Quite a bit of time has passed since my last post here. One reason for this is that photography vies with another main interest of mine, and that is creative writing. I have been wrestling with the idea for a novel that has been in my head for years now, while files sit unedited on my PC and my camera gets slightly lonely in between shooting sessions. The upside is that I have many pages of notes and the beginnings of a first draft developing on my newest device, the Freewrite, made by Astrohaus.
Now, this is not a gear blog. It’s a process blog. But the very reason I chose to write about the Freewrite is that it’s a machine designed from the ground up with process in mind. The Freewrite is called a “smart typewriter” and was built to be a high-end mechanical keyboard, an e-ink screen with fast refresh, and wireless connectivity bundled into the general size and shape of an old-timey compact typewriter. They went all-out, too. The body is hefty aluminum with a very nice paint finish, a couple of big switches, and a comfortable soft plastic base that works equally well on a lap or a desktop.
Why the typewriter, you ask? Well, speaking for me personally, it is the perfect format for uninterrupted writing. I grew up in a home that was slow to adopt the computer, so as a teen I used a Smith-Corona electronic typewriter for years. All of my early (terrible) attempts at fiction were typed on that machine, and since then I have used several other typewriters, mostly an early electric Brother and a compact manual Olivetti.
Of course, the typewriter has one fatal flaw: your writing only exists as a physical object, a sheet of paper and ink. While I don’t like a computer for composing, let’s face it, once you’ve written something it needs to be on the computer for editing, distributing and whatever else you want to do with it.
Enter the handiest concept of the Freewrite: instant backup to the cloud. I have mine set up to copy my writing to Google Docs, and the Send button on the computer will instantly send a .TXT file and a PDF to my email, as well. This means that, as I write this article, I’m kicked back on my couch with my feet up, clacking away on a great keyboard, and when I want to publish this post I’ll just pull it up on my desktop and copy the text into WordPress and add my image files.
I enjoy that I have a camera that suits my shooting style very well, and until now I didn’t have a similar device that suits my other pursuit with the same kind of alacrity. While the analog version is still enjoyable in the form of the typewriter, the Freewrite acts like a digital camera in that it still provides the experience I crave, but outputs a digital file that simplifies the workflow after you press the shutter, or in this case, the key!
Who among us doesn’t feel the urge to shoot a landscape now and then? I’d wager a guess that everyone who has spent more than a few minutes with a camera in hand has pointed it at a sunset, or a mountain vista, or something of the kind. Nature is a powerful influencer of the species known as the human photographer.
And for good reason, after all.
Recently, my wife and I took a week long road trip up the coast of Oregon and Washington, ending up in Seattle. The northwestern coast of Washington is a beautiful and very remote part of the country, and while I had planned all along for most of my photographic endeavors to be on the streets of Seattle, I was glad to have my camera with me on the journey there.
The natural world is more than the sweeping vistas, of course. The use of a camera enables us to focus on the small details as well – fitting them within the frame as an aid in studying the pieces which make up the bigger picture. I think we should do more of that. We Americans are a stressed out and overworked bunch, and I find more and more that the skills of reflection and observation must be intentionally cultivated in my busy life.
Is nature photography my favorite genre? not necessarily. And I’ve even felt sheepish before about pointing my lens at a sunset. But the value of shooting in nature goes beyond making photographs we think are keepers – we may even find we imbue a sort of specialness in what others might see as somewhat ordinary shots. But they are documentation of our own human journey, and as such should be worth our time to stop and make.
I’ve recently returned from a week-long trip through western Washington with my wife, some much needed vacation during which we saw and did much at a fast clip… In retrospect, we should learn how to relax more on vacation. Nevertheless, I was able to spend some quality time with the GX85 as my sole camera for the duration of the trip. Oh, I took the GM5 as well but it never came out of the suitcase.
The GX85 is a true crowd pleaser. It handles so many different things well. Most of the time, I left the Olympus 25mm f/1.8 lens on for everything. It handles natural scenic shots with as much ease as it does street shooting, and I appreciated the slightly tight (if you ask some people) field of view in Seattle’s cramped tourist spots like Pike Place Market.
Generally, the standard JPEG setting does an excellent job, producing rich, saturated colors as I’ve already mentioned. The above photo was taken with the cloudy white balance setting, an accident that I forgot to remedy when we stepped in from the typically overcast Seattle outdoors to the artificially-lit market. But I like the way this one turned out, since the large window in the back reflects an accurate white balance, and the yellower tint to the indoor lighting stands in contrast. As an aside, while auto white balance almost always works, manually picking an appropriate setting for the situation can add authenticity and richness by taking the decision away from the camera’s computer brain.
