Tag: gear (page 1 of 1)

DXO Deep Prime

Software powered by AI or machine learning appears to be the coming wave in image processing. Skylum – makers of Aurora and Luminar – Topaz Labs and Corel all emphasise the role of AI in their recent advertising and Adobe, with rather less fanfare, is developing and expanding its library of ‘neural filters’ for Photoshop.

My knowledge of how this technology works is close to zero but as far as my limited understanding goes what makes these apps different from ‘traditional’ approaches to processing is that they are ‘trained’ through analysis of vast numbers of images – Adobe claims their Super Resolution feature is trained on millions of images. (As an aside, this suggest to me that the only ‘intelligence’ at work here is the human intelligence of those creating this technology and that ‘machine learning’ is a much more apposite term.)

Many of the AI powered features highlighted in recent advertising appear to function like slightly more sophisticated versions of existing filters, or are designed to process images in ways that I have no interest in – creating flawless skin, replacing or reshaping eyes, or dropping in a completely new sky. Beyond the headline features, though, machine learning is creating some genuinely interesting and useful capabilities. I’ve already assessed one of these in two previous posts on Adobe’s Super Resolution, and a couple of days ago I downloaded a trial version of DXO’s Deep Prime, an AI powered denoising utility which is part of their PureRAW stand alone program. Here are my impressions.

First, I found a nice noisy photograph. The picture was taken in the evening by the B&O canal in Georgetown in Washington DC. While I intended to work from the original untouched RAW file I did eventually decide to boost the exposure because the original was very dark. The picture was taken with a Sony Rx100 at 1/6th of a second and f4 while stabilised on the handrail of the bridge I was standing on to get the shot. ISO was 3200. The image below is a JPEG exported from the Sony ARW file with no adjustments other than the boost to the exposure and Lightroom’s default colour noise and sharpening settings turned off. As you can see there is plenty of noise in the image. (For a closer look in each case right click on the image and ‘open image in new tab’.)

From the original Sony RAW file

Bringing the file (or multiple files) into DXO PureRAW is straightforward though you can’t do it directly from within Lightroom. Either open PureRAW and click on ‘add photos’ or right click directly on any photo in File Explorer and select ‘open with’ DXO PureRAW. The interface is extremely simple:

Once the photo is loaded click to select the photo/s to be processed, click on ‘process photos’ and choose some basic options from the dialogue box. There are two other denoising options available but I can’t think of any reason why you would choose them over Deep Prime. You can also choose to output the processed file as a JPEG rather than DNG, but again I don’t know why you would do that since the whole point of the feature is that you can denoise using DXO technology and still complete the rest of your processing in Lightroom. Choose your detination folder and click on ‘process’. On my laptop (6th gen. i7 2.6Ghz, 16GB RAM, GTX 960M GPU) processing took around 1 minute and 50 seconds and the original 20MB ARW file ended up as a near 72MB DNG file. (I believe the size increase is down to the output file being a linear DNG file, but needless to say I don’t understand what that means.) Once processing is complete you have an ‘export to…’ option which brings up a list of installed compatible editing software.

Make your choice, click on ‘export’ and DXO will launch Lightroom and take you to the import dialogue.

The key question of course is whether it is any good. My answer is a qualified ‘yes’, but I will let you judge for yourself. Below is a JPEG from the DNG created by Deep Prime after processing. I think the programme does an excellent job of removing noise, though it does introduce some softness. That said, I don’t think I could get close to this level of denoising with Lightroom, and certainly not without introducing considerably more softness in the image.

From DNG after processing in DXO Deep Prime

Fortunately, PureRAW has another trick up its sleeve which draws on DXO’s more conventional processing for lens correction. The programme downloads DXO lens correction modules and applies these to the image when processing. If you don’t have the appropriate lens module installed you will be asked if you want to download it when you add a new image. In my sample image, applying both the lens module and the denoising produces a largely noise free image which retains, or in this case exceeds, the sharpness of the original. The difference between the images with and without lens correction is clearly visible, particularly in the structure of the crane and the text on the banners attached to it. That said, further editing in Lightroom does require careful use of the sharpening, texture and clarity sliders after lens correction has been applied since I think the lens correction is something of an over-correction. (Again, right click and select ‘open image in new tab’ for a closer look.)

