Thursday, 31 December 2009

Merry Christmas to me...

Had a wonderful Christmas over in Christchurch with family - ate too much and got heaps of cool stuff.

The only photography related gift, however, was something I got for myself. After watching Joe McNally over at Kelby Training, I thought I'd get his latest book on flash photography - "The Hot Shoe Diaries".

First things first - GET THIS BOOK! There you go, that was pretty easy, wasn't it?

But seriously, if you are at all interested in how to make your external flash give you a decent quality of light - then get this book. If you are scared of external flash (speedlights if you will), then get this book. If you are in any way interested in how great images are made, get this book. If you are a bit of a 'gear-head' and want to know the technical how's, why's and wherefores, get this book. If you like being creative with your photography, and want to learn from the best, then get this book. Trust me here will you - GET THIS BOOK!

McNally is a great teacher, as well as an amazing photographer - and he approaches the 'lessons' in a very readable way that keeps you laughing as well as learning. Yes, that's right - 'laughing'. He's a pretty funny guy (think Scott Kelby's photoshop books) so you never really feel like you've got a text book in your hands - even though that's what this will become. An invaluable text book for any photographer who wants to use their hot shoe flash(es) in a way that will do them (and you) justice.

Joe is a Nikon shooter (yahoo), who uses Nikon speedlights (the SB 800 and SB 900's) pretty much exclusively. Tie this in with Nikon's wireless CLR (Creative Lighting System) and you have a powerful studio-like lighting set up that you can use at almost any location. Throughout the book Joe uses anywhere from one SB 800 on-camera, to a whole bank of them for large group work - and everything in-between. If the resulting images, and their thorough explanation, don't get your creative juices flowing, then you're probably dead and don't know it yet :-)

Can Canon/Sony/Pentax/Olympus shooters get anything out of this book - you betcha! They all have their own speedlights, capable of similar (if not exactly the same) setups, so the same rules apply. He may use Nikon gear, but this ain't a Nikon only book by any means.

I've said it before, so I'll say it again. If you are a photographer - GET THIS BOOK!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Going Wide

Still thinking a lot about lenses, since I will be buying one once I have a couple more weddings under my belt. A portrait lens is still on the cards (see last post), but I now have a new frontrunner, which is not a portrait lens in the true sense of the word.

My new 'fave' at the moment is the Sigma 10-20mm f4.5-5.6 EX HSM wide angle - which shocks and alarms even me on so many levels. First, it's a Sigma - and not a Nikkor, so I'm on shaky ground already. I make it a habit of only buying the manufacturers lenses for any body that I own (by and large), so what's with the Sigma? Well, for starters it has some pretty solid reviews (I've even reviewed it myself for DPhoto in the deep dark past), goes out to about as wide as it gets for a 'DX' (digitally designed) lens, and is about one third of the price of the equivalent Nikkor. And yes, now we see the 'real' reason for the change of heart ladies and gentleman - beggars really can't be choosers.

But seriously, I wouldn't be considering it if it didn't have some solid reviews behind it. Yes, I know the corners are a bit soft wide open, but most of the time I'll be shooting it at the 'optimal' f8(ish) range anyway - and besides, soft corners for any wedding/portrait work isn't necessarily a bad thing. And who shoots landscapes wide open? Not me (or you hopefully).

What got me thinking about going 'wide' for my next lens was a series of instructional videos I've been watching at Kelby Training ( by wedding pro David Visser. I've been watching him and Joe McNally, for their off-camera flash expertise (more on that soon), but you also get to see lenses used and resulting images taken. And a lot of David's wide angle wedding shots were really cool - using a 10-20mm (Canon) lens.

This thought was rather spookily reiterated on the last wedding I shot (this weekend just gone), where, due to bad weather, I could really have used an ultra-wide angle like the 10-20mm. I had a reasonably large bridal party (of 8), shot in the small confines of a verandah/porch to stay out of the rain! All the family formals had to be shot there too, and I only 'just' made it with the 18mm wide end of my 18-70mm zoom. Going out to 10mm would have been fantastic - but I didn't have that option.

Ultra-wides also give you a pretty cool 'look' to some of your images (don't overdo it though) that the other wedding guests or part-time snappers probably won't have. If you keep the subject placed centrally, then you can make them look fairly natural, but have these very distorted edges. Lots of fun - but again - not to be overdone.

