magikrealism

Photography by Huw Morgan

Iceland Part 2 – Churches and Religion

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The pretty church at Vik on the south coast

Iceland Part 2 – Churches and Religion: It seems logical that you would want to appeal to a higher power to protect you from the ravages of Iceland. Storms at sea, glaciers, volcanoes, winter storms, the total darkness of winter, all must have frightened the Vikings almost to death. When they arrived in the 9th century, the Vikings were pagans, primarily worshiping their ancestors. Around the year 1000, the Vikings gradually converted to Christianity and officially became a catholic country when their monarch, the King of Denmark, converted in 999. The reformation came to Iceland in 1550, when the catholic bishop was beheaded in Skalholt.

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Another view of the church at Vik

Today, 85% of the population are Christians, and 95% of the population are registered to some sort of religious group. However, only 10% of the population attend church regularly. It seems that the fear of nature has lessened with modern technology! Many people choose to remain registered in the national religion because a portion of their taxes are directed to the maintenance of the beautiful churches that dot the landscape. Icelanders are very proud of their churches. Most were built in the late 19th/early 20th century, although there are some modern churches (notably, the cathedral in Reykjavik).

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A third view of the church at Vik

One of the most beautiful churches in Iceland is the cathedral at Skálholt. Skálholt was, through eight centuries, one of the most important places in Iceland. From 1056 until 1785, it was one of Iceland’s two episcopal sees, making it a cultural and political center. There have been several predecessors to this building, but the modern church, built in 1956, combines the classic lines of an Icelandic church with a modern sweeping interior and abstract stained glass.

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Skálholt Cathedral from a distance

Skálholt Cathedral is one of the most important centres of choral music in Iceland, with an excellent church choir and a large male chorus based in the church.

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The beautiful interior of Skálholt Cathedral

Hallgrímskirkja, located at the top of a hill in Reykjavik, is the largest church in Iceland. State Architect Guðjón Samúelsson’s design of the church was commissioned in 1937. He is said to have designed it to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape. It took 41 years to build the church. Construction work began in 1945 and ended in 1986, the landmark tower being completed long before the church’s actual completion.

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The imposing tower of Hallgrimskirkja dominates downtown Reykjavik

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The organ in Hallgrimskirkja

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The organist at Hallgrimskirkja

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The soaring interior of Hallgrimskirkja

In our tour of the Snaefellsnes Peninsular, we saw many beautiful churches superimposed on the bleak landscape. Here are some of them:

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Not all the churches of Iceland are well-maintained

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A common sight – sheep overlooking a church. This is near Hellissandur

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The small population of Snaefellsnes lives close the coast, pinned against the mountains of the interior

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A very modern church in Olafsvik

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The church at Budir. We arrived just as a funeral was wrapping up.
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On Photographing Iceland

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There are over 3 million pictures of Iceland on Flickr. There are 13.5 million images of Canada, a ratio of 4.5 to 1. The area of Iceland is 103,000 square kilometers, while Canada’s area is 10 million square kilometers, a ratio of nearly 100 to 1. People really like to photograph Iceland! Most of the pictures on Flickr are dramatic shots of landscapes, northern lights or sheep and horses. What can one photographer say that hasn’t already been said?

After scratching my head for a bit, I’ve decided to focus on the evident battle that Icelanders wage every day just to keep a toehold on this wild land. Take the top photograph as an example, here is a beautiful red-roofed family farm that was virtually buried in volcanic ash and mud in 2010. Every part of this farm had to be dug out by family members.

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Things don’t always work out. Above are a couple of photos of an abandoned farm on the Snaefellsnes peninsula with the sombre family cemetary plot looking out over the bleak landscape.

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In the picture above, we have the lovely town of Vestmannaeyjar, situated on the Westman Islands. In 1973, the 4,000 residents of the islands were evacuated due to a volcanic eruption. The lava in the foreground looms over the town. Nearly all of the islanders returned after the eruption to dig out and rebuild their town.

The pictures below capture more farms and settlements on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, illustrating the difficulties of eking a living out of this inhospitable land.

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India Photo Themes 4 – Architecture

This is my fourth blog post on photo themes to consider on your next trip to India. India is a treasure trove of architecture. The princes who ruled the various empires throughout Indian history built countless forts and palaces. Each of the major religions, Hindus, Muslims, Jains and Seikhs, built major temples to honour their gods. Rich rulers built beautiful tombs to their loved ones. European invaders, including the British, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the French, left colonial architecture as their imprint on the landscape.

