Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

August 27, 2017

Boing! 2017

Boing! is an odd one, I must admit.

Let’s deal with the publicity first of all. Publicity arrived actually very late as far as I’m concerned. I did regular web searches on this in the summer, and only turned up anything at all in the last week of July when the University put posters up.

The poster that was put up wasn’t very encouraging: a blank cardboard box where a person’s head should be. Expressing nothing except conveying a modern art schtick. I now know what ‘attraction’ in the end this photo was about but would not have been caught fronting an ad campaign with something that looked so coldly avant-garde. I agree that there is an interesting modern dance thread to Boing! but the University pitches it overtly as a ‘family festival’. Anybody who has seen Ballet Rambert crawl across the stage like crabs knows that the world of expressive modern dance can be far from the fooling around that pleases families. The only reason I see humour in everything is because I am not quite normal. I laughed at the Ballet Rambert from the top box like the old men in The Muppets.

Regarding attendance it seemed to me that Boing went backwards in 2017 (I have very alliterative qualities, please employ me for your copy). I can only surmise this is a fault of the publicity handling, after the sensational acts of last year’s festival. Foremost among these was Ride. This combined expressive modern dance with a very fine gimmick: the rotating car body as a prop. I rode this one for 3 performances until I had enough (I’m here all week). I also enjoyed the acrobat little domestic melodrama of Circus Katoen, and the novelty of Telephone Box (is that what it was called?).

I can’t speak for the paying performances in Boing! as I never saw them. I had enough to engage me outside. But I do believe the outside action in Boing! deserved a larger attendance.

This year’s festival had a handful of cute wandering fun to give the festival some life and colour, such as the mini camper van giving rides, the wandering gruffalo-type beast, the circus explorers in their pith helmets, and the box beast sessions for children. These engagements were certainly not an issue.

The three main outdoor performances this year were Of Man and Beast, Motosikai and Cirque Du Platzak. Of Man and Beast was standard modern dance fare, vaguely homoerotic in the sense that men picked up men seemingly in more than one sense but not sexually enough to make the audience snigger. Apart from this the costumes were very drab and black like in training, and I sensed little extraordinary there.

Motosikai was fun silliness that you would expect from Boing!- acrobats fooling around on a see-saw and giant balls. Watching them sliding over the giant balls was definitely a highlight of this performance to me.

Last and traditionally the best, was Cirque Du Platzak. It’s a lavish production with a full-size circus set, some explosions and a story of a sort threading it all together unlike traditional circuses where the ringmaster or clowns provide some continuity. In this Circus most of them are clowns or players in some way. There’s probably some footage on University video of my getting enveigled into the performance at some point and I wonder how long it will take somebody from there to recognise me.

I would try to explain the plot of this hour-long comic drama, but the sun beating down on me and trying to photograph it at the same time defies me to thread it completely together at this point. As you might expect it has its archetypes, with the smooth and handsome character, his jealous lover, the helpful but foolish clown, the needy performer (we all know one?), the elegantly distant one, the frankly scary girl serving the public, the sensible one trying to make things hang together, and the mischevious loose cannon. You do get to see something like a funereal send-off and revival, some jealousy, and some dramatised danger.

There is some laudable work on the trapeze and the equivalent of silks here, in fact what looks like cellophane for the dead-and-reborn scary character, providing an elegantly artistic photo opportunity against her white outfit and the sky. My personal favourite was once more the twirling on the giant ball by the Beppo clown character. I also enjoyed the use the girls spoofing a big cat act before they made their revenge on their tamer. As in real life it was the scary girl that perhaps affected me the most, and not just because she tried to blackmail me into paying her by threatening to explode a balloon in front of me with a staple gun.

It’s all very slick and beautiful with high production values and underpinned with a fine musical ensemble and I like it quite a lot. If I had my way I would only try to improve it by trying to strengthen it with a stronger taste of real drama or melodrama instead of the knockabout pastiche that it is, just skating over the surface of drama for some colour. I think it must be possible with shrewd writiing to get something past children that is genuinely dramatic and bring us back to a happy ending. I’m not exactly asking for Pagliacci or Watership Down, though I have the same kind of grudging respect as I do for bank robbers for whoever managed to pitch the latter at children… it was about as child-friendly as terrorism.

Nerdy camera details:

My companion camera for Boing! 2017 was largely the Olympus E-M1 which I rarely use and was largely dismissive about. In daylight it managed to keep control of the PDAF four-thirds lenses fairly well, though the bigger problem was once I entered into rapid shooting the viewfinder freezed for a moment effecting more blackout than I expected from a mirrorless camera, bafflingly longer and more obstructive than with a semi-professional DSLR. This proved to make it still difficult to follow the faster gymnastic work which I have enormous experience of with ‘proper’ cameras. I shot in C-AF having given up on the processor-hog C-AF TR. At some point I seemed to get on better with the camera here and came to enjoy the remarkable sharpness of the image through the viewfinder. I was lazy to react to just how much backlit scenes were underexposed, but I am not very used to photographing people against pure sky. So, the EVF was helpful, but on the other hand- you only need to learn this lesson once, and then you can apply your experience on OVF anyway. It’s not difficult to learn that person against sky will be 1.5 stops underexposed.

I used the 14-54 f2.8-3.5 four-third lens most of the time and it worked out rather well if slightly weak on the long end wide open, but I have to admit I only chose this combination because I lacked quite the same field of view on any other system. I did not have a 24-105 or 24-120 together with a high framerate DSLR at the time of Boing! 2017, and those two together would have enabled me to blitz my way through it like nobody’s business just like I would at any other dance meet. As it is, I was fairly satisfied with the photos I was able to deliver of Cirque Du Platzak with the m4/3-4/3 system; it was able to deliver just enough image quality and the right kind of depth of field for these outdoor performances, and the burst responsiveness was fairly appropriate to the moments of regular performance if losing out slightly in the rapid-fire of the gymnastics sequences. The main and even surprising thing was that despite the lenses used being only suitable for half the focusing method of the E-M1, PDAF, the combination returned a remarkably high percentage of shots in pleasing focus. I would probably be prepared to use the E-M1 at any outdoor do.

April 6, 2017

Olympus E-M1 – A Casual Review

(sample photos coming shortly)

Having worked in a camera shop and been a notorious dilettante, I have had an unusual amount of gear through my hands. I should have learned my lesson from playing with the E-M1 mark II released late in 2016 that the E-M1 from 2014 was never going to cut it for indoor sports. I tried the mark II with two lenses in overcast daylight, the 40-150 f2.8 and the 12-100 f4 so called ‘pro’. The juddering in the viewfinder when activating AF on the f4 was quite sad. The situation was improved significantly with the f2.8 lens, but significant is a relative term, and in no way to be confused with ‘satisfactory’.

Use Case

Still, these little m4/3 cameras do have something theoretically going for them; there are some venues that place restrictions on the size of camera equipment where they let it in, and when you need a long lens it can be made shorter on the m4/3 format. I also was intrigued by the work Olympus had done on updating the firmware and unlocking a higher framerate for the original E-M1 – from 6.5 to 9.5fps and a new truly silent shutter mode. So I felt I should try the E-M1 with a rational use case of the format, the 50-200 f2.8-3.5 for when I need a long lens. Due to the 2x crop factor, you get effectively a 100-400mm lens with depth of field like f5.6-6.7 on a 35mm sensor but with f2.8-3.5 shutter speed. Given the slightly smaller dimensions of m4/3, it appears fairly attractive compared to a 100-400 f4.5-5.6 version 1 on something like a 1DS II for slightly more money. The 1DS II was a camera I was rather fond of in fact- at least in terms of image quality. In terms of sheer weight, shutter noise and general klunkiness there was only so long I could put up with it however.

A 1DS II + 100-400 would weigh in at around 3000g compared to the E-M1 + 50-200 around 1800g. That difference of 40% less weight means quite a lot in places that make monopods unwelcome, which is coincidentally where the E-M1 sensor stabilisation comes in.

Image Quality ?

Before I went anywhere, I had to first test the image quality of course. What I found was that it was broadly on the same level as the D300 from 2007- six years before. Definitely not the 35mm 1DS II which would have similar image noise almost a stop higher and with truer colours. The m4/3 sensor is a third smaller than the DX APS-C of the D300 it must be remembered, so it was only technological progress that allowed it to play in the same league. Unfortunately, part of how Olympus achieved the fairly low chrominance noise performance seems to be by weakening the colour discrimination in the bayer filter over the sensor which decides the colours. This lets more light on to the sensor, but the colours are irretrievably weaker. This can be seen on image quality benchmarks on the internet as a poor discrimination between red when mixed with another colour producing orange and purple for instance. So although the luminance noise was superficially neater than that of the D300, the photos weren’t qutie so attractive and did not have the same scope for processing the noise away whilst leaving pleasant colours that the D300 did. The one good thing I took from the E-M1 images was that there was highlight headroom and so an appreciable dynamic range.

I have to say, though I rather enjoyed the E-M1 electronic viewfinder for stills, I never found the photos produced compared well to those of hardly any other camera. The colour was poorer and the contrast always needed reigning in.

At this point in the waffle, the reader may be wondering why I ventured the E-M1 at all. Well, I’m a nerd. And the 50-200 lens is actually comparably sharp to any zoom I have used from any other maker.

Indoor sports – Defining the exercise in futility

I took 5 batteries with me and a battery grip for one long day’s shooting, anticipating up to 10hrs, because people had told me that since the E-M1 was basically like a video camera with the sensor on all the time you are using it, and they only got two hours per battery when looking through it. They were more right than wrong I suppose; the first battery went after two hours of half using it, even after tailoring the backlight to go off after 8s, the screen off after 30s and the camera to switch off altogether after 5mins.

The concerns about the battery life were however nothing compared to the difficulty of practically using the camera to track people on a gym carpet at about 7EV artificial light’s worth.

The E-M1 has three focus modes, S-AF (single shots), C-AF (continous shooting) and C-AF TR (continuous tracking).

C-AF TR sounds the most appropriate mode, but was absolute hell. There was lag, which means the viewfinder image was slightly behind the action, and there was smearing and juddering of the image which made my own watching and tracking of the competitors more or less impossible. Ludicrous is the word. This inglorious smeary mess was framed by the Big Green Rreticule of Photo Death around a viewfinder subject that reminded me of a Games Workshop war banner. And I don’t believe it delivered 9fps- no way

So much for TR then. I also tried the simpler C-AF mode for continuous tracking. Interestingly the lag and juddering was slightly less, though still far, far behind the responsiveness of a proper professional sports camera from Canon, and still far behind that of a prosumer camera from Nikon. It was strangely nearly impossible to reliably rattle off single shots in the 9fps mode in a way that is not much of a problem with the Canon 1D series. I chose 9fps as the top continuous speed because that was the maximum I could allegedly have continuous autofocus at the same time. A lot of the reason that it was hard to do single shots seemed because the camera was not properly responsive while tracking. The camera was clearly overloaded by everything going on. But I am prepared to believe that it did indeed rattle through at 9fps in this C-AF. The relative quietness of the shutter compared to the crack of the 1D series was something I appreciated.

So, clearly feeling the pinch, I turned over to S-AF instead. Normally you wouldn’t expect a camera to function properly for sports in some kind of single shot mode, but I had been forewarned by Olympus users that the tracking was not much good and S-AF did better. Well… it was true that there was still less lag and juddering than the other two modes, but never mind the fact that having the autofocus stop when focus is achieved is a liability for action, the way it actually tried to focus was bonkers. Most cameras will rationally be configured to focus on the closest subject, and some even allow you to tune the way they switch subjects. The E-M1 kept latching irrationally on things far in the background not even in the centre despite me taking my finger off the autofocus button and trying to lay the centre of the viewfinder on the subject and try again to give it a hint. I seemed to have to move the lens away from the scene to make the processor forget what it had latched onto. So, basically this mode was unusable for tracking too. I was of the opinion that what it badly needed was a dedicated button programmed to ‘nudge’ AF to the central focus point to basically start all over again. Unfortunately, for a camera that calls itself ‘professional’ there were strangely few AF options of this sort, in no way comparable to the Canon 1D series. I later managed to configure a button to switch from full area auto-selection and one nominated start point which you could choose in each focus area mode… on the battery grip. Why I could not find this button configure option for the camera body I have no idea. It is better than nothing, but then one has the difficulty that one has essentially forsaken tracking, has to continually nudge the AF and is driven to the central spot. Something from the last century.

Added to these woes was the slideshow effect of having your photos show in the viewfinder for a fraction of a second after you’d taken them at the faster shooting rates making the responsiveness even worse, despite me trying to turn image review off… if you’d seen the smearing in the viewfinder, you’d realise I look back on it as all a bad dream and have trouble remembering which mode that was in.

Though I made hopeful/hopeless excursions into the TR and S-AF modes, by and large I had to rely on the C-AF mode. Picking my moments properly was a bit hopeless due to the timing issues and unresponsiveness so I was often a bit behind the action or random in my timing. I preferred to use the Olympus setup for picking out faces and other closeups.

Image quality again

Strangely enough though, I was pleasantly surprised by the image quality of the in-focus images I actually managed to take. I had tried switching the sensor stabilisation off to see if I could get more out of the battery but soon found the stabilisation had been doing something useful at even 1/500s.

The lens image quality was just how you would reasonably wish it. It was simply too bad that it was also hell to use, because it constantly changes length in use while zooming and I had to physically struggle to zoom it, so I tended to try to keep it long as much as I could and get close-ups with it, my original intention.

The colours in this indoor arena situation pleasantly surprised me. Photoshop’s idea of white balance gave strangely pink-purple skin with too much magenta tint, and a red shift to magenta was also notable in daylight, but when tweaked the skin tone was quite surprisingly agreeable. The files had a good amount of scope for pulling overly bright highlights down, something earlier Olympus models were supposedly poor at.

E-M1 Tracking ever viable?

The 50-200 works on the E-M1 with phase-detect autofocus, how it was originally designed. The E-M1 has such an autofocus, but I believe it has more resources shared out on contrast-detect autofocus. I’m struggling to lend credence to the notion this would give a decisive advantage to CDAF native lenses like the 40-150 f2.8 in this instance however, because I already tried that on the E-M1 mark II where it gave exactly the same kind of lag problems in tracking I have been complaining about here, in daylight. Technically, PDAF is supposed to be superior for focus tracking because it can make a good estimation of how much to move the autofocus in one step, whereas CDAF relies on constant feedback to assess its travel. Low light PDAF may just be stretching this jack-of-all-trades hybrid system too thinly.

Apparently for E-M1 firmware version 4, PDAF and CDAF are used as follows:


S-AF – PDAF used for focus direction, CDAF used to lock focus

C-AF 6.5-9fps – PDAF

C-AF 1-6.5fps – PDAF + CDAF



The way I have seen things through the viewfinder, I can only think that the processor(s) in the E-M1 are overworked by continuous tracking. Since the viewfinder update is good in S-AF where the camera decides on and accomplishes AF under a chosen point for a short time, and dreadful in C-AF TR where it thinks continually about a large portion of the frame. In this case, I do not see why Olympus do not put a separate processor in, purely for the sake of making decisions on tracking. With today’s ability to gate circuits so they don’t use power when unused, it shouldn’t be a great problem for battery life. If they don’t do this, then what you end up with is a camera that only is good on paper.

Outdoor wildlife

I gave the E-M1 a go in a wildlife park in good light with more agreeable results. When animals really got moving around it was clear the C-AF TR still had some lag even in a lot of light. But it was positive that TR could find and keep focus on animals moving about behind wire without my special prompting. Every time the other focus modes were tried, the camera emphatically tried to focus on the wire in front, instead. Too bad it couldn’t focus on the nearest subject in the indoor sports-!


I can more or less recommend the E-M1 as a zoo camera. Though I am skeptical about tracking birds taking flight, for animals scooting about in their enclosures the m4/3 system with its smaller long lenses is quite pleasant to use. I bumped into a keen retired fellow using a 150-600 f4.5-6.3 and of course I remembered that the equivalent aperture of the 50-200 I had was very similar, the effective focal length being a third shorter. 400mm is a good lens length for the zoo. I managed to fill the frame with bears quite uncooperative, nowhere near the edge of their enclosure. The relatively small aperture on this camera format is however far from ideal if shooting through fences where you can not get right up to the fences.

Mixed Lighting Indoor Event

I was approached by someone to take photos of a little event whilst I was playing with an E-PL2 from 2011. I tried, but if you think the tracking of the 4/3 lenses in artificial light with PDAF is hell you’ve seen nothing until you’ve seen them with CDAF. I soon got tired of that and pulled out the E-M1. The venue was a church with a mixture of incandescent and natural light. The AF performance was so much better on the E-M1 than the E-PL2 that I completely forget my former complaints for an hour. One thing I would say though, was that a person against a busy background of other people in a crowd presented a hopeless task for the C-AF TR mode. I kept trying to recompose with the track box over who I wanted, but it didn’t play nicely and chose all sorts of unlikely subjects in the scenery. I defaulted to the regular C-AF and since I needed quite a large depth of field anyway, it worked well enough. The red shift to magenta was very obvious, and I just applied a +30 to the Reds hue and had done with it.

I was quite pleased about the relatively quiet shutter action due to no moving mirror. Although something like a modern consumer FF DSLR is not usually loud nowadays, the E-M1 was still a little quieter. I did not try the truly silent electronic shutter since it only captures with a sensor readout rate of 1/16s, too slow for stopping movement.


Olympus did a creditable job of raising basic specifications with a firmware update to nominally ‘professional’ specifications, but there are severe usability issues which in the real world render the E-M1 out of the question for certain uses. The camera is a liability when shot with artificial indoor light with PDAF lenses. There remains the possibility than viewinder slowdown might improve somewhat with CDAF optimised lenses, but CDAF is not the ideal focus method for sports subject tracking and I fail to see that the newer CDAF solves the problem for several reasons: 1) E-M1 does not rely solely on CDAF for tracking, and in 6.5-9fps C-AF uses PDAF exclusively. 2) In other tracking modes, the E-M1 uses PDAF for direction and then CDAF for focus locking. 3) I already saw the viewfinder slowdown I am complaining about on the E-M1 Mark II. I came away from a session with the E-M1 Mark II + 40-150 f2.8 and 12-100 f4 in overcast daylight, concerned about the camera responsiveness in tracking modes particularly on the f4, and the reality was certainly worse with the original E-M1 with an older lens indoors.

The AF did well enough with a good amount of light, but this is a qualified approval. I still do not recommend the camera for sports due to the slow viewfinder update in tracking modes. I have to choose my terms carefully here, because most people probably think ‘lag’ means lag between the image outside and how soon it is displayed on the screen. Whilst not engaging tracking autofocus, they probably think the delay is neglible. With tracking engaged however, it can be egregious. People who judged the viewfinder by waving the camera around without engaging autofocus will soon enough learn the error of their ways.


Olympus also made a creditable attempt at making the controls of the E-M1 those of a true photographer’s camera with seemingly every button customisable, but after all this they made a mysteriously photographer-unfriendly choice on image quality, with the colours not standing up favourably to other cameras. I would have accepted more noise at iso 3200 if it had meant it could have procured colours like the 1DS II but with a more modern dynamic range, for example. In fact I had already tested the E-M1 against the 1DS II in a scene and already been disappointed. For instance, here the 1DS II did close to real life but with an agreeable habit of colour saturation. Without colour profiling, using simple colour temperature and tint adjustments, and then moving to hue adjustments, I was not able to bring the E-M1 into line with the 1DS II in Photoshop. Greens tended to look more green, and the red saturation was reduced. Enhanced sensitivity to green is not a unfamiliar ploy when trying to raise high iso sensitivity, which meant that metering for the grass put the rest of the exposure down a little. At least the dynamic range had kept more detail in the clouds than the ancient 1DS II.



The E-M1 on auto white balance had an uncanny way of making red go to magenta both in its viewfinder and on raw files; finally I tired of this on people and adjusted it on the hue slider for reds in Adobe Camera Raw for something casually tolerable.

I am still not satisfied with the colour. But of course most people haven’t used dozens of cameras and might not notice. They especially don’t try unusual things like combining different camera brands in the same venue. I don’t recommend this because it is a sure way of dissatisfying yourself with the colours.


The E-M1 reminds me of a scamp review I read once of a miniature bicycle pump- “small, convenient, and utterly useless at pumping up tyres”. The camera is not useless by any means, but it has severe knocks against it. The viability of focus tracking in indoor light is in a word, ludicrous. The sensor is rather small and the amout of light it collects also limits its application to indoor work. Using the camera in more generous light with subjects that don’t move so fast however, is a much more pleasant proposition. Then you begin to enjoy the “photographer’s camera” Olympus have created. The viewfinder is very good, there are lots of customisable controls, and the grip on the camera with the battery grip at least, is just fine. I would recommend the prospective purchaser to get their hands on E-M1 raw files to see if they can bend the colour to their liking.


Viewed as a potential professional’s camera, the E-M1 now is in the same kind of price range as old Canon 1D IIs, 1D III, Nikon D700. Strictly speaking, the E-M1 simply cannot match either the image quality or the focus tracking, nor the responsiveness of these big beasts from the past. This is out of the question. What it can do however, is undercut them in size and weight, and noise in operation. How much weight people are willing to put up with is a very individual thing.


The E-M1 Mark II is a potentially more interesting proposition for the professional. Even if its image quality and tracking are not much different, the far faster sensor readout of 1/60s over the former model’s 1/16s makes the completely silent electronic shutter more viable. For classical concerts or religious ceremonies that brook no noise for example, this kind of camera might be their only option.

November 6, 2016

Gent Happy Cup RG 2016

Happy Cup 2016 photos are coming, if you asked about them, don’t panic! Normal, sensible people don’t stop to think about the plight of a monkey with a camera, shooting nearly more than he can handle. Imagine coming home after nursing an unwell lens with unwell hands without your monopod (where did that go?) through 10,000 photos under flickery fluorescent light waiting to have names put to them and uploaded after you have finished your proper job. Which is having tea in front of the zoo visitors, obviously.

Happy Cup field was substantially reduced this year, in numbers mainly but also quality to some degree. Ed told me that Belgium is rated at threat level 3 or something, and that various countries such as Russia, Israel and Japan weren’t too keen on it. Ullrich told me that for the higher level sports, the Israeli state themselves provide security. But Happy Cup is a low-profile event, where Marc said that there were 185 viewers online.

The end of Olympic years always seems to see reduced fields as gymnasts reassess their plans or dreams. Still, the 66 or so left provided a real competition across many age ranges, props to Ed for organising it.

Dubious highlights for me included yours truly being hit by apparatus in competition (he deserved it!), strange sandwiches (grated carrot??- refer this to the Spanish Inquisition please), and a gymnast not knowing what else to do towards the end of her routine but laugh. Makes a change from the waterworks of the Hopes when something doesn’t go their way.

I will probably not even realise what else happened until I watch it back. This is what happens when you get old.

July 1, 2016

VA v IPS monitors for photography

Once upon a time we had no real choice over the format of our monitors. The most common monitor type that filled the vacuum created by the disappearing cathode ray tube (CRT) was the Twisted Nematic (TN) liquid crystal display in thin, flat panels like we see today. The currently dominant panel types of TN, IPS and VA are all liquid crystal displays, which means the crystals can fluidly change orientation under the application of current. As in your common grey and black digital watch, the crystals can let light through or block it. The crystals in a monitor are not luminous by themselves in the way a CRT phosphor is, but in fact the light comes through the backlight, and the colour of the light comes from the filter placed over the crystal. The filter stage is a rather lossy and imperfect process; it prevents the panel being both as bright as we might like- not letting all the white backlight through- and it prevents the black being perfectly black- the backlight tends to leak through or around the crystal a little. These facts adversely affect monitor contrast, something useful in a scene lit by strong sunlight for example.

From the point of view of photography, we clearly lost something in the general transition from CRT to liquid crystal in terms of luminosity and contrast. Of course modern demands of high resolution text were becoming increasingly hard to meet with the CRT, and liquid crystal consumes about a quarter of the energy of the former. New computers began to come with the flat panels which were cheaper and took so much less space. We are where we are, and for the moment, that means that numerically, TN is far and away the most common panel type. VA is probably next, but mainly in televisions. IPS is common in more upmarket computer monitors.

The drawbacks of TN are fairly well know to a mass-market audience by now, and it is most likely the reader is viewing one right now. The colours change depending on the viewing angle. Viewing a part of the screen from an angle above, the screen may be paler and the more red. Viewed from an angle below, the screen may be darker and more green. Even viewing the screen from dead centre, both theses colours can be seen in different parts of the screen… when the colour sent to the screen is the same one all over. Viewed from the sides, contrast fades instead. I assume the reader is already aware of this and needs no illustrations.

Various alignments of crystals have been tried. Twisted Nematic (TN) was literally a crystal that twisted in proportion to the voltage applied, in order to block the backlight. Different colours came from filters overlaid on the crystals.

The most well known alternative LCD to TN is IPS (in-plane switching), where the crystals lie along the plane of the screen. In contradistinction to TN, IPS blocks the backlight in its passive state with the backlight off. IPS has very good viewing angles all around for colour, with the colours remaining the same at very steep angles unlike with TN. However the basic vibrancy of the IPS panel is somewhat poor for technological reasons such as extra electronics blocking some backlight, and the crystals themselves letting some bleed through. Black depth is a problem, and contrast tends to stay around 1000:1, the same as cheapest TN.  Below is a photo of an IPS in action with a dark greyscale:ips-grey-test-straight In addition, typically IPS monitors from a slight angle around perhaps 20 degrees off-axis, allow the backlight to peep through, causing the legendary “IPS glow”. The screen background below is not black, but dark grey, yet the IPS sheen has rendered it rather milky and uneven, notwithstanding any evenness of illumination in the monitor itself:


This glow recedes again on steeper angles off-axis, to be replaced with mere lower contrast. But having predictable colour performance is at least a boon to photographers.

The third crystal alignment type, vertical alignment or VA, has the crystals aligned pointing perpendicularly to the plane of the screen so that the backlight is much less visible. VA ensures high contrast, typically 3x that of IPS, but as you can imagine from viewing something narrow head-on, the image changes significantly off head-on angles. Near a similar angle to that which you could see IPS glow, the contrast of VA lessens to merely an IPS level, but unlike IPS and more like TN, at greater than that angle the colour trueness begins to go, with the image taking on a slightly green and grainy low-contrast appearance. The first photo of the pair below is the relatively well-behaved IPS example; at this angle this display looks just dimmer than when viewed dead-on. The second is from a VA (specifically AMVA) monitor. The image is fairly bright but the contrast has very much washed out and the colour balance gone yellow-green. The streaks appear to be caused by moiré exacerbated by the filter over the VA screen.


If you sit fairly close to VA, on a dark background you can appreciate a spot closest to you that appears darker than the rest of the screen, a sort of “inverse reflection” that makes me think of a vampire shadow. This is visible at a slightly lower angle than the IPS glow. The near-black of the nearest left-hand side is in fact how the background does look in real life. But the far side, effectively viewed at a greater angle, has faded. Once again moiré mars the photo which is not evident in real life- my photos were extremely rough and ready.


This is the root of the VA so-called “black crush”, “contrast fade” or even “gamma shift”. The former term is the most common one, but rarely applies to modern VA monitors, because technically they can now display the continuum of the darkest greys towards black at the ideal angle. In this photo below, you should be able to see that all the dark squares are visible, yet they appear less distinct from each other the darker they are compared to the IPS photo :


Since there are more angles at which the ideal contrast fades, the latter term is now the more accurate.

Inherent contrast in a panel type can also make for wider gamut colour, as stronger colour filters can be applied, meaning any colour can be potentially deeper, more vibrant and more pure. It is as clear from the above as it is from looking at the panels, that with IPS the colour consistency from various angles is not a problem, but once you see something better, the lack of vibrancy is. So why doesn’t the lack of vibrancy of IPS get quoted more often? The reason may be that it is over a decade since LCD displays took over from CRTs in the consumer market and memories of high performing monitors have faded. A whole new generation that is so vocal on the internet just has no experience of professional CRTs. In their minds they are only comparing IPS to TN displays which are so problematic for photographers. The public is relatively ignorant of VA which is employed more commonly in televisions. VA is not even one of the most expensive types of display, so that TV manufacturers tend not to shout about the panel type itself. The public doesn’t realise it, but would probably be disappointed with the flat 1000:1 contrast of IPS displays for televisions even if the masses could afford it. Praise for television images tend to come more along the lines of “Rich and vibrant” than “True colour”. In fact photographers have long been used to shocking colour and overdone contrast on display televisions. Even my old television repairer used to tell me so!

I decided to write this short piece with quick and dirty illustrations because there are few practical examples of VA displays on the internet it has been pointed out only infrequently that IPS cannot be all things to all people. It regularly gets recommended as the only panel type suitable to photographers, which is not really true. The contest between IPS and VA is a relatively simple one: viewing angle colour consistency versus contrast vibrancy respectively. Everybody would like to think that they know what wrong colour is when they see it, but few give thought to a lack of contrast. So the question essentially is: how are you to know what you don’t know? Well, I’ll try to show you. I hope you have your monitor set up carefully:

amva-photo-crop-straight ips-photo-crop-straight

The images above are taken with a camera of dynamic range of well over the 3000:1 ratio necessary to represent VA- it seems that modern cameras are recording around 20,000:1 in ideal circumstances. But the first photo is of a fairly flat-lit scene on a VA monitor. The second is of the same scene on an IPS monitor. Both were near their sRGB calibrations and though not particularly close in colour- this IPS could not demonstrate quite all gradations in red and I matched for skin tones over white purity – the contrast had been calibrated carefully. Both monitors received very positive reviews by specialist sites and were priced similarly. I adjusted the photo to look correct on the VA monitor by comparing it to the original VA photo. So try playing with your contrast and brightness until the first VA image looks realistic to you- remembering that your perception has been conditioned by your own monitor- and then compare the IPS photograph, full-screen. [more test images to come, 01/07/2016]

If you can get past the difference in the green of this particular IPS, you may even on this flat scene receive the same disappointment that you get when stepping down from any high-contrast display technology down to IPS. Of course you can edit photos and in particular nail white balance  with less concern for viewing angle on IPS but this experiment hints that you need to take care with contrast. People are so used to expending effort on WB that they adjust contrast almost as an afterthought, yet it plays a crucial role in the perception of the image. Make no mistake about it, I know from experience it is tempting on an IPS to push up the contrast a little to give the image more ‘pop’ and find it simply too hard on a monitor with more realistic contrast. Please don’t do this and make those with better monitors suffer!

Knowing all that I do, could I recommend a VA monitor (in this case AMVA) for photo editing? The answer is a qualified yes, but it is better suited to watching videos. You need to understand what you will be getting. The ‘vampire shadow’ example photo of gamma shift shows that you need to keep a certain distance from the screen and fairly centralised to be able to experience the several times greater contrast benefits VA has to offer, without experiencing the weirdness. Unfortunately I only avoided the gamma effect when viewing at a distance of about twice the diagonal- most people look at monitors at a distance similar to 1x the diagonal of the screen. IPS on the other hand, is significantly less fussy. Though the sheen or glow from looking at IPS quite off-angle is a mild nuisance, it has nothing like the deleterious effect on judging photos that off-angle viewing of VA would… though you have to remember you would never be unaware you were in the wrong spot to view VA properly- it is quite obvious when you aren’t. Those shooting with their own controlled lighting will probably not miss the contrast of VA much. For those shooting in natural light, the contrast of VA is a significant advantage in appraising the images.

I have noted with the best modern cameras that some are using them at low iso with a maximum dynamic range which is way above that of typical display technologies, and the images look quite peculiarly flat in the lack of contrast when the photographer has tried to showcase all that fancy range they were conscious they were paying for. But also I have seen a fondness from amateurs for making photographs habitually just a little too hard and brassy and suspect they have been editing on old IPS whose contrast is even lower. Photographers should take care to calibrate their own brains for contrast as much as they do their monitors for colour!

September 30, 2014

SLR camera sensor high iso noise comparison

My needs in a camera sensor are relatively simple: they must not produce too grainy an image in the situations where I am constrained by needing a high shutter speed to capture action without blur.

I only compare digital SLRs (Single-Lens-Reflex) here as they have been proven to track action reliably for stills purposes whilst producing the highest available quality. I only include one camera with an electronic viewfinder and the typical sized sensor here; usually such cameras have much smaller ones in line with their compact ethos involved with doing away with the moving mirror inside them.

I discovered a site that provides a standardised test shot for different cameras at different exposures. Here I compare the results at ISO 6400. I have needed such an ISO at rare events indoors with an f2.8 aperture, but more often with a telephoto extension the equivalent of f4, for a shutter speed somewhere between 1/250-1/1000s.

Interested readers can look for themselves at the comparison images on digital photography review.

I do not consider cameras here with such a low rate of fire as to render them irrelevant for such action photography.

My results are of course estimates, based on real-life experience rather than digital sensor measurements. A number of themes recur:

1) The bigger the sensor, the more light it collects and the more detail and lower random signal noise is produced. FX or “full-frame” 35mm sensors collect about twice as much light as the 22-23mm DX/APS-C sensors, because by simple mathematics the FX sensor has about twice the area. This also places less of a premium on the optics to be sharp. APS-H is the inbetween format pursued by Canon in their sports-oriented cameras for several years.

Theoretically by sensor area, Nikon DX sensors should produce a photographic stop and a third more noise than FX, and Canon APS-C sensors almost a stop and two thirds. APS-H should make for two thirds stop more. A photographic stop means 2x per stop, as in a logarithmic scale. In practice I judged the worst camera bodies here were two stops worse than the best, or 4x the noise.

2) When sensors are relatively starved of light, the images they produced are grainy and the grain eventually overpowers the detail collected, especially in low-contrast detail. At the upper end of the ISO range, colour is lost unless the camera electronics have been programmed to compensate. In the days of film, contrast used to steepen and dynamic range used to shorten also. There were very few digital cameras that did not compensate for contrast changes. The dynamic range is the usable signal between the noise floor and the brightest highlight that can be collected by the electronics, and is inherent to the hardware.

Noise comes in two types: colour-indiscriminate luminance noise, like a grain lying over the image, and chrominance noise with random speckles or blotches of colour. It is unusually difficult to program a computer to distinguish colourless grain from the detail behind it, but it does much better with speckled colour noise. Indeed, this in practice saved the high-iso output of Canon cameras for several years.

3) The more pixels on the sensor, the more detail can be produced even after noise reduction. There was a school of thought that smaller pixels collecting less light would produce relatively more noise in proportion to the signal, but intelligently designed camera electronics have minimised the apparent noise in this.

4) A 35mm sensor shows a 50% wider field of view than a 22-23mm from the same lens, so that in practice for telephoto work at the extremes either cropping of the image must be performed, or a teleconverter used. However the appropriate teleconverter uses an extra stop of light, the stop of light that was originally a key advantage of the larger sensor. Teleconverted image quality is generally lowest at largest apertures, and in practice where a high shutter speed is required a high-pixel count sensor can compare favourably.

Naturally, I am in the hands of the methodology of the digital photography review test here. But I have seen enough of these cameras in real life to lend credence to it. Not all of the cameras below were included in the above test and I have used comparisons from elsewhere to place them.

Here is the reference image in the best quality available at ISO 50:

ticrop benchmark nikon d800 DSC_0082

I estimate the noise difference between the sensors in fractions of a stop from the benchmark of the popular action-oriented SLRs the 20D-50D series from 2004-2008. These performed on much the same level for several years until the famous D300 came on the scene in 2008, which hardly did better in terms of image quality but had so many other advantages. The 50D and the D300 also brought a new ISO 6400 “Hi” mode. I estimate the noise difference by looking up or down the ISO range when comparing cameras to see how much these look like the reference image. When one does enough of these one gets a feel for it. There are also handy pointers such as the D300-D700 theoretical difference being 1 1/3 stop. It is easy however for the naive to be led astray by the colour and contrast and hold a more positive impression than the output merits. Colour and contrast can after all be added to the picture in processing the raw files. Even professionals have been known to be led into overestimating the abilities of new cameras by the processed jpeg camera output. I also resized the larger image files down to a lower common denominator size to judge them.

It should be kept in mind that positive numbers below mean more unwanted noise, negative means less noise.


D2X (2004) .. + ½
1D III (2007) .. – 2/3
D300 (2008) .. 0
D700 (2008) .. -1 1/3
50D (2008) .. 0
5D II (2008) .. -1 ¼
7D (2009) .. – 2/3
1D IV (2009) .. -5/6
D3S (2009) .. -2
D7000 (2010) .. – ½
A77 I (2011) .. + ¾
D4 (2012) .. -1 5/6
5D III (2012) .. -1 ¼
D800 (2012) .. -1 5/6
D600 (2012) .. -1 2/3
D7100 (2013) .. -5/6
70D (2013) .. -2/3


The most impressive result unsurprisingly was from the most expensive SLR, the D3S, in the comparison, with the largest sensor to collect light. The score of minus two represents the fact that going up two stops of ISO from 6400 to 25600 presented an equivalent result to the reference 50D/D300 generation. In fact the D3S has none of the coarse white speckles of the D300 but is on a level with the 50D at 6400 after the 50D file has been tweaked for more colour and contrast. The D3S did betray significant camera pre-processing since its 12MP file was less detailed than that of the 10MP 1D Mark III. The overall impression given was that when the size of sensor was discounted, the progress of electronics has not reduced noise by more than one photographic stop. The achievement has been in increasing levels of detail at the same time.

But the large-sensor cameras need lenses twice as heavy to give the same field of view in telephoto, or teleconverters which degrade the image. There are still some remarkably high pixel-count small sensors in the list for those who like high detail. The D7100 was the best of them. At ISO 12800 the D7100 retained slightly more detail and colour than the 50D for only the tiniest amount more luminance noise.

The outsider of the group was the Sony A77, a camera with an electronic viewfinder using a largely transparent, fixed mirror that wastes some light but allows higher framerates. Despite the impressive pixel count, the image at 6400 did not impress. It even proved too difficult to apply noise reduction to it in a satisfactory way to obtain smoothing and retain any detail. It needed around half a stop more exposure compensation to reach the same exposure as the other cameras in the comparison. At the lower 3200 it was viable.

It was notable that the Canon APS-C cameras showed decidedly less detail in the image for their pixel counts than other brands. The 7D at 18MP showed less detail than the D7000 at 16MP and the 50D 15MP showed less than the D300 12MP for example. It can be speculated that the rather small sensor area was more demanding both of lenses attached, and noise processing inside the camera.

It was also found that high pixel count sensors retained their detail well when resized downwards, even with an intermediate noise reduction stage. The favourite of those who fiddle with their files. The high pixel count despite the noise helped the noise reduction programs discern detail. In fact, I would go as far as to say that where limited for reach by the focal length of a lens, the high pixel density sensor is the tool of choice for cropping.

Perhaps the lowest noise obtained from a 35mm sensor at ISO 6400 was the D4 :

Nikon D4, iso 6400

The best noise performance from a 23mm sensor at ISO 6400, the D7100 :

Nikon D7100, 6400

The noisiest from the test at ISO 6400, the A77 :

Sony A77, 6400

The result from the sensor with the lowest pixel count here, the 1D Mark III:

1D Mark III, iso 6400

The Nikon D4 at ISO 25600 ! :

Nikon D4, iso 25600


May 29, 2014

Noise reduction software comparison

I am often constrained by dim lighting in venues which place demands on cameras to record clean images. Grainy appearance and washed-out colours are an overall characteristic that deter most viewers, so something needs to be done.
Given the volume of pictures I take, I needed something that would automate the adjustments to images. I chose to explore the most famous plug-ins that would integrate with the most popular image manipulation program Photoshop. Fortunately they all come in some trial version. It was simple to grab images from them whilst in action.
I tested “Neat Image”, “Noise Ninja”, “Noiseware Pro”, “Denoise”, “Gem”, “Dfine”, and the noise reduction extant in Photoshop CS6 and Capture NX2.

Note that I do not intend to do a truly comprehensive, much less scientific, review of these. I was only interested in their performance in the limited sphere of people photography, predominantly on skin tone. Neither do I delve into the intimate workings of the programs. My insight into these programs was gained by experimentation and observation, not mathematics. I recommend the reader play with the demonstration versions of these programs themselves.
In my time with the programs, it soon became apparent that it was easy to be conditioned by expectations of a desirable image, whereas some of the programs only came into their own by pushing and playing with them in a direction I would not have thought of going in to begin with. Some of these programs have a plethora of controls, even though in some circumstances many appear ineffectual. In these cases it pays to fiddle for longer with the other controls and revisit the apparently ineffectual ones until it is found out what they do. The key word is experimentation. I played with these programs in three separate sessions, and my conclusions were significantly refined. Thus, it pays to be wary of definitive statements on them.

Little real specialist knowledge is required to get going with the software, other than that red, green and blue pixels combine to form the colours you see. The terms highlight, mid-tone and shadow are obvious enough in meaning even to the non-photographer. Chrominance noise refers to random coloured pixel noise values, which would for instance be the prominent red speckling on old Canon digital SLR images and intrusive broader colour blotches at high ISO. Luminance noise is non-colour specific noise, “grain”, of the type most prominent on digital SLRs a decade ago. The latter type appears more difficult for programs to discern from detail. The more regular the noise, the easier it is for the program for detect, as in the notorious red banding on Canon high ISO, and several programs know how to deal with this.

The noise reduction software’s trade is in trying to make a calculated guess about what is random image noise, and what is image detail mixed in, or vice-versa depending on your point of view. Since computers are not independently intelligent and only programmed, they effect this by algorithms with variable settings we can adjust. I would like to think that the task I have in mind for them is relatively simple, since I am concentrating on flesh tone, but sequins on leotards have some small and high contrast detail on them.

For my test image I chose the ladies of the Azerbaijan group. It had the advantage of several subjects at once, with skin tone in and out of shadow, and finer sequin detail. We can ignore the fact that the artificial light made it slightly ‘warm’, for the moment.
The image was taken at ISO 3200 and is fairly noisy by today’s standards. Regarding detail the image is not among the sharpest, but there is just enough detail to make demands on a noise reduction program to preserve it. The noise is especially noticeable in large areas such as the blue background and the legs. In the picture’s raw state, the appearance is of finely ground black and white pepper. Under cropping or magnification it is not particularly edifying to look at, and cropping and magnification is often necessary when gymnasts do certain jumps or compact moves in a far corner.

The images below are reduced in size in order to maintain readability for the single-column blog. To see the examples larger, open the target images in another browser tab.

Image Image

The Contenders
Neat Image – Of all the programs, I have the most experience of this for deserving reason. My accepted compromise was to smooth the most while not removing apparent detail. In this case apparent detail was the appearance of the sequins and the naturalness of the facial features and hair in particular.
I begin with a setting I had arrived at after two rounds of playing on Neat Image:


Neat Image example

It is evident that on the settings I chose, a fairly high degree of smoothing has been applied along with the effect of cracked glaze on china around the edges of the leotard on the thigh, for instance. Nevertheless I found this quite aesthetic and acceptable. It was achieved with 75% Y (luminance reduction), and 100% of low, mid and high reduction and no more than half sharpening. In practice I rarely used quite this strong a treatment, to avoid having to sift for artefacts on large batches. It was certainly possible to apply conservative noise reduction that did not draw attention to itself:


Neat Image half strength

Neat Image does have the advantage of being regularly updated to accelerate its performance with newer graphics cards. With the latest and greatest I could have reduced the time for this noise reduction by two thirds.


Topaz Denoise was another program I had experimented with that proved less flexible and had indeed in former years almost put me off processing my own photos. Older readers may be able to remember the coarse halftoning dots that newspapers used to effect various degrees of shade in their photos, and Denoise gave a similar effect. It can produce this artificial effect through attacking some areas with smoothing and leaving noise in others, thus producing poor transitions and an unnatural effect from between overly smooth and halftoning. A very faint watercolour sponge effect could begin on the head whilst adjusting the sliders.


Denoise characteristic halftoning

In an effort to avoid the transition flaws I tried adjusting: strength, shadow (low values give halftoning grain there, high values tidy up), highlight (made things neater on high when shadow also high), recover detail (can end up putting a newspaper grain of its own), reduce blur (could give china paint effect)…


Denoise, to porcelain

So I did manage to improve the relative attractiveness of the Denoise result by ‘pushing’ its strength whilst not retaining detail so much, to produce a creamy porcelain effect on the skin. A glowing contrast made the overall effect very slightly unrealistic. However, in the very narrow range it worked in, the effect on skin was pleasing, with a slightly dreamy but contrasty blur. Though attractively smooth in this Denoise example, the unrealistic smoothness soon became tireseome. Over a collection of images I preferred the more chalky detail of the Neat Image representation, even if it also betrayed processing and noise.
Topaz Denoise was remarkably slow! It took over ten seconds to process an image, whereas Neat Image is closer to one. It varies according to which operations you choose to perform, and a simple noise debanding is done very quickly. In reality the slowness would be enough to contraindicate it, unless the result were clearly better. From this experience, I took it that Denoise was appropriate only for using in an extreme blurring manner. After dealing with Neat Image and Noiseware Pro, I could not help but feel that Topaz had unnecessarily handicapped their product by compounding various high to low frequency noise adjustments under the “Reduce Blur” slider.

Though I only found one setting or “look” that I found useful, I did not leave the program feeling it was a defect of understanding on my part. At least Denoise did better in Circus pictures that I took, in very directional lighting with dark backgrounds, because it dealt with larger isolated noise speckles better and recognised banding noise.

Dfine is a curious program. Its supposed strength is in automatically profiling noise on an image and spot healing parts of it separately. Whereas my workflow is to establish a safe customised setting and then apply it to thousands of photos at a time.
On auto it produced creamy areas but transitions with noisier ones was again poor. It encourages users to leave it on auto profile, and I struggled with using the sliders to vary the effect. A second attempt gave a watercolour and sponge effect, and on a third reaching for a relatively strong effect it lacked clarity. For my purposes here it was one of the most pointless programs, with little effective customisability and unappealing results. Nevertheless, it was fast and in more generalised landscape photography produced better results.


Dfine example

Noiseware Pro unlike the above Dfine, had no lack of sliders to fiddle with. It proved hard to replicate the strength of Denoise, with bands of colour where Denoise would tend to have halftoning. Noiseware had various settings but even with most settings on maximum and little sharpening the effect was less remarkable than Denoise. My third or fourth attempt endeavouring to maintain some range in skin tone required more contrast on the edges to avoid blurring seen here.

Unlike Denoise, Noiseware Pro proved to have hidden depths in its configurability, and in a different example with subtle skin detail, it did well in recognising detail through the noise- the core ability of a noise reduction program. Furthermore, the program was fast.


Noiseware Pro example

Noise Ninja on high had the glowing-blur effect of more primitive noise reduction programs. It was close to Neat Image on 12 strength, smoothness 20 but with less contrast on details.
Like Dfine, Noise Ninja automatically profiles an image in multiple areas, whereas Neat Image uses only one by default. Noise Ninja is immediately ‘gratifying’ in that it has some simple sliders that make great changes to the effect. I appreciated the ‘coarse’ setting which increased the contrast. Nevertheless, with my best effort to replicate Denoise with strength 18, smoothness 9, contrast 20, it did not have the contrasty illusion of sharpness of Denoise.

The heart of Noise Ninja is the Filter tab, but it did not have the sophistication of Noiseware Pro. As usual in these programs, the colour sliders had no effect and what was left was Luminance > Strength / Smoothness / Contrast and an Unsharp Mask setting.


Noise Ninja example

Kodak Gem seemed fairly straightforward and gave a middle-of-the-road performance losing sharpness as well as grain. It is now a particularly old program. On its strongest it did preserve subtlety like the seam in the leotard better than Denoise, but it also preserved more grain whilst giving lower contrast edges to legs and less apparent sharpness therefore.


Gem example

Photoshop 6 – Reduce Noise was quite primitive and beyond consideration, adding a glowing blur.
Nikon Capture NX2 noise reduction was similar to Photoshop 6 and also more or less pointless for my purposes.
I once auditioned a program called DxO Mark 9, but with a response time close to minutes rather than seconds was incredibly slow and out of the question for the mass batching of files before the sun dies.

Photographers have long known that high contrast increases the perception of detail. Here the most successful programs recognised the outline of the figures to preserve the outline and increase the contrast. Several programs tended to produce signature artefacts in skin tone transition areas, either producing obvious bands of tone as in Noiseware, or halftoning some areas and not others as in Denoise, which needed careful taming. Noise Ninja produced patches like small islands of dotted areas which thankfully went away in a predictable fashion by increasing the strength slider. Neat Image produce the “cracked glaze” squiggles near edges effect when pushing sliders hard to recover detail. The program gave almost a pencil drawn effect at such a setting, but it also gave a sense of clarity and contrast, even if false clarity. Denoise at its best offered the creamiest and most contrasty flesh form, for lovers of Botticelli. However, the pleasing effect of Denoise was lost at lower settings away from this sweet spot. The strength of its noise reduction was better felt in high iso photos with large darker areas and less pure flesh where it could tame random strong noise pixels.
The other programs were also-rans, because their results appeared blurred in general. I preferred Noiseware over Noise Ninja because I recognised more effective skin transition on the former, and I got more effective gradations of an acceptable image. I found Noiseware is still a program worth considering for its intelligent recognition of detail underneath noise, for relatively subtle use. Noise Ninja was more blurred and simplified an effect in comparison to Noiseware.
I had no love for the best I could derive from Dfine which appears not to be targetted for my mode of use, and preferred the simpler and more predictable response of Gem. The latter sits very much in the middle of the road in trying to identify what looks like grain, and not trying too hard to be clever about what it sees. Consequently it is weaker, but more predictable.

Neat Image wins in this specific test because it could be dialed back for conservative and safe noise reduction, but also could produce relatively artistic if unobjective results on some settings. Gem and Denoise could do one or the other, Noiseware could be relied upon for fidelity if not attractiveness in its subtle effect, and the rest were remarkable at neither.

To make sure, here is one more picture treated with Neat Image and Denoise. I did not try to match them, but tried to exploit their strengths on their own terms. Neat Image, in trying to raise contrast on what it thought were the details, would want to produce sooty lines in Silviya’s frown, whereas Denoise would tend to create dotted toning around the eyes related to the shadow/highlight settings. The end result is that her features clearly stand out more with Neat Image. I did not try to eliminate all grain but instead pushed it close to the perception threshold to make sure of retaining detail. With Denoise, I had to push the smoothing more to avoid the halftoning dots visible around her eyes. The sequin highlights are nevertheless truer. I was concentrating on a relatively natural result on the face, with a hint of grain on the legs, and by this it so happened that this produced a smoother background with Denoise also. As stated before however, Neat Image still wins through on two counts: firstly it produces acceptable results over a broader window of settings than Denoise, and secondly it is far faster. It can do a photo in 1.5s on my machine, and in 0.5s on custom machines costing less than a thousand more. Denoise was nearer ten seconds than one.

OF0_1307 crop

Sylvia in Thiais 2013


Sylvia through Neat Image


Sylvia through Denoise

As referred to in the introduction, Neat Image fulfilled the criterion of discerning genuine detail the best and was the shrewdest in adjusting the contrast to preserve it whilst applying its smoothing filter. The real test of the resulting image is whether I want to pore over it, or pass over it. The Denoise image to me is just a slightly blurred and uninteresting one. The Neat Image one instead draws my interest. It was especially effective in drawing out the interest in what was an unusually low-contrast and grainy scene.


There is a danger of presenting a test such as this one as definitive, given the range of photographic material these programs can be used to treat, their configurability and the question of tase. I could recognise a case for several of these programs, with Denoise having the strongest effect but not being quite versatile. Neat Image appeared more versatile, whilst Noiseware Pro was also highly configurable and better for subtle cases to retain original detail.

I played with each program at least three times and began to get a feel for how to exploit them for their individual strengths and specifically play to their abilities, and compare the best balanced results I saw them provide. Now the reader has some idea of what each program can do, it is for them to start playing for themselves. To give a head start on the most interesting programs Neat Image and Noiseware, I continue below:

Neat Image Controls

The reference image with no noise reduction applied (the luminance slider to the left):

Neat Image No NR

And with the basic noise reduction on maximum:

Neat Image full NR

I think the reader will agree this dreamy smear needs more subtlety.

This is what it looks like backing off the fine “High” frequency noise slider:

ni nohigh

Neat Image ignore high frequency noise

The result is a rather too regular pattern like texture bathroom glass. With lowest “Mid” frequency noise slider:

Neat Image ignore mid frequency noise

The above looks more naturally grain like. With lowest “Low” frequency noise slider:

Neat Image ignore low frequency noise

Those familiar with Photoshop effects will notice similarities to watercolour and sponge effects in the above. It is easy to see the effect is broader on the lower sliders.

The clever thing about these noise reduction programs is supposed to be the selective blurring of noise detail over genuine detail. They seem to achieve this by selectively sharpening the image up before blurring.

With “High” frequency sharpening:

Neat Image high frequency sharpen

This above has selectively increased contrast, but introduced artefacts in high contrast places around the black ears, and worm-like areas in the red shorts.

With “Mid” frequency sharpening:

Neat Image mid frequency sharpen

Now artefacts have appeared more inside the broad colour area shapes.

With “Low” frequency sharpening:

Neat Image low frequency sharpen

The above is more subtle increased contrast on the image.

The Cr, Cb sliders had no effect however I tried them, and the tick boxes were also only a subtle effect in comparison.

It would seem Neat Image is working fairly simply by selectively increasing contrast before blurring.

Noiseware Pro Controls

First, our test subject. Deceptively simple, but if you view it full-sized, the skin is partly blemished and bruised and I was curious to see how the program would deal with it:


Noise Level > Luminance … makes the smoothing algorithm more sensitive to grain. Playing with it does not introduce artefacts:

Noise Level > Luminance

Noise Reduction > Luminance .. controls the degree of the smoothing effect. It produces artefacts on 80% on this subject:

Noise Reduction > Luminance

Detail Protection > Luminance .. is the heart of Noiseware’s cleverness. It attempts to maintain the detail

Detail Protection > Luminance

Detail Enhancement > Sharpening .. sooner or later introduces canvas-like cross-hatching artefacts along with sharpening.

Detail Enhancement > Sharpening

Detail Enhancement > Contrast .. broadens the effect of the sharpening:

Detail Enhancement > Luminance

Detail Enhancement > Edge Smoothing .. on high certainly smooths, and makes the artefacts broader, fainter strokes:

Detail Enhancement > Edge Smoothing

The other controls in the Frequency panel are more subtle.

Frequency > Noise Level > High Freq .. on low, this fine “high frequency” noise is clearly left untouched:

Frequency > Noise Level > High Freq

Frequency > Noise Level > Mid Freq .. on high, this slider actually affected the image unlike the other sliders in this section:

Frequency > Noise Level > Mid Freq

The other controls either did nothing or their effect was obvious from the above, such as Mid-Low frequency cutting.

From the original faint and grainy raw, I believe Noiseware has done very well at intensifying the detail underneath, and the blotchy colour of the skin. The result is not necessarily attractive, but it is credible:


It is evident after a play with the program that Noiseware is rather more sophisticated in nature than NeatImage and what it is trying to achieve is more intelligent. NeatImage produced its usual dry chalky effect:


July 22, 2013

Welcome To Vinerstan!

I’ve stumbled across a fun new blog from the best team Russia-stalker of recent times. She seems to surf facebook or VK, loves Zhenya Kanaeva and has a sense of humour. She finds some fun photos. So, caption time!

Cats touching Zhenya on TV

“What do you mean she looks beat up? I always apply her eyeshadow like this”

Cat admiring Zhenya photo

“Why did she have to leave me after I had the operation? I told her, ‘But we’re happy as we are’…”

Larisa Ilchenko's dog watching Zhenya

“I used to have a job. I used to have a sense of self-respect. Sometimes I even got to sniff the girls! That was till Zhenya started fetching the sticks herself. But I only remember the good times…”

Go check it out, you’ll love it! And it’s all done in the best possible taste!

March 14, 2013

Berlin Masters Grand Prix 2012

Daria Dmitrieva photo DSC_0055_121021-141445-01.jpg
(Dasha looks dark, brings light to Berlin)

The field for this event was much weaker than last year. After the real contenders put in so much for the Olympics, they must have given themselves a holiday. Still, the organisers managed to bag the Silver medalist Daria Dmitrieva. She really is a star and didn’t take anything for granted, and was genuinely pleased that she came through in the predicted first place, with warmth for her fans. The little girls did their thing of throwing little soft toy gifts onto the carpet after her performances. Some criticise her for relying on her class-leading spins too much, but she does also play the dramatic changes in her music well. It says something about the depth of Russian rhythmic gymnastics that she almost didn’t make it through the team selection for the Olympics. I’ve included youtube links to her performances. You can find many other performances by following the links at the end of them.

I took a great deal of pictures here: I reckoned about 500 were worth displaying on photobucket. So help yourself! Now I know just what to expect of all sorts of things like venue lighting and seating, I can take better ones next time too.  I make all of them available for free. It’s my hobby.  500+ Berlin Masters photos on the sports_of channel of

The Contenders:

Daria Dmitrieva, RUS Daria Dmitrieva photo DSC_0147_121021-145306-01.jpg Lala Yusifova, AZE Laia Yusifova photo DSC_0298_121021-151727-01-1.jpg Anna Czarniecka, POL Anna Czarniecka photo DSC_0078_121021-144553-01.jpg
Jouki Tikkanen, FIN Jouki Tikkanen photo DSC_0205_121021-150109-01.jpg
Luliana Liubomeiscaia, MDA Luliana Liubomeiscaia photo DSC_0553_121021-133416-01.jpg
Adriana Teocan, ROU Adriana Teocan photo DSC_0575_121021-133712-01.jpg
Victoria Filanovsky, ISR Victoria Filanovsky photo IMG_3206.jpg
Laura Jung, GER Laura Jung photo DSC_0414_121021-132255-01.jpg
Monika Mickova, CZE Monika Mickova photo IMG_3048.jpg
Natalia Okaliova, SVK Natalia Okaliova photo IMG_2393.jpg
Zoe Ormrod, AUS Zoe Omrod photo IMG_2342.jpg
Carolina Velez, COL Carolina Valez photo IMG_2314.jpg

All Around results

Rotation 1:
Dmitrieva, Daria (RUS) – 28,933
Jung, Laura (GER) – 27,166
Filanovsky, Victoria (ISR) – 26,832
Yusifova, Lala (AZE) – 26,832
Czarniecka, Anna (POL) – 25,916
Tikkanen, Jouki (FIN) – 25,682
Mickova, Monika (CZE) – 25,482
Liubomeiscaia, Luliana (MDA) – 24,624
Okaliova, Natalia (SVK) – 24,383
Teocan, Adriana (ROU) – 23,308
Ormrod, Zoe (AUS) – 22,266
Velez, Carolina (COL) – 20,966

Rotation 2:
Dmitrieva, Daria (RUS) – 29,541
Jung, Laura (GER) – 27,308
Filanovsky, Victoria (ISR) – 27,008
Czarniecka, Anna (POL) – 25,983
Mickova, Monika (CZE) – 25,482
Teocan, Adriana (ROU) – 24,808
Tikkanen, Jouki (FIN) – 24,744
Okaliova, Natalia (SVK) – 24,683
Yusifova, Lala (AZE) – 24,607
Liubomeiscaia, Luliana (MDA) – 23,891
Ormrod, Zoe (AUS) – 22,916
Velez, Carolina (COL) – 20,116

Rotation 3:
Dmitrieva, Daria (RUS) – 29,541
Jung, Laura (GER) – 27,166
Yusifova, Lala (AZE) – 26,799
Filanovsky, Victoria (ISR) – 26,733
Tikkanen, Jouki (FIN) – 26,141
Czarniecka, Anna (POL) – 25,683
Liubomeiscaia, Luliana (MDA) – 25,349
Mickova, Monika (CZE) – 24,832
Teocan, Adriana (ROU) – 24,624
Okaliova, Natalia (SVK) – 24,508
Ormrod, Zoe (AUS) – 21,766
Velez, Carolina (COL) – 21,408

Rotation 4:
Dmitrieva, Daria (RUS) – 28,666
Jung, Laura (GER) – 27,308
Filanovsky, Victoria (ISR) – 26,949
Yusifova, Lala (AZE) – 26,699
Czarniecka, Anna (POL) – 26,241
Tikkanen, Jouki (FIN) – 25,532
Mickova, Monika (CZE) – 25,508
Liubomeiscaia, Luliana (MDA) – 25,108
Teocan, Adriana (ROU) – 24,558
Okaliova, Natalia (SVK) – 24,016
Ormrod, Zoe (AUS) – 22,725
Velez, Carolina (COL) – 21,975

Individual Apparatus Finals

Dmitrieva, Daria (RUS) – 29,650
Jung, Laura (GER) – 27,225
Czarniecka, Anna (POL) – 26,050
Filanovsky, Victoria (ISR) – 26,025
Yusifova, Lala (AZE) – 25,950
Micková, Monika (CZE) – 25,550
Liubomeiscaia, Luliana (MDA) – 25,425
Tikkanen, Jouki (FIN) – 24,225

Dmitrieva, Daria (RUS) – 29,750
Filanovsky, Victoria (ISR) – 27,275
Jung, Laura (GER) – 27,200
Liubomeiscaia, Luliana (MDA) – 25,900
Czarniecka, Anna (POL) – 25,825
Micková, Monika (CZE) – 25,700
Tikkanen, Jouki (FIN) – 25,500
Teocan, Adriana (ROU) – 23,775

Dmitrieva, Daria (RUS) – 29,500
Yusifova, Lala (AZE) – 27,400
Jung, Laura (GER) – 26,750
Filanovsky, Victoria (ISR) – 26,450
Tikkanen, Jouki (FIN) – 25,800
Micková, Monika (CZE) – 25,750
Czarniecka, Anna (POL) – 25,725
Okaliova, Natalia (SVK) – 24,500

Dmitrieva, Daria (RUS) – 29,725
Jung, Laura (GER) – 27,450
Yusifova, Lala (AZE) – 26,700
Filanovsky, Victoria (ISR) – 26,675
Tikkanen, Jouki (FIN) – 25,925
Micková, Monika (CZE) – 25,650
Czarniecka, Anna (POL) – 25,625
Okaliova, Natalia (SVK) – 24,900

March 13, 2013

Why Isn’t Rhythmic Gymnastics More Popular?

Rhythmic Gymnastics is marginalised in the television schedules. The only chance I had of seeing it in the UK was in the Olympics, and the terrestrial broadcast changed to prancing horses instead. Even the bigger sister, Artistic Gymnastics, rarely makes it to television and we get a local event once a year, and typically the Europeans and even the World championships in the Olympic year. Artistic Gymnastics too is a minority sport. As a spectator I will assay some reasons on why Rhythmic Gymnastics is not more popular:

1) Negligible participant base. The sport will suffer in many countries from being an individual sport and not using the space of facilities very efficiently. Whilst stretches and some apparatus skills might need much space, the focus in schools ever more tends to be on giving children the real cardiovascular exercise they are nowadays lacking. It’s much easier for a teacher to administer a basketball or netball game with a dozen or more players, particularly if that teacher isn’t a specialist.

Rhythmic Gymnastics also isn’t the kind of thing people tend to pick up anywhere else, either. Only ballet and hula-hooping seems to have anything to do with it. Vanessa Ferrari’s notorious assertion that rhythmic gymnasts were “failed ballerinas” has inverted reality. I’ve seen ballet in real life too and saw that the dancers don’t have the same flexibility, never mind the apparatus skills. Whereas Olympic diving attracts the vicarious, remembering their own fear on the 3-metre board, RG is almost entirely outside their experience.

2) Subjectivity and impenetrable results. Like another sport that rarely makes forays into the schedules, Ice Skating, RG has nearly made itself notorious for judging scandals. Even one of the most famous trainers was involved in one as a judge. Like Torvill & Dean losing to a Russian cabal, such conspiracies alienate the public and make them feel cheated- as if the judging criteria were not already hard enough to understand in themselves. And why would the public understand, since so few have tried anything like RG?

3) Comparison with Artistic Gymnastics. RG will be associated with and compared to artistic gymnastics in the minds of the public whether the community likes it or not. To those used to the wow of tumbles, RG lacks explosive dynamism and boggling somersaults. Realistically, this is necessary, since once tumbles were allowed, an arms race to outdo each other would ensue and the winsome prancing would be left behind. So RG stresses flexibility rather than power. It would be interesting to have an insight into the formulation of the code of rules and its ethos. A new one has been announced for 2013.

To the uninitiated, RG may look like prancing to music. It certainly looked like it to me. Even though I have seen the Olympics and Europeans since 1996, I made no rush towards RG as well.

4) The Sport Itself. Once a viewer does make it past the obstacles of the poor television coverage and their own ignorance and begins to pick up the thread of RG, they can see the sports has its own problems. Just as in Artistic Gymnastics that it’s possible to construe the technical requirements from viewing enough routines, so it is in RG, but the lack of variety is provoked by the unchanging piece of apparatus- the carpet. Yes, though the apparatus the gymnasts hold may be different, many of the moves are directly transferable from one routine to another. The spins, the sequence in vogue of three leg lifts or extensions, and the rolls they fit in on the floor whilst the apparatus is in the air before catching it… even someone not appraised of the code of points can soon from experience get a feeling for what is coming next. This is the classic tension and sticking point in a sport that combines the technical with the artistic. These ladies aren’t just simply playing at being princesses in their sparkling costumes and showing off to us: they would also like to win. If there is a technical code of points as a priority then they are going to play to it.

It simply isn’t given to everybody to have an artistic sensibility, never mind prioritise it. There are those who out of pride or support from a training regime, display routines with some artistic and rhythmic relationship with the music, but there are also those who provoke the question of whether we would notice the difference if the music were changed, so vague is the relationship between what they are hearing and what they are doing. As an example, I link to two routines of a highly esteemed gymnast with the same apparatus, in the same year.

In both routines she uses very much the same moves, but one piece of music suits what she is doing so much better. This rather suggests that someone who knows the performer’s preferred sequences has searched their memory banks for a compatible minute and a half of music, to which the performer has made adjustments. This is in contradistinction to the more obvious alternative method of constructing the choreography following the music to begin with. Whichever means were used, I’d say the latter worked well in an engaging way that everybody could appreciate, with its driving rhythm, and in a way that… the earlier one didn’t. It hasn’t escaped my attention that this gymnast wants to become a choreographer, so I would be curious to know who would get the blame and the credit in this example! I wonder if this engaging lady actually knows how much she has.

The tendency to homogeneity means that the interest of the neutral viewer can certainly flag. By the time I had seen one rotation of 24 gymnasts this Olympics I began to flag even when I was enlivened by predicting the moves from a photographer’s point of view. The sport might easily tax the patience of the naive viewer.

5) Other Distractions in the World. I have been to an RG tournament outside the Olympics amongst the specialist crowd and can tell you that it is almost exclusively female, dominated by young girls who appear to belong to some gymnastics club, and their parents. This might be the reason that the venues are more hall-sized ones than arena sized ones like the O2 and Wembley. Actually the Max-Schmeling Halle was a fine venue for it, more usually host to basketball games. The point is that RG does not seem to have a very broad reach outside those that actually participate or aspire to participate in RG. This would seem fairly small in western europe, and I would expect the participation in all sports to dwindle in the future. All children seem to do nowadays, when they are not constrained to schoolwork, is to check and re-check their messages on their mobile phones, analogous to a feline regularly pacing its own territory. The news media tells us often enough that children are becoming less active and more obese. I imagine it must be difficult to push young athletes hard in the developed world where there are so many distractions, a culture for instant gratification, and where the renumeration does not seem high. I can only assume that when eastern-europe and Russia find their exchange rates more equal to the west, the same western attitude will infect them too.

“Other distractions” also goes for other distractions for potential audiences. With over forty terrestrial stations typical nowadays, RG as minority programming could be lost in the schedules even if it did make it to the screens. It would not likely even attract many males attracted to the “female aesthetic” either. They have already been served by a free diet on the internet of far more immediate material, and figures that do not look as if they are stamped out on a production line economising on plastic. As if that were not enough, there is little in the media that does not attempt to casually titillate as a matter of course as well. In short, Rythmic Gymnastics competes for followers in a crowded market. Unfortunately unlike ballroom dancing it seems improbable it can be rejeuvenated by a celebrity reality show because of the range of mobility required.


It would seem obvious to the outsider that RG needs to give careful thought to its code of points to encourage routines attractive to the wider public it could broaden its appeal to. No doubt it will also be necessary to uncouple the code of points from the political corruption of those federations who have benefited from technical codes of points in the past. The sport would also benefit from individuals with a special talent and pride in producing engaging routines, in the same way artistic gymnastics benefited from Olga Korbut. Olga of course had certain advantages to the media: she was very young, she was very smiley for someone from a stoney-faced system, and she had groundbreaking routines. It seems unlikely that anyone in Rhythmic Gymnastics can ever have the influence that Olga did on their sport due to the constraints placed on the invention of movement by the codes of the sport itself.

To me, Rhythmic Gymnastics is a fairyland where girls get to choose their own costumes and music and wow us by doing extraordinary things that normal mortals can’t, as veritable princesses. From my perspective as a spectator rather than performer the relationship of the music to the performance is key for my enjoyment of it as a piece of performance art. At the time of writing I find two Ukrainian gymnasts Alina Maksimenko and Ganna Rizatdinova salient in this respect, but even then I do not necessarily like all of their routines. But I like them enough to keep watching!

March 17, 2012

About this blog

I’ve been taking photographs of Tennis since Wimbledon 2003. I decided to add some new sports and have done a few high profile artistic gymnastic events. For now my new photos are on here.