So I may end up with a Sigma 10-20mm as my next wedding lens? And then again... I might not. :-)

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Thoughts on Nikon lenses

As the end of my last post would suggest, now that I have the D300 I'm thinking lenses. My primary use for anything I consider buying will, of course, be for weddings. Having concentrated most of my money on buying the D300 body and vertical grip, I've now got a basic starting kit comprising of the 'best' that I could afford. This includes the Nikkor 50mm f1.8 (cheap, but fast and sharp - a must for any camera bag IMHO) and the 18-70mm f3.5-4.5 Nikon zoom - probably Nikon's best ever 'kit' lens - reasonably fast, reasonably sharp - and great coverage for a DX sensor camera like the D300 (equivalent of 28-105mm in traditional 35mm film terms).

I am also 'borrowing' the consumer-grade 75-240mm f4.5-5.6D from my wife's D70 kit (together with the D70 itself as a backup body), and while it can produce some nice images, and gets deservedly good reviews for a plastic lens, it's not really where I want to be for my longer portrait shots of the bride and groom. Ideally I want to shoot these 'wide open' at around f2.8 - so this is probably where I need to start looking.

Next question, then, is what to look at? And with Nikon, this is where it gets tricky - especially if you're looking for the best bang for your buck.

I have already suggested that a strong contender for my next 'portrait' lens is the Nikkor 85mm f1.8. At $750NZ new, this lens meets the bang-for-the-buck criteria, as well as the large aperture for nice out-of-focus backgrounds shooting at f2.8 or below. It's solidly built, is sharp, contrasty, lightweight, and renders very neutral skin tones. It's definitely top of my list at the moment - since I'm not even considering its even faster sibling, the 85mm f1.4, at almost three times the price (about $1900NZ)!

Although I really enjoy the light weight and portability of a prime, what about a zoom for more flexible composition when working in the confines of a church? Good question - but slightly problematic as a Nikon shooter on a tight budget. The lens every wedding/portrait photographer who shoots Nikon pulls out for this scenario is the 70-200mm f2.8 VR - and I have no doubt on a cropped DX body like the D300 it's a beautiful lens. But it's also $3500NZ (and there's a newer version that's even more expensive at $4200NZ.) I just won't have that kind of money anytime soon.

And I think this is where Nikon lets the 'semi-pro' shooters down, and where Canon is ahead of them in the game. And no, this is not a 'I hate Canon/Nikon' rant, it's merely an observation because I'm needing to think about these issues at the moment. If I were still shooting Canon, I would have no less than four different 70-200mm pro grade lenses to choose from, depending on my budget. The entry level (but still amazing) 70-200mm f4L at $1350NZ, the 70-200 f4L IS at $2150NZ, the 70-200 f2.8L at $2250, or the 70-200mm f2.8L IS at $3250NZ. This is a fantastic selection that allows you to pick and choose the features you need, matched to your budget - and ALL under the asking price of the only one Nikon offers. Quite simply, in terms of Nikon's poor showing, I don't think that's good enough.

There is another Nikon alternative, and fortunately it is well worth considering in the 'newer' version - and that's the Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 (the older version was a push-pull type zoom, whereas the newer version has a rotating zoom). It's around $2400NZ, which makes it a better prospect (and comparable with the Canon 70-200mm f2.8), and is a solid pro-series lens, although its design is a little on the tired side. It isn't silent focusing (using Nikon's older camera-based screw-driven focus system), isn't internal focusing, and doesn't use as many ED elements as the 70-200 VR lens - but it is considerably cheaper - and more importantly is probably just in my ballpark budget-wise (after I've shot a few more weddings).

When the time comes for me to upgrade the 18-70mm Nikkor zoom, the prospects with Nikon are just as grim. Yes, there is the superb 17-55mm f2.8 - BUT (wait for it) it's priced at $2800NZ! Canon also has a 17-55mm f2.8 for their cropped sensor format cameras, and at $1900NZ it's almost a full $1k cheaper. I have no doubt the Nikkor is better built (it's an absolute tank), but it had better be for almost $1000NZ more. I've owned and used the Canon 17-55mm f2.8, and it's a beautiful lens that produces stunning images. Again, for the end user, I think Canon has got it right.

