Thursday, August 16, 2012

How to photograph fireworks


Taking nice pictures of fireworks is easier than you think. The only difficulty is that you need some equipment. Here's a list of what you'll need:

1) a sturdy tripod
2) a cable release (so you don't induce shake by touching the camera)
3) a DSLR capable of having mirror lockup function (not essential, see below)
4) a nice position overlooking the fireworks
5) patience for trial & error

Probably the most important point is getting to your location early, so that you can install yourself in a good spot. If it's already dark, it's a good idea to take a flashlight with you, as not all cameras have back-light LCDs (mine doesn't).
Ideally you want a high point, with not only sky included, as that quickly becomes boring. If you are able to find a spot with reflections on a lake and recognizable buildings, that's ideal. For the example pictures below, I was much too far to get any lake reflections, but you can clearly recognize Geneva's cathedral.

fireworks over Geneva

Set up your tripod, and frame the shot. Be sure to leave enough free space for the fireworks in your composition (and check this again when they have started).

Set the camera on manual focus, as it will not be able to auto-focus in the dark. In my case, I set focus on infinity, as I was very far away. I used a Canon 450D, with a 70-200 lens set at 200mm and a 1.4x multiplier. The final equivalent focal length in full frame format(adding the 1.5x crop factor of the 450D) is 420mm.

If your lens has image stabilization (IS in Canon speak, or VR in Nikon speak), turn it off. Since you're already on a tripod, there is no need for further stabilization.
If you have any filters on your lens, take them off. I have noticed that when I left my UV filter on, I got strange green ghosts in the image. Nothing irremovable in post, but a pain nevertheless.

fireworks over Geneva

For these pictures I used the following settings: ISO 100 (the minimum), f/8.0, and bulb mode. You want to control all three settings manually, so find out how to do that in your user manual.

Bulb mode means that your camera will stay open the time you depress the remote cable release.

Before shooting, you will also need to put your camera in mirror lockup mode. In the case of the Canon 450D, this is a custom function, so it's not easily accessible. If you don't find it, fear not. It's not totally essential, but it ensures less camera shake. Mirror lockup tells the camera to put up the mirror, before you open the shutter. This minimizes any vibrations inside the camera.

So once you've set manual focus, manual ISO, manual aperture (anything between f/5.6 - f/11 should do), and manual time (bulb mode), you're ready to shoot!

fireworks over Geneva

If you're using mirror lockup, remember that the first time you depress the shutter on the cable release, it will just instruct the camera to put the mirror up. You then need to depress the shutter again, and leave it down for the exposure time you want. I typically shot between 4 and 7 seconds. Here you need to experiment. You need to visualize where the fireworks are exploding. If they explode at multiple places, then the exposure should be shorter. You need to judge the amount of light that comes onto the sensor. If the fireworks pop slowly, you can leave the shutter open longer. If you're shooting the finale, then it must be shorter. Check your LCD after a couple of shots and you'll get the hang of it.

fireworks over Geneva

In the end, it's more luck than science. Sometimes you can shoot a nice sequence with difference types of fireworks at different heights. Other times, the picture will just be a huge mess, with too much clutter.

In any case, don't hesitate to shoot a lot of frames and shoot quickly (at the start of the show). You never know how much wind and smoke there will be after a couple of minutes of fireworks.

And lastly, when you pack up, be sure to check you haven't forgotten anything before you leave!

That's it for me. Let me know in the comments if you have any other tips & tricks.

fireworks over Geneva

Monday, July 30, 2012

Nendaz Alphorn Festival

Mountain Lake with cloud reflections

Every year in July, the best Alphorn players reunite in Haute-Nendaz (Valais, Switzerland) for the Festival international du cors des Alpes. This year I had the pleasure to be there and here are some pictures I took with mainly my Fuji X-Pro1 and the 35mm ƒ/1.4 lens.

Nendaz Alphorn Festival 2012

On Saturday, about 100 alphorn players compete in Haute-Nendaz. The jury is in a closed tent and cannot be influenced by seeing who is playing (as most alphorn players are well-known, it's a small family). They select 10 finalists to compete on Sunday, which takes place at the top of the mountain, in Tracouet. Again, the jury sits in a closed tent and select the 3 best players.

Nendaz Alphorn Festival

There are also other activities taking place, as a giant alphorn concert with 180 alphorns that day. I was mostly interested in this, as my father was amongst them. I must say, it sounded really great: on top of a quiet mountain, no other sounds than the alphorns.

Nendaz Alphorn Festival

Other typical Swiss folklore activities where presented. For example the cow bell swingers from the group "Les S'naillons de Torgon". Those cow bells must weight a ton, as they were really extremely loud!

Les S'naillons de Torgon

As for food, it was typical valaisan food too. I discovered a double raclette oven, and the server even told me there existed triple versions as well. Raclette is heated cheese, where they take half of a round cheese and grate off the top when it's hot. Highly recommended, it's delicious! And do not confuse this with a cheaper version where you buy little pre cut square cheese and heat it with an electric plate at home.

Traditional Swiss Raclette Cheese

The panorama was really beautiful, with the sun shining just what was needed. Here's a panoramic picture taken with my iPhone.

Nendaz Alphorn Festival

If you're in the Valais in July, I would highly recommend you go see this festival. This was the 11th edition. The 12th edition will take place from July 26-28, 2013.

You can see some more pictures on my Flickr photostream. Thanks for looking!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Fuji X-Pro1 review: slow down, take it easy!

I have used the Fuji X-Pro1 for about one month now, and shot about 1000 frames with it. This is not a technical review of the camera; you can find a lot of those already on the web. But I wanted to share my impressions of the shooting experience.

Targeted users

My impression is that Fuji brought out the X-Pro1 for high-end enthusiastic photographer (hence the "Pro" name and high price tag). If you know how aperture, speed, and ISO work together, and are willing to take time to compose a shot, then this camera will certainly suit you. If you are shooting fast moving objects (sports or even kids), then you are probably not going to like the X-Pro1 because of its slow autofocus and shutter lag (see AF discussion below). I've seen some reports from people who thought they were "ripped off" by Fuji after buying the X-Pro1. I can understand that, because this is not your typical point and shoot camera. Neither is it a DSLR replacement. It takes time to really understand the camera and get accommodated with this new style of shooting. It takes some effort to get the picture you want; it's not a point and click machine!

Physical impressions

Overall the camera is well built, although the bottom paint is a bit fragile in my opinion. The first time I saw it, I thought it would be much heavier in hand. That is really a great surprise, as both the body and Fuji lenses I have (18mm ƒ/2.0 and 35mm ƒ/1.4) are very lightweight. My intention was mainly to use the X-Pro1 for travel photography, as I was tired of lugging around my Canon 450D and the heavy lenses on family trips. The change was very welcome!

Shooting style

This is where I had to adapt myself most. Being used to optical viewfinders from DSLRs, I really wanted to get the same feeling in a smaller camera. There were numerous mirror less cameras, but most of them didn't have an optical viewfinder. I had long looked at the Fuji X100 and a friend let me try it. I really enjoyed it and almost ended up getting one. My major reluctance was that it had only one fixed focal length, and I didn't know if I could shoot like that. In the end, it was this friend who recommended I get the X-Pro1! The big innovation is the hybrid viewfinder: both optical and electronic. That means that you can either look through the optical viewfinder (OVF) like a DSLR, even though you don't actually look through the lens. You're just looking through a "hole" in the camera, with superimposed frame lines to show you the approximate frame the camera will shoot. These frame lines adapt when you change lenses; there is even a different magnifying glass that pops into the viewfinder when you switch between the 18mm and 35mm lenses. Very clever stuff, but I wonder how the thing will work when Fuji brings out zoom lenses. (Which are planned to come out later.)

A major drawback of the OVF is that you don't really see exactly what you will be shooting due to the slight difference of point of view between your eye and the camera's lens. This is called the parallax effect, and it's all the more pronounced the closer objects are to the camera. It's like putting one finger in front of your left eye: with both eyes you still see it, but if you close your left eye, it's gone. Focusing with the OVF is also quite "unconventional". By that, I mean that you will not be sure where the camera focused, as there are no focus point confirmations. Instead, you can see two rectangles in the center of the frame which will light up green when the focus is acquired. The rectangle in the center is for the far distance focus, and the dashed rectangle a bit more on the right and down, is for the closer focus. If the camera acquires focus close to the camera (say your subject is about 1m away), then the right rectangle will light up. If the focus is at infinity, the center rectangle will light up. And if the subject is in between, the green rectangle will be somewhere between the 2. It's more complicated to explain than seeing it! But in any case, it does take some time to get used to it and understanding intuitively where the camera focused. It’s a bit like learning to switch gears in a manual car when you’ve only driven automatics.

The other way to shoot is through the electronic viewfinder (EVF). This means that you get a real live view of what the sensor is seeing being projected into the viewfinder. This is the most accurate way of shooting, and the mandatory way in macro mode. I personally don't like it too much, maybe because I'm not used to it, but I find that it strains my eye quite a bit. The refresh rate is not quick enough for my liking. If I need to use the live view, I actually prefer to use the back LCD for that.

If you want a more detailed explanation, I'd suggest reading this good article.