From DNG after processing in DXO Deep Prime with lens module corrections

So, why a qualified yes? Two reasons – one minor, one major. The minor one is cost. In the current offer period which runs until the end of May you can get DXO PureRAW for $89.99 / €89.99 / £79.99 but after that it reverts to the full price of $129 / €129 / £115. That’s quite expensive. For comparison, Topaz Labs standalone AI tools are mostly between $80-100 full price. Given that PureRAW is clearly aimed at the vast number of Lightroom users I suspect they could drop the price and sell many more licences than they will at the current price.

The major reason is that DXO PureRAW does not work with Fujifilm X-Trans sensors. It is possible to add a Fujifilm RAF X-Trans file and run the programme but the result is an image that looks like it was taken with a lens smeared with grease, as with the image below shot with a Fujifilm X-E2 at ISO 6400. Since processing this file – which is more than 50 percent bigger than the RX100 file – only takes around ten seconds I imagine it is just running it through some bog standard, default noise reduction process.

I have seen some reviews expressing a preference for more control over how the denoising is applied. I can understand why, but I’m happy to have something that doesn’t require yet more choices and decisions from me before I run it. If anything, I would prefer to have an option to dial back the impact of the lens correction which seems (in this module for the Sony RX100) to be a little aggressive.

From the original Fujifilm RAF file
From DNG after processing in DXO Deep Prime

If you don’t use Fujifilm cameras with X-Trans sensors, or if you have a lot of images shot on older less capable sensors, then DXO PureRAW might be worth it for you, despite the price. For people like me, who mostly shoot Fujifilm X-Trans, the calculation is different. Do I have enough noisy images from older non-Fuji sensors I want to clean up? Do I shoot enough with non-Fujifilm cameras? I like the program but I’m not quite convinced I need it.

Finally, here is the first image after processing in Deep Prime and some further processing in Lightroom.

Backblaze to iDrive

I’ve been using Backblaze to backup my images (and everything else) for around three years now. For $60 a year I get unlimited backup via an app that runs quietly in the background with a relatively light footprint. Unfortunately, in the last week to ten days Backblaze started acting up. I contacted support – who got back to me within one day as promised – but despite following their suggested fixes it is still not working.

Out of curiosity I did a little online searching for alternatives and came across iDrive which is not only highly recommended by multiple reputable reviewers, but has a great offer for users of competing products. Simply provide proof that you have a current paid account with a competitor and you get the first year on iDrive for $6.95! The only downside is that there is an upper storage limit of 5 TB, though at the moment I’m only at 4TB so should be good for a while. After the first year the subscription reverts to the normal price of around $70 – slightly more than Backblaze, but close enough.

One advantage of iDrive is that you control whether files deleted from your drives are also deleted from the backup. With Backblaze, delete a file on your drive and it is automatically deleted on the back up, though these are recoverable for 30 days, or longer if you pay a little extra. With iDrive deleted files on your drives remain in your backup until you decide to remove them. You can do so with one click of the ‘Archive Cleanup’ button. Unfortunately, this does not work for external drives so these have to be tidied up manually. Since almost all my data is on external drives this is a little annoying. Another advantage is that the iDrive account allows you to back up from multiple computers and mobile devices, while the Backblaze account is restricted to one computer. Right now I only use it with one computer but I can see the benefit of this for people who use more than one computer or do a lot of work on mobile.

Switching means that all your data has to be uploaded to the new provider which, depending on how much data you have to backup and the speed of your connection, could end up taking weeks. iDrive offers a one-time free service allowing you to send your data to them on a drive which they then upload for you. This would certainly be convenient but I’m not clear how this affects the security of your data. Any additional uploads this way carry a fee.

I’m still working with Backblaze to see if I can solve the current problems and if I can, I plan to keep it and run both in parallel since my current Backblaze subscription is good until September. At that point I’ll decide which I prefer.

Then and Now

As a photographer, what do I do now that I did not do when I was starting out? Or, to put it the other way round, what do I no longer do that I once did? Here are seven things off the top of my head accompanied by some random photographs that have no direct relation to the words but which happen to appeal to me today.

I don’t chimp. Partly, this is because as I get older and my reading vision declines I find it harder to see anything on those tiny screens, partly because I have more confidence in my ability to shape the picture the way I want, and partly because I have more confidence in the combination of my judgement and the camera’s technology to deliver a well exposed image. Mostly it’s because while I’m looking at my little screen the world is happening and I’m not paying attention and that’s how to miss great pictures. There’s time enough for chimping on the big screen once I get home.

I don’t look for approval. While I have never been overly obsessed with this, there was a time when I posted on social media and photo sharing sites hoping that people might see my pictures and say nice things about them or at least click a button to indicate their approval. Then I deleted everything, closed the photo sharing accounts and got off social media. Now I post my pictures on my blog and on one forum I’ve been posting to on and off for about ten years. This is because…

I don’t worry. If I like a picture it’s a good picture. If the rest of the world thinks it’s rubbish, the rest of the world is wrong! Of course affirmation is nice but maturing as a photographer means maturing in your ability to judge the worth of your own images. If the worth of your images is determined by the opinions of Facebook or Flickr users you will never develop the capacity to judge your own work. If the worth of your images is determined by technical considerations you are prioritizing what is secondary.

I’ve stopped looking for the ‘Lightroom killer’. Like many Lightroom users I have, from time to time, considered alternatives that might more perfectly meet my needs. I have discovered that many so called ‘Lightroom killers’ are laughably inadequate by comparison. Only Capture 1 is in the same league. Instead of looking for the perfect software, I’ve spent my time getting to grips with the full potential of Lightroom. One of the key things I have learned in the process (photography pun intended) is how to use that great potential with subtlety. Not every image needs to be bludgeoned to sterile perfection.

I’ve abandoned processing gimmicks. No HDR, no selective colour, no AI skies or photo-shopped moons. When I process now my goal is to end up with something that looks like what I saw, or imagined I saw. To paraphrase Dieter Rams, ‘good processing is as little processing as possible’.

I keep my gear small and simple. Thankfully I’ve never been overly afflicted with Gear Acquisition Syndrome, though in the past that didn’t stop me looking. Now, I don’t even look. I have a Fujifilm X-T2, a camera from 2016 which in digital years in practically vintage. I have two lenses for it – an 18-55mm zoom that came with my previous Fuji and a 35mm. The less I have, and the less I switch cameras and brands, the better I know my camera and lenses, the more familiar they become, the more they ‘disappear’ into the background and allow me to focus on the one thing that matters.

I print. Even the biggest, brightest, most hi-tech display on the planet can’t equal the pleasure of a print. This is partly because I have yet to see a display that matches the complexity and subtlety – that word again – of a good print, but mostly because the best display in the world can’t match the tactile joy of a print in your hands.

I’m sure there are many more but those are the ones that I’m conscious of and that come to mind when I try to think about the ways my approach to photography has changed.

Nikkor AI-S 105 f2.5

I recently picked up the Nikon AI-S 105mm f2.5 lens. I attached it to my FM2n and over the last couple of weeks I have been out and about around Sofia shooting with it. I got the developed film back yesterday and scanned the negatives last night. So here are some thoughts on the lens and some sample shots.

First, the lens itself. Having already bought a 24mm, 35mm and 50mm for my Nikon I was looking for something a little longer for occasional use. The obvious option was one of the various AI or AI-S 85mm lenses but for some reason these do tend to be expensive even by Nikon standards. I was aware of the 105mm/f2.5 having read many good things about it but considered the focal length to be a little more that I wanted.

However, when one showed up for just under $200 in very good condition I decided to try it. The AI-S version of this lens was introduced in 1981 and continued in production until 2005. From the serial number mine appears to be a very early copy. As far as I can ascertain the optical design of this lens goes back much further having been introduced in 1971. That in turn was an optically redesigned version of the original 105mm/f2.5 introduced in 1954. Over time the 1971 version added Nikon’s integrated coating and was adapted mechanically for Nikon’s new automatic indexing system.

The 1971 lens was designed by Yoshiyuki Shimizu who was responsible for many of Nikon’s most famous lenses. The lens has five elements in four groups and is sometimes described as a Gauss type design, though Nikon’s website describes it as a Xenotar type lens. The Xenotar itself is described as a hybrid between the Gauss type and the Topogon type. Confused? Me too. I’ll leave those of you interested in these matters to do your own research. You might start with the Nikon’s own history page for the lens and take it from there.

As with most lenses of this vintage the 105mm/f2.5 is a solid piece of kit made mostly of metal and glass and weighing in at 435g or just under 1lb. The focus ring turns smoothly and evenly and rotates through roughly 150°. Closest focus is 1 metre or just over 3 feet. The aperture ring is similarly smooth and even with well defined clicks at each full stop. This lens has a maximum aperture of f2.5 which is marked on the lens body and while there is no mark for f2.8 there is a click stop for it. Minimum aperture is f22. Everything is engraved as you would expect and the aperture markings have Nikon’s traditional depth of field colour coding. Up front the lens takes 52mm filters, like every other AI and AI-S lens I own. In short, if you have ever owned or used an AI or AI-S lens you will know exactly what to expect.

It’s actually quite a compact lens — 2.5″ wide and just over 3″ long — and feels very well balanced on my FM2. It is shortest at infinity and extends around half an inch as you focus in closer. The AI-S version added a retractable built in lens hood which blends in very well with the overall design. It slides out smoothly and snaps into place with a distinctive click. I rarely use a lens hood but it is nice to have it available without having to carry it as an extra.

I could try and describe the results this lens produces but I believe that this is largely a subjective matter so instead I will add some images and let you decide for yourself. The images were shot on three separate days around Sofia using the lens on my FM2n. All were shot on Kodak Ektar.

First, a couple of shots taken in the colonnades that surround the building housing the Council of Ministers and the Constitutional Court, and a view over the rooftop and domes of the Sofia History Museum, formerly the public bathhouse.

Next a couple of pictures taken at the ‘Zhenski Pazar’ – the Women’s Market – in downtown Sofia. This is the place to buy cheap, fresh produce. Unlike the supermarkets everything here is sold in season so while you may not be able to get everything you want all year round what you can get it is always fresh.

Some sculpture next. The first picture is of a bust of Ronald Reagan that stands in Yuzhen Park. This picture was shot with the lens wide open at f2.5 and gives some idea of the rendering of the out of focus areas. The two following images are of a statue of Patriarch Euthymius of Tarnovo, a 14th century Bulgarian saint. The first was taken at f8 and the second at f2.5 so you can compare the way in which the lens presents the background.

Now a couple of shots from one of my favourite places in Sofia. These are the mineral water fountains that deliver year round hot spring water.

Three more shots to go. These are some of my favourite shots from this roll. The first is one of those shots that appeal for no obvious reason. It could be the combination of strong vertical and horizontal lines. Or perhaps the echo of the pedestrian crossing sign in the actual pedestrian crossing the street. Or maybe the street on the right of the image receding into the distance which adds some depth. Or possibly the light and shadow. Or perhaps some combination of all of these elements.

Next is a shot taken outside the Saint Nedelya Church in central Sofia. I spotted the two men framed by the sun shining through the archway and waited for someone else to enter the frame. Eventually the woman, who had just left the church, did so and I got this shot. I liked the grouping of the people in the image and the way in which they are all framed by the sunlight through the arch.

Finally, this shot was taken near the mineral water springs where there is a tram stop. I pre-focused and waited for a passing tram. When one stopped in front of me I took a couple of shots of which this was the best.

So that is the Nikon Nikkor 105mm f2.5 AI-S lens. If you are a Nikon shooter using manual focus lenses the 105mm/f2.5 is worth your consideration even if it is not a focal length you typically use. The combination of compact size and optical quality is hard to beat.