Grainy Black and White Challenge: XZ-1, LX5, S95, P300

I’m not usually a big fan of the “creative fun filters” that are included as in-camera processing options for many of the current dSLR and compact point-and-shoot cameras.  I prefer to do my processing in Photoshop, where I can see the full quality version of the image, and have more control over the editing.  However, I was playing around with the “Grainy Film” mode of the new Olympus XZ-1, and I was quite impressed with how cool, fun, and easy it is.  Perhaps I should reevaluate their usefulness!

Olympus XZ-1 grainy film black and white
Olympus XZ-1 – Grainy Film

So I decided to have a look at some of the other cameras’ black and white grainy film options and see how they all compare.  This is a pretty informal comparison without too much strict effort put into the “test” other than putting the subject camera in about the same place, zooming in all the way and using the maximum aperture if possible, and loosely trying to frame the images all about the same.

Since the Olympus XZ-1 inspired this experiment, I will cover that one first.  The Olympus XZ-1 is a new competitor to the high end compact point-and-shoot class of cameras which includes the Canon S95 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 – as well as the upcoming newly released Nikon P300.  They are all roughly about the same size, and have excellent image quality and low light performance.  Their features and maximum apertures vary, and there are other site, such as DPReview, that do full reviews of these models if you are more interested in learning about them.

For the Olympus XZ-1, you turn the Mode Dial to “Art.”  How cool is that?!  All you have to do is turn the dial and you can make art!  Other cameras merely have “Scene Modes,” while the Olympus offers “Art!”  In Art Mode choose Art 3, which is Grainy Film. While in Art Mode, as in most of its other modes, you can easily change the exposure compensation by pressing up on the rear dial and dialing in a (+) or (-) compensation amount, and immediately see what you will get.  I kept it at 0 for this test.

The image from the Olympus, seen at the top of this post, is nice and contrasty.  It has a bit of grain, but actually isn’t really very grainy.  The large aperture does blur out the background nicely.  Have a look at the larger version on Flickr to see it better.

Next up is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, another one of the high end point-and-shoots.  For this camera you go into the My Color Mode and choose Film Grain.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 film grain black and white
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 – Film Grain

Compared to the Olympus, it appears to have created more of a dark monochrome image, without the high amount of dramatic contrast.  There is a bit of grain, perhaps a little more than the Olympus, but I really wouldn’t call it grainy.  The background blurring isn’t nearly as dramatic as the Olympus.   See larger image on Flickr.

The Canon S95 is quite a popular camera for those seeking great image quality in a compact point-and-shoot.  After David Pogue wrote an ode to it in the New York Times, they really started to move off the shelves.  For the S95, you use one of the Scene Modes called the Nostalgic Mode.  You have a few degrees of  exposure to choose from as you turn the front lens dial, which first start to affect image color, then go to sepia, and then to contrasty black and white.  I choose the highest setting to get the grainy black and white look.

Canon S95 Nostalgic Scene mode black and white
Canon S95 – Nostalgic Scene Mode

The contrast of the S95 image is between the other two – more than the Panasonic but less that the highly contrasty Olympus.  The background really shows the grain, but is not very dramatically blurred out.  Have a look at the larger version on Flickr to see it better.

Here is the entry from the Nikon P300. To get to this setting, you set the mode dial to Scene Mode, go to Special Effects, and set it for High-Contrast Monochrome.

Nikon P300 High Contrast Monochrome black and white
Nikon P300 – High-Contrast Monochrome

Like the Panasonic, the contrast isn’t actually that dramatic.  And I did not find any way to adjust the aperture setting while in this mode so as to take advantage of its fast lens (including the inability to change the ISO in this mode), so it used f/5.5 and thus the background blurring really isn’t very dramatic either.  And this setting does not introduce any grain into the image.  Have a look at a larger version of the image on Flickr.

The final camera is the Canon 60D, used here with its 18-135mm kit lens.  This is a digital SLR, not a compact point-and-shoot like the others, but I knew it offers a grainy black and white option in its Creative Filters, so I added it to the mix.  To use this feature, you take an image in color, then access the Creative Filters to apply the affect, and then save the new copy along with the original image.  You can quickly access the Creative Filters during playback by pressing the Q Button.  This one is called Grainy B/W, and is offered in three levels of contrast: Low, Standard, and Strong.  I chose Standard to demonstrate the middle ground.  Standard appears to be pretty contrasty, and is closer to the highly contrasty Strong setting than it is to the not-as-contrasty Low setting.

Canon 60D Grainy B/W creative filter
Canon 60D – Grainy B/W Creative Filter

As you can see, even on the Standard level of contrast it is quite contrasty.  And you can definitely see the grain in the background of this image, which is nicely out of focus because I was able to use a long lens and a wide aperture.  The Strong setting increases the contrast to a level very similar to the Olympus.  See larger image on Flickr.

With the compact cameras, you can see on the rear LCD screen what you are going to get in advance, while with the Canon 60D, you can see how your original color image will be affected by the different levels of contrast.

So there you have it – the grainy black and white in-camera processing of these camera.  Of the compacts, my favorite is the very dramatic look of the Olympus XZ-1, due to both its contrast and its more out-of-focus background.  Thanks to my patient subject, the classic Nikon F3 with the stunning 50mm f/1.2 lens.  Have a look at some real black and white grain on some of my earliest SLR photos from Rome, 1991.

Photography, Creativity, and Angst

It seems that a lot of photography blogs that aren’t caught up in discussing the latest equipment and technology (as I find myself doing lately) are often addressing the struggles of photography, art, and creativity. Most every photographer seems to relate to the frustrations of not being able to create the images that they wish they could – images like the ones of the photographers they admire or images like the ones they envision in their own mind.