This inheritance places a tremendous burden on an Indian society that struggles to fund the maintenance of all these structures. From a photographer’s point of view, the lack of perfection in these monuments is part of the attraction and can enhance the image making opportunity.

Here are some architecture images to whet your appetite for your own trip:

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Classic colonial architecture – this is the viceroy’s residence in Shimla

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More colonial architecture – the royal suite in the Woodville Palace Hotel

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Inside a gothic structure that housed the Shimla town hall sits the marvelous Gaiety Theatre, designed by Henry Irwin. Rudyard Kipling once acted on this stage.

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The Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi is one of the largest in India and features hundreds of beautiful archways.

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The famous Qutub Minar in Delhi, a five story tower that is the tallest brick minaret in the world

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Inside the Qutub Minar Complex

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Humayan’s Tomb, Delhi, commissioned by Akbar in the 16th century, featuring some of the most beautiful Mughal architecture in India

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Humayan’s Tomb, Delhi

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Humayan’s Tomb, Delhi

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Humayan’s Tomb, Delhi

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Tomb in the Nizzamuddin Basti community of Delhi

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A misty scene at Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient city built by Akbar in the 16th century and abandoned due to lack of water.

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Lovely reflecting pools at Fatehpur Sikri

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A beautiful oasis, the gardens at the Bagh Resort in Bharatpur

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The gorgeous peacock gate in the Jaipur city palace

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The spectacular interior of Mehrengar Fort in Jodpur. 

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Jain Temple in Ranakpur, built in 1437

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An ancient step well in Udaipur. The step well was flooded, so you had to look into the water to see the steps.

Taj Mahal Fixed

No caption necessary. I must admit to a little help from Photoshop on this one – there were two towers being renovated when we visited

Google Nik Collection Now Free

As many of you may know, Google acquired the software development company behind the Nik collection of software (Silver Efex Pro, Color Efex Pro, Sharpener Pro etc.). It is now pretty clear that Google is entirely focused on mobile software development and places little value on tools for serious photographers. The good news is that you can download the entire suite for free here: https://www.google.com/nikcollection/. The bad news, admittedly speculation on my part, is that further development of these products will cease.

Given that the tools are pretty mature and valuable, we should not complain too much.

India Photo Themes 3 – Portraits

Indian people are very photogenic. They are generally very handsome, with beautiful skin and deep, dark eyes. They also don’t mind having their pictures taken. In fact, we found that kids and teens would often ask us to pose with them for snapshots and were quite amenable to having their pictures taken in return.

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Handsome boy in Rohet village

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A family picture in Shimla

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A train passenger near Ranthambore

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We were often asked to pose with young people

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A friend of our guide in Varanasi

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A restaurant entertainer

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More children in Rohet

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A beautiful child in Rohet

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Hotel clerk in Shimla

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Watching us from inside his house, Rohet

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This entertainer was getting ready for a video shoot in Delhi

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Two lovely muslim women and one lovely Canadian

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Village elder in Rohet

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Posing in Ranthambore fort

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Young visitors to Shimla

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Traditional dress in the Shimla monkey temple

India Photo Themes 2 – Shopfronts

India is a nation of shopkeepers. There are no malls, no big box stores, no department stores to speak of. On nearly every street of every city, town and village, you find an endless line of small shops selling a dazzling array of goods and services. There are variety stores, shoe mongers, sari shops, bicycle repair shops, vegetable merchants, tailors, welders and machine shops all co-existing one after another. Everyone gets a plain cube of space in a brick building with a garage door to protect the wares at night and a sign post on top. Standard issue. Shopkeepers inhabit these spaces from first light to dusk, greeting customers and selling their merchandise.

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India Photo Themes Part I – Vehicles and Traffic

We are back from India and I’ve been busy processing around 5,000 images from the trip. Before we left, I did a bit of searching to try to get a feel for the visual themes that tie this huge, colorful country together and really didn’t find a lot written on the subject. Now that I’ve had a chance to review my images and tag them using Lightroom, I’ve come up with a set of themes that occurred to me as we traveled in the northern part of India. I’ll be creating a set of blog posts, each on an individual theme, in the hope that they may inspire other photographers to explore them when they travel to India.

Fire engine fighting traffic in Old Delhi

Fire engine fighting traffic in Old Delhi

The first theme hits you the minute you leave the airport – Indian traffic. As we traveled the country, we were astonished at the difference between Indian traffic and North American/European traffic. We joked that navigating Indian traffic would make an excellent video game (if anyone is interested in making one, I’d be willing to help). Drivers ignore red lights, lane markings, sidewalks and frequently drive on the wrong side of the road. Trucks, cars and motorbikes share the road with donkey carts, camel carts, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, domestic animals and an assortment of odd vehicles that can’t be adequately described in words.

Vehicles contend with stalls and carts on the streets of most towns

Vehicles contend with stalls and carts on the streets of most towns

One of the funniest scenes happens whenever a train arrives at a railway crossing. The crossing guard has to start lowering the gate 5 minutes before the train arrives because Indian motorists refuse to stop until the gate is fully blocking the roadway. The traffic starts to back up in the left lane, but bicycles, motorbikes and other small vehicles sneak up in the gaps between larger vehicles. Then, it occurs to someone that the right (oncoming) lane is empty and there’s a sudden rush to fill that lane as well. When the train has gone by, the gates lift and you have two full lanes of traffic on either side of the road in a mad game of chicken trying to beat the opposing side across the tracks and reclaim their rightful lane. There is much honking and cursing.

Traffic jostles for position while waiting for a train to come

Traffic jostles for position while waiting for a train to come

One of the things North American drivers rarely have to contend with is the presence of domestic animals on the road. Cows, oxen, pigs, sheep, goats and dogs all compete with vehicle traffic for space on the narrow streets and roads. Occasionally they wander down expressways as well. We witnessed several stand-offs between large vehicles and large animals. Usually, the animal wins.

A cow stares down a truck

A cow stares down a truck

There is a spectacular variety of vehicles on Indian roads. here are some examples of what we saw:

The bicycle rickshaw

The bicycle rickshaw

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The ubiquitous auto-rickshaw

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A scooter passes a wedding cart

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A tractor pulling a hay wagon on the side of an expressway

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Camel carts, a cow and a pig mixing in with traffic.

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People often preferred to ride on the roof of buses

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Trucks were lavishly decorated by their owners

Odd Rajasthani truck powered by a one cylinder engine

Odd Rajasthani truck powered by a one cylinder engine

 

India Journey – Day 1

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Morning View from our Hotel

We have arrived in Delhi and are waiting for our guide to take us to the Sikh temple for our first outing. We have crossed the first hurdle – getting to Delhi safely. It was an interesting experience.

787 Air Canada

We booked our trip on Air Canada’s new highly-touted 14 hour non-stop 787 dreamliner service between Toronto and Delhi. The Boeing 787 is the most advanced airliner flying from a technology perspective, with carbon fibre construction, best in class fuel economy etc. Does that translate into the best flying experience ever? Well, it’s a mixed bag. On one hand, the air seems much fresher and the ride is really smooth – even turbulence of the Atlantic didn’t seem to be as uncomfortable as on other airplanes. But, airlines have seized the opportunity to cram more passengers into the same space. The old 767 that we knew and loved (and traveled many miles on) had 2-4-2 seating, with 8 people in each row. The 787 crams 3-3-3 seating into roughly the same body width. The seats are definitely narrower. It makes for a very crowded cabin.

The route to India presents Air Canada with some unique challenges. According to one flight attendant, out of 250 people aboard, there were 150 special meal requests! Everything from vegan to kosher had to be delivered to the right person. This was complicated by people switching seats before take-off, so getting the right meal to the right person became nearly impossible. The passengers were nearly all of Indian origin and there were many elderly travelers. Our attendant said they get around 50 requests for wheelchairs for each flight. This makes it much easier for the elderly folks to find their way through the airport, but puts tremendous pressure on airport staff to get them on and off the airplane.

We took off in a driving snowstorm after a trip to the de-icer and arrived pretty much on schedule in Delhi. Wonder of wonders, our driver was there at the airport to greet us and take us the Hotel Suryaa. We took off at 9 pm Toronto time on Sunday and landed at 9 pm Delhi time on Monday. We pretty much skipped Monday January 11th.

Our first impression of Delhi was tainted (literally) by the pollution. This city smells atrocious. As you can see from the photo above, the air is smoggy. It has a petroleum flavour to it, a cross between diesel fumes and coal. The smell even permeates our hotel and lingers all night. I’m sure the locals get used to it, but we are looking forward to getting out on the road where the air is a little cleaner. Delhi has recently put in a program where they alternate vehicles with odd and even license plate numbers to cut back on pollution, so we are not seeing the worst of it.

New Gear for Christmas

Thanks to the generosity of my parents, who gave me a nice graduation gift, I’ve been busy upgrading my gear over the holidays. This is not as easy as it seems because of all the choices out there. My goal for the New Year is to do more of the reflective photography that I enjoy the most. Now that I’m devoting more time to fine arts photography and pursuing some of the themes that I’m passionate about, I want to be able to bring out as much detail in the images as possible and, if I’m lucky enough to get some gallery shows, to print my images fairly large. Here are examples of two photographs from my Sanctuary series that I’d like to print BIG. These are photographs of Christ Church Deer Park in Toronto.

Christ Church Deer Park Organ Master Image Christ Church Deer Park Sanctuary Master Image

After a lot of thinking, I narrowed the choices down to two basic strategies:

  • Convert to Sony, specifically the A7RII with a Metabones adapter. The new Sony camera is a marvel. It’s compact in size and has a wonderful 42 megapixel sensor that leads the industry in dynamic range and low noise. With the adapter, all my Canon lenses would work with the system and I’d have the choice of continuing to use Canon lenses or switch to Sony or Zeiss.
  • Continue with Canon and upgrade my 5DII to a 5DS. The new 5DS has a 50 megapixel sensor that gets kudos for its resolution, but gets some knocks for dynamic range and noise compared to the Sony.

The Internet is full of articles on these cameras and excellent videos. There was no shortage of advice! A lot of people who write about cameras are early adopters by nature, so the pro-Sony advice predominated.

Fortunately, one of my instructors owned a Sony A7RII and very generously loaned it to me for a day. He is a Canon guy, but bought the Sony to use when photographing on TV production sets because it has a silent shutter. I took the Sony down to visit the Bethel church, one of my favorite subjects, and spent some quality time with a tripod, some Canon lenses, the A7RII and Metabones adapter. Here’s an example from the shoot, taken on a dismal rainy day:

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This photo was shot with my old, shabby Canon 50mm f1.8 prime, a cheap lens with a plastic lens mount that still does very well in all the resolution tests (e.g. DXOMark). It was stopped down to f6.7 and mounted on a tripod. I’m not going to bore you with pixel peeping, but the sharpness was OK, but not spectacular. I didn’t see any improvement in resolution over my 5dII. Somehow, the combination of the Metabones adapter, the Canon lens and a Sony camera didn’t deliver the sharp results that I was hoping for.

There were a couple of other factors that decided me against the Sony direction. The first factor should have worked in Sony’s favor. The camera is quite compact and much lighter than my 5dII. However, it doesn’t seem to be possible to build sharp lenses for full frame cameras that match the Sony in weight and size. Mounting my Canon 70-300L lens threw the system out of balance. It feels so right on the 5dII, so wrong on the Sony. Ditto for the Canon 24-105. Granted, I had a Sony 28-70  zoom with me that was quite small and compact. Unfortunately, it was also no match for the sensor and delivered very little in the way of image sharpness and contrast.

The second factor was the usability of the Sony controls. The small camera surface area is peppered with seemingly random small buttons that are hard to find. In the few hours that I had, I was able to set the camera up so that it was easy to set aperture, shutter speed and ISO with just one hand. However, there didn’t seem to be any easy way to control the focal point without a series of button presses. This has been borne out by subsequent Google searches. It is a Sony blind spot and shows general immaturity in the camera business. The Sony is a technical tour de force, but a usability also-ran.

After a couple of trips to the camera store to evaluate the Canon 5ds, I managed to find a near-new camera on Kijiji and consummated a cash deal in a Second Cup coffee shop. I always feel like a bit of a drug buyer in these situations, but the seller was able to produce the box and an original dealer invoice, so the camera swapped hands. I was able to take around 100 photos with the camera at various Christmas parties, using the 50mm f1.8 prime (see the picture of Joel for an example below) and I can sum up my experience in a few paragraphs:

 

 

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First, the camera is delivering the sharpness that I expected. With the 50mm f1.8 lens stopped down to f2.8, Joel’s face is tack sharp right down to the traces of dessert on his chin!

Second, this camera is well-sorted from an ergonomics point of view. This camera is not oriented towards the consumer, so there is a pretty good learning curve. However, for the pro shooter, everything can be customized and all controls fall readily to hand. When set up to shoot manually, the aperture, shutter and ISO can be controlled by one hand using two control wheels (ISO requires the set button to be held down by the thumb while one of the wheels is turned by the trigger finger). In addition, the 61 focus points can be set easily using the little multi-directional control button located right where your right thumb naturally falls. The mode dial has three custom settings that can be programmed with commonly used set-ups. In this way, the camera can assume three completely different personalities. Here’s how I’ve chosen to set it up:

