Photography and Art

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Museo Papers

Over the past six months or so, I've been using Ilford Galerie Gold Silk paper for my prints. I bought a roll for my Epson 4880 printer and I've been very happy with the results once I'd purchased a D-roller (see to remove the curl from the paper.

Every now and then, I get a hankering to try some new paper to see if the champ can be dethroned. I'd heard of some paper that was cotton rag based (instead of wood fibre like the Ilford paper) and could be used with photo black ink due to a special coating. For the uninitiated, one of the endearing "features" of the Epson 4880 is its ability to print with photo black inks or matte black inks, but never at the same time. Switching from one ink to another is a HUGE deal and consumes over $50 worth of ink. You don't want to do that too often! Cotton rage paper is prized for its long life and wonderful feel to the touch. Of course, you don't often get to handle a print once it's framed, but it is nice to handle cotton rag when you're feeding paper into the printer and admiring the prints as they come out. A cotton rag paper that can be used with photo black ink sounds like a dream too good to be true.

The paper in question is Museo Silver Rag. Museo is a small company that developed a special coating for Crane cotton rag paper. Originally, the product was called Crane Museo Silver Rag, but for some reason, the Museo company now buys the cotton rag paper from Crane, covers one side with a special coating and sells it under its own Museo brand.

The Silver Rag paper is quite similar in appearance to Ilford Galerie Gold Silk. The Museo paper is a little bit creamier in colour and seems to have ever so slightly more sheen to the surface. The back of the paper is definitely cotton rag and has a soft texture to it. The front has a satin gloss to it due to its proprietary coating.

The Ilford paper is wood fibre based, although harmful lignens have been removed to increase longevity. The back is very smooth and card-like. The front has a satin look with a very subdued sheen. It has that distinctive Baryta smell. As I mentioned, the Ilford paper is slightly whiter than the Museo.

Here's the test print:

I chose it because it presents a real challenge to these papers due to the details in the shadows. Have a look at the top left of the anchor bay and see how there's a red rust streak that runs right through the dark shadow area. This seems to be a particularly difficult part of the image for these papers to reproduce.

And the winner and champion is...Ilford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk. By a large margin. The Ilford paper managed to dig the detail out of the shadows faithfully. The Museo paper couldn't. The rust was obliterated with black. Before you jump to conclusions, I faithfully followed manufacturer's instructions and used the correct ICC profiles supplied by Ilford and Museo. Neither print was abnormally dark or light. When viewed from a distance, there was virtually no difference between the two prints. It was only when you looked at the shadow detail up close that you could detect a substantial difference.

And here's the kicker: the Ilford paper is nearly half the price of the Museo paper. A roll of Museo paper costs over $200 in Toronto versus $100 for the Ilford paper. Of course, you get 50 feet of Museo paper versus 40 feet of Ilford paper, but that's still a large price differential.

My favorite paper still rules!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Photo Gear for an African Safari

You've booked your African safari dream vacation. Now comes the tough part -- what camera equipment do you take with you? On one hand, you have to travel light. On the other hand, you want to come back with terrific pictures for the enjoyment of yourself and potentially others. Let me take you through this from three points of view: the pro, the enthusiast and the snapshot artist. For the pro, I'm going to refer to Don Miralle who was staying at the same camp in the Selous as we were. I got to see Don taking lots of photos and have a pretty good idea of what he traveled with.
  1. Camera bodies:
    1. The Pro: three bodies, one for each lens range, all full-frame. If one body seizes, it's just a minor inconvenience.
    2. The Enthusiast: a main body and a spare. I was going to take my old Canon 20d as a back-up body to my Canon 5d mark II, but my son was moving and the battery charger was locked in a storage bin. I worried about the dust, but the Canon sailed through without any issues.
    3. The Snapshooter: Assuming that you won't be heartbroken if your camera seizes, take one body along. My friend Rick managed just fine with his Nikon D90.
  2. Lenses:
  3. Wide Angle - View of the Serengeti from a Balloon
    24-105 mm Zoom - Deb with Village Children
    70-300 mm zoom with 1.5 extender - Cheetah Family
    1. The Pro: full coverage from wide angle (16mm) to telephoto (400mm plus). Don had three pro lenses with him I think: 16-35 mm zoom, 24-105 mm zoom and a monster 400 mm f/2.8 zoom that needed three people to carry it (check it out here: 
    2. The Enthusiast: same coverage as the pro. I had slightly cheaper glass. For wide angle, my 17-40 mm zoom was terrific. I got great shots from the balloon with this lens. For normal coverage, my 24-105 mm zoom was also spot on. All the photos of people were with this lens. I was really happy with my telephoto lens choice. I took a Canon 70-300 mm DO lens with a Tamron 1.5x extender. This combination was lightweight, unobtrusive and pulled in nearly every animal shot that I wanted. I can't say that I missed much because of insufficient zoom power.
    3. The Snapshooter: Rick took along an 18-200 mm zoom on his APS/C sensor for an equivalent of 27-300 mm. He never complained about not having a lens for the job and laughed at me as I struggled to change lenses in dusty conditions. His sensor stayed pristine because his lens was never off the camera.
  4. Flash: 
  5. Masai Warrior - taken with fill flash
      1. The Pro: Don got off some wonderful shots using flash (see Here's a quote from Don's site on his flash equipment: "I used a Canon 580EX fired with a pair of flexTT5 and mounted to a lightstand for the elephant and a superclamp on the land rover for the lions. Both shots weren’t at night actually; the elephant named “Rhafiki” by the camp actually woke me up in my tent at about 6am, and the lions were shot late afternoon with a bit of cloud cover. Both shots I turned up the flash to full power manual to balance the ambient and spot light the subject. I found that the 580EX with pocket wizards is a great travel system to light on the fly for portraits of wildlife, and you can add a softbox, umbrella, or light diffuser very easily to it."
      2. The Enthusiast: I took the same flash as Don and used it to good effect on camera primarily as fill flash. Next time, I'll buy a pocket wizard kit and follow Don's example. I don't think it's all that expensive and it makes for some wonderful pictures when the lighting conditions get sketchy.
      3. The Snapshooter: use the on-camera flash as a fill flash. It takes the deep shadows out of faces.
  6. Camera Bag:
      1. The Pro: I didn't get to observe Don's luggage, but I would surmise that he had special camera cases with lots of protection.
      2. The Enthusiast: A backpack camera bag is ideal. You'll want to be able to carry your equipment on to airplanes to avoid theft, so a backpack works best. Make sure you spend a lot of money and get a good bag. A broken strap will cost you dearly.
      3. The Snapshooter: DON'T PUT YOUR CAMERA IN YOUR CHECKED LUGGAGE. African airports are rife with luggage theft. Take all your valuables on the plane with you. If you have to check a camera, make sure the photo card comes with you.
  7. Tripods etc.
      1. The Pro: Don had a monopod with him and used it extensively. He needed it to support the weight of that 400mm bazooka.
      2. The Enthusiast: I borrowed a friend's beanbag and was going to fill it up in the market and use it on safari. However, I found that if I paid attention to the shutter speed (even to the extent of moving to shutter priority with the long telephoto shots) and used modern lenses with anti-shake, I could shoot freehand. Don't be afraid to boost the ISO to get the shutter speed up. Modern cameras have very little noise and you can remove it with software afterwards in any case.
      3. The Snapshooter: See above. Ask your buddy to show you how to adjust the ISO and shoot with shutter priority.
  8. Storage Media
      1. The Pro: Don had lots of cards and travelled with a Macbook Pro. He religiously downloaded his shots at night and backed them up on an external drive. He also spent his evenings sorting his photos and that enabled him to have his blog updated immediately on his return. He charged his laptop every time he was near power. Don shot jpegs because he's a pro and doesn't have time to fiddle with raw. His shots were almost always perfectly exposed and didn't need much tweaking later. He shot 1,500 shots a day.
      2. The Enthusiast: I'm a huge fan of simplicity. Memory cards are pretty rock solid. I've never had one fail. I took plenty of storage (two 32GB cards and two 16 GB cards) and I compromised on quality a little bit. I shot Jpeg instead of RAW. Quite honestly, I didn't notice much of a difference. You're shooting outside for the most part, so white balance is not much of an issue. I managed to come home with over 5,000 shots on two cards. If you're traveling with friends, have a beer or two at night instead of processing your photos on a computer. Unless you have a real computer addiction, leave your laptop at home. 
      3. The Snapshooter: Take some extra cards. I'd recommend a couple of 32GB cards.
      Here are some other miscellaneous tips and tricks:
        • Take extra batteries. Sometimes you go for a few days without power, so you'll need extra power sources. Don't count on those in-car power supplies that convert DC to AC -- they don't seem to work with battery chargers.
        • Take plenty of lens cleaners. It's very dusty out there.
        • Check your lenses every now and then. I found myself wondering if it was foggy a couple of times and then noticed that my lenses were covered in dust.
        • Power your camera off and on to engage the sensor cleaner, especially if you are changing lenses often.
        • Watch your long lenses if you are standing in a land rover and moving around. They can easily give your fellow travelers a whack in the head.
        • Don't be a bore. If you are traveling with non-photographers, lighten up and enjoy. Unless you are a working pro, you are not going to make the cover of National Geographic, so enjoy the experience, capture some good shots and make time for your friends.
        • Take lots of shots. I noticed that Don had his camera set for rapid fire shooting. You never know when an animal is going to do something neat, so have your finger on the shutter and let 'er rip. I never would have captured my photo of a leopard licking its paw if I hadn't been shooting already. It was over in a flash.
        • Be sensitive to the rights of the people. Many people do not want their photos taken. You can find lots of opportunities to photograph people if you go on the paid village tours or get your guide to ask nicely.
        • Get off the beaten track. Many of my best shots were taken on the road to Kondoa. We got to see the real Africa and meet real people. That was far more exciting than sitting in a Land Rover all day staring at zebras.
      A trip to Africa is truly a dream come true. Photo opportunities abound. Just do it!

      Wednesday, December 1, 2010


      As I travel around the world, slowly pecking away at my bucket list, there are still a few places that feel like you stepped out of a time machine. Zanzibar is one of those places. If you squint your eyes just slightly, you can convince yourself that the year is 1880 and the slave and spice trades are still going full swing. Stone town seems timeless with its winding alleys, its imposing doors and its markets. Look out into the harbour, and you can still see dhows taking merchandise back and forth between the mainland and Zanzibar as they have done for hundreds of years.

      Here's a Dhow sailing towards Stone Town

      Our host for our visit to Zanzibar was Hemed Mohammed who runs a new tour company called Salama Island Tours. Hemed knows Zanzibar and specializes in holidays on the island. He can arrange a wide variety of accommodation and activities including interaction with the local inhabitants which is always very rewarding. 

      We stayed for four days and particularly enjoyed two hotels: the mid-priced Dhow Palace Hotel and the wonderful upscale Serena Hotel.  There is so much to do on the island. If you like diving, there are scuba and snorkeling excursions to the reefs off Prison Island. If you like history, there is a wonderful museum in an old palace that shows artifacts of the slave trade and spice trade era. The food is fabulous, with lots of fresh sea food served in rooftop restaurants with a view of the city. Hemed can arrange a spice tour that takes you to the plantations so you can see where cloves and other spices are grown. Here's our host for the spice tour trying on some make-up :-)

      A tour of Stone Town gives you a great idea of what life was like in the slave trading era. Here's Hemed explaining why the doors are so interesting. Apparently, the doors reflect the Indian style and have lots of metal on them to discourage elephants from breaking them down. Even though there are no elephants in Zanzibar, the Indian inhabitants of Stone Town continued to build the doors in the traditional way.

      One of my favorite activities was  the evening dhow cruise where you can experience sailing in traditional vessel while enjoying a glass of wine and entertainment. The sunset on the harbour was delightful.

      Another terrific thing to do is to relax on the patio of the Africa House hotel. This hotel used to be the English residents' club and still resonates of colonial times. Here's the view from the patio:

      If you want to get a true sense of African life, make sure you take in the loading of the car ferry each afternoon. The fun starts when the ferry, a converted landing craft, comes into shore and drops its ramp onto the beach. After the vehicles and people exit, it's time to load a new batch of cars and people for the trip to Dar es Salaam. All the cars line up in an alley way and then, one at a time, have to traverse 100 yards of deep sandy beach and climb the steep ramp while dodging men carrying 200 pound sacks of produce on their backs. Each car inevitably gets stuck in the sand and requires a push by all the spectators watching from the beach. The sport goes on all afternoon and well into the evening. Each vehicle is a fresh challenge to African ingenuity and persistence. It is a wonder that the ferry gets loaded at all and that no one gets run over and killed.

      Here's an example of a hopelessly stuck vehicle with lots of helpers gathering

      One of the advantages of using a local tour company like Salama Island Tours is the access to people who live in Zanzibar. Hemed took us home to visit his sister and see how a fairly well-to-do islander lives and enjoy a wonderful lunch. Here are some pictures of the occasion:

      The Living Room - note the TV and pictures of local dignitaries

      The feast. Lots of wonderful local produce.

      Hemed's lovely sister

      Here are some more pictures of Zanzibar, one of my favourite places on the planet:

      Feeding the Madagascar tortoises on Prison Island

      Enjoying spiced tea during our tour of the spice plantation

      A fishing boat passes a dhow

      A view of the harbour at sunset. The car ferry is leaving (bottom left)

      Stone Town

      Another great sunset view.

      Unfortunately for the people of Zanzibar and the victims, the ferry MV Spice Islander sunk on September 10th, 2011 with over 187 fatalities. For more information, see the following articles:

      Tuesday, November 30, 2010

      Surprising Lens Test Results

      As you may know, the folks at DxO have added tests of lens/camera combinations at their site. They test various things like resolution, transmission, vignetting and chromatic aberration and assign a weighted composite score. It's a lot of fun to look at the various combinations to see if there are any surprises. And, indeed there is a major surprise. If we limit our search to Canon lenses, the top performing lens with a score of 30 is the 85mm f/1.8 lens. This comes as no surprise given its reputation despite it not being an "L" quality lens.

      Here's the major surprise: coming in at number FOUR with a score of 27 is the lowly 50mm f/1.8 II lens. This lens costs less than $100 US at B&H! It has a plastic lens mount. What a bargoon! I don't think you can buy a cheaper lens that that.

      The "L" version of the 85mm lens comes in at number three with a score of 27. The "L" version of the 50mm lens comes in at number six with a score of 25.

      The best zoom lenses are the 28-70 mm f/2.8 L lens (not the newer 24-70 mm version) with a score of 28 and the 70-200 mm f/2.8 L with a score of 26.

      Just goes to show that you don't always get what you pay for!

      Saturday, November 20, 2010

      African Animal Alphabet

      A is for Antelope

      B is for Baboon

      B is also for Buffalo

      C is for Crocodile

      C is also for Cheetah

      D is for Dik Dik

      E is for Elephant

      E is also for Eland

      F is for Fox (the bat-eared variety)

      G is for Giraffe

      H is for Hippo

      H is also for Hyena

      I is for Impala

      J is for Jackal

      K is for Kangaroo (didn't see any)

      K is also for Kudu

      L is for Lion

      L is also for Leopard

      M is for Monitor

      M is also for Mongoose

      N is for Nothin'

      O is for Ostrich (I know, it's a bird)

      P is for People (we're animals too)

      Q is for questionable 

      R is for Rhino (maybe next time)

      S is for stumped

      T is for Tortoise (imported from Madagascar, not native)

      U is for unknown

      V is for Vervet

      W is for Wildebeest

      W is also for Waterbuck

      W is also for Wild Dog

      W is also for Wharthog

      X, Y (Y? I don't know)

      Z is for Zebra

      And that's the animal ABC of Africa!

      Thursday, November 18, 2010

      Serengeti Balloon Ride!

      We were originally going to skip the balloon ride on the Serengeti. It's expensive ($500 a head) and a bit scary (see, but fortunately we relented and signed up for the trip. It was one of the main highlights of our vacation.

      It all starts well before dawn when the balloon company comes to pick you up at your camp in their Land Rover. It takes a good hour to get to the take off spot which changes from day to day depending on wind direction. Once the sunrise is imminent, they fill the three balloons by heating the air pocket inside and load everyone into the basket. These are large balloons - our basket held 16 people, divided into eight compartments. You lie down on the side of the compartment and wait for the balloon to rise. Slowly and majestically, the balloon rises above your head and the basket starts to right itself and suddenly you're flying!

      Here we are getting organized to get into the basket. That's our pilot directing traffic.

      Here's what it looks like from the basket before lift-off - one view sideways and another upwards

      And suddenly you're flying!

      The pilot of the balloon is well-trained and certified. You have to have their Private Pilot's License (B) to fly a balloon and then you have to get your CPL (B) (Commercial Pilot's License - Balloon) to be able to take passengers. The minimum number of qualifying hours is 75. Our pilot was a Canadian trained in the U.S. 

      For the most part, the balloons fly at tree-top level so that the passengers can see the animal life. According to our pilot, it is possible to have a good amount of precision over the altitude of a balloon, but speed and direction depend totally on the winds. However, winds do vary with altitude, so it is possible to change direction and speed a certain amount by choosing the right altitude.

      Here's the view from the balloon:

      The sun rises shortly after take-off

      Here's a shot of one of the other two balloons flying over the Serengeti plain. It's a large, empty place.

      Here's a jackal from above

      A herd of zebras

      A pool of very smelly hippos

      Hippo pod close-up

      Rare shot of a hippo out on a walk-about

      A herd of buffalo flees from the balloon. Note how low we are!

      Here's a bat-eared fox out for a stroll.

      Another shot of our fellow balloon riders

      Proof that we made it through unscathed

      After our flight, we were taken to a lovely site for a champagne breakfast. Here are the pilots preparing the champagne for their guests.