image quality

The Nokia Lumia 630's magical photo-improving screen

I wasn't paying attention; it was an advert. But when I heard the words 'And with its big screen, even my photos look fab!' my ears pricked up. Did I actually hear that correctly? It took another few advert breaks to establish that my aural capabilities were not deceiving me and some marketing team somewhere was touting at least one major feature on a smartphone as a screen that's sufficiently large to ensure that poor photos look good. Insert a mildly despondent sigh here. In terms of marketing hyperbole, it does make a welcome change from the might of the megapixel, but I'd prefer a claim that had a ring of credibility to it at least. Logic dictates that a bigger screen won't make an out-of-focus, badly exposed photo look better. It will just make it look bigger. And the out-of-focus-ness more out-of-focus.

What is this smartphone with the magical photo-improving screen? It's the Nokia Lumia 630. You can check out the statement for yourself. It comes at around 15 seconds.

Sorry sweetheart, I don't want to burst your new purchase bubble, but the size of the screen on the Nokia Lumia 630 isn't going to improve your photos if they're already not terribly good. You're responsible for that. Go out, take more photos, think about the composition and the lighting, take more photos, and apply what you've observed. That'll make your photos look better, because they'll be better. Photography's a skill that can be improved with practice and evaluation. Trust me.

As for the marketing team behind the Lumia 630, please don't try to convince people that there's a technological solution for everything. Some improvements require effort and application. I know that might seem awfully old-fashioned and not necessarily fit with the image you're attempting to promote, especially in our increasingly visual society that appreciates immediate advancements, but there's only so far your phone can go. Oh, and lay off the gender-stereotyping, too. Women the world-over, and a great many men, will thank you for it.

Olympus E-P5: first impressions

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go hands-on with an Olympus E-P5 last night. The E-P5 is Olympus' new wi-fi-enabled flagship PEN, with a 1/8000 second maximum shutter speed and a 16 megapixel sensor that is reputed to offer the same image quality as the OM-D. But what did I think?

  • I loved having individual control dials, one for shutter speed and another for aperture, that can be altered to adjust ISO and white balance at the flick of a lever
  • The auto-focus seemed entirely capable in conditions that were less than optimal
  • Tilting touch-screens are always fun
  • It felt comfortable in the hand and looked stylish on the eye
  • I'm looking forward to trying out that 1/8000 second shutter speed!

The Olympus E-P5 should be available towards the end of June 2013. Body-only, it will cost around £900; kits start around £1000 for the 14-42mm lens while the ultimate kit, with a 17mm f1.8 prime lens and new VF-4 high resolution viewfinder, is in the region of £1350.

EISA awards 2012-2013: a bit like the Oscars

Nikon's D800: best over all camera 2012-2013

Righty-ho, the European Imaging and Sound Association (also known by the slightly more speaker-friendly term 'EISA') awards announcements took place this week, but so far the winners seem to have dribbled forth somewhat unsatifactorily, rather than presented themselves in a victorious flourish. So I thought that I'd rectify that as far as the photo awards were concerned. (There are other categories, too, like in-car electronics and green and whilst they might be interesting, this is a photography website.)

Actually, before I get on to the awards, in case you're wondering just who or what EISA is, and by what sort of authority they decide that this camera is better than that one, it's a group of 50 special interest magazines from 20 different countries. It's the likes of Amateur Photographer from the UK and Focus from the Netherlands who discuss winners and losers.

Okay, enough whitter, more winners.

The overall best camera for 2012-2013 was judged to be the Nikon D800. The judges thought that its resolution rocked, that its dynamic range and noise levels at high ISO were uncompromised, its 51-point autofocusing mechanism (the same as in the D4) was superb, and for the price it represented super value. Canon has held the top overall spot for the past two years, so Nikon might be smiling to itself about now.

However, Canon was by no means empty-handed. Its 5D MkIII waltzed off with the Advanced SLR prize and the Powershot G1X was named best overall compact camera, with the judges stating that its image quality can compete with many dSLRs. The gushing praise for the G1X was in strange contrast to the 5D MkIII; its blurb reads as if the judges knew it needed to win, but couldn't quite determine why.

The D800 wasn't Nikon's only success, either. The D4 was named as the professional SLR of choice, for its outstanding image quality, even in difficult shooting conditions, low noise, super-fast autofocusing capability, and a rugged design.

Meanwhile, over all favourite SLR went to the Sony SLT-A57. For the price it offers an impressive spec, great image quality, and is the perfect base for Sony to build on, and importantly, for photographers to progress.

Sony made the grade in two other categories: best travel compact went to the Cyber-shot HX20V and best advanced compact was the hot new RX-100. Sony has performed consistently well with its compacts at EISA, which suggests that it's getting something right there. Best tough compact went to the Olympus TG-1.

The spoils for the EVIL cameras were shared between Fujifilm, Olympus, and Samsung. (Be warned: each camera will now sound as if it belongs to a comic book super-villain clan.)  The Fujifilm X-Pro1 was named as best professional EVIL on the basis of its exceptional lens, great build, and revolutionary sensor design. The overall best EVIL was the Olympus OM-D E-M5, with the judges seeming to love its homage to cameras of yesteryear. Finally, the advanced EVIL title went to the Samsung NX20.

As for the lenses, the winners were Sigma, Tamron, and Panasonic. Sigma for its 150mm ƒ/2.8 Macro; Tamron for the 24-70mm ƒ/2.8; and Panasonic for its Lumix G Vario 12-35mm ƒ/2.8. (ƒ/2.8 is the new black, clearly.)

Last but not least, Adobe's Lightroom 4 was given the honours as best editing suite.

Now, whether or not any of these awards will influence your purchasing at all, I have no idea. I shan't be going out to buy a Nikon D800 because 50 magazine editors said it was awesome. But I suppose it's a bit like the Oscars: just because it might not make a huge deal of difference other than being able to stick an 'I am an award winner' label on the box, it's always lovely to get a seal of approval.

Lightroom from the inside

Tom Hogarty

When I reviewed Lightroom 3 back last year (such a hard life, I know), I realised that I was amassing a bundle of questions for the people who developed it. Everything from ‘What was the starting point?’ to ‘Which camera do you use?’ Adobe very kindly agreed to let me loose on one of their developers, and I was even allowed to put some of your questions to him, too. This is what Tom Hogarty had to say about Lightroom.

Tom has worked for Adobe for almost six years and he’s the Principal Product Manager for Lightroom, the Camera Raw plug-in, and the DNG file format. Before then, he worked in New York with commercial and fashion photographers, helping them to transfer from film to digital workflow. Ever get the feeling someone knows more about your workflow than you do?

The best photo-editing package available?

Team Small Aperture are all Lightroom users, and right now we can’t see us trying anything else. When we asked Tom if Lightroom’s founding principle was to be the best photo-editing package out there, he was very modest about it and reminded us that Mark Hamburg was responsible for the concept behind Lightroom.

But, he did say that he and his team are committed to creating a product that’s easy to use and maintains the highest image quality possible. Whilst Photoshop has a rich history of serving the photographic community, it also caters to a diverse set of customers ranging from pre-press professionals and graphic designers to medical imaging experts. Lightroom, on the other hand, focuses solely on the photographic experience.

And it isn’t just for professionals, either. It might be engineered to meet and exceed a pro’s expectations, but it is meant to be approachable for anyone who’s interested in photography. That degree of professionalism is of course reflected in its price. There are a heap of other editing suites available, at all different prices, but Tom rightly points out that photography is an industry that is full of choice. (In the first six weeks of 2011, over 100 new cameras have been launched.) Lightroom’s another choice, and one that the team believes offers value commensurate with its price.

Editing that pushes creativity

I was really interested to hear Tom’s response to the charge that editing packages are the spawn of the devil and the clamour that they’re detrimental to the art of photography because people are so reliant on software rather than their own skill. He said that in the film days, people might have said the same about roll film, automated film processing, darkroom densitometers, and the introduction of robust in-camera metering systems.

For Tom, it’s all about the expansion of the art form as technology supports creativity and experimentation, and that’s a good thing. And he’s fortunate to work with a bunch of incredibly talented engineers who seem to have no limit to their imagination to push editing software as far as they can.

Consumers, cameras, and snack-foods

Seeing as Lightroom is about the user experience, I wanted to know how much of the alteration from Lightroom 2 to Lightroom 3 came from consumer feedback, as well as the team’s own experience of using it. It turns out that a whole heap of different sources contribute to each iteration of Lightroom, from quantitative customer satisfaction research, customer visits, public beta releases, discussions with industry leaders, internal engineering efforts to discover where technology can take the product, and of course the team’s own daily use of Lightroom.

If you’re wondering what camera Tom uses so that he can test out his own work, he has access to the photographic lab at his office and he can, and does, swap equipment quite regularly. (Are you going green yet?) He’s biased towards anything that captures in RAW and has HD video, but most importantly, seeing as he has two small children, it’s about having a camera at all, so that might be his phone. But that doesn’t stop him from picking up a film-based medium format rangefinder every now and again!

So, with all these cameras at his disposal, where would he most like to go in the world to take photos? (Don’t ask me this question. I still don’t know the answer.) Well, actually he’d really like to be able to open his eyes wider and see the images that are all around him. He’s been lucky enough to go all over the world shooting people and places, but is still amazed by the ability of his colleague Kelly Castro to find more compelling images on his way to lunch in San Jose, than he can find in a year!

And finally, I rather flippantly asked what snack-foods sustained Tom when he was up against a deadline. He admitted that he’s a chocolate fiend, and there’s a jar in the kitchen at the office. As well as a fridge of Diet Coke. So now we know that Lightroom runs on sugar. I’d always thought it was hamster-powered.

Your questions

Tom very kindly agreed to answer some technical questions from Small Aperture and Photocritic readers, too. He couldn’t manage all of them, so here’s a selection.

Jacob asked: ‘What makes Lightroom 3 better than Aperture 3?’
Tom: I prefer not comment specifically on other products. But I do know that Lightroom’s focus on image quality, application performance and community interaction has made it a favourite of the professional community. You can read more on that here.

Jonathan Bourke asked about the future availability of some features. Tom replied he prefers not to speculate on future feature direction. But, he could point him in the direction of some solutions to some of the points:

  • Export to FTP (not the web module) – This is provided as part of our SDK and has been productised here
  • Export to WordPress – A WordPress plug-in is available here

Sorry, looks as if you’ll have to wait to find about face recognition and the ability to customise keyboard shortcuts!

Edgar Malle asked: ‘What is the purpose of the extra checkbox “Enable Auto Import”. Why not just auto-import it?’
Tom: Through our testing and customer feedback we realised this functionality needed an on/off switch.

Many thanks to Tom for taking the time to respond to us. If you’d like to follow what he and the Lightroom team are up to, check out the Lightroom blog and Tom’s Twitter feed.