Recent trips - Dublin and Washington

National Mall, Washington, DC

I went on two work-related trips to Washington and Dublin this summer and managed to bring back some pretty photos. Traveling for work is not something that you can always enjoy: You’re on a tight schedule, often flying by yourself, and you’ve got the purpose of your trip in the back of your head the whole time you’re on the road. Still, sometimes you manage to grab a few hours (or a whole day) with a good friend and/or colleague to venture into the city and do some sightseeing. In this regard, work-related trips actually pay off since they let you catch a short glimpse of a place which you can use to decide whether it’s worth to come back on vacation.

Air and Space Museum
Air and Space Museum
National Mall, Washington, DC Air and Space Museum
Air and Space Museum

Washington

I had been to Washington two years ago, during a trip that was a mixture of work and leisure. This time around, me and a buddy of mine only had a few short hours to actually spend downtown, so we tried to make the most of it. Our first stop was the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (what else!), a museum that I’ll probably never get tired of visiting. After that we walked across the National Mall where they were already busy setting up stands for the Independence Day celebrations. Unfortunately it was boiling hot that day, and the mall does not offer a lot of shade. So we walked straight into the National Archives to get a first-hand look at the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In general, this building was a little underwhelming, and seeing the documents up close is a bit of a let-down since they’re very crowded, hidden deep down behind glass and barely legible. Also I wasn’t allowed to take photos, you can imagine my opinion on that policy. That was already the extent of our dash into Washington. While it does not sound like a lot, Washington will eat up your day thanks to it’s generously spaced buildings and parks, so make sure you bring plenty of time and comfortable footwear.

National Mall, Washington, DC

Ireland

In mid-July I flew to Dublin to attend SRECon Europe. I flew in a day early to have some time to explore the city with a friend of mine. My memory of Ireland was pretty spotty, my last visit to the green island was more than 15 years ago when I went there as part of a student exchange with our school. Back then we lived in the countryside (which is pretty much all of Ireland except Dublin). I only saw small parts of Dublin when we drove to Croke Park on one occasion.

Dublin

Ireland is an interesting country to visit, especially if you’ve seen some other major European countries. At first sight it looks like Great Britain, or maybe even any other European country. But then you start noticing the subtle unique aspects of Ireland. It starts on the way from airport, when you realize that people are driving on the left. Sure, there’s other countries which have that, but the next thing you notice is that all official signs and street signs are written in both English and Gaelic, which might as well be Klingon as far as you’re concerned. So once it sinks in that you’re in Ireland, you start looking for other things typically considered to be “Irish”: Plenty of redheads (check!), lots of pubs (check!), first names you have neither heard of nor know how to pronounce (check!) and in general a very proud display of Irish heritage wherever you look.

Dublin

Which leads us to the kind of sports the Irish seem to enjoy. Entering a pub, you’d be foolish to think that the TV is most likely showing a local soccer game: Green pitch, two teams, a round playing ball and a large audience. That is until a player picks up the ball, tucks it under his arm and starts crashing through lines of opposing players. Couple that with no body-armor whatsoever and you’ve got Gaelic Football. That’s when you realize that Ireland is a proper island. An island where they know how to preserve their culture, sports being one of the most visible differentiators in a world which has become focused around a few major sport events. Similar to Gaelic Football, Hurling is a sport which appears familiar at first sight (“oh, this is like field hockey”) right up until the moment somebody lifts the ball waist-high and smashes it in a baseball-like fashion without regard for the twenty people around him on the field. If it looks too tough to be played anywhere else then it’s right up the alley of Irish sport-fans. The biggest stadium in Ireland (and one of the biggest in Europe) is Croke Park, and they use it only for Gaelic sports, which gives you an idea of the importance that the Irish place in their own sports.

Dublin

Dublin

In Dublin, we stayed just south of the city centre, in a nice neighborhood called “Ballsbridge”. This allowed us to walk into the city and, even more importantly, to walk back home at night from wherever we ended up. On our first day in Dublin walking was all we did, and Dublin really lends itself to be explored on foot. It is a little confusing since the city does not have a lot of visible landmarks and some of neighborhoods look pretty similar. Even the parks can leave you disoriented since a few of them are rectangular, of similar size and appearance. At least that’s how I felt.

Dublin

A definite highlight is Trinity College which sits in the middle of the city in a beautiful and quiet campus. As soon as you step through its gates you leave behind the busy streets around its perimeter, which reminded me of the Harvard campus with its gates. Apart from that you can visit Dublin castle and some of the many churches and cathedrals. For night-owls, Dublin is a perfect destination since it boasts a very dense networks of pubs and other restaurants and bars. The pubs are way more friendly than what passes as a bar here in Germany in my opinion: Often you’ll have live music and most people will eat there too, creating a different atmosphere than in a place just built for getting drunk.

Dublin
Dublin Dublin
Dublin

On the evenings of the conference we’d usually pick a nice spot to eat with a few people, and then afterwards somebody with some local knowledge would lead us into one of the many fancy cocktail bars that Dublin offers. In this regard I was positively surprised: There’s a good amount of really nice restaurants and the night-life was neither too shrill nor too tame. The neighborhood of Temple Bar really stands out in this regard, and is a must-see at night.

Dublin
Dublin Dublin
Dublin Dublin
Dublin

On our last day we had a few hours to kill before our flight. Unsurprisingly, we both were pretty beat from the past three days of attending the conference, not keen on repeating our adventure on foot from day one. So we did as tourists do and hopped on one of the many double-decker buses criss-crossing the city. This one took us through downtown Dublin and out to some remote locations we wouldn’t have explored by foot: Guinness Brewery and Phoenix Park. I took me a while to admit it, but I’ve come to appreciate these buses as way to quickly get a sense of a city, it’s neighborhoods and the distances in general. Taking a bus is something that you should probably do on day one rather than at the end. Now I’m back and glad not to have anything on my schedule for the next few months, but like with every trip I fondly look back at the time spent on the road, exhausting as it might have been.

Dublin

Summer 2016 (so far)

It’s raining right now, so what better time to write a small post about this year’s summer (so far). To be honest, this is mainly meant as a shameless way to show off some of my photos.

Grenzroute 2, near Kelmis, Belgium

We went hiking already a couple of times, mostly over well-known routes. I played it safe and brought my EOS 60D and the Canon EFs 18-200 plus polarizing filter which have never let me down. I tend to shoot less photos than I did a few years ago. Maybe this is because I have so many photos of landscapes sitting on my hard drive, or maybe it’s because I know that taking too many pictures will greatly decrease my motivation for editing them afterwards. Still, I like to think that I am still improving my skill ever so slightly each time I pick up my camera. A while back I even devised a Lightroom preset which approximates a Fuji-like color rendition for my Canon RAW files which I have been using ever since.

Wanderung Grenzroute 2
Wanderung Grenzroute 2 Wanderung Grenzroute 2

We have been living in Aachen for almost eleven years now. One the one hand this feels like an eternity, but on the other hand it’s a nice feeling to be that familiar with the surrounding country side, villages, cities, people. Only last week I discovered some cool mapping websites which will come in handy for hiking and biking around here. I’ve come to appreciate the topographical features of these maps when planning somewhat longer biking trips. It pays off to pay attention to elevation, otherwise the ride might end up shorter and more painful than anticipated.

Orsbach
Orsbach Wanderung Grenzroute 2

Orsbach, Mulleklenkes, Aachen

The Hike & Bike Map is an OpenStreetMap overlay that includes hiking and biking routes, and, more importantly, has topographical data and terrain shading. The OpenTopoMap has a different base layer, better contrast and more accurate rendering. I guess it’s up to you which of those you prefer. The map on Waymarked Trails also includes the Lonvia routes, but has a really nice popout legend where you can hover over the routes in the view and quickly see their outline. This is a cool feature since the hiking routes around here are sometimes densely packed which makes it hard to follow an individual route.

Orsbach

Fujifilm - X100, X-E1, X-T1

Early in 2015 I was ready for something new camera-wise, so I started looking at Fujifilm X-series interchangeable lens cameras. The aim was not to replace my X100 (no camera could ever do that), but merely to see whether a Fuji could potentially replace my EOS 60D for travelling and nature photography.

Rocky

Fujifilm X-E1, Fujifilm XF 35 1.4 | 1/150sec, f/2.0, ISO 400

After a long period of research and deliberation, I started looking for used cameras and quickly found a good offer: A silver X-E1 with the great Fujifilm XF 35mm f1.4. I decided on the X-E1 because of price and some negative feedback I had read about the X-Trans II sensor in later models (X-E2, X-T1). Later in 2015, I got a Fujifilm X-T1 on loan for a few months, allowing me to directly compare the X-E1, X-T1, and X100. I don’t want to talk too much about technical differences between these systems, just the ones that I noticed and that impacted me.

X-E1: OVF, Shutter, Focus, Buttons

The first thing that immediately struck me was the size of the X-E1: No matter which lens, it would never be as compact as the X100. The X100 fits into my pocket for some of my jackets, the X-E1 almost never does.

In terms of buttons and menus, the X-E1 is a welcome evolution of the somewhat awkward UI that the X100 started out with. The X-T1 retains the same menu layout. As far as buttons and usability is concerned, Fujifilm has stayed true to its often-praised layout, with dedicated hardware buttons for important things like shutter time, aperture, and exposure compensation. No suprises here, all of these cameras handle amazing which makes you want to take them with you wherever you go. My only gripe with the X-T1 is that it does not have a threaded release button.

Centre Charlemagne, Aachen

Fujifilm X-E1, Fujifilm XF 35 1.4 | 1/100sec, f/1.4, ISO 200

Neither the X-E1 nor the X-T1 has the same hybrid viewfinder of the X100, and for me that’s OK. While the OVF might be nice for hardcore street photographers, I’ve rarely used it on the X100, usually preferring the exposure preview of the EVF. The EVF in the X-E1 is OK, but not really any better than the X100. This is different with the X-T1: Its viewfinder will knock your pants off! It’s huge, it’s bright, it rotates the display, and it actually allows you to manual-focus stuff without guessing (also thanks to various focus-assist features). This is the way I want to be using my cameras going forward.

The shutter in the X-E1 is outright loud when compared to the silent leaf shutter of the X100. Having said that, it’s still not as loud as my DSLR. With the X-T1, you can choose between an equally-loud mechanical shutter or a completely silent electronic shutter. The electronic shutter might create some ghosting effects and other artifacts under some circumstances, but in general it works really well. For me, being able to shoot in a church with not sound at all is a great feature in itself. If you focus manually you won’t even hear the chatter of the lens.

Portrait Katrin

Both fotos: Fujifilm X-E1, Fujifilm XF 35 1.4

As far as auto-focus is concerned there were no real surprises: I was shooting with the XF 35mm 1.4 most of the time, one of the slowest AF lenses from Fujifilm. Still, with the latest firmware upgrade, the X-T1 was able to drive the focus with a surprising pace. Certainly quick enough for all my needs. The X-E1 is no slouch either.

X-Trans vs. Bayer

A lot has been said about all of these cameras before, and especially with regards to very technical aspects like AF speed, resolution, sequential capture speed, battery life. For me, none of this matters that much with these kind of cameras, my EOS 60D is still able to beat the Fujfilm cameras in any of these aspects (sadly). What the Fujifilm cameras have going for them is the very natural handling and their gorgeous color rendition.

Portrait X-E1 Portraits

Left: X-T1, Right: X-E1. Both: Fujifilm XF 35 1.4

What I didn’t really realize until shooting with the X-E1 and X-T1 was that they were actually using the Fujifilm X-Trans sensors. Basically, these sensors are different because they have a different color pattern than traditional Bayer sensors, such as the one in the X100. Now, I really don’t care about the pattern of the sensor, even if it’s supposed to render colors even truer to what the human eye is able to perceive. I do care however if the sensor introduces problems that haven’t been there before.

There are a few things about the X-Trans sensors that I really dislike, and it all comes down to conscious decisions made by Fujifilm. First off, the film emulations render differently, often with more contrast and less dynamic range. The most obvious difference to the X100 is that they no longer render as “warm” as my X100 did, which has actually been observed by a number of people who traded their brand-new X100S/T back in for an old X100. But with some different settings I can still work with the JPEGs that these cameras drop.

Grenzroute 3, Aachen

Fujifilm X-T1, Fujifilm XF 18-55 | 1/210sec, f/5.6, ISO 400

The biggest flaw is certainly the rendering of skin tones at high ISOs by X-Trans II sensors. This is an issue that has been described in countless forums threads as “waxy” or “plastic” skin tones. Sadly, photographing people in dimly lit settings is something I do quite often. The only remedy here is to shoot RAW and develop in Lightroom, which presents the next problem: RAW support for Fujifilm X-Trans files still sucks in Lightroom. The files often come out looking like an impressionist painting (see: “watercolor effect”), especially with details like foliage. Also I didn’t want to start developing RAW with these cameras when JPEG always worked fine for me. For now I shoot RAW+JPEG and usually throw away the RAW files until the effect is really noticeable.

Maastricht, NL

Fujifilm X-T1, Fujifilm XF 35 1.4 | 1/30sec, f/1.4, ISO 1250

Manual lenses

The cool thing about a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera is that you can get all sorts of neat manual-focus lenses from the days of full-frame SLR film photography. There are plenty of cheap adapters available. As far as the lenses go, you should do some research about good ones. These do not come dirt-cheap since everyone has realized the value of these old gems by now.

Fujifilm X-E1 with Canon nFD 50mm 1.4

Fujifilm X-E1 with Canon nFD 50mm 1.4

I got myself a Canon nFD 50mm 1.4 and a Canon nFD 24mm 2.8 from eBay. Together, these lenses cost me about €120, a lot less than any experiment with used Fujifilm lenses would have run me. To be fair, the 24mm is not a very sharp lens. It has to be stopped down before you want to use the pictures it produces. The 50mm 1.4 is a lot better: It has some issues wide open (slight CAs and general sharpness), but it produces beautiful images and still has a creamy bokeh when stopped down just slightly. While these are not the lenses I use every day, they are fun to shoot with as they force you to slow down and further complement the whole rangefinder-like hands-on experience with these cameras. When using manual focus lenses, the X-T1 is clearly superior to the X-E1 because of its huge EVF.

Canon nFD 50 1.4

Fujifilm X-T1, Canon nFD 50 1.4 | 1/40sec, f/1.4, ISO 640

Verdict

In the past few months I had some time to dwell on the differences of these cameras. I’m now sure that neither of these cameras can replace one or the other unequivocally. The X100 is unique because of its size and perfect sensor/lens combo. Furthermore, the 23mm focal length of the X100 is perfect in my opinion. It made me get a 24mm pancake lens for my EOS 60D and I was even considering the XF 23mm 1.4 for the X-E1, stupid as that may sound. The X-E1 is the compromise of an X100 with interchangeable lenses. The X-T1 is the absolutely bonkers workhorse in the line-up: fast, professional, solid. Still, it is not able to replace a rangefinder-like camera such as the X-E1 for everyone. The fact that neither camera can be recommended over the other is remarkable. With DSLRs, the “larger” models are always preferable save for price and maybe size.

Fall

Fujifilm X-E1, Canon nFD 24 2.8 | 1/140sec, f/x.x, ISO 400

For me, having three cameras (plus my DSLR) did not make it any easier to find a verdict about which of these cameras might be my main camera. When I was in doubt I just took my X100 (mainly due to size), and it never disappointed me. My advice for someone who wants to enter the Fuji X system would be this: Start out with one of the older models. They can be had for fair prices and in terms of image quality they are still on the same level (or even above) the newest models. If you like the system but need things like a quick AF, you can always keep your lenses and trade your body for a newer model.

While this review might sound slightly negative, this is just me being pedantic. All of these issues I mentioned are minor and quickly forgotten once you start using the cameras. The image quality and color reproduction are amazing, the lenses are tack-sharp and the cameras are a joy to shoot with. I’m not yet selling my EOS 60D, but I find it increasingly hard to pick it up. The EVF and the manual handling really improved my photography and frequently make the difference between mindless snapping and conscious photography.

Heidelberg - November 2015

Heidelberg, Germany

Here are some impressions from our trip to Heidelberg in November 2015. We had a weekend there, with one night which we spent at the Schlosskommers (a kind of student festivity) in the ancient Heidelberg castle overlooking the city. The day before that we spent wandering the city and its Christmas market, and hiked the mountain behind the city center. I only took my trusty X100 and, as always, it did not let me down one bit. Enjoy the photos!

Heidelberg, Germany
Heidelberg, Germany Heidelberg, Germany
Heidelberg, Germany
Heidelberg, Germany

For me, one of the must-sees of Heidelberg was the Studentenkarzer (Karzer meaning "prison"), where students would be locked up for various durations for all kinds of infractions. As you can imagine, this quickly developed into a rite of passage, especially among the many fraternity members who would go out and try to get arrested as creatively as possible. Their tales of how and why they were ultimately arrested adorn the walls of the prisons, along with the insignia, colors and various other drawings.

Heidelberg, Germany
Heidelberg, Germany Heidelberg, Germany
Heidelberg, Germany

On Sunday, before leaving, we walked across the river Neckar and up the hills to the Philosophenweg. This trail snakes along the hills north of the city center and offers a few beautiful vistas, including the castle.

Heidelberg, Germany Heidelberg, Germany Heidelberg, Germany Heidelberg, Germany Heidelberg, Germany

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