Category: iPhoneography

More on Ethiopia

My recent trip to Ethiopia has left an impression that will last for quite some time. Aside from the spectacular landscapes and the simple beauty of the rock-hewn churches (read Indiana Jones meets National Geographic!), I am reminded of how complicated we have made our lives compared to many of the Ethiopians I met along the way. Our collective love affair with ‘stuff’ and our societal belief that ‘more is better’ is simply overwhelming. As I look around my neighbourhood, I see a clear indication of this, by how few of us can actually put our car in our garage.

Miriam Korkor rock-hewn church, Gher’Alta, Tigray, Ethiopia

I am and always have been a ‘stills’ photographer, primarily capturing natural landscapes and nature’s intimate details. However, since first using iPhone, I have also been drawn to capturing ambient sounds and video. In my short travels through northern Ethiopia, I made a number of videos which I have combined with some stills, ambient sounds and Tigrayan music into single video using iMovie. It’s my first ‘go’ with iMovie and while I think I’ve done a fair job at mastering transitions and overlaying sound, I think some of my clips may still be a little long. Perhaps, I’ll go back one day and rework this, but for now, here it is: Ethiopia 2019 Video.

I’ve also been asked, by a few people, for any tips I have for travelling to and photographing in Ethiopia. The following is an updated version of what I wrote on the Luminous-Landscape forum website last week:

Photo Tips: Work on convincing your drivers/guides to start early. Earlier than 8-8:30 was a struggle. I don’t think they quite understand the needs of photographers for the early morning light. As I was mostly travelling alone in a Land Cruiser, the drivers were very accommodating for photo stops.

There is an element of zooification when travelling to a low-income country. It’s something we discuss at length in the tourism unit of the IB Geography course I teach. I also introduce the term to my Grade 7s when we discuss the benefits and challenges of World Heritage Sites. I, for one, am intrigued by the markets and street life: the bustle of life lived on the streets, the sounds and colours and busy-ness of it all. But there is an element of voyeurism, too, that I am highly self-conscious of. At times, I felt this way when photographing the nuns, priests and monks at the churches, as a small payment is typically expected.

Don’t be afraid to walk the streets/markets to shoot, bút it’s better with your driver or guide as they can explain why you wish to photograph. Many people did NOT want their photos taken – respect that and move on because many did not mind at all, especially if you show them the photo afterwards and/or make a purchase from them.

Shop-owner, student and guide, Tsega Gebru, village of Megab, Ethiopia

A bigger camera system will definitely be more intimidating for candid portraits and street photography. It will also make you an bigger target. Being a westerner, ups the chances for theft, but I had no issues as my phone always went back in my front pocket and my Sony camera always back in my small hip case (one I bought decades ago to hold 4×5 film holders – my have times changed!)

I used ETT – Ethio Travel & Tours. Sunight was fantastic at organizing. All via email, she put together my two-week itinerary according to my requests, that included all accommodations (w/WiFi and private bathroom), all breakfasts, all internal flights (I had three) and transfers, all drivers and guides, and all entrance fees for USD 1750 – cash, paid on arrival. This kind of payment may scare off some who want the security of having everything booked and paid for ahead of time, but it is Africa, and, short of the much higher priced escorted tours, there are never any guarantees. That being said, everything went off without a hitch. As it is, ETT does most of the work for Erta Ale and the Danakil Depression, if not directly, then subcontracted to them. 
NOTE: If you fly in/out using Ethiopian Airlines (as good as many, better than most), all of your internal flights are significantly cheaper. And flights are the way to get around the country. 

The busy season is Dec-Jan for Christian observances and festivals (and into Feb) when up to to 10,000 will be in Lalibela, Aksum and the various churches. These are great opportunities for capturing the mood/feeling, but more expensive and frankly far too many tourists, especially for getting up/down the remote Tigray Churches. The rock-hewn churches of Gher’Alta Tigray – Miriam Korkor, Daniel Korkor, Abuna Yemata Gur – are only one way up and down. Any more than ten people will really slow things down and, for me anyway, completely ruin the experience of being in a quiet, inaccessible place of peace.

Prayer niche for monks, Daniel Korkor, Gher’Alta, Tigray, Ethiopia

March seemed to be ideal as it is the tail end of the main season and was not busy, but still with worshippers for cultural depth to photos. July-Aug is the rainy season – more difficult to get around but with much greener landscapes. 

I did not get to Gondor, Lake Tana / Blue Nile Falls, Simien Mtns or the southern Rift Valley for the Oromo cultures, but all are highly recommended – especially trekking in the Simien Mtns – according to tourists I spoke to there. However, visiting the Oromo cultures in the south is rife with zooification. Many French, German, Brits, Japanese and Chinese. I met only 1 other Canadian and only 1 American. Clearly, Ethiopia is not on the North American radar (not surprising, though).

Any other Qs, let me know. As I said at the beginning, tourism is just starting; while there is luxury, it somehow seems out of place in a low-income country. But it also means there are fewer tourists overall and the ones there are not the coach tour/cruise tourists.

Ethiopia 2019

Lalibela, EthiopiaI hadn’t planned on travelling to Ethiopia, but as circumstances would have it, here I am. (You can follow my travels via my TrackMyTour link.) It’s day 6 of a 14-day trip. Right now, I’m in Lalibela, home of the magnificent 11th-century rock-hewn churches. The view before me is stunning: a succession of plateaux and ridges receding into the distance lit by the early morning sun. The green is a mirage of light as the landscape hasn’t seen rain in months.

Medhane Elem, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia But, in a slight departure for me, I’m travelling solo and I’m here more for the cultural landscapes than the natural ones. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is one of the world’s oldest Christian sects, dating from the early 4th century. As a result, some of the churches and monasteries are some of the oldest in Christendom. The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela – free-standing buildings carved down into the solid rock – date from the 12th century. Some of the monasteries and churches I’ll be visiting in Tigray are significantly older.

As a photographer, there is no end to the visually captivating scenes and experiences, from modern Addis to the very traditional countryside. I’m shooting with my Sony RX-10iii and iPhone 8 Plus. Stupidly, I brought my Nikon full-frame and 3 prime lenses and tripod, but have not put them to use; perhaps later, in the Danakil Depression.

I didn’t realize how much I have missed Africa until I got out of Addis Ababa into the rural towns and villages. But even being the market in Addis was like coming home.

I will do my best to share more experiences here, but I will update the TrackMyTour link more frequently. Please comment and share!

Ha Noi Streets

Over the summer, my wife Laura and I accompanied our daughter Allison and her boyfriend Patrick while travelling through Southeast Asia. One of the many highlights for me was spending time walking the streets of Ha Noi, Viet Nam and photographing daily life there.

People in Ha Noi really do live their lives on the streets, without being what we in the west think of as “street people”. Food is prepared, cooked and eaten on the streets. People take mid-day naps on the streets; they read the paper, sell their wares and entertain themselves on the street. At times, the streets have a carnival-like atmosphere, particularly during the Night Markets – markets that open after sun down and sell just about anything and everything. Streets are blocked off from cars entering and vendors set up tables (and tarpaulins as it does rain a lot there) and span the next few hours selling. Fascinating!

To make my life easier, the people I photographed were very accommodating. For the most part, I was able to ask for permission before shooting, except, of course, those who were napping at the time or whizzing by on motorbikes. Some of the people I asked said no, and I respected that, but these are the ones who agreed. This made, for me, a very rich travel experience, interacting with people I could not converse with, but having a general and somewhat universal understanding of what each other was trying to say. I was able to get a local hotel from https://www.junglevistainn.com/, which helped me stay close to the people. Twice, I was offered pieces of fruit from ladies who were selling it. They would not take money from me when offered, but indicated it was a gift. How lovely. How truly genuine.

You’ll notice, all of these photos are made using an iPhone. I have found using an iPhone to be revolutionary for me, especially in street photography, an area I have little experience or confidence in pursuing. However, It seems people are not as intimidated having their photo taken with a phone as they might be with a more substantial camera. Ha Noi is a very different place from Guelph or Toronto. I’m not sure I could or would be able to do the same thing here.

Please take a moment to click through the images in the Gallery below (click on the first image to enlarge it, then scroll through to see the others). Note that I have only provided very general titles. Rather than explaining each photo in the title, I would rather leave it up to the viewer to look into the photo to see what’s happening and come to their own conclusions. Some are more obvious than others.

Please leave comments (or questions) below and I encourage you to take a moment to share this page using the links at the bottom.

Enjoy!

Winter photos à la iPhone

Some of you might think I’ve gone over to the dark side, but really, I’m celebrating the fact that great photos are now just an iPhone away. It’s not just iPhone, though, as Google Pixels 2 and Samsung Galaxy phones, amongst others, are now capable of producing amazing photographs.

In iOS 11, iPhones now shoot HDR images as the default, and the image quality is greatly improved. It also has a fantastic Portrait mode which, through software, blurs the background. And, the “Plus” models like the iPhone 8 Plus I’m using, has both a 28mm lens and a 56mm lens.

But the real bonus for me is RAW capture. Shooting in RAW permits processing for the highest image quality possible. While the candid photos I take, the snapshots, are made using the iOS camera app that comes with the phone, the landscapes – my more serious work – is all done using one of few different RAW camera apps. I’ve written an article on this that will be published in Lumnious-Landscape.com, but for now, suffice it say, I’m loving using Lightroom Mobile and ProCamera. There are really only three of four mobile phone apps that are useful for shooting raw and these are the two best.

Lr Mobile is free and you do not need to subscribe to Adobe’s “cash grab” Creative Cloud to make use of it. ProCamera is $5.99 and well worth the cost. While I prefer ProCamera’s histogram approach to showing clipped highlights, I love using Lr Mobile’s HDR-RAW feature: it takes three shots in succession at +2, 0 and –2 EV and automatically aligns, merges, deghosts, and tonemaps the photo. While it’s a whopping 43mb in size, it is all set for full-bit-depth editing in Lightroom. Fantastic!!

Anyway, enough blabbering – here are the photos. I’ll update the blog when Luminous-Landscape publishes my iPhone Raw article. Enjoy!

Miss the darkroom? There’s an app for that!

Apple’s App of the Day today (28 Dec ‘17) is Darkr. I don’t usually look too closely at the AotD, and sometimes not for days or weeks, but, as a photographer and former large format and darkroom enthusiast, this one certainly caught my eye.

Select your camera format or work in the darkroom

Darkr takes me back to simpler times, at least that’s what my heart is telling me. It is both a large format camera (and medium and “pocket” format camera) and a Darkroom all built into an app. What a thrill it was for me to lie in bed this morning and have an upside-down-and-backwards view camera image on my iPhone (also available for iPad, but my iPad Air has only a 5mp Camera), complete with etched grid lines and a loop for focusing. Anyone who has ever worked with a large format camera would appreciated this view.

When I say “large format, l’m referring to the old-style cameras with a leather bellows in front. For years, I used a beautiful Zone VI cherry wood field camera that made beautiful 4×5″ negatives. Yes, that’s inches – about half the size of the iPad screen I’m writing on right now. But 4×5″ was just the beginning; large format included 5×7″, 8×10″ (one of Angel Adams favourites) and 11×14”. There were even 16x20l versions that shot Polaroids! It was a huge industry through the late 19th century and right through the 20th century. I bought my “old-style” 4×5 camera in the 1990s! Working with negatives and transparencies that large meant the image quality was untouchable.

But alas, that era is behind us. My Nikon D800E captures more detail than my 4×5 could and my Sony RX-10iii isn’t far behind. The methods of working on a tripod may still be there, but the mystique of working under a dark cloth with a loupe around your neck and a pocket full of yellow, orange and red filters is gone, along with developing negatives, making test strips, changing contrast grades, and burning and dodging to make prints. BUT…

Darkr brings it all back again…

Yellow filter selected. Yes, it’s upside-down and backwards – it’s large format, after all!