It doesn't get any better when you compare apples with apples in a 24-70mm f2.8 showdown. In this instance, both are built to last under professional abuse. The Nikon is $3500NZ, and the Canon retails for $2250NZ. That's right, the Nikkor is $1250NZ MORE than the equivalent Canon. The same is true with almost every other Canon/Nikon pro-series lens comparison. Are the Nikon's in many cases actually worth twice more than Canon lenses. I think not. Are Nikon taking advantage of working pros? Maybe.

The simple fact of the matter, as a Nikon user who wants to shoot Nikkor glass, is that the prices are what they are - like it or not. The 85mm f1.8 and 80-200mm f2.8 are mighty fine lenses, comparable in price with Canon's offerings, so I guess that's where I'm heading. Replacing the 18-70mm zoom later on will be a tougher assignment... but that's a decision for another day.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Wedding 1 - Barry & Lisa

Yahooo - the Wedding Season for 2009/2010 is underway, with a pretty special start to the season! On November 28th, my brother Barry married Lisa at The Old Stone House in Christchurch. Needless to say it was a special day, and I was thrilled that I could be a part of it in an 'official' capacity.

The boys got ready out at Barry & Lisa's place at Tai Tapu, about 20mins outside of Christchurch. I had told Barry that this was my first wedding with the Nikon D300, although I did have a pretty good play with it before the big day (obviously). Needless to say, the Nikon performed flawlessly. Any problems were due to human error, and fortunately there weren't too many of them either :-)

Lisa got ready at Steph's (one of her bridesmaids), which gave me the chance to use the 50mm f1.8 inside, reasonably wide open, with natural light. I've also set the D300 to shoot on 'Auto" ISO within a 100th sec shutter speed and 1600 ISO limit. This means that within these two parameters, the camera will automatically change the ISO/shutter speed combination so that it stays above 100th of a second shutter speeds (to limit camera shake) but no greater that 1600 ISO. This worked perfectly throughout the day, and saved me from those 'gotchas' where you set the camera to ISO 1600 for low inside light, and then forget to reset it to ISO 200 when you go outside. Cool.

Most of the time I was using the Nikkor 18-70mm f3.5/4.5 zoom, and I remain impressed with this general 'kit' lens, even on the higher resolving sensor of the D300. Shooting in RAW, the images straight from the camera are a little 'soft', but a basic overall sharpening in Photoshop and the photos snap into crisp, sharp, clarity. This image of Lisa arriving at the wedding is one of my favourites from the day.

It's not usually the case that I'm also required to be 'in' the wedding photos, but this was my brother's wedding afterall, so there's me on the extreme right, next to my wife Joanna, and our two kids, Joshua and Emily. My Mum and Stepfather are next, then Barry and Lisa with Barry's daughter Libby, and finally Lisa's Mum & Dad on the left. Again, with its 28mm (equivalent) wide angle capability, the 18-70mm lens was ideal for these large group shots. I even managed to get up high and cover an overall group shot of the 80 or so guests who attended the service.

One of the reasons I choose to go back to Nikon with my wedding kit was so that (early on at least) I could 'use' my wife's Nikon D70 and lenses as a back up to the D300 on the day. This image was taken with her 'cheap' 75-240mm f4.5-5.6 Nikon zoom, which, although it might be cheap, can also take some pretty sharp images wide open. And you still get nice background blur as long as you get plenty of separation between your subject and background.

We had great locations within a stones-throw from each other (literally), and they were a lot of fun to photograph. It made my first wedding using the D300 a breeze, even though I did fumble occasionally with the command dials. Overall, though, I'm very happy with the day, with the images, and with the Nikon D300. I'm sure I'll play around with lens combinations eventually - I would prefer all the lenses to be constant 2.8's - but that will have to wait a while.

Just as I had hoped it would, the Nikon D300 passed the wedding test with flying colours. The battery grip allows me to shoot with two batteries, easily handling an all-day shoot (I probably could have covered it with just one battery), and adds a nice heft and portrait shooting support to the camera. The lens combination worked very well, and I continue to be impressed with the versatility and sharpness of the 17-80mm Nikkor. The 50mm f1.8 should be a given in any photographers bag, while the cheap and cheerful 75-240mm is good enough to shoot hand-held wide open in good light to produce crisp, tight portraits.

Having said that, I'm pretty sure my next lens purchase will be a Nikkor 85mm f1.8 for tight portrait shots on a wedding. I loved that lens on my Canon, and am looking forward to using Nikon's version on my D300. Can't wait...

