Tuesday, 14 January 2020

How phone cameras can destroy pictures

There's no argument. The camera on a modern mobile phone is easy to use, versatile, and produces excellent results. And it maxes out on sheer convenience - because if you carry a phone, you have a great camera as well in the same device. For nearly all practical purposes, it's all you need.

But...and it's a big 'but' if you care about these things...those very nice results are the result of intense electronic processing and enhancement. The aim is to make lines sharp, and tonal patches distinct - whatever it takes to get rid of blur and fuzziness, and lift dullness. Nothing wrong with that in itself - most shots need some correction or tweaking to bring out their best - but all that combining of multiple shots, and sharpening the merged image, has bad results that show up at high magnifications.

I can show what I mean by comparing a shot taken this very morning with my little Leica (the 'real camera' of 2009 vintage, with a multi-element glass lens and only light assistance from electronics) - on the LEFT below - with an indentical shot taken with Tigerlily, my Samsung Galaxy S8+ phone (the 'phone camera' of 2017 vintage, relying on a tiny stack of plastic lenses and amazing electronics) - on the RIGHT below.

This was the shot, of the decrepit glasshouse at the bottom of my rear garden, taken with (in both cases) a modest x2.5 zoom from my lounge window. I got them up side-by-side on my laptop screen, then took a JPEG screenprint. You're actually looking at the screenprint, as uploaded to Blogger.

Leica left, phone right.

The phone (right) throws 12 megapixels at the shot, whereas the Leica (left) can manage only 10 megapixels. So the phone shot looks as if taken slightly closer, in this and the other shots.

I'd say the phone has captured the better picture. It's warmer in tone, although this is spurious: it was a cold morning with rain in the offing, and the cool Leica result (left) was the more truthful.

Let's magnify each picture to the same extent.

The shot turned out by the phone (right) still looks better. A lot of detail is now apparent, and it seems more distinct in the phone shot.

Let's now concentrate on the glasshouse doorway. More magnification; as before, to the same extent.

In the phone shot (right) all the straight lines in the glasshouse are very clear, but some subtlety has been sacrificed. It's beginning to look like a drawing, whereas the Leica's shot (left) has retained a little photographic fuzziness. I think many people would prefer the phone's clear, sharp rendition of the glasshouse, but it isn't a natural nor completely truthful rendition.

Now the other end of the glasshouse.

Again, the phone's result (right) looks crisp, with high contrast. But that plastic jar with the green top inside the glasshouse looks two-dimensional. And I don't like the rendition of the ivy on the beech trees in the background. Whereas the Leica's result, although less distinct, makes the jar look rounded, and the ivy on the beech tree behind looks like a real plant, not just a clump of green and black shapes.

Next, some fence and foliage shots.

There's no question, the phone (right) makes everything look sharp and very distinct, but reduces it all to rather flat shapes. Whereas the Leica (left) - the 'real camera' - retains naturalness, even though the detail is not so clear to the eye. In the real world, objects at a distance are never easy to see in detail; the Leica is being faithful to reality.

Surely the Leica's picture of the beech trees beyond the glasshouse is more truthful - and more useful, if you wanted to see the ivy as it really was.

The phone's electronics have made a right royal mess of the feathery greenery of the rear hedge. It merely looks like a green and black pattern, and not a living thing at all. The Leica preserves reality, with a lightness of touch, even if it isn't such a crisp shot.

The same story with the grass of my rear lawn. The Leica (left) keeps the grass and the brown leaves recognisable and realistic. But it's all reduced to a green pattern in the phone's shot.

Here's a different comparison, from a few hours earlier, at night in my bedroom, by the shaded light at my bedside.

The Leica (left) has made everything look yellowish; the phone (right) has a much more correct white and cream rendition. Even so, the Leica has better captured the true colour of the things reflected in the mirror - the orange of the pine chest of drawers, the blue-green of my bag.

