A Wild Respite

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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.

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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.

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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.

Lumix GX85 Review, Part 3: Review Notes, Enhanced

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.

 

A Call to Series

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.

Lumix GX85 Review: Part 2: L Monochrome

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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.

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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.

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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.

Panasonic Lumix GX85 Review, Part 1

The Lumix GX85 sort of defies immediate conclusions, but not in a bad way. To be sure, there are observations that can be made at once: the shutter is magnificently quiet. The camera feels very solid and surprisingly heavy for its size. I liked it upon first picking it up, not least due to the fact that it feels reassuring, as a proper tool should. But I still can’t quite tell you what I make of it.

My other camera (as the bumper sticker says?) is also a Lumix, the diminutive GM5. It’s a different sort of camera altogether, a micro machine that is lighter on features but has the core of what makes a good camera: good image quality, great build quality, easy access to controls. It will probably stay on my gear list for a long time, as there’s simply nothing like it as a second body that takes the same lenses.

The GX85 replaces my previous “main” camera (though you’d be surprised how often I’ve been taking the GM5 by itself on trips or when out and about lately), the Olympus OM-D E-M10 (mark I model). Primarily I will be making some comparisons to that camera.

Upon first picking it up, the GX85 is both a bit heavier and a bit more compact than the E-M10. Due to the lack of SLR-esque viewfinder hump, it has a sleeker appearance and slides out of a big pocket or a bag more easily. The grip is also more substantial and fits better in my hand. I know some people complain about the shortening of the GX85 grip from the prior GX7, but I actually like this one better, and it looks quite a bit better than the GX7’s odd mound of rubberized plastic as well. The EVF is lower-profile than the E-M10, since that camera has a fairly large rubber eyecup while this one lacks it (though you will probably be able to add one at some point if you wanted to).

One detail that has generated some buzz leading up to this camera’s release is Panasonic’s decision to use plastic for the frame and top plate, unlike the previous GX7, my GM5, or the E-M10, which use metal, usually magnesium alloy. Indeed, at least a metal top plate seems to be de rigueur these days, and I was quite surprised to see Panasonic switch to plastic, when the top-end GX8 and the previous GX7 both use extensive metal on the exterior, where it can be touched. I’m certain Panasonic employs metal in the camera chassis, and in all reality there is nothing to be concerned about in the build of the GX85. Some of us, myself included, like the feel of metal better than plastic in the hand, but it’s as if the GX85 set out to prove us wrong by how hefty and sturdy it feels. I chose the black model, particularly to reconcile myself to the initial shock of plastic, so to speak, since the finish feels exactly like my eighties-era Konica SLR, the FS-1.

In summary, I would describe the GX85 as a serious tool that portrays itself as such. Most recent models within the Micro Four Thirds stable have at least some retro influence – Olympus goes all-out retro, while the GM5 and GX8 from Panasonic have retro cues as well. The GX85, by contrast, seems no-nonsense. It scoffs at the retro edges of the EM10. It looks good, better than the GX7 with a more streamlined design, and it is compact and handles very well. But after all is said and done, it is a blacksmith’s hammer for the creation of images.

More to come as I continue with this camera in the field.