June 2013 – Tuscany

Castiglione della Pescaia, Italy

I like to surprise myself (and you, fellow remaining reader). This is the first of many posts in which I’ll show some highlights of the last few months. It starts with our honeymoon.

June 2013 – Tuscany

In the last post I told you that Katrin and I (finally) got married, in May/June 2013. While there were some tense and stressful moments leading up to the weddings (civil and catholic), all of that was soon but forgotten. The wonderful summer we had last year, getting married, celebrating with all of our close friends, the honeymoon are memories I will cherish for a long time to come. You can view all of the photos on Flickr.

Sant Antimo, Tuscany, Italy

For our honeymoon, Katrin and I decided to go to Italy. We usually visit big cities or go hiking on vacation, so Tuscany promised to be something a little bit different. Since this was our honeymoon we had done the unthinkable and booked the four hotels for the ten days in advance. We managed to offset that conservatism by taking the car to our first hotel in Levanto (Cinque-Terra), which is a 1100km drive from Aachen. We had played with the thought of staying in Switzerland for one night, but in the end we simply headed out early, only stopped twice and managed to get to Levanto in one day’s time. Levanto was nice, a very dense and lively city without an overwhelming amount of tourism. The landscape around Levanto however paled in comparison to the rolling hills of Tuscany.

Levanto, ItalyLevanto, ItalyLevanto, ItalyLevanto, Italy

Our next hotel was in Castellina in Chianti in the heart of Tuscany. Words can’t describe the beauty of the landscape and the old villages and cities, so I’ll let photos stand for themselves. We stayed at a small hotel a kilometer into a remote dirt road. The landscape, the atmosphere and the food each night were simply sublime.

Lucca, Tuscany, ItalySiena, ItalyLucca, Tuscany, ItalyLucca, Italy

During the days, Katrin and I took trips to cities in Tuscany, most being within a one-hour drive. We saw Siena, Florence, Lucca, Montalcino, Montepulciano, San Gimignano, Castiglione della Pescaia and a lot of other small villages along the way. Most of the time we did nothing except stroll through the town endlessly. Sometimes we tasted (and frequently bought) the local wines, and we usually had Caprese at least once a day.

Siena, Tuscany, ItalyFlorence, ItalyCastellina in Chianti, ItalyTuscany, Italy

The last hotel we stayed it was in Castiglione della Pescaia, a small coastal city with an incredibly beautiful old city/fortress and an endless white beach. This place was a break from the inland locations we had seen up until then, but it was still unmistakably Tuscany. Our days were spent at the beach (unless it got too hot) and at night we strolled into the city and had dinner at one of the excellent restaurants.

Punta Ala, ItalyCastiglione della Pescaia, ItalyCastiglione della Pescaia, ItalyCastiglione della Pescaia, ItalyCastiglione della Pescaia, ItalyCastiglione della Pescaia, Italy

So, unless the photos didn’t make it completely obvious: This was probably the most beautiful vacation we have taken to date. Katrin and I were simply blown away by the beauty of Tuscany and will surely return. Yes, Paris was really nice, and British Columbia is something completely different, but in terms of simply enjoying the pleasures life has to offer, there is no better place than in front of a plate of local cuisine, with a nice red wine, in the historic center of a Tuscan village.

Summer of 2013 – What happened so far

It’s really tough to get back to blogging after a long absence. But I spend so much time (pointlessly) consuming on the Internet that I miss the days when my main focus was actually creating stuff, be it text, photos or code. I’ll try to improve! I’ve started another (static) blog over on heipei.github.io which will focus exclusively on my more nerdy endeavors.

The big one …

Well the biggest piece of news is probably that Katrin and I tied the knot and got married this summer. After a lot of stress and time-consuming organizations we were happy to celebrate our wedding with a lot of our dear friends and family. The photos from the epic parties are still not quite there yet, but the samples we already saw were simply amazing (we can only recommend our photographer Christina which did an excellent job). We had a huge party after our civil marriage and a smaller party with only close friends and family after our catholic wedding in Aachen. The weather played along just fine, more than can be said for the rest of this summer. The help and encouragement we received from our friends, family and our fraternity brothers / sorority sisters gave us a lot of strength.
Wedding Katrin and Jojo

… and two small ones

The other thing that managed to sneak in amidst all of the stress we had this spring/summer were two lively and insubordinate little cats by the names of “Buffy” and “Telefonmann”. It is certainly a lot more demanding to take care of someone other than yourself, especially in the case of these two cats which always seem to be hungry. But the joy these two little creatures give us more than makes up for any additional effort. Pro-tip for cat-owners: Get a roomba!

Telefonmann

Photography

I talked a lot about the difference between my EOS 60D and my Fujifilm X100 and have spent countless hours editing shots and contemplating on selling the 60D for an X-Pro1 or X-E1. In the end I came to the conclusion that the only thing most of my average shots are missing is and interesting composition and the necessary amount of post-processing (more for the 60D than for the X100), both of which are faults of the photographer rather than his gear.

By now I have moved to shooting RAW almost exclusively for my 60D and just spent an eternity editing some 550 shots from our honeymoon in Tuscany. In the end the effort was worth it, even more so because I learned a lot about sane defaults when developing from RAW and which kind of look I want to achieve. I will do a separate photo post once I selected a few good shots, stay tuned.

The last days of winter

As much fun as we had during our only winter-hike this season, I really hope the white season does not return. We’ve had enough cold and way too few hours of sun. So, enjoy these photos, may they be the last frigid ones for a while.

Schneewanderung
SchneewanderungSchneewanderungSchneewanderung
Schneewanderung

Abandoned

We went for a walk behind the Aachen Westbahnhof (a major freight rail station) where they are currently tearing up the old railway tracks to make room for the new Campus West of RWTH Aachen University. Since this is a construction site, we went on a sunny Sunday morning. To be honest it is not that interesting and you have to walk about a kilometer to get there from the street. Still, in terms of photography there are some interesting subjects to choose from. You can also tell that I’m getting more comfortable with post-processing my photos each day. Although I’m not a big fan, I occasionally use presets which emulate specific kinds of analog film.

Abandoned
AbandonedAbandoned
Abandoned
AbandonedLokAbandoned

The photographic year 2012

Wow, what a year. It’s already over, time flew by really quickly. So it’s time for another recap of my photographic year.
January
I started the year by upgrading my EOS 400D with a shiny new EOS 60D (Blog-Entry). I wrote at length about the vastly superior ISO quality and the video mode, and I have made extensive use of both features.

Spaziergang LousbergSpaziergang LousbergKatrins Abschlussfeier

Wandering about, Lousberg, Aachen
February
I shot a few birthdays in February. Additionally, I took my 60D out in the field on a winter-wonderland hike near Monschau. It was just Katrin and me and we hiked through thick snow for a few hours without seeing anyone else. Definitely something I look forward to again next year.

Winterwonderland in MonschauWinterwonderland in MonschauWinterwonderland in Monschau
Winterwonderland in Monschau

Winterwonderland in Monschau
March
Not much in March. We went through Eupen, Limbourg and Verviers (all in nearby Belgium) in one day, mainly cause I was a little restless and wanted to shoot stuff. Unfortunately these cities look a little dreary this time of the year. I was in Paris on a conference but didn’t take along my DSLR but instead only photographed using my really crappy mobile phone camera. Last time I was going to be in that position… I also went on a heli-ride near Aachen, but it was relatively unspectacular.

Kleine Belgien-Tour

Opera house in Verviers, Belgium
April
Nothing major, some birthdays and the usual amount of parties ;)
Recent Party Shots ;)
May
On our annual may-day hike (think beer + dense forest) I didn’t take along my DSLR and regretted my decision afterwards. All the time I was thinking about something more compact than a 60D + lens, yet with similar image quality. One day later I went by the shop after work and snapped up the Fujifilm Finepix X100, and with it the most fun I ever had with a camera. I also blogged about the little wonder that is the X100, and to this day still stand by every line of praise sung for this photographic gem. Interestingly enough, the X100 also made me appreciate the strengths (and weaknesses) of my 60D even more. It also taught me about the importance of post-processing (or “developing”) my photos.

X100Self-portrait
Construction site

The Fujifilm Finepix X100
June
I shot about a thousand photos that month, and all of them with my X100. Part of the reason was that I only took this camera along by choice, but I also had it with me on occasions I would have never taken my DSLR (small parties, weddings in a church, a wine-tasting, during a soccer game). I started experimenting with photo editing software this month, first trying to do everything on Linux so I wouldn’t have to switch computers.

Wedding in AachenWedding in Aachen
Wedding in Aachen

Wedding in Aachen
July
Once again, the X100 was the only camera I used this month. I was in a TV studio as a spectator (and for technical assistance) and nobody minded me and the funny looking camera. During our annual cocktail party I was able to grab some amazing shots from the light-filled stage, something that would have been lost with a DSLR and a flash. And then, at the end of the month Katrin and I went to Paris for a few days. This was truly the highlight of my year so far.

Paris, Tour EiffelStreets of ParisParis
Paris

Paris
August
Relatively uneventful. We rode through Aachen on our bikes and I took some nice shots of old churches / buildings, but that’s about it.

Aachen, RathausAachen, RathausAachen, Türelüre-Lißje

Aachen
September
Just one event in September: Our Canada vacation! We flew to Vancouver (on the west coast) and drove around in our usual fashion, trying to get a look at everything at the expense of sore feet. I thought long and hard about which camera to take, and in the end I brought along my 60D and my X100 ;) This was the only sane choice, and I didn’t mind the weight at all. When hiking on rough trails and trying to get shots of the landscape, the 60D would be my first choice. Photographing the plate of sushi in front of me at the restaurant: Nice and inconspicuous: The X100.

Day 10: Lake Louise & Moraine Lake

Canada
October
Birthdays, parties, that’s it!
November
Not that much except a very nice hike through the Hohes Venn near Malmedy (Belgium). This time I was really happy to have brought along my 60D and the versatility of my 18-200mm lens to create effects not possible with the fixed focal length of my X100.

Vennwanderung bei MalmedyVennwanderung bei Malmedy

Hohes Venn near Malmedy, Belgium
December
I was on two private parties where I wasn’t sure how much people would mind my camera. So I just took my X100, and people didn’t mind ;). A few days ago I shot my first wedding as the solo photographer. Sure enough, it was a favor for a friend, and the stakes weren’t that high since it was “just” the civil wedding, with the real wedding still to come. I went the safe (and boring) way, taking my 60D, the 18-200mm (my only zoom lens) and my flash plus batteries. The photos turned out great, in no small part thanks to some gentle postprocessing.
When Christmas came I was so wired camera-wise that I brought along my X100, my 60D, my three prime lenses and flash, and I managed to use all of these! Christmas (and the year 2012) was truly saved.

Zeche Zollverein

Katrin, Zeche Zollverein, Essen

New year’s resolutions
I’ll try to keep up the steady pace of taking, editing and uploading photos that I began in the latter half of 2012. I will also work to make this blog more interesting and in general my website more clearly structured. I thought about replacing this blog with a landing page, which would then link to all of my different sites, but I’m still not sure about it. I will hone my skills as far as post-processing is concerned.
I think I’ll solely dedicate this blog to photography, as this has clearly become my most passionate hobby.

Streets of Paris

I find myself going back to these magical days we spent walking through the streets of Paris. Even more than the beautiful photos from Canada this year, my shots from Paris evoke so many wonderful memories of this magnificent city.

Streets of ParisStreets of Paris

I’ve gone back and re-edited a lot of the shots I took in Paris. As you can see, I aimed for a slightly warmer look, with some minor split-toning going on. Also I didn’t try to correct the over- and underexposed areas that much. I will definitely have to go back in summer, when the skies are blue and not as bright as on overcast days.

Streets of ParisStreets of Paris

As much as I’m looking forward to other places (Italy in particular), I can’t stop thinking about going back to Paris. Next time I will take along my 60D as well as a tripod (maybe). I know the beautiful locations now and I’ll probably set aside a whole day just for shooting on the Montmartre. De Vetpan showed me the kind of beauty you can capture there if you arrive at the right time of day (and year) and just look for interesting angles. His Hasselblad medium-format shots were eye-opening for me in terms of (gentle) post-processing, composition and color.

ParisParis

For me, Paris was the most beautiful and interesting city I visited yet. Since I have a mild case of architecture fetish, I was able to marvel at the beautiful bright buildings in every street as if these were that much different from the street we just came from. I know that Paris has it’s ugly sides: The banlieues, some of the Metro stations and probably a few other spots. But everything in the city just fits together perfectly. The streets are not too wide, there are beautiful parks every few hundred meters and there are many shops and restaurants. As much as I loathe living in big cities, I guess that Paris would be one of those places where you could actually be happy (if you can afford it).

ParisParis

In terms of photography I find myself torn between different choices: When to take my X100, when to take my 60D, how to edit a particular shot when other styles would fit nicely as well. Recently I have been thinking about this blog and whether I should go with a small and relatively static landing page instead, only linking to my blog, my flickr-account, my tumblr, etc. I’ve also started using static blog software for the fun of it, but I’m still not convinced that these tools can replicate the user experience of WordPress for me.

Paris, Jardin des Tuileries

Colors of fall

Fall in Germany (and especially in Aachen) is something I’ve learned to enjoy a lot. Even though the days are growing shorter and colder, the golden leafs set the mood for the season to come. I recently shot some photos on the Lousberg and liked some of them enough to make them into a wallpaper for my laptop this winter.

Lousberg
Fall-impressions on the Lousberg, Canon EOS 60D, EF 50mm 1.4

X100 vs. EOS 60D: The inevitable showdown

I thought about calling this post “A tale of two cameras”, but showdown sounds much more dramatic, so here we go.

As you probably know I bought not one but two cameras this year. I started with the relatively conservative choice of updating my DSLR from the EOS 400D to the EOS 60D. I didn’t regret that purchase one bit. But then I got myself the Fujifilm Finepix X100 a few months later, at basically the same price-tag as the EOS 60D.

The similarities between these two cameras end on the spec-sheet: Both cameras have an APS-C sized sensors, and that’s about it. In every other aspect, the cameras are very different. After a few months of using both cameras equally, I have come to terms with each camera’s strengths and weaknesses. On our recent 3-week-trip through Canada I always carried both cameras, so I always had the option of using either one.

Size and weight
Let’s start with the obvious things. The photo above shows the cameras as I carried them through Canada, the X100 and the EOS 60D with my EF-S 18-200mm. This is not the smallest lens, but the rest of my lenses are prime, and I want that focal range when I’m on vacation. The X100 is much smaller, but still no compact camera. You won’t fit any of these cameras in your pocket, so you’ll end up with either camera slung over your shoulder or in your hand. The 60D is not too heavy, I carried it while hiking up very steep trails and wasn’t constrained by it.

There were only a few occasions where I would have to put the 60D away into my backpack. When we were in restaurants (with small tables) and in particularly crowded shops.

Focal length
The fixed focal length of the X100 is no match for 18-200mm. For street-photography, the X100 is great, but for everything else I would have seriously missed the focal range both on the wide and narrow end. It was in Canada where I really discovered how much the Image Stabilization in the 18-200mm helps, for photos but even more so for video, which I shot a lot of. At anything above 50mm, video would have looked terrible without IS.

Image quality, white-balance, color rendition, metering
This was a constant up-and-down for me with the EOS 60D. In the first few days I found myself constantly adjusting the picture style, metering method and dynamic range on the 60D, not quite happy with the results I was getting. I often took two shots with different exposure adjustment. Then again, the weather was quite bad on those few days.

After a while I settled on the “Faithful” picture style and center-weighted average metering. I also enabled Highlight Tone Priority. The pictures come out the way I want them most of the time now. And they also came out ready to be used without much post-processing, save rotation and crop.

With the X100, this aspect of shooting seems much simpler. First of all, the automatic white balance and color reproduction are great, but so is the metering. I guess that one of the reasons that I’m having so few problems with metering is the Electronic Viewfinder. If Canon decided to make a 60D-like camera with an electronic (or hybrid) viewfinder, I would probably use it frequently.

Video
This was our first vacation where I shot some video. It will need lots of post-processing, so bear with me for the time being. Video is great on the 60D and barely usable on the X100, so that was an easy choice.

When to use which camera
By now I’ve developed a kind of instinct when to use which camera. Whenever I’m indoors, the X100 is the only real choice. It’s superior with artificial light, in terms of ISO, automatic white-balance and metering.

Day 13: Revelstoke to VernonDay 20: Fog in Ucluelet

Examples of when to use (left) and when not to use the X100 (right)

But the EOS 60D has the clear advantage in outdoor situations. Here, white-balance is easier, and doesn’t change much. High ISOs are usually not needed, and the polfilter on my 18-200mm brings out great colors. At night, the X100 is the better choice once again, because of it’s ISO performance. But the AF in the X100 does have its problems, which is something to keep in mind when photographing action.

Granville IslandDay 9: Icefield Parkway

Two very “accurate” images from the EOS 60D, only that the left one is not as pretty

The main difference is that the images from the 60D are very accurate, which can sometimes be a bad thing. The X100 often renders a scene more beautifully than it really was, which is great when you’re photographing people.

Bottom line
I was contemplating selling my DSLR kit at some point, if only for a short time. There were weeks when I didn’t pick up my 60D once. Our Canada vacation reaffirmed me that it’s worth keeping (and carrying) both cameras, for they both have their unique strengths. In the end, having two good and very different cameras only drove the point home that great photos are the work of the photographer, and not of his gear. I shot equally good and bad photos on both cameras, and I wouldn’t have taken significantly better photos with a EOS 5D or an expensive L-lens.

Canada 2012

In case you were wondering, you can follow Katrin and me over on holiday.heipei.net for the next three weeks.

Day 4: Squamish

Fujifilm Finepix X100 – Rediscovering photography

Self-portraitThe title of this post might sound a little over-the-top (and if you read up on the X100 you know dozens of other blog-posts which sound similar), but I think it is accurate. Three months ago I decided to head to the local photo-shop (Audiophil-Foto) and get my hands on the Fujifilm Finepix X100. The X100 is a (relatively) compact camera with a fixed prime lens, an APS-C sensor and a so-called hybrid viewfinder. Obviously I had read countless reviews and blog-posts about this camera, especially given the price. Also, I had just purchased the EOS 60D at the beginning of the year, and adding another camera with a very similar pricetag might seem … excessive. Well, in my opinion it wasn’t, and still isn’t, and here is why:

Size
That was the foremost reason for me to get another camera. I love my 60D, but I noticed leaving it at home more often, thanks to its sheer size and weight. So, in terms of size and weight, something like the Sony NEX line (or any other mirrorless system) might have done the same trick, but here’s where we come to the other factors.

ParisParis
ParisParis

Image Quality
I know that I would always compare pictures taken with a second camera to the quality I get from my 60D. So I had to get something close to it or I would constantly be disappointed and asking myself whether I should have brought my DSLR instead. The X100 is equal to the 60D in terms of raw picture quality, and even superior in a few departments. High-ISO (1600, 3200) performance is much better than the 60D, and the in-camera JPEG processing is simply out of this world. The Auto-DR (Dynamic Range) is nice too, I leave it on Auto most of the time and it often goes to DR-400 (with ISO 800). Because of the fixed lens, Fujifilm was able to adjust lens and sensor to each other, so that there is no distortion, vignetting or loss of sharpness at any aperture across the whole frame.

ParisLight rays

Versatility
Yes, I really want to be able to adjust aperture, shutter speed, ISO, metering, shoot RAW, etc. Being able to mount my Canon flashes to the X100 is a big plus (even if they’re fully manual), and sync speeds which are much faster than my 60D are great. The X100 has a fixed prime lens, i.e. no “zooming”, period. Having used my 50mm and 30mm exclusively for certain events I knew what that meant and was fine with it. I can lock focus or exposure independently and recompose like I’m used too. The hybrid OVF/EVF is great too. I try to use the OVF most of the time, but fall back to the EVF whenever there is a tricky shot in terms of auto-exposure.

Paris

Accessories
Since the X100 caters to a specific breed of photographer, you can guess that there are lot of people out there trying to optimize and customize their camera. First thing you should do is to get 2 additional batteries (7-8€ on Amazon), a single one will never last more than half a day. I also got the X100 fake leather case. I find the bottom part to protect the camera from rough underground when I set it down, but I almost never use the top cover, even when the X100 is in my backpack. I got myself the lens hood, filter adapter and an UV filter for obvious reasons. A nice addition is a so-called soft-release button which screws into the thread on the shutter release. I’ve only been able to find these on eBay in Germany. Finally, I ordered a camera strap from Gordy’s Camera Straps, see the photo below.

Gordy's Camera Strap

Verdict
Without reiterating everything said about this great little camera, here is what made lasting impressions on me. I really started to enjoy photography much more again. The X100 is slower than the 60D in almost every aspect, but that automatically forces me to consider a subject before shooting multiple frames. Also, the fixed focal length has a similar effect. The way that Fujifilm tuned the in-camera JPEG processing is breathtaking. I exclusively shoot JPEG with the Astia Film mode and some minor tweaks to shadows. With landscapes and city this is already great, but as soon as people enter the picture you have perfect exposure and warm natural color rendition 95% of the time. I’ve repeatedly been asked whether an out-of-camera JPEG was postprocessed by savvy photographers. Funny thing about the hardware of this baby is that virtually everyone I know wanted to know what kind of funny film camera I was using.

Dance-off

Carrying this camera is a lot of fun. It makes me want to take it along every time I leave the house. It’s very unobtrusive, you don’t get noticed while taking shots or carrying it. We were in Paris last week, and I was able to hop on and off the metro and squeeze my way through crowds of people much better than with a DSLR.

Paris

What surprised me most was that I also rediscovered the merits of post-processing my photos. Seeing the results the X100 was able to achieve using its film profiles made me realize how much I might have missed out in the past with my DSLR. I gave Lightroom a try and am really happy with its post-processing abilities, though I still have to find a workflow that fits my multi-PC Linux/OSX setup.

Recommendations?
I don’t want to endorse this camera to the casual reader of my blog. People savvy enough already know whether they want this camera or not, so this post should not influence you in either way. Also there are rumors that the X100 might be upgraded soon(ish). In case you’re wondering why so many people are selling their used X100 at the moment, its probably due to the X-Pro1, which is basically an X100 with changeable lenses (and twice the price).

One take-away message might be this: Don’t underestimate compact cameras. I think that DSLRs are at the end of their natural evolution (slowly evolving to become night-vision goggles with GBit Ethernet), while the rest of the camera-world is catching up. Don’t dismiss anyone carrying something smaller than a DSLR as lacking ambition. As they say: “The best camera is the one you have with you.”

Links
Some links to blogs etc. which highlight what you can do with an X100:

Gallery
These are my X100 shots which made it to flickr: