In part I of this blog post I identified three key appeals of the Fujifilm system from my perspective:
Fuji’s commitment to ongoing improvements
User experience I have already discussed, so in this second and concluding post I want to concentrate on Fuji’s commitments to ongoing updates and that elusive element – soul.
First though, Fuji scores highly in my book for continually upgrading the capabilities of their cameras by releasing major firmware updates. Many of these updates add new features, not simply bug fixes so it can sometimes feel a little like getting a new(ish) camera. With their X-series cameras therefore Fuji keep releasing firmware update to make their more recent cameras better whilst still introducing new camera models with ever better specifications. Now, models don’t stay on this upgrade path forever however, but it is very pleasing to see new functionality trickling back to previous models where processing and physical capacity exists in the older kit.
Now some will argue that releasing new firmware for the cameras, not just every few years but sometimes within months of the last, is an admission that the camera was not fully finished on launch. The other snipe I have heard is that they use a few new features to hide the fact that the update is simply to fix previous bugs that slipped through the net. However, they have also introduced firmware updates that have improved the performance of their lenses and enabled them to fully access the newer features in newer camera models.
It’s possibly over-egging the pudding somewhat to say that each time Fuji releases a firmware they essentially give you a new camera, however it certainly does give me a really good feeling about the company. Bug fixing, shrewd marketing or good customer service? You chose which axe you wish to grind and you take your pick!
As always I will leave the technical stuff and a discussion of the cameras’ specifications to others. I’m an enthusiast photographer rather than a working pro and what matters most to me is that very nebulous quality of the user experience – or in the case of these cameras “soul” I like to think.
The words user experience were very easy to type in the first part but were very hard to define in detail and not least because it will vary considerably from one person to another. Soul is even harder to define – even with a dictionary to hand! For me, a camera needs to feel “right” in my hand. I can’t write the exact feeling down but know it when I experience it. I now have four Fuji camera bodies and each feels a little different, each has its own characteristics and each its own personality almost. Okay, a bit too poetical I suspect! But soul emanates from this user experience.
When out with one of these cameras I feel at ease, confident in the technology and my ability to create images with it. These cameras just perform really well for me and with them I can produce images that I am happy with and do it without stressing too much over technicalities. They just work. But as the saying goes your mileage may vary so this will not be the same for everyone. I just try to keep an open mind when I use any camera and having used Nikon and Canon extensively as well as various other makes in the last forty-plus years I can confidently say none gave me the same buzz as using these Fujis. That might sound a little fan-boyish but is not intended as such. I genuinely think that there is no such thing as a bad camera these days – just that some cameras fit better with our individual ways of working than others.
So, my five penn’orth to add to an already overcrowded “I moved to mirrorless” oeuvre.
With a rare free afternoon recently and none of the usual domestic responsibilities as we were away from home I headed off into the Wiltshire countryside; we were visiting family down south and I wasn’t required that Friday afternoon! My aim – to shoot my first video clips with the Fuji X-T3 and more importantly to stick myself in front of said camera. In other words, and despite the denials forming in my mind, it was the creation of a vlog that was vaguely running around my head. I have in the past compiled a few mixed stills/video pieces with the Fuji X-T20 using voiceovers rather than talking to camera. I think my hands featured a couple of times in these efforts (operating the tripod-mounted camera) and on one memorable occasion I ambled into shot, put a filter on the lens and shuffled off again!
So what I was planning was, for me at least, rather heady stuff!
To skip to the conclusion, the end result is OK I think and I enjoyed the whole process BUT there is tons of room for improvement. So what were the key take-outs from this first vlogging experience?
Script – use one
B-roll – shoot loads then shoot some more
Chose locations for taking to camera more carefully
Syncing audio is the way to go
Try not to start every sentence with “So”
Look AT the camera
Shooting both stills and video is challenging
Despite what I’d read previously and indeed written in my free writing sessions I did not prepare a script. I do reference this omission in the vlog as I realised ten minutes in that despite having a vague idea in my head the lack of any sort of prompts meant I rambled at times and found it difficult to hold a train of thought. Luckily I was able to remove some of the talking and leave it on the cutting room floor, but there are a couple of occasions when I repeat myself and even niftier editing wouldn’t have been able to save me. The loose idea in my head was to record the elements for the vlog whilst chuntering in real time about my experiences. In the end one entire idea got cut because I wasn’t happy with the flow of words. So, a script, even one comprised of just bullet points would be useful. Personally I like the idea of writing a full script, even if I don’t deliver it verbatim, as this will also give me the raw material for my blog. To be fair though, the loose aim was to reflect as I experienced my first vlogging session so at least what I have produced is reflective of my original aims.
What can I say? I did not record anything like the amount of b-roll footage I needed. This meant that what I did shoot had to be stretched out more than was ideal for the free flow of the visuals. Thankfully I was able at the end of the session to get the drone out which gave me some B-roll but even then I was scratching around as I did no want to overdo drone footage of rapeseed crops. So, shoot some b-roll, shoot some more than shoot some more again!
Locations for recording to camera
I had my locations sorted in my head before I set off, but three of the four I chose were by the roadside. Initially I hadn’t anticipated this as an issue as I knew the roads quite well, they were all B roads and typically when I’ve been there in the week they have been quiet apart from when folk were going to or from work. For some reason it was like Piccadilly Circus last Friday! I have lots of discarded A-roll where I am either waiting for vehicles to pass or being drowned out by them. Nothing more to say really, except be a little more choosy in future!
Zoom H1 and Rode Lav mic
We will gloss over the shameful scenes at the first location when I forgot to put the lav mic on. Again, I do confess to this in the vlog. After setting both the camera and the recorder running I clapped my hands together sharply providing both a visual and an audible cue for later syncing in my editor. The resultant spikes on the waveforms enabled me to extremely quickly line them up and replace the cameras audio with the external track. I cannot imagine doing it any other way after this experience.
Watch your words
Years ago on a business leaders course I was video recorded for the first time. On viewing the resultant footage I was horrified at how often I said “um” especially whilst thinking of what to say. Well, I am pleased to say that I have largely cured myself of that these days. BUT. There’s always a but isn’t there? I have a new verbal tic. So, can you guess what it is? It will be obvious if you’ve watched the vlog – at one point I started three consecutive sentences with the word “so”. I had to comment via a caption – another learning point identified.
If talking to the camera was weird, and I mention that too, then looking at it was even weirder. Fortunately none of the clips are too close-up on my face so it doesn’t show quite as much as it might have done and there is actually one sequence when I managed it quite well but it is definitely something to be improved upon.
Mental gymnastics required
I am a very experienced stills shooter and a very new video shooter. One of these I can do without conscious thought and the other needs 100% of my attention. I found that because I was concentrating so much on how to record the video and set the camera for that aspect then I basically forgot to take any stills or those that I did take were rather hurried. I have no true keepers from the day even though in those conditions I should have been able to have come away with at least half a dozen, especially in the woodland or rapeseed fields. This will get easier with practice I’m sure but I am also going to see if taking two cameras will help. Using one for video and one for stills will hopefully help with the mental adjustments as I won’t have to make any physical adjustments to camera settings. I have a lot of stills taken at 1/50th second for example!
So, in summary, this is only my first experience of recording and producing a vlog and there were other things that cropped up either on the day or in post production. These points here however are the key ones and give plenty of food for thought.
Overall, I enjoyed the experience and got some satisfaction watching the vlog grow on the timeline. I have identified lots of room for improvement (and some not documented here) but I am looking forward to addressing each area as I move forward and also to identifying further ways in which to improve my vlogging skills.
The second anniversary of my Mavic Pro drone purchase will soon be upon us (as I type this) and in order to supply copy for a Club photography magazine recently I got to thinking about what I’d learnt. Incidentally, if you’ve been following recent drone product launches mine is the original Mavic Pro; the newer Pro2 is apparently a big step up in image quality.
In truth much of the learning came in the last six months of 2018 as I was not well enough to take the drone out over the 2017/18 winter months and prior to that I was still really nervous about the whole flying a camera thing. But practice is really paying off and even the quality of my images has improved considerably.
I am first and foremost a photographer, so, what does this photographer take from his first full year flying?
Get used to flying it; to taking off, landing and generally moving about the sky. If you are a first-time flyer, then forget about photography for a few flights. Yes, it will be hard to do and a little frustrating, but practise flying in all directions, squares, circles, backwards, forwards, side-to-side. Get to instinctively know when pushing right on the stick will move the craft left and when it will move it right – it’s easy to forget especially if things go a little awry. The one time I crashed (see below) was exactly due to that confusion. With the drone pointing towards me and drifting to my left towards the trees I instinctively pushed the stick right to take evasive action. Except this was the wrong thing to do as it took the drone to ITS right and directly into the branches I was trying to avoid. I always try to watch the drone too when manoeuvring rather than the screen as I can more quickly spot if its drifting in the wrong direction.
Needless to say, I didn’t follow this course of action (to be fair no one suggested it) but in hindsight waiting just a little longer to take photographs would have meant better pictures from the start and a more comfortable flying experience. Do as I say not as I did might be another way of putting it!
Exposure is critical
The Mavic Pro has a much smaller sensor than many enthusiast photographers will be used to and therefore has less tolerance to noise. Indeed, whilst the stated ISO range is 100-1600 I rarely move it from 100 and indeed I’ve not seen many bloggers or vloggers suggesting using the higher ISO. These days with live histograms on most cameras it is relatively straightforward to “shoot to the right” and the Mavic Pro is no exception. I have the histogram up on the screen at all times and watch it carefully. I aim to keep the graph pushed as far over to the right on the screen without “clipping” into the highlights.
Exposing to the right (ETTR) is a well-used photographic technique and means adjusting the exposure of an image as high as possible at base ISO (without causing unwanted saturation) to collect the maximum amount of light and thus get the optimum performance out of the digital image sensor. It is easier to pull down exposure in post-production than to pull detail out of the shadows. With the tiny 12mp sensor on the Mavic Pro I want to start with as much detail captured right from the start, hence ETTR and RAW (DNG) capture is my go-to approach.
Nail the composition
Here is one very good reason why you want to learn to fly and position the drone with as much accuracy as possible.
You only have a relatively small file to play with; 3992×2992 pixels (typically giving a 23mb file) compared for example to my Fuji mirrorless camera’s 6000×3376 (48mb) or my Nikon D800E’s 7360×4912 (72mb). Having to crop into the file throws away precious pixels and of course if you then need to enlarge the image for printing you are further degrading the image quality.
Try to get composition spot-on to avoid cropping later. Be patient, rotate the drone and take it higher/lower, left/right, back/forward as needed to really get the framing as near to your vision as possible. Swiping up on the display screen to temporarily remove all the data and information displayed upon it can help and don’t forget to check the corners of the screen too. There is no doubt that in this situation the iPad screen beats my iPhone but that’s a discussion for another day.
Do keep this in perspective though, I recently printed an image from the drone at A3 and was blown away by the quality. A bit mushy sometimes in the corners but fabulous in the middle of the frame. For small prints and on-screen usage, the files can take some tight cropping but to my mind it makes total sense to maximise every pixel available and careful composition at the time is a huge help in this regard.
When processing your images (I shoot RAW and process in Adobe Camera Raw) try to avoid pushing the sliders too far – less is definitely more and over-zealous use of the sliders will seriously degrade the image veryquickly in my experience (remember small sensor). Once again, getting the exposure right and nailing the composition also help here. I have found that skies generally need some gentle noise reduction, but again don’t go overboard and if you are able to do so I would suggest just selectively de-noising the sky and not the more detailed parts of the image which can quickly turn to mush.
Height isn’t everything
You don’t have to shoot everything from 400 feet up! Just because you can doesn’t mean you always have to. I have included height information in the image captions and you will see there are successful compositions shot from 65 feet up for example and even from head height.
