Thursday, 29 March 2012

Handling GX1 as a GF1 User

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Black Panasonic DMC-GX1
with Olympus 45mm F1.8 and Mizar Brown Half-Case with Strap

After two years with GF1 around, Panasonic finally released the true GF1 successor, the GX1. I have to admit, I've been waiting for this and the timing is just about right for me to upgrade. After using for 2 months, I can now pen down some thoughts I have about this camera, coming from a previous GF1-owner perspective. I won't comment much on picture quality, as plenty of reviews about this are available elsewhere. Instead, I'll concentrate on the physical build and handling.

Rationale of Upgrade
The GF1 is still a very good camera. So why did I upgrade? The main reason I've decided to move on to GX1 is more about what I use my camera for nowadays.

  • Lots of indoor shooting. My toddler don't spend a lot of time outdoor. Therefore, many of my photos nowadays are taken indoor. The new 16 megapixel sensor with much better high-ISO output is just what I need. (Yes, DSLR still fair better, but keeping my camera system small is still my top priority).
  • Better video quality and handling. Though I still shoot a lot more photos than videos, I do shoot more videos than I did previously. With better high-ISO capability, Full-HD capable and stereo mic, the GX1 captures much better video than GF1. Noise grains are a lot finer than GF1 in the dark area too. On top of that, the touch screen allows me to select the point to focus during recording without changing composition.

Other features of GX1 which also influenced my decision are:
  • Faster AF. I didn't measure against GF1, but does feels a little faster.
  • Touch Screen. On top of being helpful to video capturing, I find that it's very useful to overwrite the focus point for stills as well, as the auto focus do focus at the wrong subject of interest occasionally.
  • Bundling of 14-42 pancake X lens. This, is more of a want than a need. But since it is small, has Power OIS and Power Zoom, I figured it would be useful to have this lens around for both stills and videos. Moreover, the bundling with the GX1 turns this lens to a relatively "cheap" kit lens, so it's a no-brainer to go for it instead of getting the body-only GX1 package.

Features that I like after I've used the camera

  • Built-in orientation sensor. The 20mm f1.7 that I use very often does not include the orientation sensor, which required me to manually rotate my shots manually in my workflow when shooting with GF1. GX1 comes with the sensor and rotates for your automatically. This cuts down my post-processing time.
  • Drive Mode button. Gone were the GF1's latch to switch drive mode. Instead, it's replaced with the down-cursor button. Though seems like a step backward at first, it's actually allow you to make more adjustments via the touch screen as you switches drive mode. For example, switching to Auto Bracket allows you to set the number of exposures and exposure compensation, or switching to self-timer then allows you to also set the 10s, 10s/3Pictures or 2s. This was previously hidden in the GF1 menu, making it difficult to tune the drive mode quickly.
  • Bounce-capable pop-up flash. In rooms with low ceiling, pictures tends to look better with the bounce flash.

Features that I don't like after I've used the camera

  • On/Off switch. I prefer the GF1's on/off switch, as it is easier to switch the camera on with one hand and only with the index finger. Now I need to hold the camera with both hands to switch it on. It's a small camera anyway. So I don't see why put in a switch that is meant for a larger cameras.
  • iA button. A feature that I don't use at all. Heck, don't think many of the buyer of this camera will use this too. So to me that's a waste of real estate on the camera. Could have been used as an additional function button, and leave the iA at the mode-dial.
  • Recessed video record button. Makes it slightly harder to press. I don't have issue of accidental video recording with the GF1 record button, so I don't see the need for this design change.

Some Minor Quirks

  • The handgrip. Though seems like a good idea, it does require some time to get used to it. Having said that, it's a must-have to promote better grip on the camera, as the GX1 body is slimmer than GF1. I just hope it doesn't become sticky later on.
  • Rear dial. It is noticeably smaller than the GF1 version. Not too big deal, just need to get used to it.
  • Disp button. It's prone to accidental pressing, as it's placed very close to the thumb rest. It's quite annoying. Having said that, glad that it's just a display button, which doesn’t affect picture/video shooting parameters.

Wish List

  • Physical switch to enable/disable the touch screen. No more accidental bump.
  • Swivel LCD. If not because the G3's built is not as solid as GX1, I would have picked the G3.
  • Turn iA button into a function button. Don't see why this can't be implemented with a firmware update.
  • Time to include wireless-flash capability, like Olympus.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Keeping the Background Sharp

Just recalled one of my colleague, who bought a GF1 for a holiday trip, came back and complained to me why the images are blur. After some clarification, it is the background of group photos are blur, not the subject itself (the people in the group photo). The effect of this “blur” is even worse when taking a group picture with a large landmark at the back. Unlike myself, my colleague is a compact camera user upgraded to GF1. Therefore, has very little understanding of technicalities such as shutter speed, DOF, aperture etc.

Recalling on my own trip, I also had similar problem when wanting take a photo of my wife with a landmark at the back. I have some understanding of DOF, which thought my to lower down my aperture setting for a sharper background. However, it wasn’t sharp enough even at f5.6, with the subject approximately 2 metres away. So how much lower should I set? So I decided to do a quick test.

Short of a test subject, I have the Starbucks bear here (about the size of a human head) sitting on top of my tripod, frame it with enough view of the tripod to portray a subject from head to upper body. My neighbour’s roofing and window will act as the background landmark. The GF1 is mounted with the 20mm f1.7 lens, and on a table with a Joby Gorillapod.

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Below are sequence of shots taken with different aperture settings, shown in 100% crop. Focus was fixed on the bear, and fixed ISO of 800 (it’s kind of late evening). Shutter speed was adjusted accordingly so that the background is well exposed. Do note that my own window has a layer of mosquito net, which will affect sharpness slightly.

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20mm f1.7 @ f16

20mm f1.7 @ f14

20mm f1.7 @ f11

     
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20mm f1.7 @ f8

20mm f1.7 @ f5.6

20mm f1.7 @ f4

At the highest aperture setting of this lens (f16) the image wasn’t as sharp. Seems like diffraction has set in. Below aperture f11 we can see the background starts to get blur. The background seems to be sharpest from f11 to f14. Even the mosquito net is visible at these apertures. So, this is a mental note to self that, next time if I’m in a situation of shooting a small group photo and want the background tact sharp, f11 onward it is.

By the way, there's a good article about Diffraction at the Micro 43rds Photography blog. Just in case you want to know why images at f16 wasn't sharp.

Monday, 7 February 2011

gps4cam: Geotagging with your iPhone

Back when I was very active in photography, geo tagging photos was a very new concept. The idea of is to embed the longitude and latitude position into the metadata of the photos, so that you can lookup where the photo were taken. It is kind of cool as software and services begin to appear which allow viewing your photos by location on a map, instead of by albums which you organize by yourself. There were about 3 methods that I know to tag the photos.

Manual Tagging

As the name implies, tagging is done by using a software that brings up a map interface (typically relied on Google maps)for you to pin point the location where you taken those photos. This is done only at then end of the post processing workflow. One manual tagging method that I used before is from Flickr. Though workable, its a labour intensive method, not to mention you will need to have good memory if you were back from a long trip with thousands of photos to tag. Nevertheless, this was the most economic method before the camera and accessories manufacturers begin to take note of this need on the market.

GPS Logger

Accessories manufacturers noticed the trend and begin making accessories that allow photographers to tag their photos. These accessories are GPS logger, runs on batteries, and periodically logs the GPS and time information into internal memory. The idea is that the information can be taken out into a computer and with a synchronization software, apply the GPS coordinate into the photos, by comparing the meta data of the time a photo was taken, with the time the GPS information were logged. Very nice idea, only that the device is not that cheap, and it’s an additional item for you to worry about on your trip. Some notable GPS logger were those from Holux, and Sony does have some nice GPS kit as well which is still available.

In-Camera Tagging

Soon, there are GPS logger that can be plugged into the camera directly, and have the GPS information tagged onto the photo as soon as it is taken. The D300 I used before has the Ten-pin remote terminal, which quite a number of 3rd party GPS logger accessories can be plugged into to feed the camera with GPS information, before Nikon produced their own GP-1 GPS adapter which is based on the same concept. The device itself could be mounted on the camera hot shoe, with a wire running down from the side to the connector port on the camera. But again, the device are as expensive as the separate logger, and it can be quite obtrusive with wires out of the camera, and it does suck our your camera’s battery very fast.

20081000 - EU Trip 1138

This old archive photo of mine shows my D300 with the Geomet'r GPS receiver connected.
Makes me look like a Star Trek Borg when taking photos. Moreover, it failed to power up 1/2 way during my long trip in Europe. Some quality product…

The camera manufacturers then decided to put GPS into the camera itself. Currently GPS-capable cameras can be found in some compact cameras. Not sure how that will be good for the camera’s battery life. Maybe they are testing the market, and not doing the same on their DSLR model yet.

GPS Logger on the Mobile Phone

Nowadays, it is hard to image how someone can go about without a mobile phone with them. The phone has seem some impressive convergence of devices, MP3 player, camera, video, gaming, email and etc all comes into the humble phone. GPS also made it into the phone now. At first were limited to navigational software from the phone manufacturers, but with the rise of iPhone, Android and Windows Mobile (and now the new Windows Phone 7), more mobile apps can make use the GPS information of the phone. Taking the concept of GPS logger with a dedicated GPS hardware one step further, GPS logger apps can now rely on the GPS hardware on the phone instead. One such mobile app is the GPS4CAM for iPhone, which can be purchased on iTunes AppStore for USD1.99.

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Before starting the app, ensure that your camera date and time is in sync with your iPhone. Once launched on the iPhone, it presents 4 options to perform GPS logging. Standard, Energy saving, Precise and Manual. Pressing the green start button will set it to start logging GPS information.

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Once started the following screen is presented. At this point, you can choose to switch application without affecting its operation. Probably only works on multitasking capable iPhone 3gs and above only.

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Once the trip has ended, stop the logging by pressing the Pause button. Return to the List and a list of previous trips are shown, order by latest trip date.

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Selecting a trip will bring up the map view on Google maps. From here, the coordinates logged are represented by drop pins on the map. The red pin represents positions that has more than one coordinate logged. Zoom in further will reveal hidden coordinates. Other usual Google maps feature can be used as well, such as switching to satellite and hybrid view.

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At this point, you can choose to either Resume logging, or Export the information. Exporting will bring up a bar code with the trip information. Base on the pattern on the barcode, I believe this is a variant of matrix bar code call the QR Code. From there, you can choose to send it to Facebook, or get an in-app purchase to export via email. You could even take a photo of this bar code with your camera, then transfer it together with your photos to your desktop. That's what I did in my test here and it works perfectly fine. Another method would be to use the iPhone built-in screen capture ability (press and hold the Home button, then press the sleep/wake button).

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Once you have the bar code image on your computer, download the gps4cam desktop app. The desktop app requires Java runtime so ensure you’ve downloaded it from the Java website and installed it. Put your trip photos and the bar code together in a folder, and let the app analyze and tag your photos automatically. The tagged photos are placed on an output folder.

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Inspecting the the photos on the output folder, the GPS property can be seen populated with GPS information.

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Verdict

Having apps like GPS4CAM with iPhone make geotagging a lot more convenient. A mobile phone is more essential than a camera, so it is not viewed as an additional bulk on any trips. Yet the feature is great and synchronization process is easy with the export bar code method. And all these are available at only USD1.99, which I think is a great value compare to previous methods.

There were a few photos which where tagged way off by about a kilometre away. But that’s due to me being within a building where GPS signal may be absent.

Battery life wise, my recent short trip out of town lasted for about 3 hours. I used the Standard mode, which logs at 5 minutes intervals. My iPhone had all to juice sucking feature one (3G, Cellular Data, Notifications), yet, at the end of the 3 hours, I lost only about 10%-15% of battery juice. The Standard mode can be further customized in the Preferences menu. To conserve battery life, the frequency logging can be set to 10 minutes, or, you can set to 1 minute for better precision, or use the Precise mode which captures every 30s. I recall I tried the 30s mode once, and it sucks the battery juice real quick. Anyway, I don’t see a need for such precise logging anyway, unless I’m actively taking photos while travelling on car.

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So, do give it a try, especially if you planning to go for a long trip and out of town.