…without the dark cloth and tripod, darkroom chemicals and water usage. As I said, as I lay in bed this morning, I set up my large format camera, selected ILFORD HP-5 film, put on a yellow filter, used my loupe to select the focus point, chose my shutter speed, tilted as needed, and “click” made my first exposure.

4×5 neg, complete with notches in top left.

This first exposure became a beautiful and classic 4×5 negative, complete with cut notches in the top left! From there, I entered the Darkroom where the immersive experience continued sans red light and chemicals. Honestly, I do miss the other-worldly experience of entering a darkroom with the acrid smell of stop bath and the earthy smell of developer (but not the mixing and washing).

In the Darkroom, I was presented with a series of horizontal test-

Test strips. Scroll up and down to change time; scroll left and right to change contrast.

strips. Swiping up increased the time, swiping down, the opposite. Swiping left and right changed the contrast, just like a multi-contrast head on an enlarger or multi-contrast filters. The filters are even coloured correctly – the level of detail the creators of the app have included is amazing, but not without some need for improvements (see below).

Toning options are available once you have a good-looking “print”.

Once you have a basic print, there are a variety of typical darkroom options: Crop, Dodge, Burn, Blur and Tone. The dodge and burn options take a little getting used to, but are great once you do. The best part, though, is how each option you use is stored as a layer. This digital advantage lets you revisit what you’ve done and change things about, although cropping really must be done first.

Final print – my first darkroom print in over 17 years!

So, why bother? As one commenter said, “I did darkroom processing for real…and I now realise I don’t miss it at all.” While I, too, am in this category, Darkr seems to retain well the methods and thought behind using film and darkroom processing, without the hassle of chemicals and water use.

Can you make “better” black and whites in other apps? Perhaps, especially with the near-endless sliders and options of apps such as Photos, Polarr and high-end apps like Lightroom. But there’s something about simplifying options that clarifies the process. For example, test strips: rather than constantly “playing” with sliders until things “look good”, going back and forth between whites and blacks and shaows, exposure and contrast, with Darkr, you are using a combination of exposure and contrast – two options – to attain your base print.

From there, you can apply dodging (selective lightening) or burning (selective darkening), just like using adjustments brushes in Lightroom. Lastly, you may (or may not) tone the image – selenium, cyanotype or sepia – in varying degrees.

Perhaps it’s nostalgia speaking more than practicality, but I feel apps don’t always need to be pragmatic and efficient to be useful. If anything, this simplification teaches one to be more observant. To the observant, the varying times of the test strips offer insights 8nto the relationships between light and dark, as does the switching of contrasts.

Perhaps this is my own darkroom experience talking and these nuances are not readily apparent to newbies, but I see this as not only nostalgic fun, but a good training ground of sorts, from the upside-down-backwards view presented by the Large Format  option to the selections of time and contrast. The limiting factor is the 12mp camera on the iPhone. If this system could be used with a 20mp+ camera, it would certainly be more enticing. That being said, you can import photos from Photos to work on them in the Darkroom.

The best part, though, is the price: Darkr is only $3.99. Actually, it’s free, but paying the $3.99 does two things: it supports the developers to keep refining the app (I have some improvements I’d like to see, and it unlocks some of the refinements that make Darkr so much fun.

Some of the improvements I would like to see include:

  • Spot metering – I would like to read my highlight and shadow areas to allow me to use…
  • Zone system placements; shadows with detail on Zone II – the “West Coast, Ansel Adams” way or highlights with detail on Zone VIII as Fred Picker invented on the East Coast;
  • Orange filter, for when yellow is too little and red is too much;
  • Cold and warm-tone papers options would be nice, even different paper bases;
  • Adding a cold-tone selenium effect of slight purple cast would be welcomed;
  • Vertical test strips are needed to accommodate checking different parts of a print. Making the print above would have benefitted from seeing the bright white of the duvet in the same strip
  • Lastly, the app needs a way to maintain the proportions when cropping (or select an aspect ratio).