Thursday, 12 November 2009

New Season, New Kit

It was only 8 months ago that I wrote about getting my 'new' Canon 400D kit from New Zealand's online auction site - Trademe. A lot can happen in 8 months, and during that time technology has not been my friend.

First, my iMac developed a problem with its firewire port so that my external backup drive stopped working. My local Mac technician had a look, but in the end decided it really needed to go back for repairs (fortunately under warranty). Unfortunately, it had to go to Auckland, and to cut a long story short, it was there for a good couple of months!

Then, if that wasn't bad enough, my Canon 5D stopped working - the viewfinder information and top lcd readouts simply disappeared. It will still take an image, but you can't see any of the settings to know what the camera is shooting in! And unlike my iMac, the Canon 5D is out of warranty. With only a couple of months before the new wedding season, this couldn't have happened at a worse time - and I've gotta say I'm not impressed.

Not long after owning the 5D kit combo with the 24-105mm f4L the lens developed a problem with the zooming mechanism. It became so stiff it would hardly move. And now the 5D has gone down as well. It hasn't exactly had a hard life - I'm very particular with my gear - so both items having major problems concerns me greatly.

So much so that, with the new wedding season looming, and a reasonably full season booked, I've decided to drop Canon like a hot potato and make the switch 'back' to Nikon. I've sold my 400D, flash and lenses - and have 'upgraded' to the Nikon D300.

This is it, as sold to me yesterday (again on Trademe). It's only done around 6000 images, so it hasn't even warmed up yet - it's been a photographers back-up studio camera, so it's had very little use. It's Nikon's top-of-the-tree DX format (cropped sensor) body - 12.3MP with a 51 area autofocus system, live view, excellent low-noise response up to 1600 ISO, 8 frames per second shooting with the vertical grip attached (6 frames per second without it), not to mention an amazingly high resolution 3 inch LCD screen - with almost 3 times more dots that you're average screen. Wowser!

Even before I got the body, I bought a 50mm f1.8 (basically brand new) that on the D300 will become a 75mm f1.8 portrait lens for my wedding work. The sensor size on the D300 adds x1.5 to the focal length of the lens, so the 50mm become a 75mm. Nice.

But of course that won't be enough to shoot a wedding with, so I have also just snapped up (excuse the pun) a Nikkor 18-70mm f3.5-4.5. This was a tougher decision, as my budget was pretty much blown on the D300. I had intended to get a D90 - about $1000NZ cheaper than the D300, but since I was changing to Nikon to get a more reliable kit, I figured in the end I needed to go with a more 'professional' grade body. So contrary to what I always maintain when buying a system, more money was spent on a body - leaving me not much for a lens. Which is not to say I didn't get a decent lens with the 18-70mm, because it is a decent performer. One of Nikon's better 'consumer grade' lenses. But it ain't no 17-55mm f2.8 either! (Nor should you expect it to be at around $2000NZ cheaper). I have used the 18-70mm lens before, since it was the kit lens with my first digital camera, the D70. It's a very good performer for the price, has quick and quiet silent-wave autofocus, and is sharp - and reasonably fast for a kit lens. My Canon 24-105mm f4 is only just faster as a constant f4, and this was my main wedding lens last season.

An SB600 speedlite rounds of my 'new' kit (again off of Trademe), and although I shoot mostly in natural light and prefer to boost the ISO before using flash, it will come in handy for the 'cutting of the cake' type inside shots. If I can get my head around Nikon's wireless flash system (where you can use the small on-board flash head on the D300 as a 'commander' unit to trigger the SB600 off-camera), then I may end up using the SB600 more than I think?

All the gear should be arriving in the next few days (the 50mm f1.8 is already here), and then I'll have a week to get to grips with it before I shoot my brothers wedding! No pressure :-)

I'll obviously have more to say about the Nikon D300 on this blog in the future - but for now I'm very excited about the new gear, and the new season. Will post initial impressions after the gear has arrived and I've taken it all for a spin.

I've still got the Canon 5D body (I haven't finished paying for it yet) and 24-105mm f4, so once I get the body fixed I may even end up shooting with two different systems on the same wedding (if I can work that way?). Or I may even alternate? We'll have to wait and see. But it will be Nikon all the way for the first few, until I get the money together to fix the 5D. No matter how you look at it, it should be a good wedding season. I'm certainly looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

200mm f2.8L Canon Prime

In choosing the 400mm f5.6L prime lens for Nicki (see previous post), I had to give her some strong reasons as to why she should consider a prime lens over a zoom.

Most photographers starting out have a zoom lens that comes with the camera, and they never consider anything else. If they ever look at getting another lens with a different focal length, they almost always look for another zoom. Why would you only want a single focal length when you can cover a wider area with a zoom?

Well, probably the most compelling (and damning) reason - and the one that should really be paramount with most photographers, is image quality. Prime lenses are sharper, quicker, brighter (in most cases), and optically better than almost all zooms - period.

Zoom lenses, by their very nature and design, require much more complex lens arrangements, which allows for more image quality compromises. Primes, on the other hand, can function more quickly due to less moving parts, and a simplified lens construction. This also means there's a greater chance of the engineers getting it right.

So Nicki was sold and went with the 400mm f5.6L super zoom for her bird photography. I am also sold on primes - and already own two; a 50mm f1.8 (cheap, lightweight and plastic, but what a sharp lens), and an 85mm f1.8 - my favorite portrait lens when shooting weddings.

Since selling my 70-200mm f4L lens last year, I wanted something to give me some more reach beyond the 24-105mm f4L which is my 'main' wedding lens (yes, it is a zoom...). I only really used the 200mm end of the 70-200mm, which is why I parted with it in the first place. So after waxing lyrical to Nicki about primes, and doing quite a bit of research on the net about them, the 200mm f2.8L caught my eye. I hunted one down second-hand at a camera retailer, and am now the proud owner of a Canon EF Mark 1 200mm f2.8L.

I'd read some really positive reviews about this lens before getting it - and let me tell you - every word of it is true! What a great lens! The above photo of my son, Joshua, was taken the day I got the lens. It was a pretty overcast and dull day, but even so the image has some pop to it. Wide open at f2.8 this lens is stunning, and creates beautifully creamy out-of-focus background blur. The front eye (what the focus was set on) is incredibly sharp - even blown up over 100%. Many users claim that it gets even sharper at f4 and above - and if that's true (which I have no doubt it is) then this lens will be sharp enough to cut glass!

It's a reasonably solid, metal and glass construction lens, while still being light-weight enough to have on the camera and carry around for long periods comfortably. It does have a space for a tripod fitting, although it doesn't come with one (shame on you Canon - this is an 'L' lens after all). The focus is fast and silent, and the front element doesn't rotate, allowing for easy use of polarising filters. My version (Mark I) comes with an in-built lens hood which simply extends out over the front. It's not a very deep lens hood, and as such has been 'fixed' in the Mark II version by the use of a separate (and much deeper) snap-on lens hood. Even so, my built in one should be adequate enough.

Using primes becomes a bit of a drug once you see the results they bring to your images. Once you get you first one, you have to get more. Even if it seems impractical when they overlap with zoom lenses you may already own. Use a prime lens, print the results, and you'll be hooked. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

The 'ideal' birding kit?

Over the last week I have been helping a friend spend some serious (for her) money on a 'birding/wildlife' kit.

With the unfortunate passing of a close relative, came the fortunate inheriting of some money that was unexpected. So she decided to splash out on herself and get 'seriously' into her passion for shooting birds.

Now bird photography ain't my thing - largely because it's so darn hard! You have to have stealth, patience, and an almost uncanny understanding of your subject to get halfway decent images - none of which I possess. I've tried, and failed, to get any decent bird images, until finally I've come to the understanding that it just isn't me.

So when she (Nicki is her name and I don't think she'd mind me saying it) - so when Nicki asked me to advise her on a birding kit, I had some serious research to do.

From her own experiences with bird photography, she knew she was heading into 'super-telephoto' territory to help get her close enough to the 'action', while still maintaining good distance so as not to alarm her subjects. Trouble is, 'super telephoto' lenses are horrendously expensive - and her budget wasn't 'that' big.

Naturally, then, Nicki was considering a Tamron 200-500mm f4.5/6.3 (or something like that - I forget 'exactly'), pointed in this direction by a well-meaning sales person at a camera store she had called. These lenses (Sigma does one as well) by the 'third party' lens manufacturers, seem to offer the best of both worlds - a rather impressive zoom range, reasonably low price, and relatively light weight (from all that plastic).