AutoFocus (AF)

AF is probably the area where the photographer has to adapt the most, coming from a DSLR world. On my Canon DSLR I use the * button to acquire focus on the central focus point and then recompose. This works fairly well, except at really shallow depth of field (low F values). The only time I really care about recomposing is when I shoot with my very fast prime (the Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.4 lens) full open at ƒ/1.4. DSLRs use phase detection AF while the Fuji X-Pro1 uses contrast detection. This means that on the X-Pro1, ideally, you should focus on a contrasted area, say something changing from black to white. This works great with shadows for example. You can also make the AF area smaller or larger, which I found really useful. I've set it to a smaller than default size and for me, focus seems to work better. You can also change the placement of the focus point to very far places like the corners of the frame; something that is totally impossible with a DSLR. Focus on the X-Pro1 is acquired when you half press the shutter button or use the dedicated AF button when using manual focus mode. One of the major flaws of the camera in my opinion is not so much the time it takes to get correct focus, but the shutter lag after that focus acquisition. Sometimes the camera can take a long time to shoot the frame; it's not always the case and I'm not sure why this happens. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the buffer writing (I use a fast Sandisk Extreme Pro 95MB/s card). It seems more like an electronic lag with the light measuring and aperture blades closing and re-opening. Hopefully this will be fixed soon by a firmware upgrade. To avoid this lag, some people have suggested pressing the shutter button down firmly, avoiding the half way AF acquisition altogether.

Image Quality (IQ)

This is where the Fuji X-Pro1 really shines! This is why I bought it in the first place. Even though the sensor is only an APS-C sized sensor, the picture quality can be compared to a full-frame sensor. Some people say it’s comparable to a Canon 5D Mk II. I don’t have a full frame camera so I can’t really compare, but it’s true the IQ is absolutely stunning. I am a big fan of shallow depth of field images, especially for portraits, with beautiful bokeh. This camera really convinced me on that point. You can see some examples of portraits shot wide open at the end (you can click on them to get bigger sizes). And I'm not even talking about high ISO pictures here, but they are absolutely amazing; ISO 3200 is perfectly useable.

Using the Fuji X-Pro1 with other lenses

Fuji X-Pro1 with Nikon Series E 50mm ƒ/1.8 lens

The beauty of this camera is that you can buy adapters for a lot of older legacy lenses. The purists will love the Leica M adapter, now officially available from Fuji. I bought a cheaper version on eBay (before Fuji’s came out) and got the chance to try some Leica lenses. I also bought the Canon EF mount adapter, but found it less desirable. Indeed, the EF (or EF-S) lenses don’t have an aperture ring adapter on them. This means that you will be shooting the lenses fully open (the lowest F number), which is not always good. Indeed, some lenses give poor image quality fully open. For example, my EF 50mm ƒ/1.4 lens is quite useless. It gives purple fringing and chromatic aberration to the image. For that reason I also purchased a Nikon F mount adapter as well as a cheap pancake lens (the Nikon Series E 50mm ƒ/1.8, see my other posts for more detail about that lens). This lens lets me adjust aperture directly on it, and it performs admirably well even fully open. It is totally incredible in fact; it must be one of the best quality/price ratio I’ve ever seen! One of the major negatives to using these legacy lenses is that you will lose AF. On the other hand, exposure metering still works flawlessly and the mysterious shutter lag is now gone. Adjusting focus manually is a bit difficult at first. Either you have excellent eyes and can do it fairly precisely with the back LCD, or you can see a 10x magnified image when you press the command dial. 10 x magnification is in fact huge for portraits. It works well with the 50mm lens, but with the 90mm I tried, you really need to have a steady hand, otherwise you’ll quickly feel sea sick! I wish Fuji would let us adjust the magnifying ratio by turning the command wheel while in magnification mode. Hopefully Fuji will also be adding focus peaking (check out this video to see focus peaking in action). Focus peaking would be really great, and make the manual focus process so much easier (even with Fuji’s own lenses).

Fuji X-Pro1 with Leica 90mm ƒ/2.0

Do I recommend this camera?

Some friends have asked me if I'd recommend them this camera. As lovely as the image quality is, I've yet to recommend this camera. The reason is that it's quite technical and none of my friends are as much into photography as I am. Of course, they could put the camera into Program mode (just use A on the aperture ring, and A on the speed dial), but that's not the way this camera is supposed to be used. And finally, if you take into consideration the high price, they are probably better off with a high end point and shoot, which is more state of the art than the Fuji.


I feel that the X-Pro1 has tremendous potential, but Fuji brought it to the market a bit in a hurry. When I see how they made the X100 so much better over time with firmware updates, I can only hope this will also be true for the X-Pro1. The main areas of concern for me are really the shutter lag and manual focusing. Overall this camera will make you slow down and think about the picture you want to take. This can be both a blessing and a curse. Not being an action shooter, this is fine for me. If you are more inclined to “make pictures” instead of “taking pictures”, then you’ll be fine too.

