Dec 1, 2012

What's on my mind, actually

Since in China (it's already 2 month!), I wrote Blogposts in my living room, at the airport gate, on the plane and some more places, but I did not write one from the all and foremost celebrated blogging locations at all - a Starbucks. Today, I'm going to fill that gap, as every "modern bohemian, digital native, mobile worker, not having somewhere else to be" should.

In my case, I eventually planned to go out to the next Starbucks here in Solana Mall just to get this one post done (seems I am slightly beyond that frontier of digital native birth years anyway). Still, here I am, sipping my Caffe Americano, tall (which in fact is the smallest cup you can buy - never understood why they dont just call it as it is - small, anyway still an expensive piece of drink for some "hot water") and writing these lines into my girlfriends iPad. I can literally hear you thinking "what is that guy talking about digital natives, having to borrow an i...or whatsoever...Pad from his sweetheart".

I must admit, I never have been an early adopter when it comes to hardware. For me it just doesn't pay of paying that extra money for doing real world tests on "beta" stuff. I jumped on the iPhone train with #4 (without S), and will eventually go with the new "4th generation" iPad Mini. I also stick with my MacBook late 2009 (though upgraded a bit - 8GB RAM, 160GB SSD, 500GB HDD) and not get the Air - or new Pro models, yet.

As some of you might starting to wonder where I am going, as this is about photography most part of the day, let's link to the initial subject I extended to write about: my struggle to decide on how to further extend my photography gear. That's what's in my gearbag today:
Fujifilm X100 together with
some Flashes, Lightstands, Modifiers and small stuff (memory cards, card reader, wireless triggers)

Being happy with the X100 and it's fixed lens concept ever since buying it last spring, I am now beginning to hit the 35mm lens restrictions. Not because I could not learn much more using it creating much more stunning pictures, but because I miss the creative possibilities of highly compressing, tele lenses for portrait work, or even landscape or travel stuff. I did shoot everything from Makro (only test wise, at this moment I do not think I will ever get much into that type of photography) to landscape to cities to portraits (more environmental ones, considering the 35mm which in fact are not even real 35mm but only due to the X100 sensor's crop factor) and in each kind of shot I could learn and improve continuously, never even having to worry about lens or camera constraints.

In China however, I started to get into the Strobist thing a bit, and did my first steps along that way with results I before never would have thought being able to achieve. But with that, the restrictions especially of the X100 lens began to evolve as an limiting factor. Every indoor portrait needed a lot of cropping, the background compression in small shooting environment is nothing less than unsatisfactory, and possible shooting positions are more than limited.

Thus said, as a consequence I began thinking of how to expand into more flexible (means interchangeable lens) systems. Several options crossed my mind:
(1) Staying withe Fujis X-line, getting the newly launched X-E1
(2) Buy into one of the major camera systems Canon or Nikon
(3) Try the Mirrorless alternatives from e.g. Sony or Olympus

For the moment, I am tending towards going with option (2) Canon. The Fuji line seems - at least at the moment - to restricted in lense choices, as well as there is no full size sensor option, and Sony or Olympus just don't hit my nerve momentarily.

That said, the possibilities keep seeming endless for the Canon option:
(-) Full size or cope sensor
(-) Second hand or new model
(-) Lens choice to start with (and having to consider everything else - maybe not the card reader, to be bought for that new system as well - memory cards, spare batteries, case, strap, etc.)

Luckily, just today I came around a youtube video from Zack Arias talking about investing wisely, explaining two different options (back in 2011) he could imagine to go for starting from scratch:
(A) 5D Mark II, 85mm 1.4, 50mm 1.4 or
(B) 5D Mark I, 85mm 1.8, 50mm 1.8 (which he was suggesting)

As we are end of 2012 already, I am wondering if Zack would now substitute the used Mark I by an used Mark II, anyway we would still be talking about roughly EUR 2,000.- of initial investment incl. 1.8 lenses. Keep in mind that in my case this equipment would be used hobby-wise mainly, and that sooner or later I would want to add a good zoom lens for traveling as well. As I do not so much care about all that "fancy" stuff, I would wish to have fully user definable programs (miss that now on my Fujifilm, not being able to quickly switch between an off camera flash setting and an high auto iso small aperture natural light setting instantly), tethering and remote (without cable) triggering capability.