Be open to shooting each scene from different angles and differing heights. I will often take the drone to 400 feet and then slowly bring it down tweaking the composition and taking a series of different images as I drop back down to around 80 feet. Other times I will watch the screen as I slowly rise into the air looking for the optimal point at which the composition seems complete. There is no zoom lens on the Mavic Pro I use (although a zoom version has just been released along with the aforementioned Pro 2 with its larger sensor) so, just like using your feet to “zoom” a prime lens on your stills camera, you need to use the joysticks to “zoom” around the composition with the drone.
Whilst I’m not intending to review the hardware some comments are pertinent as the choices you make here can have a big bearing on success or failure.
Let’s start with what for me makes the whole process workable – the viewing screen. The Mavic Pro doesn’t have a screen supplied with the controller, so I purchased an Android smartphone to fulfil this function. Turns out that this was not my smartest choice as the minute I plugged the “smartphone” into the Mavic controller it went “Oh, goody! A big battery!” and proceeded to draw power from the controller. Unsure as to whether this was normal or not, or indeed if it was expected, I decided to change and use an iPad mini instead. I figured the bigger screen would make it easier to read the display so parted with a few more hard-earned pennies to buy the small iPad and a sunshade to keep the glare off the screen. This worked much better apart from one niggle, it kept sending out a warning message that it was running low on memory even though I was only running the DJI app. Nervous that this might cause me to lose sight and/or control of the drone I switched to using my iPhone whilst I investigated.
Long story short – I never did get around to investigating and now simply use my iPhone. The only compromise is that if I’m going to be out all day I take a power bank to top the phone up for normal use if required after flying the drone although to date I haven’t needed to use it. I put the phone in Airplane mode whilst using the drone to prevent calls or messages interfering with the flight. I need to wear my reading glasses AND my distance glasses simultaneously however; the former on the end of my nose to view the screen and controller and the latter above them so I can maintain line of sight with the drone. I must look slightly odd, but such is old age.
Flying the drone and keeping it safe in the air was always going to be my biggest concern and I have to say I’m very glad I opted for a premium model as I quickly got to grips with the basics and whilst I was in no hurry to step out of beginner mode when I did take the plunge I was pleasantly surprised. If in doubt, I can let go of the joysticks and the drone will hover where it is until I get myself sorted! The requirement to maintain line of sight means that under my control the drone never gets remotely close to the maximum distances it can technically achieve but I cannot see why people want to fly their expensive kit in places where they cannot see it.
As already mentioned, I have crashed the drone once, in Snowdonia, on the first occasion when I had someone with me whilst I flew the drone. Thankfully it was less than twenty feet off the ground and the branches I flew it into helped cushion the fall. I had the drone pointing towards me which means that right on the controller means go left as far as the drone is concerned. A mistake I make very rarely now but still, no harm done apart from a few scratches to the drone and a dent to my pride.
So, whilst flying the drone is still an adrenalin-fuelled experience I do now feel confident in flying the machine and am starting to produce some pleasing results, particularly with still images which I capture using the DNG raw mode and process in Photoshop. I have found that I need to apply sharpening and clarity a little more aggressively than I am used to and that I have to be extra careful with regards to noise in the image. I usually take the drone out early in the day and have not yet shot extensively in the brighter part of the day but when I have I find the files a lot cleaner, especially with the sun behind the drone.
So, I have made good progress with flying, have settled on using my iPhone as a screen and am starting to get some good still images from the drone. Whilst there is still some work to do with image quality, or perhaps more accurately consistency, I am now producing usable and pleasing images from every flight.
I’ve a few other things to mention, including my experiences with filters shooting panoramas and the various built-in shooting options but will leave those for another day.
To recap my conclusions from this exercise, learn the basics (flying), remember to squeeze as much from the little sensor as you can and exercise restraint when sat at the computer.
This is one purchase I have never regretted for a single moment.
Back in October 2017 I embarked upon a challenge to take a picture a day every day. Said pictures to be shared to a dedicated Flickr group as soon as practical, ideally on the same day but no pressure if not. I initially set out to create a daily image for the 63 days that remained in 2017 in the hope that it would give me the experience needed to attempt my first full 365 in 2018. Back in February 2015 I’d attempted a picture a day for 28 days and whilst I made the 28 images it was not a success, I even resorted to photographing the contents of the car boot at eleven pm one evening with my phone as we checked into a hotel. However, I recently passed the 500 image mark, that is over 500 consecutive daily images! I’ve been reflecting on the experience and am going to share these reflections over a couple of posts; this one and another in a day or two.
Why did I do it? I certainly asked this question on more than one occasion over the last 500 days! It’s definitely been a challenge, both creatively and logistically but there is no doubt it quickly became a habit, just part of my normal, daily routine. There is also a huge amount of personal satisfaction as each milestone ticks up. A week, one month, 50 days, 100 days, six months, one year … each milestone provided a further goal to aim for, to aspire to. It’s a useful motivational boost as each milestone is passed.
I use a spreadsheet (more on this in part two) to catalogue each image noting how many are posted on the day and other factual data. I also make a point of writing a short (well, usually it is short) caption for each image. I belong to a dedicated 365 group on Flickr, we limit ourselves to around 50 members at any one time, and by being part of the group I get a sense of community, support and of course some welcome encouragement and feedback. Feedback can be motivational or constructive and is often both. A simple “like” can lift the spirits and I just wish I was able to comment on more images from my fellow members every day.
On a practical level I quickly learned to carry a camera at all times. My smartphone made a good substitute early on but I soon got into the habit of dropping one of my smaller cameras in my bag or pocket whenever I went out. The Fuji X100t has been the workhorse for this project and in fact is now stored in my bag permanently. I have however used every digital camera I own, or have owned, during the past 500 days a fact I have also tabulated in part two.
I vowed at the start that pictures of my breakfast or arty shots of my Americano in Costa Coffee would be taboo. Whilst some of the everyday shots of life in Elland are bordering on the banal, they are to me slices of social history (I don’t mean to sound pretentious) whilst pictures of my coffee would by my reckoning be simply lazy although I totally get that for some people it’s an important part of the documentary process. It depends on your personal objectives I guess. The most difficult couple of days came over the Winter of 2017/2018, less than five weeks into the challenge. I contracted pneumonia and spent the next three months on steroids, antibiotics and under virtual house arrest to avoid hospitalisation. I kept the 365 alive with macro images shot in the back or front yard or still life set ups in the spare bedroom. Numerous images taken from the bedroom window tested my creativity. There were two consecutive days when I physically couldn’t manage even these simple activities though but on both days I made it downstairs long enough to snap pictures of my medication hanging on the Christmas tree – surely the most banal images I’ve snapped during the challenge but still they tell a story (see above for an example). Many images during this period were shot on a full frame Nikon D800E digital camera which, as is revealed in the next instalment, [spoiler alert] has largely been replaced in my day to day photography by Fuji X-series cameras.
Whereas in the past photography was a specific activity that I planned in advance I now find that photography is just something that I include in my daily routine. I often take my wife to work at 7am and rather than turning around and coming straight home I have taken to spending ten or fifteen minutes taking photographs before going home. I don’t miss the fifteen minutes in the context of my daily chores and I exercise my photographic muscles in the process. Some days I drive in, noting the light and by the time I drop the wife off I know exactly what I am going to photograph and from which vantage point. I created a very pleasing series of blue-hour images in this way none of which would have been taken in the past when photography was a specific something that I did. I now photograph as part of my routine daily functions such as breathing, eating and sneezing.
On days when I have chores at home I regularly take a short walk early afternoon, partly to stretch my legs and get some fresh air but mainly to give me the opportunity to look for images. I always carry a camera and whilst I may not come back with that day’s image every time it has proven a very fruitful activity and greatly increased my knowledge of my local patch and it’s possibilities.
So much of what is needed for a successful 365 seems to come down to your state of mind I feel and how you approach or think about things:
I carry a camera all the time – even when walking down to the newsagents for the daily papers;
I look AND see, noting what might make a good image and under what circumstances – greedily storing away opportunities for the future;
I do not rely on photography “trips” – every time I leave the house is a photographic opportunity – it’s a state of mind;
I make opportunities out of my daily routines;
I no longer worry about what other people might think of my images – I photograph anything that takes my eye, that moves or amuses me – if others like it then that is a bonus;
Train yourself to look beyond the obvious – floral portraits have been a staple of my back yard photography in the past but there are also shapes, shadows and the play of light on the steps if I look AND see;
Don’t Panic! If you are really concerned about capturing that day’s image then try to take an “insurance shot” before breakfast – it’s amazing how that frees you from worrying and sometimes it turns out to be better than you’d anticipated;
Embrace the location, the weather, the light – cameras also work in the rain and the dark – in fact dark, rainy nights in town can make some great images – just get out there;
Sounds counter-intuitive but stop thinking about the daily image – free your mind from the worry and your creativity can come to the surface – sounds a bit “New Age” thinking but it does work – trust me.
And before anyone thinks I’m implying this is easy – I am not. It can still be hard work but by approaching it with the correct mind set and incorporating it into part of your daily routine, rather than a standalone activity, it is possible to ease the burden and more importantly really enjoy the process whilst expanding your skills and competency at the same time.
I have repurposed here a post from a previous blog in order to preserve it as I am closing the blog it is from this week.
Originally written on 6th October 2018 when I was indeed a 9-day veteran of this little camera. For the record I’m still using it regularly six months on.
Being a veteran of 360 camera ownership (OK, it’s been nine days) I thought I’d share my initial thoughts starting with the purchasing decision itself. As this blog is something for me to look back upon when my fast-ageing body gives up the ghost so if it feels a little self indulgent then you know why.
So, my weapon of choice for this latest venture was the INSTA360 One. It wasn’t cheap (£275 at the time I purchased it) but then again it wasn’t the most expensive on the consumer market. There’s a lot of choice, ranging in cost terms from £50 to £600 at the time of writing but it has to be said the quality does vary considerably as I discovered from reading and watching the numerous online reviews.
I chose the INSTA360 because it seemed to offer a decent all round package for a beginner with some ability for manual setting if required. I watched/read a lot but my takeaway from all that research can be distilled into a few words – good but not spectacular in all areas and easy to operate for the raw beginner with a little scope for manual operation as their skills develop. There, that little gem has saved you hours of research!
To be honest, I was a little concerned at the “good” label for image quality, video quality, stabilisation and all round usability. In my regular stills work I use a high end Nikon DSLR and also the Fuji X-T3 which I think is going to become one of the all-time best crop sensor cameras. So while settle for good when other 360 cameras were offering far better performance? The answer is probably two-fold.
Cost. I was loathe to commit £500-600 on something I had no previous knowledge or experience of. Equally I didn’t want to buy a very cheap one and be frustrated within hours of powering it up. £275 (its come down to £250 since I bought it) is still a decent sum of money but is easier to justify to the Boss than £600!
Image Quality. I was finding through my research that some cameras excelled at one element of 360 photography whilst underwhelming in others. This was particularly true of those in my price bracket it seemed to me, even allowing for some glaring disparities in different reviewers opinions. As I was, and still am, unsure which discipline would become most important, I opted for a good all-rounder and the fact that many reviewers commented on its suitability for a beginner tipped the balance.
It’s too early for me to write with any modicum of authority on handling or image quality. I’m still learning in terms of the physical operation of the camera and these considerations will of course impact on ultimate image quality.
What I can say though is that it was a breeze to set-up and I was able to start taking photos immediately. There was even an SD card inserted and a decent battery charge when I took it out of the box. I have shot with the camera held in my hand, on a selfie stick, sat in its little stand on the car roof and also with it attached to my iPhone. All work and I particularly liked having the screen to view “live” when attaching it to my phone. I also used the phone to trigger the camera via bluetooth but this proved problematic for a fumble fingers like me with the iPhone behind my back. Plus the range seems very limited and it seems to need a clear view of sight making hiding the phone a challenge especially as you are shooting blind!
So, for what they are worth these are my initial thoughts.