Fujifilm XF 35mm ƒ/1.4 @1.4 Me!

Nikon Series E 50mm ƒ/1.8 @1.8 K

Nikon Series E 50mm ƒ/1.8 @1.8

Thursday, May 31, 2012

How to open the Nikon Series E 50mm 1.8 lens

After my last post describing how to open the Nikon lens from the back to clean the mechanical parts, I wanted to also clean the optics. There was some dust stuck inside the lens and my goal was to get it out.

The major problem I had was that I didn't have the proper tools to open the lens from the front. In particular, you need a friction disk to remove a ring in order to reach the front lens element. I had seen some people use double sided tape and use the back lens cover to unscrew the ring. But the most clever tip came from Michael Freeman, a canadian lens repairer who helped me out a lot (thanks Michael!). He suggested using a 1-3/4 inch (45mm) rubber sink stopper.

I went down to my local hardware hoping to find that. But they only had smaller diameters. I had to improvise another solution from what I could find there: using a big washer that I would cut to the right size. Then I needed to use a correctly sized glass that I could invert and apply pressure on the washer which in turn would make the ring turn (don‘t forget "Right You Tight it, Left You Loose it").

Here are my improvised tools (click on images for bigger versions):

Once I got that front ring off (which is threaded), it was just a matter of getting the 6 screws off and pulling the front elements out of the lens. You can then see the aperture blades underneath. I didn't go further; only blew some air in there to get the dust off. The front 2 elements also had dust stuck in between them, so I had to get them separated. There was a slight point of glue on the second element which I removed with some acetone (nail polish). Then you can unscrew the 2 elements and clean them. Reassemble exactly the same way backwards.

A schematic of the optics:

Cleaning the optical elements is easy once you have the right tool to open that ring! I hope these instructions can be helpful to somebody.

And just to show how great this little pancake lens is, check out a some pictures. When you nail the focus, sharpness is excellent for portraiture, as you don't need to have a needle sharp lens for portraits. These shots were taken at f/1.8. If you don't mind manual focus, then this lens is really worth it!

Pictures straight out of the Fuji X-Pro1 camera, shot in JPG. Look at that bokeh!

Friday, May 25, 2012

How to dismantle the Nikon Series E 50mm

Sometimes retro stuff just comes back in favor. I recently bought a Fujifilm X-Pro1 camera, which I absolutely love! I'll write up a blog post about that camera soon. But for now, I wanted to talk about the Nikon EM camera with the Series E 50mm 1.8 lens. One of the reasons I bought the Fuji X-Pro1, was to use legacy lenses. The beauty of the Fuji X-Pro1 is that you can buy adapters for almost any lens mount ever made. I totally discovered some of these old lenses. The main point is that they must be able to set the aperture on the lens. All old Nikon AI lenses did that. So did the Nikon Series E lenses, which is pictured below on the Nikon EM film camera.
I actually bought that Nikon EM camera with the lens from a nice chap here in Geneva. Saw his advertisement for it on (a free for sale website). His dad was getting rid of about 60 old cameras! Maybe he was moving to digital? Anyway, the camera is not very useful to me, I'm not going back to shooting film! If anyone wants it, let me know. But the lens is the goodie.
This lens was probably manufactured in the first half of the 1980's. That's pretty old for a lens; but it still works great. In fact, the optics are a bit soft I would say, maybe it's due to the dust inside. I'll have to consider getting it out, when I get the appropriate tools. For now, I've just taken it apart to completely dismantle the mechanical parts.
To dismantle the Series E 50mm 1:1.8 lens, I went from the back. You need to remove the 3 screws on the lens mount.
The back side of the lens, still closed with the 3 screws.
Afterwards, you can remove the aperture ring. Just be sure to note how it was put in place, as you'll need to remember that we you mount it back at the end!
Finally you can unscrew the optics with the large inner helicoid. The lenses are actually all in one block. If you need to go in there, you need to open the lens from the front, which is a whole other story. Some people have documented how to do that. See for example James T's blog post:
For the really brave, you can also unscrew the 3 screws on the focus ring. Then you can reach the inner helicoid which has much thinner threads. Normally this is not needed, as the dirt doesn't get in there very easily. Be extra careful if you open this, as when you will mount it back, the screws have to align at the right place for the focus ring distance scale to be correct again.
I cleaned the old grease, and added back some brand new one that I found at the local hardware store. The original one was white, but the one I found was more yellow/brown. It was described as "universal lubricant grease" and came in a huge 250gr tube. I needed only a tiny bit, so if you need some, I've got tons leftover!
To remount the lens, just take all the steps backwards and you should be fine. It's actually much easier than it sounds. I'm no great mechanic, so if I could do it, with a little patience and observation, you should be able to do it too.
Next goal: clean out the dust, by going into the optics through the front of the lens.