I should note that these “improvements” may already be built into the app and I missed them. I’ll be spending more time with Darkr over the next few days and hope to discover more of it’s secrets.

iPhone 8 Plus Initial Test Shots

Three years ago, I shot everything on full frame. Since moving to digital from 35mm and 4×5, it had been my “quest” to reach the same level of image quality as my 4×5. With the Nikon D800E, image quality was finally there and well surpassed that of 4×5, although I did not have access to the tilts and swings of the larger format, bellows camera.

Two years ago, after hefting my full frame D800E and lenses around the Galápagos Islands with 23 students, I decided a change was needed. That’s when I began exploring 1″ sensor “bridge” cameras: first the Panasonic Lumix FZ1000, followed by the Sony RX-10iii, which I have happily settled on. I’ve now travelled with it to Iceland twice and to England, not to mention numerous day hikes here in southern Ontario. I am very pleased with the IQ and can easily make fine photographic prints up to 13″ and 17″.

iPhone 8 Plus

Last week I (finally) entered the mobile phone era with an iPhone 8 Plus. (BTW – Check out Freedom Mobile: over the two year contract, I will only be charged $600 for my $1095 iPhone 8 Plus! Use the link here and you and I will earn a $10 credit!)

A small gallery of photos from Christmas Eve Day, down by the Speed River, Guelph.

Why the iPhone 8 Plus? Why, its camera, of course! It has a two-lens camera system: one is a nice wideangle (for smartphones) f/1.8 28mm lens; the other, a f/2.8 56mm lens. It’s portrait mode creates beautiful photographs, artificially blurring the background, and, with the right app (in my case, I’m using the ProCamera app) I can save the photo in RAW format, using Adobe’s DNG format. Imagine, raw from a phone. Is it any good, though? I’ll let you be the judge. You can learn more about the camera in this article in Popular Science.

These were shot over the last couple of days while we’ve had beautiful, but cold, wintry days here in southern Ontario. The stark lighting is a real test for any camera system as the dynamic range is extreme. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well the iPhone handled the contrast. From what I understand, the camera now always does exposure blending by taking three exposures almost simultaneously then automatically combining them into a single photograph, commonly called HDR.

The photo below was made along one of the many backroads we took driving down to Burlington on Christmas Day. The late afternoon sun was made hazy by the falling snow – a scene that was begging to be photographed. I took a number of different shots and settled on this one, slightly cropped from the full photograph. I saved it as a raw file, to ensure maximum latitude while processing. That being said, Apple’s new HEIF file format (PhoneArena review), which iOS 11 now uses instead of JPEGS ticks many of the boxes for advantages: up to 16-bit colour (jpeg is 8-bit) including animation and transparency, yet a smaller file size (about ½ compared to jpeg) and far superior compression with fewer artefacts.

Web version with border and white framing from Lightroom and LR/Mogrify
This is the initial raw file, cropped, but not processed. It appears dark as the emphasis was on retaining the highlights. The full-size image is linked for you to view pixel-level quality.
Here is the full-resolution (linked) processed version of the same file.
Lightroom Before/After comparison with processing values to the right.
Portrait mode, no flash

So far, I’m pleased with the results. Even the Portrait mode is well worth the additional cost of the “Plus” version of the iPhone 8. And the Slow-Synch flash, which doubles as a flashlight/torch, is a bonus which provides very pleasing fill light. Why not an iPhone 10? The additional cost pushed it over my budget. Besides, the iPhone 8 Plus is built on tried and tested technology.

I’ll be shooting more with it over the next few days, so if you have any questions or comments, fire away.

Will it replace my other photo gear? For walking around, yes, but for serious photography, not yet. Who knows, though, the iPhone 8 Plus might still have a few tricks up its sleeve.