Ian Mylam Photography
Ian Mylam Photography
Ian Mylam Photography
Ian Mylam Photography
Ian Mylam Photography

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A One-Light Self-Portrait (Bringing the Sun back in Malé)

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.” – Frida Kahlo

Self-portrait in a hotel room, Malé, Maldives (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Self-portrait in a hotel room, Malé, Maldives, 2014 (© Ian Mylam)

I am in Malé, the capital of the Maldives, and it’s raining outside. Raining very hard in fact. I had planned to spend the day visiting an island, swimming, snorkeling and generally relaxing on the beach, but that’s definitely a plan for another day. I consider the possibility of making pictures on the busy streets of Malé in the rain, but this is a proper tropical downpour, turning the streets into rivers and sending people running for shelter. Even the ever-present motorbikes and mopeds, which buzz through the narrow streets of the town, are almost silent. Not really a day for venturing outside with the camera then either. My Fuji X-T1 camera may be weather-sealed, but the four Fuji prime lenses I have with me are not. The Fuji X-T1 combined with any of the ‘X’-series prime lenses is light enough that I could comfortably shoot one-handed and hold an umbrella in my free hand to protect the lens from the rain. Unfortunately, however, I realise I have left my shooting umbrella at home, since I was thinking ‘beaches and sunshine’ rather than ‘tropical rainstorm’ when I left London.

I decide to pass the time by shooting a hotel-room self-portrait while waiting for the rain to stop. I want low, late-afternoon sunlight streaming into the room. The reality is a dark, thundery sky and rain lashing the window in torrents. Now, if only I could make the sun come back…

I notice that the sleeping area of my hotel room is separated from the bathroom by a glass panel with some Venetian blinds hung in front of the glass. It occurs to me that I could photograph myself in the bedroom with an off-camera flash located in the bathroom, firing through the blinds and the glass to mimic sunlight flooding through a window, and create some interest and drama with the patterns of light and shade thrown by the blinds. The fact that the ‘window’ is in reality simply a glass partition inside the room with the (windowless) bathroom on the other side, and the only real window is actually at the other end of the room (camera left) is something that need not trouble the viewer of my portrait. I resolve to create an alternative version of reality with a ‘window’ on the right side of the image which has sunlight apparently coming through it, modulated by the slats of the Venetian blinds.

The room is pretty small, and there’s really only one location for my subject (i.e. me), which is sitting on the bed. I set up my tripod at the foot of the bed together with the Fuji X-T1 camera and Fuji XF 23mm f1.4 R lens (35mm full-frame equivalent focal length) which gives the framing I want.

The next step is to kill the ambient light – I decide that want a high-contrast image full of drama with strong areas of light and shade created by the flash illumination firing through the slats of the Venetian blinds. Any ambient light entering the room from the real window camera left will only serve to reduce that contrast – and hurt my picture. So I close the curtains more or less fully – just leaving me enough illumination to work by – and set the exposure (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) on my camera to kill the remaining ambient light leaking in around the edges of the curtains. I am now working 4-5 stops over the ambient exposure, and a test frame shows that my picture is a beautiful solid black. I can now begin to re-build my exposure with flash.

I mount my light – a Godox Ving V860C Li-Ion flash – on a Justin clamp – or to give it it’s proper name, a Manfrotto 175F Justin Spring Clamp – and clamp it to the top of the shower door, angling it down to mimic sunlight, and aiming it through the blinds towards the head of the bed where I am intending to sit. I wanted the sunlight to have a late afternoon feel to it, so I gel the strobe warm with a ¾-cut CTO and set the camera white balance to ‘fine’. (In the end I decided that the image was stronger in black and white, but at this stage, I was thinking of either a colour image or a black and white image, and was keeping my options open by gelling for the colour temperature of light I wanted.)

I mount a Cactus V6 radio transceiver on the camera, and another on the flash. The beauty of the Cactus V6 is that although it doesn’t support TTL, it is possible to adjust the flash power at will from the camera position without having to repeatedly return to the flash unit to do so – and it supports a wide range of flash units from different manufacturers. I start to experiment with firing the flash through the Venetian blinds, to see what pattern I am getting from the blinds, but the light is spilling everywhere inside the room – not what I want – so my first job is fix a ⅛-inch Honl grid over the head of the flash to corral the light. Next I adjust the slats of the blinds for several minutes until I see a pattern on the wall behind the bed that I like and which I believe will give me a strong composition.

Having set the light position and adjusted the slats of the blinds to create a pleasing pattern of light and shade on the wall and bed – and hopefully on me – I now need to adjust the flash unit to give a good exposure. The flash is about 3 metres (10 feet) from the head of the bed, and the combination of the CTO gel, the Honl grid and the slats of the blinds eats a lot of flash power. I find that I need to set the flash to somewhere between half and full power in order to get my whites (namely the wall behind me) white. Fortunately the Lithium-Ion battery in the Godox flash is good for around 650 pops at full power on a single charge, which is just as well, as I don’t have the battery charger with me.

Finally, I set the self-timer on the camera, pre-focus on the area where I am going to sit, and make some test exposures. This is the hard bit, leaping from camera to bed and back again to check the result on the LCD. Right now, I wish I was shooting tetherless. I am aiming for a composition where the shadows from the blinds fall across my face, but with my eyes – and also ideally my mouth – in a band of light. I also want to use a split-lighting pattern on my face, since this is a dramatic, high contrast image, and a split-lighting pattern is ideal for underpinning that mood.

I make a series of exposures, occasionally reviewing the results on the LCD screen on the camera, until I am confident that I have what I want.

I’ll close with a look at the colour version of the same image, to show how the combination of ‘daylight (fine)’ camera white balance with a ¾-cut of CTO gel on the flash helps to create the illusion of late-afternoon sunlight. I like the warmth and the mood of the colour version, but the graphic drama of the black and white image is my favourite of the two.

Self-portrait in a hotel room, Malé, Maldives, 2014 (© Ian Mylam)

Self-portrait in a hotel room, Malé, Maldives, 2014 (© Ian Mylam)

Postcard from Bangkok

“The sky grew darker, painted blue on blue, one stroke at a time, into deeper and deeper shades of night.” ― Haruki Murakami

A Rainy Night in Bangkok, Thailand (© 2014 Ian Mylam)

Bangkok, Thailand (© 2014 Ian Mylam)

 

I arrived yesterday in Bangkok to a torrential downpour.

Sometimes things look more interesting when you can’t see them clearly – for example, when they are viewed through something else – be that water, plastic, netting or simply a dirty window. I liked what the rain on the window did to the view of the city at dusk, blurring and streaking the lights and emphasising the dark and sombre mood engendered by the weather and the fading light, giving an impressionist feel to the photograph. I’m pretty sure that the view without the rain on the window would have been considerably less interesting. Abstraction and interpretation are often more visually satisfying than a straightforward photographic facsimile.

A Quick Two-Speedlight Self-Portrait

Fuji X-E2, Fujinon XF 35mm f1.4R lens, 1/180 sec, f/16, ISO 200

Self-Portrait, Fyn, Denmark, September 2014  – © Ian Mylam

With a “round-number” milestone birthday tomorrow, I thought I’d mark the occasion and the passing of time by turning the camera on myself. Like most photographers, I am much more comfortable on the other side of the lens. However, every now and then I feel compelled to put myself in the position of my subjects. It’s not quite the same as being photographed by a stranger, but it reminds me of how it feels to be under the scrutiny of the unforgiving eye of the camera. It feels a little narcissistic, but it does actually help me empathise a little more with the friends and strangers I ask to photograph.

Once I had the camera on a tripod and the lights in the rough position I wanted them, the whole shoot took between five and ten minutes. That was about as long as I could stand it. It was pretty hot to be standing in the midday sun in a suit, but I was actually naked from the waist down which helped keep things cool :)

Most of the time I spent playing with the ratio of the key light to the fill light, and balancing against the midday sun. I made about half a dozen frames, and actually ran out of time as I had an appointment I had to get to. Fortunately, I had a frame I could use.

I shot this with a Fuji X-E2 mirrorless camera with the Fuji 35 f/1.4R lens (50mm equivalent focal length). The image was created with three light sources: two speedlights, plus the midday sun.

The background is the side wall of my house. It is actually painted white, which tells you immediately that the ambient daylight was significantly underexposed in order that I could take control of the lighting and build the exposure the way I wanted to. The camera settings to achieve this deliberate under-exposure of the ambient light were 1/180 sec, f/16, and ISO 200.

I stood a few metres away from the wall. The reason for doing this was to be able to light on two separate planes (the wall being one plane, and me the other). The wall was in shadow, and I stood in a strip of sunlight. Significantly under-exposing the ambient light from the sun allowed the sunlight falling on the right-hand side of my face (camera left) to produce a nice highlight without being too hot. If I had exposed the shaded wall correctly, the highlight on the right side of my face (left side of picture) would have been seriously overexposed. So under-exposing the ambient light achieved two objectives: firstly, a nicely exposed highlight on my face; and secondly, a dark background and dark left side of my face which I could light as desired.

I set my shutter to the camera’s max sync speed, which on the Fuji X-E2 is 1/180 sec, in order to give me the most flash-friendly aperture. I still needed to shoot at f/16 and ISO 200 (the camera’s base ISO)  to under-expose the ambient, even though I had chosen the shady side of the house to make my self-portrait.

The key light was a speedlight high camera right zoomed to 105mm through a grid spot aimed at my face (i.e. on the opposite side from the sun) for some hard light, warmed with a 1/4-cut of CTO gel.

Why the grid spot? Why not just a bare speedlight? The answer is that the hardness of the light – by which we really mean the hardness of the shadows, or the abruptness of the transition from highlight to shadow – is simply a function of the relative size of the light source. A bare speedlight would give me hard light. However, it would be hard light spilling uncontrollably over a fairly large family of angles, even with the flash head zoomed to 105mm. The grid spot funnels that hard light into a narrow beam, with a beautiful feathering off of the light. I wanted to primarily light my face, with the light decreasing in intensity lower down my body. This is what the grid spot gives you. It does not make the light any harder (since it does not make the relative size of the light source any smaller). It simply corrals the already-hard light. A lot of the drama of the light comes from the narrow beam produced by the ⅛” grid over the flash head. Think: ‘theatre, stage, spotlight’. That is the grid spot. A snoot would have a similar effect, but I generally prefer the grid spot, because the way the light feathers off with the grid is more beautiful.

The purpose of the ¼ cut of CTO gel is to warm the light slightly, which generally results in more pleasing skin tones. For this to work, you need to take control of your white balance, and not simply leave it on the ‘Auto’ setting. For example, setting the white balance to ‘daylight’ will ensure that the gelled light from the Speedlight will look warm relative to those areas of the frame not illuminated by the light from the flash – such as the wall in the background, or lower down the body.

I love shooting with hard light for the atmosphere and drama it creates, but unless you have the flawless skin of a model – which I definitely don’t – it shows up every imperfection in the skin. For male portraits this is not necessarily a problem – the story of a life lived is in the lines of the face, right? – at least, that’s what I tell myself at 06:00 a.m. after a late night and a few too many drinks. However, you can control the depth of the hard shadows created by the hard light by adding a little fill light to taste. The ‘drop-off’ of the hard light (the transition from highlight to shadow) is very abrupt, but the depth of the drop – the depth of the shadows – is controllable with fill light.  To use an analogy which might help: the steepness of the cliff corresponds to the hardness of the light; the height of the cliff is determined by the ratio of the key light to the fill light. You can have a steep cliff which is not very high, or a high cliff which is not very steep, or a cliff which is both steep and high. It’s all within your control once you understand a little about lighting.

So in this case, I added some fill. This was achieved using a second speedlight around a stop below the key light firing through a shoot-through umbrella, low and on-axis (i.e. in line with the lens) to provide some soft fill light. Also gelled slightly warm.

Et voilà! – one quick birthday selfie for the scrapbook.

Living with the Fuji X-E2

It’s ten o’clock in the evening, and the sun still has not set. I am sitting outside with a cold beer on a balmy evening watching the sun sink imperceptibly towards the horizon. It’s close to the summer solstice in Denmark – midsummer, or ‘Sankt Hans’ as the Danes call it – and I am currently grounded, recovering from an operation on my shoulder. Neither the sun – nor I – are in any rush.

Denmark is a wonderful place to be at this time of year, with long, light evenings which seem to go on for ever; there is a glow in the Northern sky the entire night as the sun creeps eastwards, hidden only a few degrees below the Northern horizon. It never truly gets dark around midsummer here. The payback for these long days of summer are the short, grey, frequently gloomy days of winter when the sun staggers like a concussed prize-fighter into the sky some time after nine in the morning and hangs low for a few short hours, punch-drunk against the ropes, before plunging back below the horizon mid-afternoon, out for the count for another seventeen hours or so. Such is the Yin and the Yang of life in the higher northern latitudes.

As a result of being unable to fly, I haven’t been doing much travelling recently, and haven’t posted much here for a few weeks. It’s now been six months since I switched mirrorless camera systems from Sony Alpha NEX to Fuji X, and being grounded and unable to travel seems like a good opportunity to take stock of my thoughts on the Fuji X system and write a few words about it as well as share some of the photographs I have made with the camera to date.

Boat at Dawn - Bahrain (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Early morning, Bahrain – Fuji X-E2 & XF 35mm f/1.4R, 1/105 sec., f/11, ISO 200

 

Back in January of this year I explained my reasons for switching from the Sony NEX-7 to the Fuji X-E2; reasons which have on the whole been validated with the passage of time and the experience of using the camera on a regular basis.

Having lived with the camera for six months, I can tell you that there is a lot to like about the Fuji X-E2 – and the Fuji X lenses. Here’s why:

Simplicity

The camera is inherently simple, which to me is a positive thing: it does not try to be all things to all men, but simply handles the core photographic tasks well. As a result, I found that I was able to hit the ground running with it. The following images were made just before dawn in Bahrain on the very first day I used the X-E2 having unboxed the camera only the night before. I mentioned that the camera was straightforward and intuitive to use, thanks largely to the fact that almost anything you need to adjust regularly has a corresponding button or dial somewhere on the body of the camera. I like the fact that I almost never have to dive into the menu system to adjust key settings on the camera. Pretty much the only time I use the menu is to protect images against inadvertent deletion, format memory cards, or switch Face Detection on or off in the AF system. I was actually speed-reading the camera user manual in the car on the way to the location where these images were made (I was NOT the one driving the car, I should hasten to add!), and was still able to make some frames I was happy with a few minutes later despite my complete lack of familiarity with the camera beforehand.

Here are the very first few frames I made with the X-E2:

 (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Dawn in Bahrain – Fuji X-E2 & XF 35mm f/1.4R, 1/80 sec., f/4, ISO 200

 (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Dawn in Bahrain – Fuji X-E2 & XF 35mm f/1.4R, 1/50 sec., f/6.4, ISO 200

Dhow at Dawn - Bahrain (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Dawn in Bahrain – Fuji X-E2 & XF 35mm f/1.4R, 1/45 sec., f/2, ISO 800

Bahraini Dawn (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Dawn in Bahrain – Fuji X-E2 & XF 35mm f/1.4R, 1/140 sec., f/4, ISO 200

 

An excellent lens system

Apart from the appealing simplicity of the X-E2, it’s the Fuji X lens system which really shines. I currently use four prime lenses: the 14mm f/2.8, the 23mm f/1.4, the 35mm f/1.4 and the 60mm f/2.4 Macro lenses, and will shortly be adding the 10-24mm f/4 zoom and the 56mm f/1.2 to that list. In conjunction with the Fuji X-Trans CMOS II sensor, all of these lenses are capable of producing images of stunning quality, with outstanding contrast, colour rendition and sharpness. In addition, they all look and feel the business. Anyone who tells me that it shouldn’t matter how a camera or a lens looks and feels is to my mind wrong: a camera is not simply tool, it is also the photographer’s equivalent of the artist’s brush; how it feels in your hands – and how it makes you feel – undoubtedly has an influence on the pictures you make with it. Photography is to a significant extent a mental game. The best cameras simply get out of your way and let you get on with the business of making pictures. The X-E2 – most of the time – is such a camera. When it isn’t, I feel that I want to throw it out of the window, but fortunately those moments are rare and solely down to the occasional autofocus behaviour – of which more later.

Manama Souk, Bahrain, 2013 (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Manama, Bahrain – Fuji X-E2 & XF 35mm f/1.4 R, 1/160 sec., f/2, ISO 200

Making a great camera better: adding an L-plate and grip

Soon after buying the camera, I added a Really Right Stuff L-plate and grip. The camera is definitely useable without the grip, but it feels much more comfortable to shoot with it all day with the grip in place. I don’t normally leave the full L-plate attached; typically I just use the base plate with the grip, only attaching the side plate when I am planning on a lot of shooting on a tripod. There is a balance to be found between not wanting to bulk up the camera unnecessarily – after all, one of the main attractions of these mirrorless cameras is the small size and weight – and making them comfortable to carry and shoot with all day. In addition, the RRS baseplate and grip make the camera feel much more solid and more able to take the occasional knock or two without adding undue weight or bulk.

Young girl - Chennai, India (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Chennai, India – Fuji X-E2 & XF 35mm f/1.4 R, 1/30 sec, f/2.8, ISO 800

Superlative skin tones and accurate white balance

I’m not sure exactly what voodoo magic the Fuji engineers are practising but skin tones are rendered better than with any other camera system I have used – including my full-frame Nikon dSLRs. Initially, it was only possible to benefit from Fuji’s wonderful film-simulation profiles (including my favourite for portraits, Pro Neg Standard) when shooting JPEG files, but Adobe Lightroom now supports the X-E2’s different camera profiles in the Develop Module, making it possible to shoot raw files and still try out these different film simulations after image capture. Given that portraiture is a significant part of my photography and I almost always prefer to shoot raw files, this makes me happy.

Additionally, more often and not, the camera nails the white balance very well on the ‘Auto’ setting, and as a result I rarely need to tweak it in post.

Manama Souq, Bahrain (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Manama, Bahrain – Fuji X-E2 & XF 35mm f/1.4 R, 1/125 sec, f/2, ISO 320

Great high-ISO performance

As far as high-ISO performance is concerned, my initial optimism was justified: the 16MP Fuji X-Trans sensor performs amazingly well at high ISO settings: excellent up to ISO 3200, and very useable up to ISO 6400. By way of an example, the following image was shot at ISO 6400 (hand-held at ¼ second – another benefit of a mirrorless camera – try doing that with a full-frame dSLR).

You can’t really tell from this small JPG image, but even examining the image at 100% magnification, there is relatively little luminance or chroma noise. I am right on the limits of the hand-held shooting envelope here: ISO 6400, ¼ second, shooting wide open at f/1.4. It is also testimony to the quality of the Fuji XF 23mm f/1.4 R. I chanced upon this scene driving home late one winter’s evening; I simply wouldn’t have got this image without a tripod with my full-frame dSLR.

The Night Drive Home - Birkum, Denmark, January 2014 (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Denmark in Winter – Fuji X-E2 & XF 23mm f/1.4 R, ¼ sec., f/1.4, ISO 6400

 

As with any camera and lens system, there are a few quirks. For me, these are the following:

The lens aperture rings move too easily

On the 14mm, 23mm and 35mm lenses in particular, I have found that it is very easy to accidentally move the aperture ring on the lenses and inadvertently change the f-stop – a more positive selection of individual apertures would help. This of course is not a fault of the X-E2 itself, but rather the lenses. Taping the lens barrel with a strip of gaffer tape is one solution which I have tried, although most of the time I don’t bother and simply do my best to be careful not to knock the aperture ring – and to double-check the setting before making an exposure.

Manama Souq, Bahrain (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Manama, Bahrain – Fuji X-E2 & XF 35mm f/1.4 R, 1/125 sec., f/2, ISO 320

Some external controls are hard to identify by touch alone

Some of the buttons are small and hard to locate with your eye to the EVF (Electronic Viewfinder): the AF-L button is one which immediately springs to mind, as this button is used to activate back-button autofocus, which is something I use often. Despite frequent use I still struggle to find this button with the thumb of my right hand with my eye to the viewfinder – it is easy to confuse it with the AE-L button just below it, as from a tactile point of view, these two buttons are virtually indistinguishable, despite the fact that the AF-L button is very slightly raised relative to the AE-L button.

 (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

New York City – Fuji X-E2 & XF 35mm f/1.4 R, 1/60 sec, f/4, ISO 2500

Non-uniform sizes for lens front elements

Another minor irritation from the point of view of a photographer used to shooting with Nikon (or Canon) professional glass and a standard front element size is that the front elements of the Fuji prime lenses are all of differing diameters, which means I have to carry around a stack of step-up rings to use them with the various filters I use. Fumbling in the half-light in the depths of my camera bag for the right step-up ring for the particular lens I am using can be a pain. However, that is a small price to pay for the wonderful lenses in the Fuji X range, so I don’t want to grumble about that too much.

Trees in Mist - Isle of Funen, Denmark (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Isle of Funen, Denmark – Fuji X-E2 & XF 35mm f/1.4 R, 1/180 sec, f/5.6, iSO 200

Modest max flash sync speed

The flash sync speed tops out at 1/180 sec. which means that overpowering the sun outdoors with a single off-camera flash unit is not as easy it should be. I’d love to see Fuji up that sync speed to at least 1/250 sec. which is worth another half a stop. The only way to compensate for this is to double up on the flash units when required, since even at full power a single flash unit will typically struggle to give you enough power to underexpose the ambient in bright sunlight unless you bring the flash in pretty close to your subject. If you want full-length illumination of your portrait subject, you will more often than not need a second flash unit. This of course depends on the number of Watt-seconds your strobe can produce, but using a Nikon SB 900 Speedlight – which packs a decent punch – I often struggle to overpower the ambient light even at 1:1 power on the flash if I want strobe illumination for a full-length portrait. And don’t even think about using diffusion, which will significantly reduce the number of photons reaching your subject from the flash and cost you a stop of flash power at least.

On the subject of using flash … if you own an X-E2 – or another ‘X’-series camera – and are scratching your head wondering why you cannot trigger an external flash from your camera hotshoe nor use the pop-up flash, take a look in the Shooting Menu at the ‘Flash Mode’ setting (the lightning bolt thingy). If it is grayed out, this means that flash mode is disabled. There are two reasons why this may happen which are not immediately obvious from the camera manual (not to me at least): firstly, if you have the camera set to shoot in ‘Silent Mode'; and secondly, if the Drive Mode is set to burst – the flash triggering only works in ‘Still Image’ Mode.

One other thing which surprised me was that the camera was shipped without any protective cover for the hotshoe, so one of the first things I did was order a few plastic hotshoe inserts; it is very easy to damage or short the metal hotshoe contacts. I am surprised Fuji don’t supply this – it’s a small point, but it wouldn’t cost much.

Chennai, India, 2014 (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Chennai, India – Fuji X-E2 & XF 14mm f/2.8 R, 1/160 sec, f/2.8, ISO 500

 

Fixed focus-area size in back-button AF mode

I was initially frustrated by the inability to change the size of the focus area when in ‘back-button autofocus’ mode (achieved by setting the camera to manual focus and momentarily depressing the AF-L button). I was wondering whether the inability to reduce the size of the focus area might be a problem when trying to achieve focus with very shallow depth of field – for example, on the nearest eye of a portrait subject. However, I have discovered that the camera seems to do a reasonable job of finding the eye even with a focus area which nominally seems too large to be appropriate to this task, so this is not causing me as many problems as I thought it might.

 (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

My Daughter Aislinn – Fuji X-E2 & XF 60mm f/2.4 R Macro, 1/100 sec, f/2.4, ISO 640

Erratic AF speed and accuracy

However, my main issue with the X-E2 is the autofocus speed. Despite Fuji’s claims – and having the latest firmware installed on both camera body and all lenses – AF does still fall significantly short of what I am used to from my full-frame Nikon SLR cameras. In particular, autofocus is – for my taste – slow with the XF 35mm f/1.4 R and the XF 60mm f/2.4 R Macro prime lenses, and often prone to hunting. I find AF significantly faster and less likely to hunt with the XF 23mm f/1.4 R and the XF 14mm f/2.8 R. I suspect the camera would autofocus faster with the newer internal-focus lenses such as the XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS and XF 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 R LM OIS zooms, but I love the primes I have too much to give them up. I may, however, invest in some internally focusing zooms at some point for the times when I need maximum speed from the AF system – probably the two fast f/2.8 zooms due for release later this year.

Christmas in New York City (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Christmas in New York City – Fuji X-E2 & XF 35mm f/1.4 R, 1/80 sec, f/2.8, ISO 3200

AF occasionally goes haywire between focus lock and making the exposure

However, the single most irritating AF issue which I made reference to earlier – and which makes me want to hurl the camera to the ground when it occurs – is the this. Using the camera in single-focus (‘S”) mode (i.e. no continuous focus tracking), I half-depress the shutter release to acquire focus. Having acquired focus, the camera changes the colour of the focus-area rectangle in the EVF display to green, and displays a green dot bottom left to indicate focus lock. So far so good. However, when I then depress the shutter-release button fully to take the photograph, the AF goes haywire and starts hunting, racks the focus in and out, giving me a completely blurry out-of-focus image. As I have said before, I have the latest firmware installed on both camera and lenses, and I have experienced this problem occasionally ever since I have owned the camera. It happens on numerous lenses. If anyone reading this knows what may be happening, please drop me a line. It is infrequent, so I haven’t gone as far as returning the camera to Fuji to have them check it out. However, I may do this at some point.

Chennai, India, 2014 (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Chennai, India – Fuji X-E2 & XF 14mm f/2.8 R, 1/160, f/2.8, ISO 500

 (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Chennai, India – Fuji X-E2 & XF 35mm f/1.4 R, 1/60 sec, f/2.8, ISO 640

The Q Menu (Quick Access Menu)

The Q menu – accessed directly via a button on the rear of the camera – has some strange inclusions and omissions – strange to my mind at least. In terms of omissions, Face Detection is one, and Flash Exposure Compensation is another. Either of these could be included at the expense of, say, JPEG sharpness, which I cannot believe most photographers feel the need to adjust on a daily basis. I can personally live without flash-exposure compensation being available in the Q menu since if I am going to use flash I am usually using it off-camera anyway, and am controlling the power of my off-camera flash units manually. However the fact that it is necessary to go hunting in the menu system to turn face detection on and off is particularly frustrating given that when it fails to find a face or focus on a face, it also fails to relinquish control of the AF and prevents you from selecting a focus point, requiring you to frantically dig into the menu system to switch it off. It is also not very tolerant of any facial adornments such as facial hair or glasses – nor any face that is not square-on to the camera. However, I persevere with it because there are times when face detection is genuinely useful. The Fuji X-T1 camera is offers an improvement in this regard in that it is possible to turn face-detection on an off with the press of a button.

Chennai, India, 2014 (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Chennai, India – Fuji X-E2 & XF 14mm f/2.8 R, 1/160 sec, f/2.8, ISO 320

Despite these gripes, most of which are of a relatively minor nature, the X-E2 is a wonderful camera to use. In fact I am so impressed overall that for the first time I am seriously considering selling my Nikon D800 and lenses and buying one or possibly two more Fuji X bodies – the Fuji X-T1 and additionally the Fuji X100S for the silent operation and blazing fast max sync speed offered by the leaf shutter. Selling my Nikon system is something which would have been unthinkable to me only a few months ago, and is testimony to how happy I am with the Fuji X system.

The fact is, when I reach for a camera, nine times out of ten it is the Fuji, not the Nikon, that I reach for. For travel, the Fuji is unobtrusive and much more comfortable to carry. When I am at home the Fuji is the camera which I always have with me. In fact, for almost all the shooting I do, the Fuji fits the bill.

 (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

New York City – Fuji XE-2 & XF 35m f/1.4 R, 1/45 sec, f/2.8, ISO 4000

Before I started using the X-E2, my perception was that I would generally revert to using the full-frame Nikon when I needed to shoot at high ISO; when I needed the larger angle of view offered by an ultra-wide-angle lens on a full-frame body; when I wanted the very shallow depth of field available with a fast lens in conjunction with the larger 35mm sensor; when I needed the superior durability of Nikon’s weather-sealed professional cameras; when I wanted to use off-camera flash in TTL exposure mode; or when I needed the fast and accurate autofocus of a pro SLR system.

Let’s look at each of those in turn:

Shooting at high ISO

Six months of using the X-E2 has convinced me that the performance of the Fuji X cameras such as the X-E2 and the X-T1 at high ISO is a match for – or pretty close to – the performance of my full-frame Nikon D800. I no longer feel I need to reach for the Nikon D800 any time I might be shooting in low light, as I am confident the Fuji X-E2 will deliver.

Street Diner - Hong Kong (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Hong Kong – Fuji X-E2 & XF 23mm f/1.4 R, 1/90 sec, f/5.6, ISO 6400

Wide glass, wide angle of view

Since I bought the X-E2, Fuji have released the ultra-wide 10-24mm f/4 R OIS zoom for the X-system. This equates to a focal length of around 15mm at the wide end on a full-frame camera: wide enough for anything I am ever likely to need. So I with the release of this lens, feel I no longer need the full-frame Nikon for ultra wide-angle photography

Market Vendor - Chennai, India (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Chennai, India – Fuji X-E2 & XF 14mm f/2.8 R, 1/30 sec, f/4.5, ISO 4000

Shallow Depth of Field

A similar argument applies here. Fuji have released the 56mm f/1.2 lens, with a depth of field when used wide open equivalent to shooting with a f/1.8 lens at a focal length of around 85mm on a full-frame sensor. Not quite as shallow in terms of depth of field as my Nikon 85mm f/1.4G, but f/1.8 is plenty shallow enough. At least, the difference in weight and bulk between a Nikon D800 with a 85mm f/1.4G lens fitted and a Fuji X-E2 or X-T1 camera with a 56mm f/1.2 lens fitted is sufficiently large that I can live with it.

Young girl - Chennai, India (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Chennai, India – Fuji X-E2 & XF 35mm f/1.4 R, 1/40 sec, f/1.4, iSO 800

Weather-sealing

The X-E2 is not weather-sealed; however, the recently released X-T1 is, which will be the next camera body I buy. And Fuji are planning to release similarly weather-sealed lenses to go with it in the next few months. I love shooting in bad weather and harsh environments, as it often makes for interesting pictures. Previously, this was another good reason to shoot with the Nikon system. However, this argument is now also null and void with the introduction of weather-sealing to the Fuji X system.

TTL control of off-camera flash

When I use off-camera flash with my Nikon system, if I am working in a controlled environment where working fast is not imperative then I typically set the power of each flash unit manually. However, there are times when I prefer to hand over control and allow the camera to set the power of the remote flash units automatically using iTTL metering for what it thinks is a correct flash exposure; I then tweak the flash power as required from that baseline using exposure compensation. The reason for this is that sometimes life just won’t wait while you zero in on the manual flash exposure you want – by the time you have found it, the moment has gone. TTL control of off-camera flash gets you in the ballpark much more quickly. For example, when making street portraits, if I decide I want or need to use off-camera flash, TTL is a great help in getting the flash output approximately where I want it, fast. Or maybe I am photographing the kids running around in the garden, hand-holding a Speedlight on an extension pole, trying to crosslight with flash against backlight from the setting sun. Manual flash power is a headache here, as the flash-to-subject distance is varying as I am trying to photograph a moving subject, and the inverse-square law kills my flash exposure: setting the flash power manually, it typically either looks like I forgot to turn my flash on or my family are being illuminated by a small thermonuclear device.

In short, TTL control of flash is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, the Fuji X cameras do not offer TTL control of flash. If and when they do, I’ll definitely be a step closer to selling my Nikon gear.

Autofocus Performance

This the other area which causes me to hesitate to jettison my Nikon gear. The AF performance of the X cameras improves with each iteration – the X-T1 can now track moving subjects pretty well, at 8 frames per second with continuous AF (or 3 fps with Live View). However, this is nowhere near the AF performance of a modern pro-grade dSLR. I don’t shoot much in the way of action or sports, so maybe I shouldn’t worry. However, on the occasion when I have needed blazing fast, rock-solid AF performance, I have been very grateful for my Nikons. I am still wrestling with this one, and haven’t finally made up my mind. However, I have an awful lot of cash tied up in Nikon cameras and lenses, and if this is the only reason why I am keeping the Nikon gear, I can’t really justify it, as most of the shooting I do just doesn’t require this level of AF performance. And if I ever do need it, there’s nothing to stop me renting the gear I need for a few days.

 (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Isle of Funen, Denmark – Fuji X-E2 & XF 23mm f/1.4 R, 1/450 sec, f/6.4, ISO 200

 

So in conclusion: six months down the line, I am convinced. The Fuji X system does what I want, and satisfies pretty much all my photographic needs, almost all the time, with the two main issues for me being autofocus performance and TTL control of off-camera flash.

I am not quite yet at the point where I am going to sell my Nikon gear – but that day may no longer be far away.

 

Ten Tips for Stronger Portraits

Street portrait, Mumbai, India, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

Mumbai, India, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

I’ve been asked several times recently for tips and advice on shooting travel portraits of strangers, so I thought it might be an idea to post something about the subject.

Here are my ten tips for stronger travel portraits:

1. Obtain permission, create rapport

If you want to make memorable travel portraits it’s fair to say that your people skills are at least as important as your mastery of your camera and your understanding of light and composition. If you come across an individual whose portrait you would like to make, show respect, and treat that person as you would wish to be treated.

Ideally, before you pull out a camera and ask if it is OK to photograph someone from a close distance, there should be some rapport between you. There are two good reasons for attempting to build some rapport. Firstly, with some positive interaction between you, there is more chance that your subject will agree to being photographed because you will not be perceived as a threat. Secondly, the quality of the portrait will be significantly improved if your subject is relaxed in front of your lens, and that can only happen when there is a degree of trust between you.

Portrait of a street vendor, Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, India (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, India, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

So take the time to build some empathy if you possibly can. Resist the temptation to dive straight in and shoot quickly. Slow down, perhaps leave the camera in the bag, and make an attempt to engage with that person as another human being rather than as a portrait subject. Try not to immediately ask for permission to photograph them, press the shutter, and move on. Verbal interaction is not always easy if you are on your own in a place where you don’t speak the language without a local fixer or interpreter, but creating some kind of rapport is more or less essential to creating a good portrait.

Since every person and situation is different, how much time you need to invest in building empathy will vary. Sometimes a smile or a nod will be all it takes to put someone at ease. At other times, you may need to spend a significant amount of time building a relationship before you can consider asking permission to photograph.

Portrait of a street vendor, Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, India (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, India, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

Only once you have built the requisite level of rapport is it appropriate to ask for permission to make a portrait. Your subject will feel more comfortable with you, trust you more, and this will generally show in the portraits you make. Maybe you will be communicating with body language alone, and perhaps permission to photograph will be obtained with a raised eyebrow and showing them the camera. However you do it, you need to find a way to communicate.

Making a portrait on the street with a complete stranger is a collaboration, an exchange, however transient. The subject is putting themselves in your hands, giving you a gift, showing you trust. It’s up to you to repay that trust by respecting their dignity and making the best portrait you can. Both parties should feel that their day has been enriched by the interaction, not diminished. Tread lightly and show consideration and respect, and you won’t go far wrong.

Portrait of a street vendor, Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, India, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, India, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

If despite your best efforts to engage with someone and strike up some rapport, permission for a portrait is not forthcoming, accept this with good grace, apologise for troubling them, thank them and move on. Don’t take offence. Someone declining to be photographed is not a rejection of you personally.

2.Take your time, but respect your subject’s time

If you ask a stranger for permission to photograph them, you owe it to them to do the best job that you can, and that means taking your time over it. Sure, they may be busy, and you don’t want to delay them unnecessarily, but a single ‘click’ and moving on is unlikely to repay the trust the individual has shown you in allowing you to photograph them.

Street Portrait - Manama, Bahrain, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

Manama, Bahrain, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

Nor is it likely to produce a stunning portrait. Taking time over the portrait – within reason – shows the person you are photographing that you care about what you are doing, and that you are trying to make the best portrait of them that you can – it shows respect for your subject. How much time you have depends largely on your subject and how much time they are willing or able to give you. It will also depend on the rapport you have created. You will have to use your emotional and social intelligence to work out how much time you have, particularly if there is not common language, and do your best to sense when your subject is becoming impatient. If you reach that point, wrap up quickly, as you will not make great portraits with a subject who wants to leave, or wants you to leave. Ideally you should be finished before impatience becomes an issue.

Boy with a Cricket bat, Dharavi Slum, Mumbai, India, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

Dharavi Slum, Mumbai, India, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

Allow the person time to relax and get comfortable in front of your camera, wait for any initial awkwardness to subside, keep your eye to the viewfinder, and wait for the right moment or moments to press the shutter. Be patient. What is the right moment? The moment when the subject relaxes, and an element of their personality is revealed through genuine expression and natural, unforced body language. In the words of Steve McCurry: you wait until “people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view.” Sometimes you can facilitate this by talking to the person you are photographing; sometimes the right thing to do is to wait out the silence for your subject to reveal themselves. You need to feel your way on this one.

Dharavi Slum, Mumbai, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

Dharavi Slum, Mumbai, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

 

3. Be intentional in your use of light

“Good light” is light which supports whatever it is you are trying to say with your portrait – it is specific to that particular portrait. For another portrait, the same light may not be “good light”.

Old Delhi, India, 2010 (© Ian Mylam)

Old Delhi, India, 2010 (© Ian Mylam)

In the image above of a man reading the Qur’an in a mosque in Old Delhi, I had the feeling in this moment that he was deep in thought, communicating with God. The backlight filtering through the lattice-work behind him and reflecting off the honey-coloured stone surrounding him bathed him in beautiful, soft, ethereal light. In other words, heavenly light. The light thus served to strengthen what it was I was trying to communicate in this photograph. The light was empathetic to the visual story, which – ideally – it should always be.

An engraver in his work shop, Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, India (© Ian Mylam)

Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, India, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

In the second example, above, of an engraver at work in his workshop near Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, India, I wanted the light to convey the feeling of cosy intimacy I experienced when I was invited into his workshop to drink chai with him and photograph him while he worked. The light was beautifully dramatic exactly where I wanted it to be: pulling attention to my subject, engrossed in his work. It serves as a visual exclamation mark in the image; the rest of the workshop is bathed in cool blue light, falling off towards the edges of the image, and the eye is irresistibly pulled to the engraver by the pop of warm light from the desk lamp. The contrast in colour temperature between the cool blue light and the warmth of the light from the desk lamp further serves to separate the engraver from his environment:  warm colours are perceived by the eye as coming forwards, while cool colours recede, and the two colour temperatures thus help to lend the two-dimensional image some three-dimensionality (aided by the use of a wide-angle lens).

‘Good light’ is not an objective, invariant thing. For portraiture, ‘good light’ is often – but not always – soft light (i.e. light with a gradual transition from highlight to shadow). Soft light from a large, diffused source avoids harsh, unflattering shadows on the face, reveals detail, and allows the person to avoid squinting and closing the eyes. However, there are times when hard light may be appropriate. Hard light can be dramatic, and the deep shadows it creates can create mystery and interest.

Mumbai, India, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

Mumbai, India, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

A tough or mysterious character, someone who has had a hard life, or perhaps someone who has spent a life outdoors in the blazing sun, are all examples of characters who may benefit from the use of hard light to tell their story. Hard light needs to be carefully managed to ensure that the shadows fall where you want them. The dynamic range (i.e. the range of tones in the image from the darkest to the lightest tones) may be greater with hard light, and you may have to choose between retaining detail in the highlights in your portrait or plunging the shadows into inky blackness, unless you choose to use a reflector or strobes to reduce the contrast in the image. In general, retaining highlight detail is the way to go since this is how our eyes naturally respond to light; deep shadows with no detail appear natural to the eye and can add intrigue.

The light needs to support the story as far as ambient conditions permit, and your choice of light should be intentional.

Dharavi Slum, Mumbai, India, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

Dharavi, Mumbai, India, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

If the light is not suitable for your portrait, don’t be afraid to ask if your subject would mind moving to a place which may only be a few steps away where the light is more appropriate. For example, out of the direct sun and into open shade, or into a doorway. Don’t just automatically accept the prevailing light without first questioning whether it is right for your portrait.

If you carry a reflector or a diffuser with you, or a small flash that you can trigger off-camera, your options for creating the light you want for your portrait increase.

With a reflector, you can create dramatic light by placing your subject in the shade and bouncing sunlight back on to your subject so that they are effectively spot-lit. You can also use a reflector to bounce light into shadows, reducing contrast and limiting the range of the tones in the image. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the closer the reflector is to your subject, the softer the light becomes. As the reflector is brought closer, the apparent size of the light source increases which softens the transition from highlights to shadows in your image. Don’t confuse the quality of the light (in this case, its hardness or softness) with the intensity (i.e. volume) of the light. The intensity of the light will of course increase as the reflector is brought closer, but this can easily be compensated for by adjusting the settings on your camera to hold the exposure constant. The quality of the light – i.e. the softness of the shadows, or otherwise – will, however, change as the reflector is moved nearer or farther away from the subject, and this will not be influenced by any adjustments you make to aperture, shutter speed and ISO to hold the exposure constant.

Mumbai, India, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

Mumbai, India, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

In the absence of shade, you can place a diffuser between e.g. the sun and your subject to soften the light, reducing contrast and softening shadows. Often, a diffuser and a reflector are combined: a diffuser has one or more reflective sleeves which may be pulled over it. Typically, these sleeves are white, silver, gold, and silver/gold combined in a chequerboard pattern. Silver reflects the most light, and it has no effect on the colour of the light being reflected i.e. it imparts no additional colour cast. A gold reflector also reflects a good deal of light, but imparts a warmth to the reflected light. This can be very effective in creating a difference in colour temperature between the light falling on your subject and the ambient light illuminating the background, helping to draw the viewer’s eye to your subject. Like the silver reflector, a white reflector imparts no colour cast to the reflected light, but the quantity of light reflected is less than with the silver reflector. The light is therefore less ‘contrasty’, and shadows on your subject will be softer. The silver/gold combination reflector produces a result – as you would expect – somewhere between the silver reflector and the gold reflector. It warms the reflected light slightly, but not as much as the gold reflector does. It is probably the reflector I use the most.

A flash which can be triggered off-camera provides the most versatility since – unlike a reflector – you do not need direct sunlight to be present which can be reflected back at your portrait subject. With off-camera flash or strobes, you can use light modifiers (small soft boxes, diffusers, umbrellas, snoots, grids, etc.) with the flash unit to create different lighting effects. You can also completely control the balance of the light from the flash (typically used to illuminate your subject) relative to the ambient light falling both on your subject and on the background.

Jutland, Denmark, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

Jutland, Denmark, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

Downsides to using off-camera flash are that it takes longer to set up than a reflector, and your subject may not want to wait while you set this up and play around with power settings and light modifiers to create the look you want. It is possible to hold the camera in one hand and the flash in the other hand at arm’s length, but this limits the family of angles from which you can throw light – it is much better and easier if you have someone (either an assistant, friend, or a helpful local) to hold the flash unit for you. Or alternatively carry a small light stand with you.

In contrast to a flash unit, when using a reflector you will always need someone to hold the reflector for you in order to bounce sunlight on to your subject. Additionally, accurate placement and orientation of a reflector is much more critical than using off-camera flash in lighting your subject, and requires more skill. If you are going to be relying on people you meet with whom you cannot easily communicate to hold your reflector for you, then this may be a factor in deciding whether to use flash or a reflector.

When the situation demands it, I use both reflectors and also off-camera flash in making street portraits, depending on the circumstances and what I am prepared to carry. There is no doubt that using natural ambient light is the simplest and quickest solution if the light gives you what you want. When travelling alone, I usually carry 22-inch Photoflex Litedisc reflectors in gold/white and silver/white which fold down to a third of that size as these offer a good compromise between the size of the reflected light source and what I can comfortably carry. In terms of flash gear, I carry one (occasionally two) Nikon Speedlights with radio triggers, and either a Westcott 43” trifold shoot-through umbrella and/or a Lumiquest Softbox III collapsible soft box which folds flat and slips into a pocket in my camera bag, but can be assembled in seconds. I also carry an umbrella swivel adaptor and a Manfrotto extension arm or a Justin clamp on which to mount the flash unit, umbrella or Lumiquest Softbox. I may also carry a Rogue Flashbender grid attachment for the flash unit and a Honl speedsnoot, together with a couple of Honl Speed Gobos.

4. Portraits need good composition, too

In addition to thinking about light, don’t neglect to think about composition when making a portrait. It might seem at first sight as if placing your subject centred, or perhaps off-centre, in your frame is as much as you need to do. This is not true: portraits need as much thought given to composition as any other image.

Mumbai, India, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

Mumbai, India, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

This is not only true with a contextual portrait such as the one above – even with a tightly framed portrait, you should pay attention to the lines in the image, and try arrange them in a visually pleasing way which strengthens visual communication.

Old Delhi, India, 2010 (© Ian Mylam)

Old Delhi, India, 2010 (© Ian Mylam)

In the image of the man above, I composed the image symmetrically such that the lines in the frame emphasise stability, strength and power, with my subject – almost confrontationally – square on to the camera. His demeanour was confident, verging on arrogant; his unflinching gaze a challenge; he probably was not intending to be aggressive, but his macho body language came across that way. By posing him so that he appears to be ‘squaring up’ to the camera, these perceived characteristics of his personality are emphasised through the composition. The triangle formed by the lines of his shoulders and the bottom of the frame suggest strength. The composition thus supports the visual story.

Old Delhi, India, 2010 (© Ian Mylam)

Old Delhi, India, 2010 (© Ian Mylam)

In the second image above, the viewer’s eye is subconsciously led up into the frame by the diagonal line formed by the garment bottom left and follows the line of the cloth around the ear to the top of the head, then down to the face. The face – and in particular the eyes – are always the most visually compelling part of any portrait, with the most visual weight. The fact that the face is the sharpest part of the image as well as the area of greatest contrast against the dark background subliminally reinforces the idea that this is the area of the image to which most attention should be given, since the eye is attracted most by areas of high contrast and sharpness. The diagonal line leading from bottom left helps to give the portrait energy and dynamism, and leads the eye on a path into the frame.

5. Don’t neglect the background

It is easy to be swept away on a wave of enthusiasm when you have a fascinating portrait subject who has just given you permission to photograph them and forget all about the background to your portrait. However, the background can make or break your portrait regardless of the strength of your subject.

A man looks out of a train window at Nampally Railway Station in Hyderabad, India (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Hyderabad, India, 2011 (© Ian Mylam)

If the background is cluttered and irrelevant to the story of the portrait, it may simply distract the viewer, leading the eye away from your subject. Your choice of background should be as intentional as your choice of light, wherever possible.

Chennai, India, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

Chennai, India, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

Once again, don’t be afraid to ask your subject to move a few steps to somewhere offering a better background for your portrait.

If you are struggling with the background, using a longer focal length, increasing the distance from your subject to the background and using a large lens aperture will help to throw the background out of focus, minimising distractions.

New Delhi Railway Station, India (© Ian Mylam)

New Delhi Railway Station, India (© Ian Mylam)

6. Contextual or close-up?

Linked to your consideration of a suitable background is the question of whether your portrait should be a simple head and shoulders shot, with little background visible, or whether it should be a contextual portrait giving some additional information about the subject’s environment.

Market vendor, Bangalore, India, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

Bangalore, India, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

Both approaches are equally valid. You can try mixing it up, shooting both tight head shots, filling the frame with your subject’s features, and also pulling back to show some context. If the context adds to the story, it can make for a powerful portrait. On the other hand, if you are struggling to find a suitable background, framing tight on your subject so that little if any background is visible may make more sense.

7. Sometimes you may find the stage before the actor

Some days you will find your subject, then struggle to place them in front of a suitable background and find or create appropriate light to photograph them in. It can sometimes be easier to first identify a great background and great light, and wait for a great portrait subject to come along whom you can place in the scene.

8. There’s no such thing as a portrait lens

There is no such thing as the ‘ideal’ portrait lens. You can make great portraits with a lens of almost any focal length from wide-angle to telephoto. Your choice of lens should be determined by what you want to say with your portrait. For example, lenses with focal lengths in the 85mm – 135mm range are generally flattering to the features of the human face owing to the mild perspective compression of such lenses. In contrast, a wide-angle lens pushed in tight will tend to exaggerate the more prominent features of the face: chin, nose, eyebrows, etc – giving a more comic, fun, humorous or possibly even grotesque rendering of the face. The closer the lens to the face, the more extreme the perspective distortion will be. Perhaps not the right choice for portraits of the bride or mother-in-law, nor for a fashion or beauty shoot – but with the right subject, there is no reason not to try using a wide-angle lens.

Photographer David Nightingale on the Isle of Jura, Scotland (© Ian Mylam)

Photographer David Nightingale on the Isle of Jura, Scotland (© Ian Mylam)

Wide-angle lenses can be effective for portraits of children, injecting an element of energy and fun into the portrait, giving a more inclusive feel, pulling you in to the child’s world. Wide-angle lenses are also great for contextual portraits, showing a person in their surroundings, providing another layer to the visual story. There is no right or wrong choice with optics – I have made portraits with lenses ranging in focal length from 17mm to 200mm – but it is important to be aware of what different lenses will give you, so you can make an informed choice.

Old Delhi, India , 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

Old Delhi, India , 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

If you want to create tight headshots, it’s also worth considering the magnification factor of the lens. Each lens has a point of closest focus – move closer than that to your subject, and you will not be able to focus on your subject. Can you fill the frame with the subjects head and shoulders at that distance? If you can’t, and a tight headshot is what you want to achieve, then you might need to reach for another lens in your bag, or accept that you will need to crop the image afterwards and throw away some pixels. For example, my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR2 zoom lens is a lens I sometimes use for portraits. However, I discovered early on that I was unable to focus close enough to fill the frame with my subject’s head and shoulders for a tight headshot. Not necessarily a problem if you are happy to crop later, or accept a slightly wider view – but something to be aware of. Incidentally, you may also find with such zoom lenses that at the point of closest focus you are not actually getting focal length stated by the lens manufacturer. With my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR2 racked out to 200mm for example,  at the point of closest focus, the lens actually has a true focal length of around 135mm. This is a compromise made by the lens manufacturer to enable the lens to focus closer than it would otherwise be able to do. A compromise worth making, in my view, but again, something to be aware of – your 200mm zoom lens may not actually be giving you a focal length of 200mm at the point of closest focus.

9. Multiple shots, different viewpoints, different angles

If you have a willing portrait subject, you have suitable light, the background is good, then don’t be content with one or two frames. Work the scene and your subject. Try different angles, different framing, and different lenses. Your chances of a strong frame will go up.

10. Choose your moment

Watch your subject’s changes of expression, and photograph them. Eye contact is not always necessary for a great portrait. Natural body language which reveals the character of your subject is more important. Eye contact can cause the viewer to feel more engaged with the portrait and the subject. On the other side of the coin, the absence of eye contact can allow the viewer to feel like a fly on the wall, an observer glimpsing into another world. Both approaches can work, depending on the subject and the situation.

Mumbai, India, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

Mumbai, India, 2012 (© Ian Mylam)

Often it takes a few frames for the subject to get used to the ‘click’ of the shutter, and relax. Sometimes telling your subject that you are just taking a few test shots to check the light and composition can bring the relaxed, natural expression you are looking for.

For the following image, I made several frames, but only in this one did I see the natural, unforced body language and expressions revealing the comfortable intimacy of the close friendship between these two boys in Colaba, Mumbai. This image communicates clearly the bond of close boyhood friendship to me, and it works in my opinion because of its universality: anyone anywhere on the planet regardless of culture or location would immediately recognise the bond of friendship between them. It is the only frame in the sequence which succeeded in clearly communicating that. It would have been easy to stop shooting before I got to this frame, but I would have been left with a much weaker image as a result. Even when you think you have got the shot – keep shooting. There may be something even better to come.

Mumbai, India, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

Mumbai, India, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

Similarly, don’t be afraid to gently direct your subject if the composition or body language doesn’t look right. Resist the temptation to ‘chimp’ (check the camera LCD screen to review your images) too much. It may be exactly in that moment that you miss the expression which would make for a strong portrait.

Old Delhi, India (© 2010 Ian Mylam)

Old Delhi, India (© 2010 Ian Mylam)

Once you have nailed the composition and the exposure, keep your eye to the viewfinder and your finger on the shutter release. Sometimes it helps to talk to your subject while photographing them. Sometimes silence works best. You have to feel the pulse of the shoot, and go with whatever works.

Manama Souq, Bahrain, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

Manama Souq, Bahrain, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

 

I hope that these ten tips are helpful to you in creating strong portraits. If there’s anything you’d like to add, or if you feel that I’ve overlooked something which works well for you, please drop me a line in the comments – I’d love to hear from you.

Two Days in Dubai

I just got back from a very enjoyable couple of days in Dubai where the annual Gulf Photo Plus photography festival was in full swing. I met up with some friends there including David Nightingale and Bobbi Lane (a.k.a. “The Mistress of Light”), who were both instructing at G.P.P., and also Dubai-based commercial photographers and good friends Catalin Marin and Issa Alkindy. I also had the pleasure of getting to know Si Longworth, a British Army photographer based in Aldershot in the U.K. – a great guy whom I hope to meet again before too long.

Day 1 involved the obligatory visit to the Vista Bar (now known as the Story Bar), which was preceded by a an early evening drive into the desert with Issa, Catalin and Si. Issa once again kept us safe with his exemplary 4×4 dune-driving skills – he’s an Omani, so I guess driving in the dunes is in the blood.

While we were driving, I spotted this lone tree, and asked Issa to stop the car to photograph it:

Tree in the Desert - U.A.E. 2014  (© Ian Mylam)

Tree in the Desert – U.A.E. 2014 (© Ian Mylam)

There were several trees like this growing in splendid isolation in the dunes, but this one just spoke to me: I think it was the combination of the tree juxtaposed against the sweep of this particular dune which led my eye to the tree and then further up and left to the dune in the distance. Or maybe it’s just because it was the first one I saw. ‘Simplify the frame, and remove everything which is not part of the visual story’ is a good maxim for the photographer – fortunately, scenes don’t get much less cluttered than this. It was just a question of finding the right framing and focal length to make the composition work the way I wanted to. Initially, I preferred the monochrome version of the image as it was the lines in the frame which spoke to me rather than the colours…

Tree in the Desert - U.A.E. 2014  (© Ian Mylam)

Tree in the Desert – U.A.E. 2014 (© Ian Mylam)

…but I have come to prefer the colour version as I feel that the lush green of the tree strengthens the conceptual contrast of the unexpected burst of life against the barren aridity of the surrounding landscape.

The local guys told me that despite appearances the water table is not far below the surface in this part of the desert, which is presumably why trees like this can grow and flourish in the apparently inhospitable terrain.

My plan for Day 2 was to meet up with new buddy Si Longworth for a dawn shoot of the skyline of Dubai. However, the fog descended on Dubai overnight which quashed any hope of the skyline shoot – it would have been a white-out. The fall-back plan – which involved working with the weather rather than against it – was to get to the top of a tall building in Dubai courtesy of Catalin and shoot some dramatic images of buildings rising up through the fog. Unfortunately Catalin already had a commercial shoot scheduled which meant that he had insufficient time to meet me that morning. With both plans now dead in the water and having already reluctantly hauled myself out of my warm and comfortable hotel bed at 04:30 for the aborted dawn shoot, I tried to get back to sleep, and failed. I grabbed my camera bag, left the hotel and aimlessly wandered the streets of early morning Dubai watching the fog slowly lift and hoping for some kind of photographic serendipity to salvage something from my only day in the city with a camera.

I found myself in the Business Bay area walking along the side of an apparently visually uninspiring road I didn’t know when an image began to take shape in my mind based on the scene in front of me. It took me a while to find the right framing, and involved cropping the image to a square format to translate what I could see through the viewfinder to what I could see in my mind’s eye, but I eventually found the framing which had tugged at my subconscious and caused me to slow to a halt and break out the camera. I tried a few test shots before pulling out the tripod as I decided that some motion blur in the passing traffic might add some energy to the scene, and that necessitated a shutter speed which was too slow to comfortably hand-hold – this was shot at 1/10 of a second and a focal length of 22mm. I then realised that what I really needed was a yellow vehicle to pass by to echo the colour of the yellow lines on the left side of the image. So I staked out this spot for around twenty minutes waiting for a yellow vehicle to come by. A couple of times I saw a yellow vehicle approaching, but by the time it actually reached me, my view of it was partially blocked by other traffic. Eventually I got lucky: an unobstructed view of an approaching yellow van, and this image was the result:

Early-Morning Dubai, 2014 (© Ian Mylam)

Early-Morning Dubai, 2014 (© Ian Mylam)

I continued to work the scene and swapped lenses, replacing the 17-35mm zoom I was using for a 50mm prime lens in order to alter the perspective compression and give more visual weight to both the buildings in the background and the gantry visible in the centre of the frame. I walked closer to the gantry and made the following shot.

Early Morning Dubai II (© Ian Mylam)

Early Morning Dubai II (© Ian Mylam)

While I also like this second shot, I definitely prefer the first image: there is more dynamism in the first picture owing to the powerful diagonal lines created by the wide-angle lens; I love the tall building right of centre which I sacrificed in the second shot by walking closer to the gantry; and the bluer sky contrasts nicely with its colour opposite in the form of the yellows of the van and the lines on the road.

By around eight o’clock I was feeling tired; the sun was up; the temperature was rising, I was beginning to think about breakfast, and my photo backpack and tripod were feeling heavier and heavier. I had wandered some way from my hotel, so rode the Metro back, making the following two final frames along the way.

Dubai Metro, U.A.E., 2014 (© Ian Mylam)

Dubai Metro, U.A.E., 2014 (© Ian Mylam)

Dubai, U.A.E., 2014 (© Ian Mylam)

Dubai, U.A.E., 2014 (© Ian Mylam)

I used to dislike Dubai for its ostentatiousness and obsession with wealth, but I have come to love it – it’s a seductive mistress, like no other place on Earth. I appreciate its energy and architecture and feeling of excitement, and it always inspires me to make photographs.

Thanks Dubai – I’ll be back!

Close to Home

The Night Drive Home - Isle of Funen, Denmark, 2014 (© Ian Mylam)

The Night Drive Home – Isle of Funen, Denmark, 2014 (© Ian Mylam)

Like many photographers, I find it easy to get inspired to shoot when I’m travelling. And like many photographers, I often struggle to find something to photograph in my back yard. Familiarity is of course both a blessing and a curse. Because we know our own turf so intimately, it should give us an advantage in terms of knowing where to shoot, when the light may be good, when the weather is likely to be favourable, when something interesting may be happening in the area and so on. However, set against that is the fact that the very same familiarity tends to lead us to look without really seeing.

When I made this photograph a couple of weeks back, I was driving home from work. It was 01:40 in the morning, and I had been travelling for over 24 hours by planes, trains and automobiles: from Rio de Janeiro to London, then from London to Copenhagen, then on a couple of trains westwards across Denmark, and finally into my car for the final half an hour to my front door. I was running on empty having been awake for most of the journey; it was a bitterly cold Scandinavian night, and I was keen to get home to my family.

I have driven this stretch of road, a stone’s throw from my home, hundreds – probably thousands – of times before. As usual, I was looking but not really seeing – focusing on driving safely and on simply getting home. I don’t know what it was that first caught my eye, made me slow down and then finally stop the car, but for whatever reason, I began to see, and not just to look.  A timely reminder to me that if we can remember to really pay attention and be receptive, images are available to us literally any time and anywhere in the humdrum of our every day lives.

Photographers of the world, beware!

Giotto Air Rocket Blower - a lethal explosive device?

The Giotto Air Rocket Blower – a lethal explosive device?

 

Security madness reigns at London Heathrow Airport!

Today, I had my Giotto Air Rocket Blower – a mighty dangerous-looking dust removal accessory for camera lenses and equipment (see picture) – confiscated on passing through Heathrow Airport Security at Terminal 5 because ‘it might be mistaken for a bomb’. Really? If Heathrow Airport Security are looking for bombs in hand luggage which look like this, perhaps we’d all be better off staying at home!

I showed the security officer how it works (puff! puff! puff!). He was unimpressed, and referred the matter to his supervisor. I was confident that sanity would be restored – but no! – the supervisor also solemnly agreed that it might be perceived as a bomb, even though he agreed it wasn’t actually, you know, dangerous, and insisted on confiscating it.

I mentioned that I have carried this thing with me in my hand luggage on thousands of flights to hundreds of airports all over the world over a number of years, and not one security officer – including at that fortress of airport security, London Heathrow – has ever leapt back in alarm at the sight of it. I also tried to make the point that terrorists boarding aircraft with explosive devices generally try to disguise them a little better (e.g. hiding them in shoes, etc.), and that anything so obviously rocket-shaped as my beloved Giotto Air Rocket Blower was unlikely to be part of the bad guy’s bang-bang kit – not to mention seriously uncomfortable to secrete inside your shoes for extended periods.

The security officer explained that with his previous army and police training, he could assure me that bombs did indeed look just like my Giotto Air Rocket Blower. (Yes, officer, but bombs that look like that are normally slung under the wings of aircraft, or fired from ships, fighter jets or missile silos – not smuggled on to aircraft in camera bags…)

In a last desperate attempt to win him over to the beautiful yet functional rocket-shaped design, I explained that the blower – a classic  – has a long, thin nozzle featuring an opening designed to eliminate whistling which can also be removed for cleaning, and that the non-return valve on the bottom sucks in clean air and does not re-distribute dust. The fins enable the blaster (oops, sorry, bad choice of words, officer!) to stand up on its own and can also be set on its side on a flat surface without rolling.

Sadly, he was adamant that the trusty Giotto Air Rocket Blower was to be mine no more! I imagine that at this very moment they have placed it in a lead-shielded enclosure inside a concrete bunker and are detonating it remotely.

So, photographers of the world, beware! – do not pack your Giotto Air Rocket Blowers in your hand luggage!

The X-Factor: Switching from Sony NEX to Fuji X

Fujifilm X-E2 with Fujinon XF 35mm f/1.4 R lens (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Fujifilm X-E2 with Fujinon XF 35mm f/1.4 R lens

The Sony Alpha NEX-7 and the Fujifilm X-E2 are both class-leading mirrorless cameras. Both are capable of producing image files of stunning quality; both are reasonably rugged, well-made cameras of a similar size and weight.

So why did I recently decide to sell my Sony NEX-7 and buy a Fuji X-E2?

My intention is not to give a comprehensive review of either the NEX-7 or the Fuji X-E2. There are other websites which do a great job of that already. My motivation for writing this post is simply to explain my personal reasons for making the switch between these two mirrorless camera systems. What is important to me may not be what is important to you, and for another photographer, the NEX-7 may be the better choice. So I am not suggesting that either of these two cameras is ‘better’ than the other – just better suited to me personally.

My perspective is that of a photographer who is used to using a full-frame SLR camera system and my expectations of a camera are inevitably coloured by that. I am prepared to make some compromises when moving from a large, heavy SLR body to a smaller, lighter mirrorless camera in return for the reduced form factor and weight – but the compromises have to be weighed carefully against the convenience and increased comfort of a smaller, lighter body: the camera still has to be up to the job.

Before I talk about pros and cons of the Sony NEX-7 and the Fuji X-E2, a little background.

I am a long-time user of digital SLR cameras. Around six months ago I bought a Sony Alpha NEX-7 mirrorless camera together with a Carl Zeiss Sonnar 24mm f/1.8 lens for the Sony ‘E’ mount. I also bought a Novoflex adaptor to enable me to use the NEX-7 with my Nikon prime lenses.

The idea behind buying the Sony NEX-7 was that it would become my primary travel camera, as hauling a full-frame Nikon dSLR plus pro lenses around the world on a regular basis was becoming tiresome. So a smaller and lighter mirrorless camera system seemed like the way to go – provided that I was convinced it could do the job.

Sony Alpha NEX-7 with Sony Carl Zeiss Sonnar E 1.8/24 ZA lens (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Sony Alpha NEX-7 with Sony Carl Zeiss Sonnar E 1.8/24 ZA lens

My intention was that the NEX-7 would augment, rather than replace, my Nikon dSLR gear. There was still to be a place for the full-frame Nikon dSLR in my kit bag: my thinking was that any photographic endeavour which didn’t involve getting on an aeroplane would almost certainly involve me shooting with my Nikon dSLR system as before. Additionally, any time I needed the better high-ISO performance, intrinsically shallower depth-of-field and wider angle of view of a full-frame sensor, blazing fast autofocus, or superior durability and weather sealing (generally in dusty, sandy, or wet environments – deserts, beaches, dust storms, monsoons, etc.), I would shoot with the Nikon SLR system instead of the mirrorless NEX-7 and accept the increase in size and weight.

So why did I recently decide to sell my Sony NEX-7 and buy a Fuji X-E2?

There are a number of reasons for deciding to switch – here they are, in no particular order:

Reason #1: Video Functionality

At the time of buying the NEX-7, I was sorely tempted by several of the Fuji mirrorless cameras. In fact, the only reason I bought the Sony NEX-7 instead of one of the Fuji cameras was because the video functionality of the NEX-7 is far superior, and I thought I would be shooting much more video than I am. Since I am shooting still images 95% of the time and almost no video, the main benefit of the NEX-7 to me is a lot less relevant than it was. My Nikon D800 dSLR produces video of stunning quality, and for on-the-fly video, I also have my iPhone 5. I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be shooting much video with the NEX-7 after all.

Reason #2: High-ISO Performance

Although the Sony NEX-7 is touted as having good high-ISO performance, in practice I have been a little disappointed with this aspect of the NEX-7. High-ISO performance is important to me: I shoot a lot of images while travelling, often in low light, and don’t always have the option – nor want – to augment the light with strobes or flash. I am used to the excellent high-ISO performance of my full-frame Nikon SLRs, and the NEX-7 is noticeably worse in this regard – to be specific, I became very reluctant to shoot above ISO 1600 if I could possibly avoid it.

The lack of great high-ISO performance is doubtless owing to the fact that Sony have packed 24 Megapixels on to an APS-C sensor. What this means is that each light-gathering photosite has to be smaller owing to the higher density of photosites on the sensor, and this results in a lower signal-to-noise ratio which manifests itself as visible digital noise at high ISO settings. In comparison, the Fuji X-E2 packs a more modest 16 Megapixels on to the same size sensor, and the high ISO performance of the X-E2 is very, very good – in my opinion at least on a par with my full-frame Nikon D800 SLR.

I had heard that the high-ISO performance of the X-E2 was good, but it was only when I saw the image files on my monitor that I saw how good it actually was. I can shoot as high as ISO 6400 with very little degradation in image quality. I would much rather have a sensor with a lower Megapixel count and better high-ISO performance – I don’t care less about the Megapixel wars. On a full-frame sensor, 24MP is the sweet spot for me; on an APS-C sensor, 16MP is ideal. The Fuji X-E2 with its 16MP APS-C sensor thus hits the sweet spot – the Sony NEX-7 does not. I can’t help feeling that Sony’s choice of 24MP for the NEX-7 was a marketing decision driven by the desire to be ‘king of the heap’ and claim a higher Megapixel count at launch than any other APS-C camera. Not many photographic applications require a 24 Megapixel sensor; my Nikon D700 full-frame camera only had 12 Megapixels, and there have been plenty of professional jobs shot with the D700.  So give me the 16MP Fujifilm X-Trans CMOS II sensor any day.

Reason #3: Auto-ISO Functionality

On the subject of ISO, I was also frustrated by the Auto-ISO functionality of the NEX-7. The maximum ceiling for the ISO using Auto-ISO is ISO 1600, which means that when the light level drops sufficiently, the ISO hits the ceiling of 1600 and in Aperture-Priority Exposure Mode (where I am 99% of the time), the shutter speed starts to drop to the point where it is not possible to hold the camera steady and image sharpness suffers. For street photography, I use Auto-ISO a lot; I care a great deal about the aperture and the shutter speed as they have a significant impact on the aesthetics of the photograph – but as long as the image is not noticeably noisy, I don’t care very much about the ISO. Despite the fact that I was not particularly impressed with the high-ISO performance of the NEX-7, I’ll take a sharp but noisy image over a blurred image any day. In other words, the ceiling for Auto-ISO on the NEX-7 is too conservative – I would rather deal with the high-ISO noise than a blurred, unusable image – and I was missing shots as a result. The alternative is to switch to manual ISO which means that you may be shooting at a higher ISO setting than you need to in a fast-moving situation with rapidly fluctuating light levels, and end up with images which are noisier than they need to be – particularly relevant given the modest performance of the NEX-7 at high ISO settings.

Reason #4: Autofocus Speed and Reliability

The NEX-7 uses contrast-detect autofocus; the Fuji X-E2 employs a hybrid phase/contrast-detect autofocus system. The difference in plain English is essentially the following: contrast-detect AF is noticeably slower than phase-detect AF, and has a hard time tracking anything which is moving, or when contrast in the scene is low. Additionally, contrast detect AF systems can be easily fooled by scenes which contain specular highlights, leading the camera to think that something is in focus when in fact nothing is. The only advantage of contrast-detect AF systems is that they do not suffer from some of the focusing errors to which phase-detect AF is prone.

You can add phase-detect AF functionality to the NEX-7 by purchasing Sony’s optional, expensive and bulky LA-EA2 adaptor – but then honestly, why not just shoot with an SLR and be done with it? –the whole point of switching from an SLR to a mirrorless system is to save size and weight.

What I noticed in practice is that I was missing shots in a travel/street-photography environment with the NEX-7, even in good light with the excellent Carl Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 ZA Sonnar lens, on account of the autofocus speed. The Fuji X-E2 AF is by way of comparison much faster and generally pretty reliable, even in poor light. Not pro-dSLR-fast – but fast enough, most of the time.

AF performance – along with image quality, high-ISO performance and camera ergonomics – is vitally important to me, so this difference between the NEX-7 and the Fuji X-E2 is huge. If you are a landscape, architectural, interiors or portrait photographer, this may not bother you at all. If you are a street, wedding or event photographer and you like using autofocus, the superior AF performance of the X-E2 will enhance your ability to capture fleeting moments in a fast-changing scene.

Fujifilm X-E2 with Fujinon XF 35mm f/1.4 R lens (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Fujifilm X-E2 with Fujinon XF 35mm f/1.4 R lens

 

Reason #5: Back-Button AF and a Moveable Focus Point

Although the NEX-7 is by common consensus badly set up out of the box, it is highly customisable. The Fuji X-E2 is by default set up very well ex-factory, and is similarly very customisable. However, despite the customisability of the NEX-7, there were some annoying quirks which I could not circumvent. One example is the NEX-7’s implementation of what is commonly referred to as ‘Back-Button Autofocus’. When a camera is set up to use back-button AF, the AF is decoupled from the shutter-release button and assigned to a separate button, usually on the rear of the camera: hence: ‘back-button AF’. The advantage of separating AF control from the shutter release is that you don’t need to re-acquire focus each time you press the shutter button to take a photograph. As long as your subject hasn’t moved, the focus effectively remains locked wherever it was when you last focused. This makes for a much more responsive and fluid shooting experience, and I use this set up on my Nikon SLRs for everything I shoot from street photography to portraits to landscapes. Sure, there is no benefit to back-button AF when shooting landscapes for example, but it is easier to become familiar with one way of shooting which works for everything – that way, there is less chance of screwing up when you need to work fast because muscle memory takes over and you can concentrate on the light, composition and timing and stop thinking about the technicalities of operating the camera.

It is possible to implement back-button AF on the NEX-7; however, it is impossible to then move the focus point around the frame, forcing you to use the ‘focus-recompose’ method of shooting. The NEX-7 only allows you to move the focus point around the frame when AF is fully engaged: the back-button AF set-up on the NEX-7 requires you to effectively put the camera into manual-focus mode, and momentarily engage AF each time you press the AF/MF button. Since you cannot move the focus point in manual-focus mode, you cannot move the focus point while using back-button AF on the NEX-7.

In contrast, the Fuji X-E2 permits me to set up back-button AF AND move the focus point around the frame exactly as I would on my Nikon SLRs – the only limitation is the size of the focus point, which cannot be reduced in size as it can when using autofocus linked to a half-press of the shutter-release button. This can occasionally be limiting when trying to focus on a small area when shooting with a lens wide open e.g. focusing on your subject’s eye – and in this situation I switch to using the AF linked to the shutter-release button, or simply fine-tuning focus manually using one of the excellent manual-focusing aids.

This ability to move the AF point around the frame is the way I mostly like to use AF – I much prefer it to using the centre focus point and re-composing, as it makes for faster more fluid composition, and I find that I am less likely to miss the moment or screw up the composition in a changing scene. For example, trying to nail a panning shot rendering the moving object sharp and the background blurred is almost impossible with the focus-recompose method of shooting.

In short, the Fuji X-E2 supports my default way of working with AF; the NEX-7 does not. For some photographers, the above may not matter at all – for me it is a big deal.

Reason #6: Manual Focusing Aids

Both the Sony NEX-7 and the Fuji X-E2 offer aids to manual focusing. Both of them enable you to enlarge the area of the scene you are focusing on to check accurate manual focus, and both offer ‘focus peaking’ (where high-contrast areas of the scene in the Electronic Viewfinder – usually those areas which are in sharp focus – ‘sparkle’ to indicate that they are in focus.) However, I find Fuji’s implementation of focus peaking much easier to see than with the Sony NEX-7.  Additionally, the X-E2 offers an additional manual focusing aid – the ‘split image’ mode – which can be useful in certain situations, although I generally prefer the focus-peaking option.

Reason #7: The Lens System

The range of lenses available with the Fuji X system is already comprehensive and indicative of Fuji’s serious intentions with the X system, with a clear roadmap for future development. The Fujinon X lenses are beautiful to behold, with generally stunning image quality: sharp across the frame even wide open with excellent contrast, attractive flare characteristics, beautiful colour rendition and bokeh. Sony’s range of ‘E’ mount lenses for the NEX-7 is developing too slowly for my liking, although there are some good Carl Zeiss lenses available for the Sony ‘E’ mount. It is possible to use lenses from other manufacturers with the NEX-7 with adaptors, but then you are limited to using manual focus and also setting aperture manually – and giving up AF can be a big deal in some shooting situations.

Fujifilm X-E2 with Fujinon XF 35mm f/1.4 R lens (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Fujinon XF 23mm f/1.4 R lens

 

Reason #8: Manufacturer Responsiveness and Customer Care

Fuji’s responsiveness to the photographer community in terms of listening to feedback and releasing firmware upgrades to address deficiencies is refreshing and widely reported. That kind of responsiveness and commitment to customers is rare. Fuji really seems to be listening to its photographer user base, and the fruits of this collaboration are visible in terms of the development and enhancement of the Fuji X system. Fuji is releasing software upgrades to improve the functionality of older cameras in the Fuji X range, and not just pushing its latest cameras and encouraging users of its older cameras to shell out for the latest model. Sure, the end result of this is more brand loyalty, and in the long run undoubtedly more sales for Fuji – but if it continues to be sufficiently far-sighted as to look after its customers in this way, the company deserves to be successful and make a healthy profit from the Fuji X range.

There are also numerous reports on the web of photographers who have been looked after very well by Fuji customer service when they have had problems with Fuji cameras, even when the camera is not longer under warranty. This further underlines Fuji’s commitment to its customers, which is laudable.

I have absolutely nothing negative to say about Sony in terms of customer support, but Fuji really seems to be going the extra mile for its customers, and this is another factor for me in switching to the Fuji X system.

Reason #9: The X-E2 is a true photographer’s camera

My final reason for making the switch is less tangible than the others, but I am convinced of its veracity.

I have the inescapable feeling after shooting with both the Sony NEX-7 and the Fuji X-E2 that the NEX-7, while indisputably a fantastic little camera and a marvel of technology, feels like it was designed by a team of technicians. The Fuji X-E2 feels like it was designed by photographers. Or to put it another way: the X-E2 feels like a camera, whereas the NEX-7 feels more like an electronic gadget containing lots of impressive imaging technology. The X-E2 doesn’t have as many fancy tricks as the NEX-7, it doesn’t do video as well, it doesn’t have 24 Megapixels, it doesn’t have a tilting rear screen, it doesn’t have clever low-light modes like Anti-Motion Blur or Hand-Held Twilight, and the X-E2 user manual is a fraction of the heft of the NEX-7 manual – but the X-E2 simply handles the core photographic tasks brilliantly and its ergonomics are significantly better.

Unlike the NEX-7, the Fuji X-E2 is very well set up out of the box, with the ability to be further customised to the user’s needs. Every button is exactly where you want it to be. I tried playing around with the customisation of the camera, and after a period of experimentation, reverted to the way Fuji had set it up ex-factory as I found I couldn’t improve on it.

For my style of photography, the holy trinity of camera performance are image quality, autofocus performance and high-ISO performance – and you can add camera handling and ergonomics to that. In these four areas – which are really all I care about – the Fuji X-E2 wins hands down. The autofocus system is fast and reliable, the image quality from the 16MP sensor is nothing short of stunning, and the ISO performance is outstanding from an APS-C sensor.

That is not to say that the X-E2 is perfect – the perfect camera doesn’t exist. There are a few things which I would love to see Fuji address: for example, the ability to modify the size of the focus area used when AF is momentarily engaged with the AF-L button in manual-focus mode, or increasing the maximum flash sync speed from 1/180 sec. to 1/250 sec., or the addition of a tilting rear LCD screen. But these are things I can live with.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, for another photographer, the NEX-7 may be the better choice. If you want great video performance, if you want the resolution of a 24 Megapixel sensor, if you don’t need fast autofocus nor stellar high-ISO performance, or if you simply must have a tilting rear LCD screen, the Sony NEX-7 might be the perfect mirrorless camera for you.

There is no ‘best camera’ here – only what is right for you. At this point in time the Fujifilm X-E2 is the right mirrorless camera for me.

Fujifilm X-E2 with Fujinon XF 35mm f/1.4 R lens (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Fujifilm X-E2 with Fujinon XF 35mm f/1.4 R lens

 

Postcards from Chennai

I’m currently in Chennai, India, and shortly on my way home to Denmark, where I’ll be for the new year’s eve celebrations, before departing for Thailand on new year’s day. I didn’t get much time for photography on this trip, other than a quick stroll around the streets close to my hotel shortly before sunset, where I made a few portraits of local people.

Happy New Year!

Young girl - Chennai, India (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Chennai, India, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

Chennai, India, 2013 (I© Ian Mylam)

Chennai, India, 2013 (I© Ian Mylam)

Woman with small child - Chennai, India (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Chennai, India, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

Man - Chennai, India (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Chennai, India, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)

Young girl - Chennai, India (Ian Mylam/© Ian Mylam (www.ianmylam.com))

Chennai, India, 2013 (© Ian Mylam)