Trouble is (and maybe it's just me) I've never really been impressed by any third-party lens I've ever used/owned, over an equivalent lens made by the camera manufacturers (i.e. Canon/Nikon/Olympus/Sony/Pentax etc). In Nicki's case it happened to be Canon, as she already owns a 450D with standard kit lens and 70-300mm f4.5/5.6 that she had been using for her bird photography previously (and highly successfully I might add).

My advice to her (he said, cutting to the chase), was to go for a Canon lens - and within her budget there was really only one choice that kept coming up time and again on internet reviews - the 400mm f5.6 L. Many call it the ideal 'bird in flight' lens, because it's the start of the super-telephoto range, is 'relatively' light and so can be hand-held in good lighting, is super fast to autofocus, and it's also super sharp - all the ingredients you want in a lens.

So that's what I advised her to get - and that's what she got. Together with a new Canon 50D for increased ISO use, faster and more reliable autofocusing, a more rugged chassis, and more megapixels (15+) so she can crop in more seriously on the final image. The 50D also gives her an extra x1.6 cropping factor on the lens as well, giving her an equivalent 640mm f5.6 lens! pretty cool.

Is she happy with her new kit. Well, by all accounts she is. I haven't seen her since she got it - I guess she's been too busy out taking photos. So yeah - I'd say she's on to a winner.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

EF-S 18-55mm IS lens test

When I was looking at getting a lighter travel kit I 'ummed' and 'arred' for quite a while about the lenses I should go with. The body was relatively straight forward - the Canon Digital Rebel series fits the bill nicely (and I continue to be impressed by the XTi/400D). But given that I already had a 17-40mm f4'L' and a 24-105mm f4'L', why wouldn't I just stick with them?

As a general, walk-around lens, I didn't think the 17-40mm would give me 'quite' enough reach for everyday use. And as much as I love the 24-105mm on my 5D for wedding work, it's not a light lens, which kinda defeats the purpose of a 'lighter' travel kit. Anyway, to cut a long story short (although this is going to be a long story anyway), I read some very good things about the 18-55mm IS and the 55-250mm IS - both very light (and very cheap) image stabilized lenses that I thought would fit the 'travel' bill nicely.

Of course, now that I've got all four lenses, my curiosity has got the better of me. I do want a lighter travel kit, but I also don't want to sacrifice too much in the way of image quality. After all, why bother lugging any camera gear around with you if you're only going to be disappointed with the end results!

So, armed with the EF-S 18-55mm IS and the 17-40mm f4'L', I decided a lens shoot-out was in order. I was prepared to take the results as they came, and make my decision about which lens to use based on the cold hard facts. Would the 'kit' 18-55mm lens prove as good as many claimed, or would my $1000NZ more expensive 'L' lens kick sand in its puny little face?

First, let me give a quick rundown on how I performed this 'less-than-scientific' test. I didn't shoot lens charts, resolution charts, or colour charts to determine which lens was 'best'. Instead, I took them both outside and did what was important to me - I actually took some real photos with them. I found a subject that wasn't going anywhere in a hurry, wouldn't exhibit any shake from the wind etc, and set up my tripod. I switched the 400D to remote release and for all the images taken I used the RC-1 infrared shutter release so I wasn't physically touching the camera when the image was taken. I didn't use mirror lock up because a: I never do, and b: I think it's overkill. Above is the scene as taken for my first series of test. Both lenses were set to 18mm.

It may be difficult to tell much from a low-res image on a computer screen (click on the image for a larger view), but if you're thinking "gee, there's not much in it" then you'd be right! I've looked at all of them at 100% on my screen (obviously), so let me tell you what I can see (and you'll just have to take my word for it).

On the edges, the 17-40mm is sharper than the 18-55mm, and exhibits a touch more detail at both f4 and f8 - just. At f11 and beyond the 18-55mm sharpens up to be practically identical. There isn't a hugh difference to be honest, and the 18-55mm equips itself very well against its $1000+ more expensive 'L' cousin.

The identical conclusions can be drawn from the central part of the image with both lenses at 18mm. Again, the 17-40mm is sharper up to f11, and then both are identical. Saying the 17-40mm is sharper up to f11 makes it sound as if the 18-55mm is crap - but it's only 'just' sharper. And these results are unedited jpegs straight from the camera. Nothing has been applied in photoshop.

As a quick test, I did apply some sharpening to the 18-55mm files (150% with 0.5 radius) and then compared them with the unedited 17-40mm files. Basically identical. I gotta say - I'm impressed.