Still, there is the option of staying with crop size, getting a 7D, which undoubtedly offers an impressive value for money ratio. I do not need the high continuous burst rate at the moment, as well as I am used to the single focus point of the X100, but wouldn't it be nice to have some good in focus shots of my ever moving neves and neviews?

As I finished my coffee already a while ago, and this Starbucks post thing really expanded to a lot more lines than planned, I'll sum it up here and now with: not decided, yet - will keep gathering information, as I am in no hurry and will keep shooting with my X100. Deadline to decide: January 2013, when back home in Austria, and the options for buying camera gear (with intl warranty) are there again.

Greetings, Steve

Nov 22, 2012

Busy in China

That's how fast two weeks go by without a blogpost, which was partly planned to happen this way, and partly not. As the post title suggest, I was busy here the last weeks, ending up in another trip to Shanghai the last days as well. In addition, Internet connection issues (new modem necessary) and a bad cold added up to that, causing an even longer blog absence than planned. Still lying in bed trying get totally rid of my cold, I'll give you a short update on what happend in November so far:
  • Another visit to Wukesong Camera market: added up to my lightning gear incl. 60x60 Softbox, 2 Umbrellas refelective&shoot through, a medium snoot, a third Yongnuo YN 460-II Speedlite, 2 more Yongnuo YN603C Transceivers and 2 Travel light stands. I managed to do a first setup at home, but after that the issues mentioned above hindered me on doing any more test shots, yet - Update on this will definitely follow
  • Visit to the Great Wall: thanks to my Surui Tripod with some fine landscape photo results
  • Travel to Shanghai: staying for 4 days, enjoying the almost perfect weather in my free time mainly indoors - due to my cold getting worse - meaning hotel room or Starbucks / McDonalds with fast, free and reliable Internet connection! (big difference to Beijing here). For some reason - I guess because of the cold - I could not enjoy the Chinese food as much as I used to, making the stay my first western fast food eating since some 8 weeks
Besides that, I had some time to fill with reading, which led me to use a promotional offer from Craft&Vision to buy 5 e-books with an discount. This means my photography related library now consists of 10 ebooks (Newly added Finding Focus, Slow, Great light Easy light, Essential development, Growing the visionmonger).

Greetings Steve

Nov 2, 2012

Day 2 Night: getting rid of ambient light using my flash(s)

After the first Strobe Testshots gave great results, I was into it for more. So I started reading around on the Web and was looking for some educational material, when I found the Craft&Vision Website. Convinced by there fair eBook prices, I got myself the "Making Light"-Bundle and read through both parts in a flow. Most interesting news from part one, being a photography and flash newbie: Aperture controls flash, shutter speed controls ambient!

Putting my knew learned knowledge into action, I tried two different setups at home using one and two of my Yingnuo YN460-IIs, all during a sunny day.

Setting 1: Self portrait on our red couch, against south-window. Flash 1 through white umbrella, positioned about 45° on right side of face, pointing slightly downwards. Second "fill" flash standing on table at left side of face, using a small 16x22cm Softbox-diffusor, pointing upwards.

Ambient shot, recognize the sunny day
Two flash shot, ambient light slightly underexposed
Flash positions revealed - ambient fully underexposed 
Final Self-portrait result 
I did some final editing in Lightroom, as you will have recognized by the color key setting, slightly reducing the overall exposure while adding some highlights - all done in a minute.

Setting 2: "Product"-shots in the middle of our living room, one flash with 16x22cm Softbox-diffusor used "hand-held", lowest setting, camera on tripod.

Ambient shot with straight flash
(black chair used as "stand")
Camera settings reduced to completely darken ambient light
Final result with flash pointing downwards from top front
Second try, some more finishing work was necessary here
Finally, my Oakley
(could have used the second flash here to highlight from behind)

I am perfectly happy with these results, even in non-ideal environment (no backdrop, umbrella reflections etc.), which makes me looking forward doing more "Strobist" work.