But let's concentrate on Rosie, my china cat. I've magnified each of the images above to the same extent, so that Rosie now fills the window. Leica left, phone right.

This is a tough low-light test with a medium-high ISO (both ISO 400), the widest aperture available (Leica f/2.8, phone f/1.7), and a slow shutter speed (Leica 1/8th second, phone 1/10th second). Neither picture of Rosie turns out well. The Leica's rendition (left) is the better: you can make out the pink and green of the 'cabbage rose' decoration painted on her, her head seems more distinct, and there is more detail in the woodwork behind. Although the phone (right) reveals Rosie as a white cat (correct), her 'cabbage-rose' decoration is now a dark red splodge, and her head is fuzzy. The woodwork behind is washed out and indistinct.

These shots are both poor, but I'm happier with the little Leica's result, and keenly disappointed with the phone's effort, which is unusually bad.

My conclusion? That Tigerlily - my very accomplished phone from 2017 - isn't clever enough to take good daylight pictures of natural objects at a distance. Nor do its night-time pictures stand up to scrutiny, if the subject (natural or otherwise) is too far away from the lens.

The phone is very good close up - very good at everything close up. Definitely the preferred choice for people, food and document shots, with brilliantly clear and attractive results expected. But the much-older Leica has the most natural rendition, whatever the distance.

Would a 2020 phone do as well as the Leica for distance work? It would certainly come closer than in this comparison. And I'm confident that a 2021 phone will be closer still. (I'm getting a new phone in 2021) But for now - for me - my little Leica has a clear edge where far-off subjects are concerned.

I hope you agree, and can see why I might itch to make more use of photographic equipment like the little Leica. Despite being nearly eleven years old, the Leica can still score in certain circumstances, or in certain ways. I ought to be exploiting that. I'm not at all disenchanted with my phone, but I can be realistic about which device is the better tool for a given subject.

But at the end of the day, which is the handier photographic device to carry around? Which can take pictures by voice control? Which is such an normal, everyday device that it goes unnoticed? Which always has access to the Internet?

Clearly, the phone.

It's horses for courses. Carry the Leica, and I'll have to sling two bags over my shoulder. But it just might be worth it. 

Monday, 13 January 2020

Deciding what the Leica is for

Hefty or awkwardly-shaped equipment can't be lugged along on a 'just in case' basis. The little Leica D-Lux 4 is a metal-and-glass machine, and heftier than it looks (though the heft is great for holding it steady). It used to inhabit my big orange bag with the wide brown strap - plenty of room in there for it! - but there isn't any room in the small blue-green Pittards bag I now use, and it has to be carried separately in its own Lowepro camera bag. So two bags. Fine for those occasions when I know I'll need the Leica. Otherwise, it's too much to carry.

So when might I really need the little Leica? What can it do that my Samsung phone can't - or at least not nearly so well? That's what it boils down to.

I've now identified these four occasions when I would definitely turn to the Leica. Three of them are entirely practical in nature: meaning that the Leica beats the phone on technical ability.

1. When I need a zoom
The Leica can give me a high-quality x2.5 zoom shot by purely optical means, by pulling on a handy lever around the shutter button. That's a very modest telephoto effect indeed (equivalent to only 60mm at the zoom end, in film-camera terms). Nevertheless, it can make a difference. I'm still bringing f/2.8 and 10 megapixels to bear on that zoomed-into scene.

Whereas applying a 'digital zoom effect' on the phone is actually just blowing up the ordinary image by cropping it around the edges. A 'x2.5 digital zoom' reduces the phone's full-sized 12 megapixel picture to only 4.8 megapixels. Much less detail-resolution to be had from that!

Arguably then, the Leica would be better for capturing scenic detail at a distance. Worth carrying on a walk in the mountains, then. Or for pictures of dolphins from a boat.

I've now delved into the Leica's settings and switched to 'Extended Zoom', where the camera uses an optical zoom up to x2.5 (60mm) but will - after a slight pause, and if I want it - zoom in further by magnifying the optical image, effectively extending the zoom range to as much as x10 (which is 240mm in film camera terms).

