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Selective focus: A few thoughts on budget cameras for 2010

by Jeremy Breningstall Saturday 25 December 2010
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My sister sent me a message the other day and asked what I thought of the FZ-35, an outgoing model Panasonic super-zoom point-and-shoot. “What do you want to use it for?” I asked her. How a camera will be used makes a big difference in which camera to recommend and I wanted to know why she was looking to upgrade from her current Canon Elph.
She told me she admired the pictures taken by colleagues at work that had selective focus (shallow depth of field) and she also wanted a camera that could freeze fast action.
I had to tell her that a consumer super-zoom isn’t likely to be good at achieving either goal.

Like most point-and-shoots, the FZ-35 has a 1/2.33” sensor, only a tiny fraction of a full-frame 35mm-size sensor. It also has a fast- but not overwhelmingly fast- lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. The combined dimensions are insufficient for strong subject isolation. The FZ-35’s small sensor also means it almost certainly is incapable of producing strong color photos at any ISO above 200- much too slow for fast action, especially in overcast light or indoors. Photos at higher ISOs on a 1/2.33” sensor will have both high digital noise and poor color range (the FZ-35 has a list ISO that going up to an incredulous 6400- clearly, camera marketers do believe there is a sucker born every minute). With no mirror, the FZ-35 is also reliant on contrast-detection autofocus- this kind of autofocus has improved substantially and Panasonic is on the cutting edge of its quickest speeds, but it still far slower than the phase detection autofocus used on conventional single lens reflex cameras (SLRs).

I don’t mean to pick on the Panasonic FZ-35- in many reviews last year, it placed in the top of its class. It’s better than most or all of its competitors. There are just inherent limitations to this genre of camera. Point-and-shoots are convenient to carry in the pocket but they cannot produce anything near the quality of a larger camera- though they can get some nice results in macro and snapshot photography.
Here a photo on Flickr illustrates the FZ-38 (same model) at its widest aperture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bishybarneybee/4926266900/.
A far extreme away is the full-frame Leica M9 with an f/1.0 lens: http://www.flickr.com/photos/futureancient/3923418056/. A depth of field this shallow is impossible on a point-and-shoot. But we don’t need a $9,000 camera to show the difference. Here is a more mortal example from a Canon 550D with an APS-C sensor: http://www.flickr.com/photos/boudster/4785848085/.
Of course, one could play around with blur actions in Adobe Photoshop, but this wouldn’t be quite the same now, would it?

On the other hand, there are some budget options that would fit the bill for selective focus and action photography. (If your independently wealthy or making loads of money off photography, go out and buy a Nikon D3x. But if your looking for something to capture high quality photos for less than 8,000 RMB, here are the best bets in ascending order of quality/price.)

1) Buy a high-grade compact. Offhand, I can think of at least three point and shoots with an aperture of f/2.0 or faster- critical for getting fast shutter speeds, also well as moderately selective focus. Of these, the one I would recommend most is the Panasonic LX5 (around 3,000 RMB). With its f/2.0 lens and 1/1.7” sensor, the LX5 has a dual advantage over its FZ35/FZ38/FZ40 siblings. Another popular option is the Canon S95- also with f/2.0 lens and a 1/1.7” sensor. It doesn’t focus as quickly as the LX5 but is more pocketable due to its retracting lens. Of course, 1/1.7” is still a fairly small sensor (reaching up to about 400 ISO of decent quality color photos) which leads us to option 2…
 
2) Buy a mirrorless, or EVIL (electronic viewfinder interchangeable lens) camera and a pancake lens. This is an emerging category. My personal favorite in this market so far is the underrated Samsung NX10 (4,600 RMB with 30mm lens). The press has generated far more buzz for micro four-thirds cameras such as the Panasonic GF-1 and the Olympus EP series (called micro four-thirds due to a slightly smaller sensor size- much larger than 1/1.7” but smaller than the APS-C sensor in most SLRs and NX10/Nex-5).
The Panasonics have (reasonably) fast contrast detection focus and the GH1, one of the early models, has been praised for its video ability. The great flaw of the G cameras is their poor high ISO performance- only a stop or so better than the LX5. The Olympus EP cameras have better ISO performance and in-body image stabilization- but mind-bogglingly slow autofocus.
The latest entrant in this field is the Sony Nex series- equipped with the best (mirrorless) APS-C sensors but the worst lenses and the clunkiest menu and a shutter noise that sounds to me like the factory scene in Dancer in the Dark.

There are also some fixed lens options. Fuji has a 35mm f/2 APS-C hybrid camera slated for a March 2011 release at around 7,000 RMB. Ricoh has a modular camera that is super overpriced, but well-reviewed. Picking up the Ricoh GXR and the 28mm f/2.5 module- well, that could easily run you a tab of around 8,000 RMB.
Not impressed by any of these? Fear not. It may not be the time to jump into the mirrorless market just yet. Nikon and Pentax are both rumored to have new releases being readied for a 2011 rollout- either of these legends should be able to surpass anything in the current EVIL market.
For overall quality, there is no replacement for option 3…

3) Buy a consumer SLR. Consumer SLRs don’t cost much more, (if anything) than the current lineup of mirrorless cameras and aren’t all that much heavier to carry, especially if you’re planning on using a zoom lens (when a zoom is attached to a mirrorless camera, much of its size advantage is lost).
SLRs offer a few key advantages:

-Faster focus
-Larger catalog of lenses to choose from
-Better quality sensors
-Faster overall performance
-Easier tracking in optical viewfinder
For catching fast action specifically, SLRs are the only good option.

Among recent releases, my favorite in the consumer category is the Pentax K-r (5,000-6,000 RMB). It is solidly built, fast-performing and it has stellar image quality for its class, along with in-body stabilization. For aspiring videographers, the Canon 60D (7,000 RMB) is attractive, with an articulating LCD among other features.

I would ignore certain claims made in advertisements by the major companies- such as 12,800 ISO or in-video autofocus. 12,800 ISO on your typical APS-C sensor looks like a late Monet painting and the video “autofocus” on Nikon’s new D7000 jolts like a taxi driver rushing through heavy traffic.  On the other hand, pay close attention to things like viewfinder size, frames per second, high ISO quality, dynamic range, lens compatibility, HD video formatting and in-body vs. in-lens image stabilization (the latter better for video, the former better for saving money).
If 5,000 RMB is too high, there are also uber-budget options like the Nikon D3100 and Sony A230 (I would not recommend a Sony, but that’s a personal thing). Canon 40Ds, still well-regarded, are available on the used market for around 3,000 RMB.

For people with a bit more money to spend, there is the Pentax K-5 (9,000 RMB) vs. Nikon D7000 (8,000 RMB) vs. Canon 7D (9,000 RMB) slugfest- my take is that all three of these are great cameras and consumers looking for a mid-range should choose the one that fits them best. Most reviews give the K-5 and D7000 an edge for image quality and the 7D the lead in video and autofocus.
Quality isn’t super cheap- there are no 500 RMB solutions here- but there are a lot of choices.
Now go and take some pictures.
 

By Jeremy Breningstall

 

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From NYC To SH: Tomas Doncker's Long Road To China's World Expo

by MusicDish China Tuesday 14 December 2010
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Tomas Doncker's Long Road To China's World Expo by Michele Wilson-Morris www.musicdish.com/mag/bio.php3

It's not every day that an American artist is invited to perform at a major festival in China. So when global soul musician Tomas Doncker "http://www.tomasdoncker.net" was selected by the Chinese Ministry of Cultural Affairs to represent the U.S. at the first International New Folk Music Festival and Shanghai Performing Arts Festival "http://www.chinaspaf.com/", no one was more surprised than Tomas.

It all began in January 2010 at the MIDEM conference held annually in Cannes, France. Tomas had released the "Small World" EP in March of 2009 which was brought to the attention of the Chinese delegation attending the conference. Eight months later, Tomas would be performing during the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai. "It was a whole Shanghai/China party for a week," Tomas recalls, "and we did 7 shows in 6 days, performing for over 100,000 people. It was pretty spectacular!" In addition to the two festivals, Tomas was also invited to perform at America Square, the USA's Pavilion at the Expo. So how did it all come together?

The invitation to perform in Shanghai was just the beginning of a long sequence of events that would actually make the tour a reality. "It's one thing to be invited; it's another thing to be able to actually go. With budgets the way they are, sponsorship is crucial to independent artists. I saw Eric Clapton perform at Madison Square Garden this year, and as big of a celebrity as he is, he actually had sponsorship from T-Mobile."

While the Shanghai Performing Arts Festival provided accommodations, meals and ground support, there were other considerations, foremost amongst them being airfare. But again, luck was on his side. "I was invited to perform at St Barth's BAZ BAR club http://www.bazbar.com/ in April 2010 while the Shanghai deal was still on the table. BAZ BAR owner Jean-Marc Lefranc and I were talking about both the opportunity and dilemma. He agreed to provide the airfare for the entire band. Then, I really became excited. That meant we were actually going."

"Once that was secured, one of my managers, Mark Cope called me and said "I don't really know anything about China except that it's an very emerging market for Western culture entertainment, but there's a guy whose name is Eric de Fontenay and he's amazing - the things that he's doing, not just in China but in general with his company MusicDish - I'd like to put you in contact with him."  So, when I came back from the Caribbean, we performed at the Blue Note in New York and had two sold out shows there. I invited Eric by phone to come see my performance and he did, and his response was very positive."

After a trip to Beijing and Hong Kong for the  Music Matter conference http://www.musicmatters.asia/portal.php", Eric offered  MusicDish*China's official media sponsorship for the tour http://china.musicdish.com.

"So now, we had travel sponsorship, financial sponsorship and media sponsorship. It's one thing to be invited and another to know that you're going, but it's a whole other thing for people to know that you're coming. Eric was relentless - he's like a pit bull; he goes for every possible opportunity and connection when it comes to networking."

Once word began to spread about the trip, Eric suggested that they coordinate a release in China, and introduced Tomas to Robert Singerman with Berlin-based 88tc88 that is official sanctioned to distribute and promote music foreign music in China. Singerman was not just a key player because of the album release - he also introduced Tomas to Philip Jarrell, a guitar builder based out of Shanghai who connected with Tomas' music. Tomas was equally impressed with Jarrell's guitars, stating that "His instruments are the best I've ever played - absolutely phenomenal." That introduction led to him becoming an official Jarrell guitar endorser.

Jarrell, in addition to being a guitar builder is also a high fashion photographer with many connections and served as a major liaison to Tomas and his band once they were in Shanghai. "He documented the entire tour on film. There's actually enough footage for a documentary, which we will sit down and discuss after looking at it all. Right now there is one great clip of us performing Lucky Day at the Shanghai Expo in front of about 15,000 people. The people at the Shanghai Performing Arts Festival were kind of amazed at how much we had gotten done on our own. If you're going to be successful these days, you have to make your own connections, establish relationships and then build on them. We're going back to St. Barth's in December for another performance, for example."

Tomas has signed a distribution deal with Brody/Sony/Red and is launching his new label True Groove Records in early 2011 with the release of "Small World Pt.1 - Deluxe Edition." The "Small World" tour has taken Tomas and his band to D.C., New Jersey, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Colorado  - cities they went to before Shanghai was every mentioned. They toured the Caribbean in April and May, performed in Shanghai/China in September, and are headed back to the Caribbean to in December. "It's been a very busy year. I made up my mind that I would release this album and tour behind its release. I had no idea how I was going to tour, but I just prayed a lot, put my best foot forward, and it turned into a world tour and is still going on. Maybe we'll be like Pink Floyd and be on tour for three years. The rest is still in motion."

Tomas' next project is a multi-media performance piece about the people of Ethiopia and their struggles at the time of World War II. That album is in the final stages and is entitled Power of the Trinity. "We're in the process of acquiring backing for the project and hope to launch it next summer."

 

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Three Hours with the “24 Hour DJ”

by Jeremy Breningstall Friday 03 December 2010
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“Trance has a fast paced tempo that ranges from 130 to 140 beats per minute, (compared with an average of 80-100 for Hip Hop), and tends to be layered with domineering synthesizers. It is a genre typically associated with dancing…” -National Public Radio (NPR)

“Trance music gives you a full journey, and I feel that some other dance-music styles don’t do that; they stick to one sound… You can get away with playing anything as long as you are taking [listeners] on a journey.”
-Armin van Buuren, Time Out Chicago

 
I arrived at M2 at 12:30 Saturday night to catch Armin van Buuren, billed by DJ Magazine four times in a row as the world’s No. 1 DJ and famed for his three- and sometimes 12-hour sets. U.S.-based NPR dubbed him the “24 Hour DJ.” Twenty minutes in the coat check line and I was through the door. The opening DJ was just finishing his set and the audience was crying out, “Armin! Armin!” in anticipation. People on the floor wielded blue glow batons. The evening sessions began. Van Buuren danced to the music, smiled to the audience, stretched his arms out wide, threw a hand up, dipped into a prayer motion, reached out to shake an audience members hands before security pushed the audience back, then circled back into the same routine. For a several songs, seductively clad dancers strolled out onto the runway midway through the club. Despite the cold air outside, the dance floor was a sweltering pit. My City Moments business cards were soon soaked in sweat.


Here was van Buuren’s formula as I saw it:

1) Act like you enjoy your job. From the beginning to the end, van Buuren looked and acted like he wouldn’t rather be anywhere else in the world.
2) Don’t stop the music. Van Buuren did not interrupt his show to give any seminars or call out any mantras.
3) Play music that is original but pleasing. The songs were all catchy and dance-able but Van Buuren shied away from saturated pop hits. He mostly kept the pace moving fast throughout but settled in for a ballad or two later on in the show.

After a few hours of photography, it was time for a drink. I flipped through the Moscow M2, a kind of blend between the Moscow Mule and mojito (vodka, ginger ale, mint leaves).
At the bar I ran into a guy who said he just arrived from Amsterdam, where he saw van Buuren perform in front of 17,000 people. “I don’t know what you’re doing besides for work,” this fellow said. “Be an artist. Take pictures of daily life. People back in the West really appreciate that.”
Turning to van Buuren, my newfound friend said, “I’ve got a lot of respect for this guy. He still lives in a normal house. He built a studio in the basement. He has kept the same friends.”
By now it had reached 4 a.m. and van Buuren had outlasted me. I had work to do the next morning and did not stick around to see if he lasted for 12 hours.

If you missed his set, you can always catch van Buuren through his radio show (see http://www.astateoftrance.com/ for details).

Van Buuren said of the show, "In all honesty, music — and radio — is just trembling air, nothing more nothing less. But its what that trembling air does to you and me as human beings is what's interesting to me. Music is essential for our lives, and when you listen to radio the focus is purely on that medium. Radio really gets to your soul, and that's what I like about it."

Also check out the pictures I took from that night (see http://shanghai.citymoments.cn/events/dj-armin-van-buuren--2/albums/904)

Jeremy Breningstall

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