Greetings, Steve

Oct 31, 2012

First Speedlite "Test"-Shots

Getting my two Yongnuo YN560-II some 10 days ago, I did my first "real" remote, off-camera test shots last week in preparation for the Beijing Paulaner Oktoberfest on the 26th. Before showing you the results, here´s the first ever off-camera, remotely triggered flash photo taken (Gear: Fujifilm X100, 2 Yongnuo RF 603C, Yongnuo Speedlie YN460-II; Location: Wukesong Camera Market, District, Beijing):

First Off-Camera Flash ever fired, via X100
For our Oktoberfest-Shots, setup was done in our apartment entrance, with a white cupboard curtain as backdrop. This is what the scene looked like without the flashes:

Dark room, no flash
And here´s the results with one Speedlite setup in front of us, positioned slightly above our heads with an white shoot-through umbrella. The second speedlite positioned on top of the cupboard, firing downwards on the white curtain, built in 35mm diffusor and reflector both used:

See the flash difference ;-)
My Fuji X100 not being a perfect portrait tool with it´s 35mm lens, and given the small space, I did some cropping on the pictures later in Lightroom. Nevertheless, the difference in pictures is impressive, and makes me looking forward using my Speedlites regularely.

Finally, my girl´s "Dirndl" portrait
Greetings, Steve

Oct 26, 2012

Expanding my photo gear: Strobes

Last time I wrote about my expanded photographic possibilities by adding a Sirui Tripod to my (most basic) photo gear. Since then, my Fujifilm X100 and the Sirui 1205X proofed a perfect match, even I am hesitating whether I should have gone with the next larger tripod for better maximum height (vs. lower weight).

Even before I got my tripod, I was reading a lot about using Flashlights and especially enjoyed the "Strobist" Blog. But I never made the next step. Recently here in China, I came upon the Strobist 101 again by chance, and re-read the whole stuff - again, I was excited, but this time decided to get into it myself. First, I wanted to go with one of the state-of-the-art Canon EL´s or Nikon SB´s ("buy it right the first time"), but the Strobist got me hooked on the Chinese stuff, because I am actually living here at the moment, so why not by "local" ;-) Also, I found the price tags very compelling, so to be able to get into that Strobist thing with a lower initial investment.
Wukesong Camera Market - Jackie C.
Wukesong Camera Market - the other side
Lighting Shop 
Said, done - today I headed for Wukesong Camera Market on the other side of town, which was a good 1 hout trip per subway and walk. Against the warnings to not go there without a local, I decided to go for it, and see how my improved basic Chinese language skills would work out. This to be said, it worked perfectly well, together with some "sign language" and prepared iPhone screenshots of some equipment I was looking for, I was able to get all I wanted, at a reasonable price. Which is:
  • Flash: YongNuo Speedlite YN460-II (2x)
  • Wireless Trigger: Yongnuo RF-603C (3x)
It´s Twins!
Additionally, i picked up some real bargain stuff:
  • 42" Circle 5 in 1 Reflector
  • 16x22cm on Flash Diffusor
  • White "see-through" Flash Umbrella
  • 2,2m Flash stand with metal Flash/Umbrella clamp
Speedlite Set Up
and got my Flashes and Triggers equipped with rechargeable batteries:
  • Sanyo Speed Charger incl. 8xAA (eneloop 2.000mAH), and 10xAAA (eneloop 750mAH)

All together, I ended up quite exactly at 1.600RMB, about 205 EUR. For the Speedlites YN460-II I paid something like 60EUR for both, the Triggers where about 10EUR each and the extra stuff came between 1EUR (being the Umbrella) and 8 EUR (being the Stand). Status: Very happy, firing my first Strobe-shots!

Greetings, Steve

Oct 18, 2012

Training in China: Pulse Health Club

Since last week, I started to train here in China, of course using my Ambit. But let me start right at the beginning, which is how we found a proper gym / health club.

In Beijing there seem to be a lot of so called health clubs, but after following up on google, we got the impression that there might be a habit of some just collecting the membership fee and then closing down the facility, with the manager never been seen again. Furthermore, even some seemed quite interesting, the distance to get there was quite far. Last, the prices for health club / gym memberships here are at western level or higher, meaning that a 100 to 200 EUR per month is no exception.