This isn’t a bad thing, and in fact this dissatisfaction with one’s current work is one of the most important components in inspiring and pushing oneself to improve. But there is a huge problem if this struggle becomes angst and doesn’t serve a positive purpose. It is an easy path to fall into with photography, especially when just starting out or soon after technical and equipment mastery is attained. There is so much to learn and everyone else seems to have picked up important and secret knowledge which you don’t know where to find. And there are so many great photographers out there who you like and no matter how hard you try your images don’t look anything like theirs.

Rome Casa Blanca and Statue piazza del quirinale black and white italy
Rome – Statue in front of Palazzo del Quirinale

I fell into this trap when I first became serious about photography. I saw images in galleries, museums, and magazines (there was no internet yet…) that I wished I could create, but had no idea how. What kind of camera were they using? What kind of chemicals and darkroom techniques did they use? Where did they come up with their ideas and inspiration? I had no idea, but tried to learn what I could from books and experimentation. But the learning curve was so steep, my interests and ambitions were too broad and scattered, and the dedication was not yet there. The angst and frustration built and slowly I stopped even taking photos. I had wanted to create great images at will but knew I couldn’t. My results rarely matched my vision, so I stopped making any images at all.

Rome Bernini Fountain piazza navona italy
Rome – Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi by Bernini facing Sant’Agnese in Agone by Borromini and Rainaldi

I thought the angst was part of being an artist, a photographer, and that holding onto it would lead somewhere. But the angst didn’t get me anywhere. In fact all it led me to was abandoning photography. Years later, when I became frustrated with the limitations of my digital compact and dSLRs became affordable, I decided to give it another try. I went out on my first self-assignment, not really knowing what I was doing, relearning how to use a camera and compose photos. But this time I had a different attitude, a new mindset. The photos on my LCD screen still didn’t look like the ones in my head, but I didn’t care, and I continued to happily work away. I knew I was learning with each photo, I didn’t expect instant masterpieces. I knew I would improve over time when I studied the results and identified the differences between where I was and where I wanted to be.

Rome Piazza Navona woman walking italy
Rome – Piazza Navona

Most importantly I had finally given up on trying to take Ansel Adams’ photos and started to take my photos. If they weren’t any good, I would keep taking my photos, and figure out how to make them better versions of my photos. For the first time I was truly happy with my images because I stopped comparing them with some real or imagined perfect images that I would never take. It doesn’t mean I still don’t have the angst. Every time I look at Ami Vitale’s photos I want to take Ami Vitale’s photos. But I let it go, I don’t let it become a negative, limiting frustration. I study them and learn from them, but I continue to take my photos. Because those are really the only ones I can take, and those I the ones I am happiest with anyway.

So it is true – as everyone concludes their “photographer’s struggle” blog posts: just get out and shoot. That is virtually all there is to it. But there is another important component. Let go of the angst. Art and creativity does not equal angst. Change your mindset. Stop dwelling on creativity, thinking about creativity, reading about creativity…and just go create. Shoot your photos, improve on your photos, and be happy knowing that with each frame you are learning and progressing. Besides, you shouldn’t want to be imitating anyone else because you don’t want to be called “The next Henri Cartier Bresson.” You want some future budding photographer to be called “The next (your name here).”

Rome Sant'Ivo Sant Ivo alla Sapienza Borromini Italy
Rome – Street with view of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza by Borromini

(These photos were taken the first time I ever used a “real” camera, an SLR – a Canon AE-1 I borrowed for an afternoon. Taken in Rome, Italy in 1990 or 1991 while studying with the University of Notre Dame Architecture Rome Studies Program. Not a bad start, huh?!)

No Woman, No Cry Movie

One woman, somewhere in the world, dies each minute from complications of pregnancy or childbirth. Half a million women a year. Learning that fact compelled Christy Turlington to do something about it, and one of the things she has done is to make a documentary about the issue, “No Woman, No Cry.”

I was fortunate to see this movie at a specially added showing at the Tribeca Film Festival last month, where both Turlington herself as well as the producer Dallas Brennan Rexer were on hand for a Q+A afterward.
photo courtesy of “No Woman, No Cry” /

“No Woman, No Cry” is a film about issues surrounding maternal health and the numerous difficulties women face, not only in developing countries, but in the US as well.  Turlington follows the stories of three women, in Tanzania, Bangladesh, and Guatemala, as they confront the obstacles that put women’s lives in danger leading up to and during childbirth.  Some of the greatest obstacles, we discover, aren’t merely the lack of good medical care and facilities, or economic barriers to proper care, but are also cultural, societal, and religious pressures, influences, and beliefs about pregnancy, childbirth, and family planning.  On top of this, to prevent the viewers from thinking these are distant problems only faced by women in developing countries, the film addresses a variety of related issues in the US, both among the poor and marginalized as well as the middle class.

Turlington began to learn about these issues after complications when she gave birth to one of her children.  While the care she needed was easily accessible, she soon began to learn the staggering statistics of maternal death and disabilities that are mostly preventable, yet around the globe still claim one woman’s life every minute.  While you may be thinking Turlington is another celebrity joining her name to a cause, giving lip service to an issue that interests her, the fact is she is deeply and passionately involved with this issue.  Her interest first led her to become actively involved with CARE, and subsequently inspired her to pursue a masters degree in public health at Columbia University.  And in the process of making the film, she interviewed, worked with, and consulted dozens of experts and organizations in the field of global health and maternal health.  She is taking on this cause whole-heartedly, and I am certain she will continue to do tremendous things to both bring attention to maternal mortality and to help dramatically reduce it.

Visit the film’s website to learn more and to find out where you might be able to see the movie.


And finally, here is a powerful photo/ video essay about maternal mortality in India, by Susan Meiselas: