The Taff Through The Trees

View all the photos from this shoot as part of my Merthyr Road series on Flickr.

Needing to get out of the house after a stressful week for us both, my wife and I jumped in the car and headed up the road to the Pontygwaith Nature Reserve. I’ve been here before, but this was the first time that my wife has enjoyed a walk in this beautiful place beside the River Taff.

Thoughts On The Day

The last time I came up the old tramroad, the path from the south to the overbridge at Pontygwaith was somewhat overgrown. Since then, the path has been completely cleared, and fresh gravel laid. It looks much better now, although I can’t help but wonder how many cyclists head north under the overbridge without realising that the Taff Trail actually cuts left at this point to go over Pontygwaith itself.

We were very lucky with the weather, especially towards the end of the walk when the skies really cleared. Every year, we normally get a couple of weeks of excellent light in October, and I fear Sunday was the tail end of this year’s band. But I have to say that I can’t think of a more beautiful spot along the Methyr Road to enjoy such rich and golden colours. I’m always amazed at how few people I see enjoying this local treasure, but at the same time I’m secretly pleased to have the place to myself 🙂

The Photos

Here are the photos from Sunday’s walk. Click on the thumbnail to see a larger version of the photo that interests you.

The Bridge Over The Tramroad at Pontygwaith The Cleared Path We Need Roots Buried Treasure Salmon and Tree Welcoming Tree GWR Viaduct Snake And Frog Sculpture The Colours of Autumn The Colours of Autumn Yellow Plants Otter Sculpture Beside The GWR Viaduct Rich Colour Tree and Tramroad Rickerty Old Fence Water And Leaves The Railway Embankment Dead Tree and Tramroad The Taff Through The Trees

Post Production

I toyed with the idea of desaturating the colours from this shoot (to match the style I used in the Unofficial Taff Vale Eastern Ridge Walk), but to be honest I’m so pleased with the colours captured by the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX33 that I decided to limit my adjustments to edge sharpening. I’m not completely convinced by the FX33’s colours in dull light (such as the colours captured in this shot), but in brighter light, the camera did very well.

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I wasn’t around in the South Wales valleys when the mines were still here, but fellow Flickr user trelewis was. She’s posted a set of photos of the Abercynon Colliery before it was closed and cleared (the Navigation Park business park sits on the site today). Good historical photos that might interest anyone who enjoys my Merthyr Road series of photographs.

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I haven’t been to the site of the Aberfan disaster myself, but fellow Flickr user (and local history expert) thereggy has. He’s posted a poignant set of photos of the site of the Aberfan disaster and the memorial garden that stands there today. Well worth a look, and a read.

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(This is the last of three articles looking at whether there s any real benefit in replacing that old 4 or 5 megapixel compact camera from yesterday with one of today s many ultra-modern high-megapixel cameras. Part one looks at what matters in a camera, and part two scores each generation of camera in a head-to-head battle.)

To help me answer the question of whether it’s worth upgrading from an older 4 megapixel digital compact camera to one of the latest high-megapixel cameras, I took both my Canon Digital IXUS 400 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX33 out to the National Botanical Gardens of Wales for a day’s photography. Every shot was attempted twice – once with each camera – and I’ve spent the last week sorting through the images to decide which ones I prefer, and why.

Looking At The Numbers

When you try to ‘score’ each camera as objectively as you can, it’s a close-run thing. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX33 does come out ahead of the older Canon Digital IXUS 400, but only by a whisker (7 points to 5). But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

I’m comparing the DMC-FX33 against the flagship camera of its time from the leading compact camera manufacturer of the time. Despite its age, the Canon Digital IXUS 400 is still a camera that produces amazing photographs, and it’s extremely difficult to compete against this camera. Still, I believe that it’s a very reasonable test, because a lot of folks are looking to upgrade from a Digital IXUS (it was an insanely popular camera over here in the UK).

Out of the 54 photos that I decided to upload to Flickr, only seven of those photos were taken by the IXUS. Every single one of the IXUS’ photos was chosen either because the Panasonic had focused on the centre when I didn’t want it to, or because the IXUS’ superior dynamic range made for a better photo.

The other 47 were taken by the DMC-FX33. And that’s the number that ultimately counts. I actually prefer the colours from the DMC-FX33 (which I’m still surprised at!), I love the 16:9 aspect ratio, and the extra megapixels do result in images that appear sharper and more like you are there.

Is It Worth Upgrading Your Compact Camera?

Yes, unequivocally.

  • Features like optical image stabilising allow you to take shots that simply aren’t possible with older cameras.
  • Larger screens make it easier to compose your shots.
  • Modern cameras are lighter, making it easier to carry them with you all the time.

If you’re switching brands, beware of any differences in functionality – especially multi-point focus and dynamic range.

The Photographs

Enough of me whittering on 🙂 Here are my choice of photos from the day’s shoot. All the photos have been processed in Aperture. I’ve adjusted sharpness on all the shots, and contrast on a small number, but I’ve left the colours alone in all the shots.

Deep Red The Flowers By The Stones Up Close Outside The Biodome Purple Greenhouse Sunflowers In The School Garden Mr Sunflower Scarecrow Shocking Pink An Explosion of Lines Looking Down At The Roof 2007092912-51-12_IXUS Looking Up At The Roof Feiry Flower! Textured Leaves Orange and Red Macro Joy The Greenhouse Green Grass Shooting Against The Sky The Bench In The Garden Towards The Cafe Red Is The Colour Are You Ready For Your Close-Up? The Apples Are Behind You Lost In The Wild Giant Twisted Stick Biodome Roof Artwork Inside The Biodome Flame From The Green More Biodome Roof Inside The Biodome A Hairy Moment Hidden Detail A Tale Of Two Screens Just Perfect At The Edge Of The Biodome The Colour Purple The Deeper Shade of Purple A Tricky Subject A Feiry Plant Beneath The Biodome Is This Weird Or What? Heading Off Into The Jungle It's A Little Chile In Here A Moment Of Peace Beside The Zen Garden Waterfall Art Rich Colour In The Water The Colour In The Water Three Thousand, Seven Hundred and Nine Flowing Down To The Xen Garden The Spiral Fountain And Biodome

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(This is the second of three articles looking at whether there s any real benefit in replacing that old 4 or 5 megapixel compact camera from yesterday with one of today s many ultra-modern high megapixel cameras. Part one looks at what matters in a camera. Part three draws some conclusions, and includes my choice of photos from the day’s shoot.)

To decide for myself whether or not it’s worth upgrading from an older four megapixel digital compact camera to a modern day high-megapixel replacement, I decided to pit two such cameras head to head for a day out at the National Botanical Gardens of Wales. The premise is simple: one day, two cameras, and every shot taken with each camera in turn. It’s the venerable Canon Digital IXUS 400 versus the only-just-released Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX33. Which photos would end up being uploaded to Flickr … and why?

The National Botanical Gardens of Wales are a hidden treasure out in the south west of the country. Featuring the world’s largest single-span biodome, this former millennium project stands on the site of the former Middleton estate. The first national botanical garden created in Britain in 200 years, and one of the very few not built in a city centre, the Gardens are dedicated to the research and conservation of biodiversity and its sustainable utilisation. As the UK’s millennium projects go, this has to be one of better ideas, and one that our children will truly be glad that our generation did.

The Opportunity To Take Photos

Shooting in low light. The day started off dull and overcast, making it difficult to shoot at all both indoors and outdoors. Like most modern compacts, the DMC-FX33 has built in optical stabilisation and an F/2.8 lens, and together they made this no contest at all. I lost track of the number of shots where the older IXUS (which doesn’t have optical stabilisation, but it does have the F/2.8 lens) simply didn’t take a clear picture because it was too dark for the older camera’s ability.

Battery life. Switching between the two cameras on each and every shot, not only must I have looked quite mad to everyone else wandering the gardens, but the constant switching on and off of the cameras put more strain on each battery than usual. Both cameras coped just fine over a five-hour day, which is good enough for me. I’ll call this one a dead heat 🙂

Screen quality. The screens on the two cameras are worlds apart. Although a great screen in its day, the Digital IXUS 400’s screen is tiny by comparison to modern cameras, and it’s harder to use in harsh light and odd angles. Throughout the day, I found myself using the DMC-FX33’s screen to compose each shot first, and then using the IXUS second. The modern camera was definitely the more enjoyable to use.

Score so far: older camera 1; modern camera 3. Overall, both the superior low-light capabilities and the improved screen are compelling reasons to upgrade from an older camera. Although modern cameras appear to have shorter times between battery recharges, battery life wasn’t a problem at all for a single day’s photography, which is all that I need.

Enjoying Using Each Camera

This was as much a tale of two brands as it was a tale of two generations of camera.

Handling. That large screen on the DMC-FX33 brings one problem with it … there isn’t really anywhere on the back of the camera to hold it. I constantly found myself swearing at the camera because I’d caught one of the controls whilst trying to take a shot, especially when trying to shoot portrait, and when holding the camera high up and low down. Because the back of the Digital IXUS 400 is mostly casing rather than screen, Canon was able to tuck the controls away where it’s much more difficult to catch them accidentally.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Panasonic have put a lot of work into the way that the mode wheel on the DMC-FX33 works, and it shows. Macro mode, “normal” mode, and full-auto mode are all next to each other on the wheel. Moving from shooting a plant up close and personal to shooting the biodome was as effortless as I could imagine it. With the older IXUS, by contrast, you have to remember to switch on macro mode or landscape mode, and it’s easy to forget to do so. This round is a dead heat.

Seeing The Shot. It’s not just that the more modern Panasonic Lumix has the larger, brighter, sharper screen (although all of those things help a great deal), it’s that the DMC-FX33 offers both a wide-angle lens and a widescreen option. These are modern features that suit me personally, and are as much to do with what’s important to the brand as they are to do with the generational gap. Panasonic are proud that they offer the wide-angle lens across their entire camera range, and I can see why. It’s a bit harsh on the older IXUS, maybe, but this round goes to the newer camera.

Getting In The Way. I’ve already mentioned my problems with constantly caching the controls on the back of the DMC-FX33. The Panasonic also got in the way with its focal point system. I personally like placing my photograph’s subject off centre – something the IXUS sometimes (but not all the time!) spots. Try as I might, throughout the day I struggled to get the Panasonic to focus on anything that wasn’t dead centre frame. More of a brand thing than a generational thing, but the older camera comes out on top here.

Scores so far: older camera 3, modern camera 5. Modern cameras are an improvement on older cameras in this area, but it’s also an area where the relative values of each brand also makes a difference.

Image Quality

This is where the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX33 faces its hardest challenge. My wife describes my Canon Digital IXUS 400 as the very best camera we’ve ever owned when it comes to image quality. She tells me that I produce better colour shots with the IXUS than I ever did with my Nikon D100, and its replacement the Nikon D200. The strength of Canon’s entire digital range has always been the DIGIC processor line at the heart of each camera. Even a much more modern camera like the DMC-FX33 has its work cut out to try and match the excellence of the DIGIC processor.

Colour. Well, I was shocked. The whole reason why I decided to do this test was because, after my earlier test shots with the DMC-FX33, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with its colour handling. Not any more! On nearly every shot, the DMC-FX33 produced the same richness of colour that we love from the IXUS 400. I say nearly, because when it came to the really rich colour shots where I’d have backed the IXUS to win, the DMC-FX33 actually came out on top. This wasn’t what I expected, and I’m delighted to award this round to the newer camera.

Highlights and Shadows. The Panasonic has two handicaps here. First of all, it has a tendency to do whatever it can to avoid shadows, which results in more highlights than perhaps there should be. Unfortunately, that’s combined with what appears to be a smaller dynamic range than the older IXUS enjoys, which made it difficult for me to photograph some of the outdoor areas as the sun came out mid-afternoon. (I bet, though, that the DMC-FX33 is fantastic in pubs and at parties, which is where a lot of folks use their compact cameras). These are the real issues behind my concern about the colour handling, and its as much a brand thing as a generational thing. This round firmly goes to the older camera.

What’s In Focus. I’ve already mentioned the Panasonic’s preference for the subject to be centre frame, no matter what focusing mode is selected from the menu (although I have to say the face recognition mode is excellent; it’s just not a feature that’s really useful in a botanical garden!). The other frustration with the DMC-FX33 is that it seems to have a preference for larger apertures, even when setting the camera explicitly in landscape mode. This results in a shallower depth of field, throwing more of the photo out of focus. Although I don’t like it (in fact, I’d love to see a firmware update that tunes the Panasonic to tend away from F/2.8 more), it didn’t actually spoil the images enough for the IXUS to win on this. This one is a dead heat.

Scores so far: older camera 5, modern camera 7. Image quality is Canon’s turf, and it’s difficult for other brands to wrestle this away from them. But this is the ground that Panasonic really wants to dominate in the minds of the paying public. Trying to build better sensors than Canon is a tall order; they have been the clear leader in this field for many years now (and I’m a hardened Nikon fan saying this). There’s a lot more to overall image quality than just the sensors. This is where Nikon succeeds in taking on Canon, and it’s where I think Panasonic must focus their efforts if they’re to do the same.

Should You Upgrade?

Head to head, the scores suggest that it’s a close-run thing. But numbers in a review never tell the full picture. In Part 3, we look at the actual images from the shoot, and at just how many shots the more modern Panasonic DMC-FX33 handled better than the older Canon Digital IXUS 400, plus my personal conclusion on whether or not it’s worth upgrading from an older camera.

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(This is the first of three articles looking at whether there’s any real benefit in replacing that old 4 or 5 megapixel compact camera from yesterday with one of today’s many ultra-modern high megapixel cameras. Part two looks in detail at the practical differences between the two generations of camera. Part three will be published later this week.)

If you’re anything like me, a couple of years ago you went out and bought a digital compact camera for those days when you didn’t have your digital SLR with you. Time, technology (and probably your digital SLR) has moved on, but your compact camera probably hasn’t – yet.

Unlike digital SLRs, where more megapixels does mean a much improved image, the megapixel arms race between compact camera manufacturers has often served to produce inferior images. Because of the very compactness that allows you to slip such a camera into your pocket, more megapixels fighting over such a small amount of light making it through the lens has translated into more problems with noise and fringing.

But there’s more to taking a photo you can enjoy again and again than such a simple measure of quality. First of all, you need to have the opportunity to take the photo at all. That translates to issues such as battery life, screen quality, low light handling, macro lenses, and lens focal length ranges. Then, you have to enjoy using the camera. You have to want to use it to take shots. The camera has to feel good in the hand, it has to have controls that are easy to reach and operate, it has to allow you to see the shot the way you see it in your head, and it can’t afford to get in your way.

Only after does image quality really enter the equation. How well are the colours captured? Are the images always in focus? What happens when the scene has both bright and dark areas? Does the detail in the distance disappear? Do you look at the image, and regret what the camera didn’t capture? Has the camera earned your trust or not?

A better camera doesn’t make any of us a better photographer, but it can make photography more enjoyable and (in the digital world) help us capture images that stand up better to technical scrutiny. But if, like me, you already have a perfectly adequate, if older, compact digital camera, is there any point at all in replacing it with a later model?

That’s the question I wanted to answer for myself.

To do so, I took both my venerable Canon Digital IXUS 400 and my brand-spanking new Panasonic DMC-FX33 out to the National Botanical Gardens of Wales for a day. Shooting both indoors and out, I put both cameras head to head not just to compare final images, but to get a feel for what I enjoyed about each of these cameras and why.

Find out how I got on in part two

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