  • C1: set up for slow, reflective photography. The mode is Manual, the images are recorded in high resolution RAW in full 50 megapixel glory. The assumption is that the camera will be operated in Live View mode, but the shutter is also set up so that there is a quarter second delay to allow any mirror shock to dissipate before the shutter opens.
  • C2: set up for fast, event-type photography. The mode is aperture priority and the camera is left to choose the shutter speed and ISO. The auto ISO mode seems pretty clever and the maximum ISO and minimum shutter can be chosen to confine the auto mode somewhat. The images are captured in slightly smaller raw files of around 28 megapixels to maximize space on the card.
  • C3: set up for  sports shooting. The mode is shutter speed priority and the camera chooses aperture and ISO. The focus mode is set to AI servo to track the subject. The images are captured in JPEGS of around 22 megapixels.

But, what about the low noise performance and the dynamic range. Well, you can’t have everything. However, the noise performance, according to DXOMark, is better than my 5dII by a significant margin and even slightly better than the 5dIII. The noise grains are extremely small and can easily be corrected in Lightroom. Not an issue IMHO.

The dynamic range is pretty good too at 12 stops. Granted, it is not class-leading, but the subject matter that I work with often exceeds the dynamic range of any camera. For example, the Christ Church Deer Park image above required an exposure of one eighth of a second to capture the windows and 20 seconds to capture the dark ceiling. I took 8 images and combined them using Lightroom HDR. A 13 stop camera like the Sony wouldn’t have made any difference.

And what about the weight and size? As I mentioned above, the lenses are pretty darn heavy and the 5ds nicely balances the heft of the lenses. The 24-105L and the 70-300L feel very nice in the hand with the 5ds. When I want to travel with a lightweight kit, I’ll turn to my old Sony Nex-7 with the smaller, lighter APS-C lenses like the Zeiss 16-70 zoom.

There was still a little bit of money left in the kitty after getting such a good deal online, so it was off to Henrys for the boxing day sales. The 5ds at 50 megapixels is a very demanding camera and deserves the sharpest lenses. Dxomark publishes a sharpness metric that reflects the overall MTF response of each lens. It’s a bit of a mystery as to how they can distill the complex measurements of sharpness over many apertures and many zoom settings, but it does make it possible to compare lenses using a single, simple number.

It’s clear that Canon’s older generation of lenses, like the 24-105L and the 17-40L, were really well-suited to cameras in the 20 megapixel range, but don’t scale up to the 5ds. As a result, I purchased a 24-70L II, an extravagantly priced lens that scores very well using the Dxomark metric. The boxing day discount at local dealers was very compelling and I fear that the shrinking purchasing power of the Canadian dollar will lead to further price increases in the future.

I’m going to put the 5dII up for sale, along with the 24-105L and the 17-40L. The proceeds will go to either purchase a 16-35 f4L (very sharp) or maybe I’ll wait for the new 16-35 f2.8 version III which is rumored to be coming soon.

I’m also looking at adding some very sharp primes to the arsenal. The Sigma 50mm prime and the 20mm prime are very sharp. The latter would be the perfect lens for my sanctuary series.

There was a concern that Lightroom and Photoshop would grind to a halt digesting these huge files, but fear not. The use of graphic card acceleration by both apps easily handles the rendering of the files.

Making an Animated Movie

It’s week 14 already and my photography course is nearing the end. Last week was a very hectic week and I’m only getting round to the blog post today (Tuesday). We had two main assignments: make a movie and create an art installation.

The movie making was great fun. We used a pretty simple tool (Windows Movie Maker) that comes with Windows, but the app was good enough to do the job. I picked an environmental theme for the week that carried over to the art installation as well.

The short (2 min.) animated movie, called Kaleidoscope, consists of several parts:

  • We start with the chaos of nature, represented by a milkweed plant in full seed
  •  As mankind moves beyond hunting and gathering, nature is distorted to fit our vision. The milkweed plant starts to distort into a triangle. I triangle border appears and the plant is boxed in, representing the dawn of agriculture.
  • We then move into a fast-paced representation of the industrial revolution. The triangles proliferate and get arranged into a man-made mosaic or kaleidoscope, representing the complexity of our civilization.
  • As we start to lose control over our environment, the mosaic starts to decay into distorted shapes, eventually slipping off the screen and breaking into pieces.
  • Mankind tries to put the pieces back together, but the mosaic slowly shrinks, representing the end of civilization.
  • In its place, nature starts to grow, eventually shedding the triangle and unfolding to its former chaotic glory.

Here’s the video

The wonderful harp music is by an artist called Stephanie Johnson. Let me know what you think of the video.