The aforementioned richness of the standard colors is especially noticeable in nature, where I feel Panasonic used to lack punch, especially in greens. As the two samples here from the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island demonstrate, there is no problem here with green. Of course, if you typically process RAW files you may not care too much, but it’s refreshing knowing that you don’t need to work on the files to get them to portray what you saw – an extra benefit in a camera with Wi-Fi when you want to quickly share a photo with friends.
Seattle represented the most opportunity for street photography I have had in a while, since I live in a rural area with less access to metropolitan areas. I took advantage of this and came back with lots of files, even a few keepers. The GX85 performs very well, and my all-black model is quite stealthy. Overall I find Seattlites to be pretty easy with the idea of street photography, and didn’t garner any dirty looks or objections of any kind.
The requirements for a good street camera are all there: fast autofocus, quick access controls and lightning overall performance. Also, I actually found the battery have pretty good stamina over the course of my sessions. I carried a spare GX7 battery but didn’t find a need for it since we tended to take mid-afternoon breaks back at our Air-B&B. Just plug it in and take a rest, and it’s good to go.
Another thing which pleased me was the mobile app, which now supports batch importing of files. You can select from Today, Past Three Days or a couple other settings, and the camera automatically sends over all the files from the specified time period. Perhaps this was enabled through an app update, but I never remember the option with my GM5, and suspect it’s enabled by camera firmware. The only thing lacking from making this feature perfect is the absence of a Yesterday option, meaning if you don’t import your files to your device the same day, you’re stuck importing the past three days.
The only issue I had in the street was when using auto ISO in aperture priority mode. While it allowed me the ability to adjust exposure compensation on the fly to deal with varied lighting, it tended to keep the shutter speed around 1/60th of a second, which resulted in some blurry images due to subject movement. It has since been pointed out to me that there is an ISO mode, “intelligent ISO,” which attempts to bump up shutter speeds when it detects movement, but unfortunately I was not using that when it counted. I will have to experiment with this option in future. I adjusted my technique when realized I was getting blurry images by keeping the ISO set to a higher value, and by switching into manual mode when it made sense. I tend to forget shutter priority mode is there for me as well!
The Lumix GX85 is continuing to impress me, and was enjoyable to use extensively as demonstrated by the over 1,300 images I returned home with. Next on my agenda is to process RAW files using the available option (SilkyPix) and await Adobe’s Lightroom support!
In the midst of a busy week, there is little time to test out cameras. I’m looking forward to taking the GX85 on a multi-day road trip along the Pacific Northwest coastline next week, where I will have plenty of opportunities to put the camera through its paces. In the meantime, here are my review notes, with some enhanced comments.
- Charging and battery – love the USB charging. Makes it much easier on the go. I usually get to and from shooting locations by car, and I keep a fairly substantial USB power bank for keeping devices healthy (smartphones sure lose juice quickly when using maps). Now I can also plug in the camera to bolster the battery after a session. Also, since the battery is the same as the GX7’s before it, I was able to find a spare cheaply. Always have a spare, or two!
- Build quality – great for plastic frame, but I kind of miss the magnesium alloy. No doubt the camera still has plenty of metal in the frame however, and has no flex. It makes me appreciate the more how much of a tiny work of art the GM5 is.
- New L Monochrome mode is very nice, super contrast and rich blacks, but saves highlights like all digital sensors do so may require a small whites boost in post processing. Awesome that color filters can still be used. Great way to get great tones in B&W with little processing work. See previous post, Part 2.
- Definitely a slight sharpness boost over the GM5 from early testing, but only visible when the sharpest lenses are used. Really requires a great lens to see the difference. No moiré to be seen.
- Shutter shock appears be non-existent with the new shutter, which sounds great and very quiet.
- Colors out of camera in standard JPEG mode are much richer than previous Panasonic cameras. Reds can get a little oversaturated in standard mode. A couple of photos with bright reds seemed to show a little posterization, but only when zoomed in to 100% and in one or two areas. There are of course limits to JPEG files, and generally I think the bright and rich colors are welcome. Red, green, blue and yellow tones are all weighted toward vivid, saturated and pleasing tones. For a more neutral, classically Panasonic color palette the Natural JPEG mode might be a better choice.
- EVF is good but some won’t like that is natively a 16:9 ratio. Can be hard to avoid hitting the LCD screen for left-eyed shooters. I am actually left-eyed, but I have been training myself to use the right eye with my Panasonic rangefinder-style cameras and I don’t find it too difficult. The trade-off to making yourself use the right eye is not having to mash your whole face behind the camera – rangefinders actually are more comfortable to shoot right-eyed than SLR-style cameras.
- Low light autofocus is terrific.
- Looks are very nice and streamlined, especially in all black. Rear LCD sits so flush it doesn’t look like a tilting design. EVF is easy to access. Grip feels good for a camera this size, not perfect but mainly due to overall dimensions of camera.
- True focus stacking is a nice addition. This is different from the 4K Post-Focus feature, which of course results in smaller files, but is so much faster that it’s meant to be used in the heat of the moment.
- 4K photo modes are well-implemented and straightforward to use. Actual usefulness for my purposes I will have to determine, as I haven’t really tried these out much yet.
- IBIS works to about four stops for me. Using Sigma 60mm lens I was able to get very sharp shots at 1/15 sec at least 75% of the time. IBIS runs all the time that camera is on as evidenced from very quiet hum emitted during operation. Stabilized when focusing. This is just in-body stabilization, since the lens I used isn’t dual-IS capable. The effectiveness of image stabilization is of course subjective, since individual people have different levels of shakiness.
As an amateur photographer, there are things about my craft which bother me. One of these is how often I will end a session or come back from a trip with one or two (or three, if I am lucky) good shots that are completely unrelated. Different themes, lighting, processing style, or locale give them a totally different feel from each other, and, for my own part, they cause me to feel like a snapshooter, and my online sharing to look sporadic and uninspired.
On a recent trip to the big city (Portland) I chose to take only my GM5 with Olympus 17mm f/2.8 lens for some street shooting. The 34mm-equivalent lens is good for taking in slightly wider street scenes, where a subject’s immediate surroundings and some background can be part of the picture. Further, I chose the camera’s Dynamic Monochrome art filter, giving me a contrasty black and white image through the viewfinder, though I also shot RAW for more latitude if I needed it in post processing. This gives me a good reference point for my finished monochrome image by saving the JPEG file, but gives me a better RAW file as an editing canvas.
I shot quite a few frames that day, mostly from the hip with the lens pre-focused to a set distance. This can be tricky and I’m by no means a master at it – the proof being in the pudding, as many of my shots were quite badly framed (the fixed LCD of the GM5 is not ideal for this type of shooting… but they managed it in pre-digital times, so I have no excuse!). There were only two that I liked enough to edit and print. But those two made me realize something when I displayed them together.
By themselves, neither stands out particularly. But together, both exhibit rather unconventional angles, which I used to try and balance the geometry. In the first image, this was done by leaving the shadowed edge of the building beneath which I stood angling into the top left in the opposite direction than the right-hand building leans in. In the second image, the strong tilt was an unintentional by-product of hip-shooting, but I left it that way rather than trying to straighten it, as the background buildings line up in a zigzag horizon that fascinates me. Both they and the two gentlemen convey a sense of movement left to right. This attempt to harmonize the jumble of architecture, to my eye, unites the two.
So, herein is the opportunity: rather than create one image which you like, work off that image and find something to tie another image together with it. Try not to stop there, but create another. The stronger the tie or ties, the better. But, key to the success of this endeavor, you need to display the connected images together. I really like printing, and places like Ikea have very inexpensive frames. Surveying work you’ve put together, rather than one-offs, is a very rewarding feeling and, I believe, can strengthen your photography.
I spent a couple of sessions shooting in the new “L Monochrome” JPEG mode. The GX85 is the first camera to add a JPEG mode in some time, and I was interested in trying it out, since Panasonic has billed it as a more contrasty, nuanced monochrome with a lot of tonality.
As a JPEG mode, rather than an art filter, control is retained over settings like noise reduction, contrast and sharpness. And, like the regular monochrome mode from all their recent camera models, there is a very nice color filter set which lets you apply a red, orange, yellow or green filter to alter the resulting tones in your image. This harks back to B&W film photography when colored lens filters accomplished the same thing, albeit by actually changing the light as it hit the film, rather than software simulation as it is here. Nonetheless, the effect can be very nice. Different colors give different results, with green smoothing out skin tones in portraiture, and red providing a high contrast level with dark skies and bright white clouds.
Of course, none of these effects carry over to RAW files, but beyond putting out highly customizable JPEGS I found this new mode to help me see tonality and the promise of a good B&W image in a scene. It doesn’t hurt that the files turned out particularly good, with lots of differentiation between shades of gray and nice rich blacks. None of the samples in this post have had any post processing done, all are out of camera.
Not that these are perfect B&W images, of course. In order to reach maximum potential, they still need some selective dodging and burning. Particularly I would set the white point higher, so that highlights are brighter (as a digital sensor the metering tries to avoid overly bright highlights, which often help balance and strengthen B&W photographs). But it’s safe to say that I like this new mode a lot, and it gets me a good bit of the way towards very good monochrome photos right out of camera.