We also found the Pulse Health Club located at the Kempinski hotel in Chaoyang District, which casually is just located a 3 minute walk from the workplace of my girlfriend, and a 10 minute walk from our apartment. After checking out the location, we signed up for a couple quarterly membership which was priced well at the lower end of the membership fee ranges we found, while the club itself is offering high quality standards (2 separate facilities, each with cardio and weight training area, a 15m Pool, Jacuzzi, Sauna, towels and slippers for each guest, free water and apples, of course showers with hair and shower gel, and nice good-english speaking staff).

18th floor Pool

Additionally, there are offered free courses like Yoga, Pilates, Tae Bo, Latin Dance as well as paid courses like Kung Fu and Childrens Ballet (I think i will probably check out Kung Fu, though ;-))

In my first training session, immediately after we had done the inscription formalities, we went to the 18th floor facility to have a 20min swim in the pool, and afterwards checked out the cardio area, with me getting on the bike and my girlfriend checking out the cross trainer. The bike worked surprisingly well, with Watt-controlled manual programs as I am used to do at home. Each piece of cardio equipment has it´s separate TV screen, which I really got used to during the last sessions.

Additionally, Kempinski offers a free WLAN with really good connectivity also in the training area, so I used to add some Email and file checking after my morning training sessions regularly. With opening hours from 6am to 10:30pm, you can quite easily spend some time there all over the day.

NW view while checking Emails in the Lobby
Greetings, Steve

Oct 13, 2012

Extending my photographic possibilities

After a long time arguing whether I would need a tripod or not, I finally decided that it would be a valuable extension of my photographic possibilities. Especially the family shooting we did on our farewell weekend to China, some 3 weeks ago, where I used a tripod the first time, supported this decision. It was really nice to have serial shots with exactly the same framing, even allowing to copy - paste the crop data from one developed photo to another, and getting perfectly matching results. Furthermore, I got interested in doing multiple exposure pictures, making a tripos absolutely necessary.

Thus said, I figured out where to best buy photo equipment in Beijing during the last days and visited Ray!´s photo on Soho Old Town yesterday. Easier said than done, as Ray!´s is not a shop in the storefront of Soho building, but located behind a small entrance, hallway and stairs up to the first floor. When leaving Line 1 at Dawanglu station, Exit D, turn left and follow the shops until you see this:

Watch out for Ray!´s sign
I did manage to walk by twice, not knowing that I did have to look for a small entrance rather than shop windows. After you follow a short hallway and go upstairs, you directly enter the store.

Entering Ray!´s
As expected, I faced only very basic English language skills, making me use a strange mix of Chinenglish and gestures to communicate with the shop guy. A week before, i already had an eye on a Sirui tripod on Wangfujing Road, but with a price of 2.400kuai and a quite heavy weight, it was aluminium though, I decided not to go with it. Today, again I faced a bunch of Siruis, as well as a few Manfrottos and some Gitzos. As I wanted the tripod still to be portable, say during a days city walk, and shoot with the Fujifilm X100 only, i looked at some smaller sized travel-tripods, finally ending up with a Sirui TX-1205 Carbon. I had a direct comparison in weight to the same model in aluminium, and  I could feel the weight-difference already in the store. I also tried the bigger 2204 from Sirui, but was not convinced due to weight and size in folded position. So that´s what my "extended" setup now looks like, ready for the upcoming weekend´s photo sessions:

X100 & Sirui Dream Team
Big plus: besides getting some kuais off the initial price, I also got a very good exchange rate on my credit card, which made the 5% fee that is charged for non-chinese cards obsolete.

Even bigger plus at home: I found that Sirui prices back home in Europe as well as in the US are way above what I paid for, already including the G10 ballhead ;-)

By the way, Ray´s already had the Fujifilm EX1 in the store, besides the X100 and X-Pro, as well as a good selection of Nikons and Canons, including a bunch of 5D Mark IIIs.

Greetings, Steve