Happy 2018, the Year of the Dog

You might also want to check:
2013, the year of the Snake
2016, the year of the Monkey
2017, the year of the Rooster

In Japan, every year starts with a visit to the shrine, in order to get some blessings, buy some lucky charms, or ask what the future might have for you. As per my own little tradition, I headed as usual to the Hie Jinja not far from where I live and work, which hopefully will bring me good luck for the year to come.

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Expect to see a lot of people queuing at the most popular shrines during the new year period.

After having prayed, write your wish for the year on a Ema (wooden tablet). As you can see on these Ema, 2018 is the year of the Dog.

Probably the part that Japanese people are looking forward the most is to get their fortune for the year to come be told by an omikuji (fortune-telling paper strip). There are various degrees of luck ranging from great blessing to great curse (although I feel like most of the time you can summarize the message by “work hard if you want to succeed”), but no panic if you had an unlucky pick: just attach it with the other bad fortunes on the shrine ground, and you will be protected from the bad omen.

You can also get a Hamaya (an arrow that will protect you from evil spirits) and get it blessed by a Miko (shrine maiden).

Before you leave, sip a cup of sake, and why not get something to eat from the various stalls around the shrine ground.

And as usual, eating some special new year’s food in the evening to finish the first day of the year:

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I hope you all had a good time over the holiday period, and wish you all a happy 2018 🙂

2017, a Year in Review

2107 for the blog

Let’s start with a 2017 retrospective for the blog. Not a great year in terms of number of articles. A question of priorities. My work left me little free time this year, when I was not spending my weekends trying to catch up with some sleep, so I had to prioritize and focused on growing my Instagram account rather than this blog. Not because of any sort of satanic social media grand strategy, but because you only need a few seconds to upload a picture on Instagram. Meanwhile you need to find long blocks of time to write blog articles from start to finish, and in fact I still have several unfinished draft articles that I thought I would have published in 2017 but will only come out next year (if even), once I can allocate the time and concentration they deserve.

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I also never got to write about my amazing trip to Tsuwano last summer, although there would be so much to say about the story of the Hidden Christians in Japan. It’s definitively the kind of topic that I keep in the back of my mind for when i can take the time to write about a more complex subject that requires a decent amount of research.

Similarly, on the gear side of things, I never got to edit all the video footages I took during this year’s CP+ camera and photo imaging show in Yokohama, because I am still so little proficient with the video editing tools that I require exponentially more time than what would normally be required.

I feel like video content is more and more expected by the internet audience, so while I am working on mastering the tools I have been shooting more video in the background, and hopefully this content will someday makes its way into more coherent projects.

What we did talk about

While it has been a slow year in terms of number of articles, we did get to talk about a few things.

On the Fujifilm side, we talked in particular about the Fujifilm GFX 50s after I went to Fujikina 2017 in Kyoto.

We also looked at how remote flash can be easy with the Nissin speedlight and remote.

Overall Fujifilm had an amazing year, in terms of products they released (GFX body and lenses, X-E3, 80mm macro) and financial results (Instax prints For The Win). The best part of it was that none of what they released this year was for me, so I did not have to buy anything and just enjoyed another round of free Kaizen firmware update for my X-T2. On the other hand, I found that they released the FUJIFILM X RAW STUDIO application in a buggy  state that should have been a public beta version rather than a final release.
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Beyond the gear talk, we had a look at an old tradition in Asakusa involving geishas and hina dolls: Edo Nagashibana. A must-read if you like the japanese culture but missed it.

I also finally got to finish and publish an article on which I had been working for a long time, giving tips about how to differentiate a shinto shrine from a buddhist temple in Japan.

2017, the year of the rooster Instagram

2017 was the year of the rooster in the japanese calendar. For me it was the year I focused on my Instagram account. Through the year, I posted more than 500 times on my Instagram account, and more than quadruple my number of followers compared to the start of the year. What I like about Instagram is that the community is much nicer and positive than on something like Twitter, where snarky comments and political trolls are the norm. Although my number of followers will look tiny to some of you, for me it’s the highest number I have reached on any platform, and the simplicity to upload a picture allow me to be consistent in posting even while not being immersed full-time in the social media sphere.2017 best nine on InstagramAs you can see from my “2017 best nine on Instagram” recap above, 2017 was also the year I fully delved into the Geiko and Maiko world. To some extent, it was a perfect storm, because it is also when I started to post more pictures from my trips to Kyoto that I started to gain more followers. I learned a lot about the lives of Geiko and Maiko this year, a lot of it at the complete opposite of Western pre-/misconceptions, and i was fortunate enough to meet a few of them. Hopefully I get to write about that in 2018.

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No doubt in my mind that 2018 will be filled with many trips to Kyoto again for me. Meanwhile, I am going to end 2017 by watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi in the theater tonight, after having successfully avoided most spoilers over the past couple of weeks. Have fun tonight and talk to you again in 2018 😉

Fujifilm X RAW STUDIO: does it suck? (Spoiler: yes it sucks)

Important disclaimer:I’ll go straight to the point, in my humble the X RAW STUDIO sucks real bad… HOWEVER, keep in mind that it is a FREE software, so see no bitterness/angriness/saltiness or anything of the likes in what follows. This post is just a mix of facts on the current state of the software and thoughts on what could be done to make it better. Since it is a free software, it’s still unbeatable in terms of value for money even though it is, as far as I am concerned, unusable in a workflow in its current state.

What software should I use to retouch my X-Trans pictures? How can I easily recreate the look of the various film simulations from the RAW file? For a long time, these questions have haunted users who would jump into the Fujifilm’s ship. Not so much nowadays I feel, as the issue has now been well documented and many viable options are now available. As far as I am concerned, nowadays I tend to use the following workflow:

  • Lightroom to import and organize my images
  • Drag and drop the image I want to process directly from Lightroom onto the Iridient icon
  • Start the developing process in Iridient by selecting one of the film simulation preset, then a few tweaks to taste
  • Easily re-import back the image into Lightroom as a TIFF via the option of the saving menu in Iridient
  • Local brushes and final touches such as Vignette on the TIFF file in Lightroom

If it sounds complicated to you, fear not for it isn’t. However wouldn’t be awesome if you could easily and exactly re-obtain the wonderful Fujifilm film simulations from your RAW files? Here comes the X RAW STUDIO, a free software offered by Fujifilm seemingly to fill this need…

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What is the X RAW STUDIO?

The X RAW STUDIO is a software that enables you to use the RAW processor on your compatible Fujifilm camera (at the moment the GFX 50 S, X-T2, X-Pro2 and X100F) to convert your Fujifilm RAW files at high speed, with exactly the same film simulations and settings possibilities that you would have when doing it via the menu in-camera. In a nutshell. Instead of selecting the settings on the back of your camera, you select them via the software’s interface on your computer screen… but the conversion is still ultimately done by the processor of your camera, which means that to use the software you need to connect the camera to your computer, even if you have already imported your RAW files on your computer’s hard drive or an external drive. As you are using the processing engine of the camera, you get access to the same options as via the menu, no more, no less. On the plus side, you can save several profiles as presets and do some batch processing. Since your camera is in charge of generating the output file, the result you get with the software is exactly the same as in-camera.

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What it is NOT

Maybe I am hammering a point I already made clear, but the one thing to understand to avoid unnecessary frustration (real frustration will come later) is that the X RAW STUDIO is not a RAW conversion software designed to compete with Lightroom, CaptureOne, OnOne, Iridient, etc… it is designed to do one job and one job only: give you the possibility to use your camera processing engine via a computer interface rather than from the camera menu. Don’t expect to be using the X RAW STUDIO to do a full post-processing workflow, it is NOT the point of the software. The point is to get your camera to convert as quickly as possible Fujifilm RAW files into output files using the same list of settings and associated values (e.g. you can choose between -1, 0, 1, 2… don’t expect any slider to adjust “to taste”) that you can find in the camera menu. Also, don’t expect to export your X-T2 files into .TIFF files. Since the X-T2 exports JPEG, you only have this option available. On the other hand the GFX can export in .TIFF, so if you plug your GFX to your computer and try to export a GFX file, the .TIFF option is this time available.

Why do I need to connect my camera to my computer?

The software is just an interface, the conversion from RAW is still performed by the processor of the camera, hence the camera needs to be connected to your computer. Sounds cumbersome? Well, it is, and as far as I know there is no cable in the box (at least for the X-T2 and X-Pro2), so why would Fujifilm do that… let’s look at the answer from 2 different types of people:

  1. The engineer: “The chip inside your camera has been specifically designed to perform this task, hence it is the fastest and most efficient way to do it, this is beautiful!”
  2. Any other photographer: “I have no idea. I wish I did not need to connect my camera with an additional wire to my computer, I’m sure my computer’s processor can handle this task fast enough compared to my average usage”

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Do little but do it well?

The Fujifilm X RAW STUDIO was designed to do one very specific (niche?) task, which could be a very good if that it means that what it does it does it very well.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that is the case. When it works, it works well, however during my own experience i had the impression to be using a software in beta stage (if not alpha), based on performance issues and UI shenanigans.

Performance and stability issues

The software crashed 2 times on me during the first 15min of usage, and another time when I got to 30min of usage. That’s not the best way to be introduced to a new software. However, it’s not like you are writing a document or doing a complex retouching with multiple layers and suddenly losing all your work, so I could still have looked beyond this inconvenience. Unfortunately, things just continue to go downhill from here.

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Even though you though you have to plus your camera to the computer, it does not mean that you are reading the images on the memory card inside your camera. You actually select the folder where your store your images on your hard drive (does not matter whether internal or external), and the software will read the folder. Now here is the thing, while I organize my pictures in collections in Lightroom and attach keywords to them to find them easily at a software level, at the files level I import them on my computer by Year/Month. This means that the folders I have on my hard drive contain on average around 5,000 images. This is a big problem when using the X RAW STUDIO, because when you select a folder with that many pictures the software suffers from a panic attack and is never able to load previews in the filmstrip at the bottom of the window. Switch folders to a smaller one, and suddenly a couple pictures of the first folder appear in the filmstrip but none of the newly selected folder. The kind of things that can drive you crazy if you start switching from one folder to another and again and again… Sometimes, when all the stars are aligned, it suddenly works. In any case, if you are using folders with a lot of pictures, good luck to you…

Unfortunately there are even more issues. Let’s say you manage to select an image, chose a profile and exported it. And that for the sake of comparison you try to select a different film simulation on the same image you already exported. Well, you just threw your computer into never ending limbo. If you want to re-edit an image you just exported the safe way is to first select a different image and then select back the image you want to re-edit. Of course selecting an image takes longer than it should, so again you are wasting some time.

Weird UI choices

Let’s say that somehow you were luckily spared from all these performance and stability bugs, or that you have a lot of time to lose and decide to use the software anyway. You now have to deal with weird UI choices. The biggest problem I have with the UI is that you can only select a picture by browsing through the filmstrip at the bottom of the window. If you have a lot of pictures within the folder you have selected, in the best case it’s a nightmare to find the picture you want, and in the worst case it’s simply mission impossible. A grid view would go a long way improving the UI.

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Among the other issues with the UI, there are some weird ones, such as the info on the file not showing at what ISO the image was taken. I don’t understand why they would tell you every other setting but not the ISO.

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Conclusion

The main positive feature of the Fujifilm X RAW STUDIO is that it is free. The rest of the experience is a sum of bugs, crashes and cumbersome wires to connect your camera to your computer. I would have been much more understanding if Fujifilm had come out and say this is a beta (if not alpha) version that will be refined before a final version is released. Then it would have made sense. But right now, I regret to say that I don’t understand how Fujifilm could value so little the time of their everyday users to have them go through such a terrible experience without any sort of warning (something along the lines of “Hey guys, this is a very rough beta of something we are working on, lots of bugs and instability issues but if you have time to test it we’d like to hear your feedback” would have clearly been necessary). Hopefully, the X RAW STUDIO get some Kaizen love of its own in the near future, but in the meantime consider yourself warned…

Testing the updated Nissin flash system for Fujifilm users in studio

Perception is reality. The last thing you want to do when you are shooting a model is to show up and look like you are struggling with your gear. Even if you know exactly what you are doing but have to fight fiddly controls and menus that make sense from an engineer perspective but not from a user perspective. This sends the wrong signal to your model and impact his/her motivation and performance. This is part of the reason I was looking for a very simple flash system, that does only one thing but does it reliably. Often, less is more. This is especially true when doing without superfluous functionalities will remove the need to have to delve into an over-complicated menu to change a basic setting.

Surely, I did not want to give a bad first impression to Izumi-chan, my model of the day who I was shooting for the first time. Everything went very smoothly though, as the Nissin flash system has proved super easy to use. 3 hours, 3 outfits, 1 i60A flash and 1 Air 1 commander unit mounted on my X-T2. To be complete with the gear picture, I used most of the time a Lastolite softbox that is designed to be used with hotshoe flashes.

The main change from the latest Nissin firmware update was that Fujifilm users can now do wireless radio-triggered HSS flash photography with their Nissin speedlights, so I wanted to illustrate the benefit. When shooting with flash, your shutter speed controls the amount of ambient light that will be visible in the picture. In the picture below, I am using a shutter speed of 1/160th of a second, slower than the max sync speed of the X-T2, which recorded enough ambient light for the black paper background to remain visible in the shot:

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By using a faster shutter speed of 1/800th of second I was able to kill the ambiant light, as if I had turned some switch off. Same ISO and same aperture. However, it did require to use the flash in HSS mode (which it did autonomously as I had autoFP selected in the flash menu), so to keep the flash exposure the same on the model all other things being equal, I needed to increase the flash power output.

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Anyway, not sure which picture is better, just wanted to show an example where HSS would kick in. The point is you have complete creative control. The shoot went on for 3 hours, and while there was no epiphany moment there was no frustration moment either. I simply enjoyed the freedom of being able to use my flash with a reliable radio trigger, sometimes in HSS mode sometimes not, while being able to adjust the power settings from the commander unit directly on the top of my X-T2. Just what I needed to focus on the pleasure of shooting with a great models without  the gear ever getting in the way.

Here are a few more shots from the session:

All in all, what I like about the Nissin flash system is that it is simple, capable and portable. Basically it does only one thing but it does it well without ever getting in the way, so I can focus on all the other stuffs. I think it’s a great system if you like effective gear that goes straight to the point, and/or if you are scared by off-camera flash.

Nissin firmware update for Fujifilm users: wireless HSS made easy

Until recently, Fujifilm users with Nissin speedlights could do:

  • off-camera radio-triggered TTL, with the Air 1 commander unit and a compatible speedlight (Di700 or i60A)
  • on-camera (or off-camera with a cable) High Speed Sync flash photography (Fujifilm calls that mode FP, but it’s exactly the same)


However, Fujifilm users with Nissin flashes could not do radio-triggered HSS. This has now been resolved with the latest firmware update that Nissin has been rolling out: Fujifilm users (X-T2, X-Pro2, GFX…) have now access to radio-controlled off-camera TTL HSS flash with Nissin.

The bad news if you already own an Air 1 commander and Nissin speedlights is that you cannot update these firmwares yourself, so you need to send your units back to Nissin for them to perform the update. However, if you are buying them now, chances are that the units on sale have already been updated. I bought my Air 1 commander and a i60A speedlight this week-end, and both were already rocking the updated Firmware for Fujifilm users, but make sure to check with your retailer beforehand.

My previous wireless flash system with my Fujifilm cameras

35292351220_a3b3456d42_oUntil I got the Nissin flash system, I was using a Yongnuo YN560-III with a couple of RF603C-II transceivers (no TTL, no HSS).

The pros of my Yongnuo system were:

  • Very affordable
  • Small transceivers
  • Easy to use

The cons:

  • Nearby photographers with Yongnuo triggers would trigger my flash when shooting
  • Bulky speedlight compared to my limited needs in terms of flash specs
  • Had to walk to the speedlight to change the flash power levels
  • It worked great for some time… and then suddenly stopped working, apart from the stroboscopic mode, which I never use 😦

Given the last point, I was in need of a new flash system. What I was looking for:

  • Radio-triggered
  • Can adjust the flash power (either in manual or TTL mode, don’t really care about TTL or not) directly from the commander unit
  • Can do HSS
  • A guide number of 50 or more
  • Reliable
  • Simple (no need for stroboscopic mode for example…)
  • Compact
  • Reasonable price
  • Will not die of a premature death like my Yongnuo…

Obviously there are more advanced Yongnuo products including radio triggers + flashes, but since I was not impressed by the durability of my previous Yongnuo experience, I wanted to explore new options.

What about the Fuji EF-X500?

Being invested in the Fujifilm X-Mount system, it would be logical to consider the EF-X500, which finally made it to the market after a bumpy development road between Metz (who is doing this flash despite of it being ultimately branded Fujifilm) filing for insolvency and overheating issues of the early design.

However the EF-X500 does not make it for me. In the absence of a remote trigger being developed and released at the same time, you need to buy 2 EF-X500’s in order to trigger one remotely (the other bulky unit being mounted on top of your camera), so the entry cost is already 2 times the cost of one speedlight. Moreover, the trigger is optical and not radio, so you need “line of sight” between the commander flash on top of your camera and the receiver flash. You might think it’s not a big deal, but a lot of time when you light up a scene, you will be looking for ways to do so while hiding the flash behind some elements of the scene or walls, hence breaking the “line of sight”.

The one small advantage that the EF-X500 gets is that the flash has a light that can be used to assist the AF in the dark. Other brands also have this AF-assist light on their flash units, but Fujifilm is currently preventing them from being used.

The Nissin flash system

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While I also considered options such as Cactus or Godox, I decided to go with Nissin, because it is a Japanese company (while the other 2 are from Hong Kong and Shenzhen), hoping for better quality control, but more importantly for good local support if needed after my Yongnuo experience. In fact, the shop where I bought my Air 1 and i60A has very close ties to Nissin, as Nissin has shot test images in this shop’s studio, and their stock was already upgraded to the newest firmware for Fujifilm users.

In any case, please note that I never used any Cactus or Godox products, so I can’t speak to their quality and they could very well be awesome products. I am just sharing my personal decision process.

Di700 or i60A?

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If you decide to go Nissin and buy an Air 1 commander, the first question to ask yourself is should you get the Di700 or i60A flash (the i40A does not have a radio receiver to pair it with the Air 1 commander)?

While slightly less powerful than the i60A (GN54 vs GN60), the Di700 is more than powerful enough for my and most people’s need, costs less than the i60A (especially if you get it in bundle with the Air 1), but has the same radio transmission system… and also a super cute and stylish screen with bright color icons. I think it is great value.

However, it is markedly bigger than the i60A, and for me having a flash small enough that I will be carrying it in my bag – rather than leaving it gathering dust in a closet -, was a very important factor, which is why I personally went with the i60A. Also, the Di700 has a weird compartment supposed to make loading the 4 AA batteries easier, but it just looks more cumbersome to me.

Using the Nissin Air 1 commander + i60A speedlight with the Fujifilm X-T2

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Pairing the commander unit with the flash

Pairing the Air 1 commander with an i60A flash is very easy as long as you know the secret handshake:

  • Hold simultaneously the Lock button and Power button on the flash unit for 3 sec until you hear the beeping sound
  • Hold simultaneously the S button and Power button on the Air 1 commander for 3 sec until the screen is flashing

Pairing

That’s all there is to it, the pairing is done. The beeping of the flash unit and the flashing of the commander unit will then stop.

What is HSS?

In standard mode (not HSS), the flash fires one flash of light, so you can choose between front curtain sync (the flash fires immediately after the shutter opens) or rear curtain sync (the flash waits before firing just before the second curtain is about to start closing).

If the shutter speed is to fast (faster than 1/250th of a second in the case of the X-T2), the second curtain has already started to close when that flash of lights happens, creating a black band at the bottom or top of the picture (depending on your sync mode). In HSS mode however, the speedlight does not fire just one single flash of light, but simulates some sort of almost continuous lighting to avoid the black band by firing several very fast bursts of lights close to each other.

While HSS will enable you to use a fast shutter speed with your flash, it will also take a much bigger toll on your flash as you are asking your speedlight to fire several bursts in super quick succession, while pushing the power up for the same exposure as with a standard speed sync. With great power comes great responsibility, I guess (or something like that).

Fujifilm camera settings for HSS


To enable HSS on your Fujifilm camera:

  • Press the Menu button, go into the flash setting tab and select the flash function setting submenu
  • Move the cursor to the sync setting, and set the value to FP

That’s all for there is to it, so if you are using a fast shutter speed with your flash and getting a black band, make sure you have selected the setting above.

What does this look like in real life?

You want to use a wide aperture for shallow depth-of-field during sunset?

First, meter for a good exposure of the sky. In this example, the X-T2 gave me 1/8000th of a sec at ISO 200 and f1.4.

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This will likely leave the subject completely underexposed, as in the example above, hence the need to bring in a flash. The shutter speed being faster than 1/250th of a sec, HSS comes to the rescue.

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Another example, again the X-T2 reading of the sky gives me 1/8000th of a sec at ISO 200 and f1.4:

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Adding the flash in HSS mode:

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All these images are JPEGs straight out of the camera. Setting up the flash exposure was very easy. I paired the commander and the flash unit, put the flash where I wanted the light to come from, and then I just used the wheel on the commander to dial the flash power up or down. Since this was in HSS mode, I had to use the flash at almost full power.

Keep in mind though, it’s not because Fujifilm cameras can now handle wireless HSS with Nissin that you should always be using it. If I had wanted more depth-of-field, I could have stoped down my aperture, leading to a slower shutter speed that does not require HSS. For example, 1/60th of a sec at ISO 200 and f16, + flash at a lower power setting than previously:

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So far, very sweet. I was mainly looking for something simple but that works consistently, and I think this is exactly what Nissin has delivered. Next step, I am taking the Air 1 commander and i60A flash unit to the studio, but that’s a story for another post 😉

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