I've never used this facility before. Using it, there is a significant telephoto effect, although resolution and sharpness at x10 are no better than at x2.5. It doesn't in itself bring forth more detail. But skilful tweaking on the laptop afterwards might well provide the illusion of extra sharpness. In that connection, think about how those fuzzy astronomical images can be enhanced to an acceptably sharp result by working on them.

2. When I want to take a macro shot
On the Leica, I just move a small lever on the lens barrel. Then I can get as close as 1cm from the subject. So the delicate interiors of flowers are a doddle.

The phone can close-focus only down to 5cm. That's still useful, but not in the same league.

3. Special shooting conditions needing Manual Mode and a wide range of settings
Such as photographing the night sky, when you not only need a zoom, but have to set the ISO, the aperture, and the shutter speed independently of each other. I've worked out that to shoot the full moon (which reflects a dazzling amount of sunlight) I need these settings on the Leica:

ISO 100 (for the best quality image overall)
An f/4 aperture (for the sharpest image on this particular camera)
A shutter speed of 1/2000th second (to prevent over-exposure)

Shooting star constellations on a dark but clear night needs a much slower shutter speed, maybe 30 seconds, as the light is so feeble. One distinctive and easy-to-find constellation is Orion, always a splendid sight from my front drive. It's especially interesting just now, with the red giant star Betelgeuse (top left corner of the constellation) fluctuating in brightness, and reckoned to be approaching a supernova state. Meaning that it will explode spectacularly sometime soon - quite possibly in the next 100,000 years! I want to be set up for that.

4. Whenever I want an impression or an interpretation of the scene, not a factual record
The Leica's pictures lend themselves very well to adding mood, alternative coloration, and other enhancements or reductions to produce an imaginative result. This is where software skill on the laptop comes in - the equivalent of advanced darkroom techniques in film days. Interventions can be quick and dirty, or painstakingly subtle. 'Quick and dirty' would include using the faux-grainy black-and-white scene mode referred to below. Other treatments might be anything but quick, especially if experimenting carefully with the Curves tool on each colour channel, layer by layer. But at least these personal interventions are easy, because of the Leica's rather light in-camera processing, which doesn't get in the way.

So there you are. Four strong reasons for using the Leica, rather than relying totally on the phone.

I have already tried my hand at some black-and-white shots, just to remind myself what that simulated film-grain effect looks like. These were quickly taken yesterday, at home, to get an idea of the possibilities, and are frankly banal. But you can imagine how something more ambitious could turn out rather well.

The next shots - two pairs of the same thing - show how vastly different the black-and-white and colour versions are. The colour shot records the scene as a faithful, factual record. The monochrome shot emphasises form and texture, and changes the mood.

One way to make washing dishes and pans more interesting!

Bras went in those for washing, but the Alien popped out! Beware.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Reviving the Leica

Leica: the most famous name in photography? Certainly the one most associated over many decades - fairly or otherwise - with superb cameras and lenses, and carefully-crafted, artistic pictures. Above all, with photo-journalism, although many kinds of photographer aspire to own a Leica. Cameras for the connoisseur, most definitely. Very expensive cameras! And that great cost is part of the point: the red Leica dot on a camera is saying 'I am so in love with photography, so committed to finding and taking great pictures, that I spent a small fortune on buying this camera, and all its accessories.' I am also sure that some Leica owners - men I'm guessing - have a Leica slung on their shoulder or hanging from their neck for the same reason they wear a gold Rolex watch on their wrist - for all to see and envy.

Expensive trophies they may be, but these cameras are also fine picture-taking devices. And they are not stuck in a traditional past. Since the 1970s, and especially in the last ten years, Leica has been anxious to innovate and develop, and justify the high prices it must charge to stay viable as a camera manufacturer.

That said, not all Leica products cost thousands of pounds. In June 2009 I was able to purchase a Leica D-Lux 4, which was a small digital camera based on the Panasonic LX3, and made in the same Japanese factory, but to Leica standards; with Leica's firmware, not Panasonic's. So although it wasn't a model with an historic pedigree, it was still a Leica. It had different styling to the Panasonic, extra-nice accessories, and that famous red dot. It also, most importantly, had that excellent Leica lens. It cost me just over £600.

And here it is in my hands, the day after purchase, and already I was getting experimental with it. It begged to be used imaginatively. I needed no special encouragement whatever.

I soon added a stout handgrip, and some other things. The grip was essential. The styling was smooth and slippery - I needed something to curl my fingers around. The only thing was, with the grip attached to the baseplate, I couldn't use the lovely leather case that came with the camera. This was a brown leather affair that screamed quality and luxury - absolutely unbeatable - but you could slide the camera into it only if no grip or viewfinder or lens hood were attached. And there was nowhere to put a spare battery. So it has never been used. Instead I bought a black canvas substitute by Lowepro with an orange interior, padding, and handy little pockets. It's attractive and very practical, but has no class when compared to that brown leather case. Sigh.

I never gave my new Leica a name. It has always been 'the little Leica'. It's certainly diminutive. This it, later in 2009, and in 2010, when still new.

Here it is, alongside a really small film camera, my Minox GT-E.

And this is it, next to a film SLR, my Olympus OM-1, which is about the same size as a modern mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses.

That smallness didn't detract from the credibility of the little Leica as a serious camera. It was obviously a different proposition from the average point-and-shoot camera of the time. Indeed, it got noticed whenever I went into museums and art galleries. I recall being challenged in Bournemouth's Russell-Cotes Museum and Art Gallery in 2013. Perhaps the red Leica dot had caught the eye of the staff. One said she had followed me around, trying to guess my intentions. Was I a professional taking unauthorised pictures? Perhaps it was my care in getting the composition right each time - I was shooting statues and pictures mainly - that half-convinced her that I was after free pictures for non-private use, when by rights I ought to have declared myself, signed forms, and paid a proper fee. Just as I had some years earlier, back in the early 1990s, when I went there sporting a full-blown SLR.

Once or twice, when bagging Street Shots in the Lanes of Brighton, I was stopped and questioned - though this time it was by fellow-photographers. Surely that red dot again. On some of their recent cameras, Leica have greyed the dot, so that it's not so obvious that one is using a Leica. I was surprised that my little camera got attention. It was surely no secret - if you knew anything about the long-lasting partnership of Leica with Panasonic - that my camera was essentially a Japanese clone, and had not been handmade in Wetzlar, like this Leica M9 I saw last year in the hands of a chap called Stuart at Broughty Ferry in Scotland. 

Not that's a camera to drool over! But the general public seems to know only that the red dot means Something Desirable, and hence the owner must be worth talking to. Oh dear! My D-Lux 4 was a genuine Leica; but actually only that accessory handgrip bore the legend 'Leica Camera Germany'.

I will say, however, that the little Leica has proved to be a star. It took 62,515 photos up to its replacement by a newer camera in August 2015. It has come out of retirement once or twice since, and currently has 63,591 shots under its belt. But it's still functioning perfectly. In the course of ten and a half years' use, it has acquired some small signs of wear and tear, but it's still remarkably handsome. This was it in May 2017, and it looks just the same now in January 2020.

Maybe I do take proper care of my stuff, so that it lasts well. But I think there must be high quality built in, to look like this after so much use. 

So why this post?

Well, by the second half of 2019 I was starting to take a renewed interest in using a ‘proper’ camera. I continued to be highly satisfied with the photographic output of my Samsung Galaxy S8+ phone. It was excellent, no other word, for taking perfect 'record shots' of whatever caught my attention. It got everything right, and its camera was easy to deploy, at least in Automatic mode. I loved the large bright screen: what an aid to composition! And its low-light abilities were impressive - hence my ever-greater fascination with dimly lit church interiors! Its processing power ensured that everything was as sharp as could be. No wonder I enjoyed using it. 

Except that the camera on the S8+ had a fixed aperture of f/1.7 (nice and fast, but no choice about depth of field) and no optical zoom (although you could safely crop in afterwards to simulate, say, a x2 zoom). Its creative possibilities were limited because the controls were limited, even in Pro mode. And there no dials, levers and buttons. Just whatever a finger could do on the touchscreen. And sometimes a hasty finger made unwanted things happen, messing up the shot. 

Then there were the results. The S8+ produced amazingly good pictures from a tiny stack of plastic lenses and marvellous, but intense, processing. But somehow these results were not quite as good as those one might achieve using a regular camera equipped with a glass lens - and lighter processing. It could not all be done by tiny lenses and clever electronics! At least not yet.

Were the phone's pictures a shade too sharp and factual, and lacking in 'mood'? Where was the 'bite' that a bit of film-era graininess - or the noise prevalent on early digital cameras - could confer? The shots taken with the phone were a joy to zoom into on the laptop screen, and then study closely. So much detail! But a nagging voice told me that a 'real' camera could turn out something different, something better in a pictorial sense. It would be more suitable for creative work.    

So should I now consider buying a 'real' camera? 

There was a lot of choice, mostly very good. But so expensive! The modern direct equivalents of the handy little Leica D-Lux 4 were the Panasonic LX100 Mark II (launched in August 2018, and now around £800) and the Leica D-Lux 7 (launched in November 2018, and now just over £1,000). Alternatives from Fuji, Sony, Canon and Nikon were at much the same price level. Realistically, such prices were beyond my means if I wished to save up for the other things I needed to give priority to - such as a new car, a top-of-the-range replacement phone, and a high-spec replacement laptop.  No, it couldn’t be afforded.

I could of course consider a lower-priced new camera, perhaps one lately superseded by a newer version. Or take a chance on a second-hand model. But anything comparable to (say) the Panasonic LX100 Mark II would still cost several hundred pounds. 

So I decided to revive the little Leica D-Lux 4, using it for specific photographic purposes.

What would those be? In most technical aspects, Tigerlily (my Samsung Galaxy S8+) beat the little Leica hands down - especially on resolution, and when shooting in low light. 

But not in general handling. And the Leica’s optical zoom, though modest, gave it an edge over the phone. So did its lens, which yielded results that were somehow more ‘natural’ than Tigerlily’s accomplished but highly-processed output. The Leica’s shots were not quite as sharp, but if I wanted a particularly grainy and moody black-and-white image, then the Leica could give me a better result. 

Perhaps I hankered after using a device that ‘felt’ like a proper camera. Small as it was, the Leica provided that experience. It was definitely more satisfying to take pictures with. 

This was not to dismiss the conveniences of, and results from, the very capable phone. I’d still be using Tigerlily and her successors for my social life, and anything that required a sharp and precise record. But away from that? When the detail didn't matter? When making the most of patterns and abstractions did? 

I now saw a fresh role for the faithful and still-fully functional little Leica - it could be my ‘art’ camera, specialising in gritty black-and-white pictures, or experiments in pure colour.    

This was a great notion. And that's what I'm doing henceforth. 

You can skip the rest of this post - unless you would like to see what the little Leica can do, with or without some extra work on the laptop. 

It was easy to dig out a selection of shots to show. A laptop search using 'DLUX' produced over 7,000 Leica pictures, representing my favourites. Obviously many more are archived on my external hard drives. Here are some of the ones I most like from 2009 through to 2018.

I now intend to add some more pictures on these lines during 2020, using the little Leica. May it continue to perform as well as it has for so many years! 

One thing I don't want, though, is attention when I'm snapping away in public. But I may get it. Everybody uses phones nowadays, unless they are sporting big cameras with hefty lenses. The small compact camera is a rare sight. So if I am using one, I could risk attracting a curious glance! I'll be on my guard.