the register (distance from the mount to the sensor) can be very small. And since the sensor is also small, this is even smaller than my old rangefinder lenses (which also had this quality compared to SLRs). So, with an adapter (which increases the distance from the mount) I can use any of my old lenses. In particular, this lets me use my rangefinder lenses that have been sitting in a closet for the past two years. Now, this means that these lenses are effectively manual focus, and only aperture priority exposure (no shutter priority since the camera cannot control the lens), but since I generally like shooting that way anyway, that is fine.

Closeup of the Thumb Drum5. Familiar operating system. For my manual aperture lenses, the operation is very familiar. Aperture ring for aperture, a thumbwheel for shutter speed or exposure compensation. And by pushing down on the thumbwheel, you get a zoom in effect to assist in manual focusing if you want it. The major missing piece is the lack of a wheel to change the exposure mode (e.g. program, aperture priority, shutter priority, etc.), instead you have to work through the touchscreen. But since I usually looked at that dial when changing the exposure mode it was not much more of a hassle.

And on the other side, some shortfalls, mostly compared to my digital SLR

1. The lenses I have are in the f/2.5 range, while for my SLR I was using lenses that were f/1.4 or f/1.7. The loss of a stop is noticeable in working. Although if I was truly trying to shoot in a low-light situation, I would bring my SLR since the larger sensor also makes a difference in image quality in this situation.

2. Low light (high ISO) is worse. Probably because of the smaller sensor. But it is much better than with digital compacts or smartphone cameras.

3. Black and white. The monochrome setting is Program exposure. And you cannot even set over- under- exposure (which I do all the time). I've set the custom programs to be black and white with over and under exposure as a workaround, but that is not the same thing. (and I like using black and white)

Really that is it.

The biggest effect this has on my photography is that I can bring it with me when I'm carrying a baby along with all the other attendent supplies. The quality over a smart phone is beyond question, and I would not carry an SLR and a diaper bag at the same time.

If I was starting in photography and not doing gigs, I would recommend the mirrorless interchangable lens cameras such as the micro four thirds lines over a digital SLR. When there is not anything serious riding on preformance, the quality of the pictures from these is close enough to SLR quality, but with a much lower cost in terms of bulk, which makes it much more likely that you would actually have the camera with you when opportunity arises.

For more picture samples, go to my pictures at Flickr taken with the Lumix GF-2

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Book Review: SQL and Relational Theory: How to Write Accurate SQL Code by C. J. Date

SQL and Relational Theory: How to Write Accurate SQL CodeSQL and Relational Theory: How to Write Accurate SQL Code by C. J. Date
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Date's book is almost two books in one. First is a book on relational theory. As such, it is meant for deep reading. The second is SQL, the Good Parts. And as such it can get pendantic. But for someone who already knows something about working with data, it can be a good discussion on what you can and cannot get away with.

The first part of the book is an introduction to relational theory, mixed with the author's discussion of what is wrong with the SQL specification and the various implementations in database management systems that are currently available. While I appreciate the discussions from the point of view of making definitions clear, the numerous digressions into the failings of SQL become distraction after a point.

The second part is dominated by how to think in relational terms, and often the implementation within SQL. This is probably the valuable part of the book. Actually, because this is approached as much from a relational theory point of view as an SQL one, it becomes quite applicable to non-SQL forms of manipulating data (I usually manipulate data through programming languages such as R or Python). What this book becomes is a illustration of how to think when digging into data, and what transformations are reasonable and which gets you into trouble.

This is not light reading, or a reference to use when learning how to use SQL, or data manipulation tools in general. If you get around the discussion of the faults of implementations, it is a book on how to think when manipulating data as the first steps in data analysis.

Note: I received a free electronic copy of this book through the O'Reilly Blogger program

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