I then zoomed both lenses to 40mm and took another series at all apertures. For the sake of sounding like a cracked record, the results were the same. There's no doubt that the 17-40mm has a tiny edge over the 18-55mm at apertures below f11 - but it's a tiny edge indeed. Amazing for a lens that cost literally a fraction of the price!

Of course both lenses are not created equal. The 18-55mm IS is a plastic fantastic with lightweight materials and a plastic lens mount - no depth of field scale, and difficult manual focus. The focus motor, whilst reasonably snappy, is audible - the front lens rotates, and it only has 1 aspherical element in its lens construction (although to be fair it does a very good job of controlling aberration). What it does have over the 17-40mm f4'L', of course, is the IS function.

The 17-40mm, on the other hand, is a solid, well constructed lens with silky smooth manual focus, full-time-focus override, a non-rotating front element, weather sealing, 2UD and 3 Aspherical lens elements, a silent USM motor, with a metal lens mount and distance indicator window. To look, touch and use the two lens is like comparing apples with oranges - or chalk with cheese.

Of course this also goes a long way to the $1000NZ price difference between the two lenses. But is that enough? Because when we look at the actual images taken with both lenses, the $1000 difference become less obvious. You are certainly not getting a thousand dollar image difference between the two lenses. Fortunately, I think that's a good thing.

The EF-S 18-55mm f3.5/5.6 IS is an incredibly solid performer - image wise - for the price. It's an obviously mass-produced, low-end 'kit' lens that is all but thrown in with a new Canon digital SLR, it's lightweight, and won't stand up to a lot of abuse. BUT - the images you can get with it are on a par with images taken with the much much more expensive 'L' series Canon lenses. A quick sharpen and slight curves adjustment in photoshop and you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference.

That makes the 18-55mm IS amazing value for money in my book. Too many photographers are told that their kit lens is 'crap' and to get rid of it asap. If your kit lens happens to be the Canon EF-S 18-55mm 3.5/5.6 IS lens, then you might just want to hang on to it for a bit longer.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Gina & Kerry's Wedding

My run of bad weather continued with Gina & Kerry's Wedding, although to be fair we did manage to stay outside for most of the day (and it was a garden wedding after all).

I was very excited about shooting this wedding, as the venue was an old chapel with beautiful gardens that had been converted into a B&B. Gina and Kerry found it on the internet and asked if they could have their wedding service there. It was the first wedding to be held on the grounds for over 90 years!

The location offered dozens of cool and quirky locations. Gina fell in love with this door and also wanted to make sure that the window at top left was included in the shot. Thankfully my 17-40mm f4L on the full-frame 5D let me get everything in, as well as giving quite a dramatic wide-angle feel to the image.

We played around there for quite a while, as we were really spoilt for choice with cool locations around the garden. It also helped that Gina & Kerry (and the rest of the bridal party) were so relaxed and fun to shoot. We could have spent all afternoon there (well I could of anyway), but they also wanted some photos taken at the beach, and then at the stables by the racecourse where they had the reception. I hope I get a chance to shoot another wedding at Chapel Hill next season (weather permitting of course)!

Down at the beach we played with the dramatic colour contrast of Gina & Kerry against their (very cool) 'electric purple' wedding car. I used a wide-angle again to really accentuate the curves of the car extending out into the frame, and gave the final image a high contrast HDR (High Dynamic Range) type of treatment.

I've recently discovered 'actions' in photoshop, where you can get lots of different looks with the click of a button (if you download the appropriate photoshop 'action'). What a huge time-saver when putting an album together and there are some very cool actions out there (as well as some pretty naff ones). Of course you can create your own actions as well. It's pretty easy. Just google 'making photoshop actions' and I'm sure you'll find an explanation of how it's done.

Another dodgy day in terms of the weather, but another great day in terms of the couple (they were fantastic) and the images we got together. Thanks Gina & Kerry. I'll have your album proof to you soon - promise :-)

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

First photos with Rebel XTi

Took the 'new' camera out last night to one of my favorite locations to 'test' it out. For an entry level camera it handles very nicely - especially at night - since the large lcd screen on the back does double duty as the information screen as well. There are also a few nice little touches, such as a count-down for the self-timer and the cut-out sensors when you bring your eye up to the viewfinder. Overall I was very impressed.

The vertical grip creaks and groans a bit, especially given my usual 5D experience, but the battery power seems consistent and I don't think it's likely to break anytime soon. The fit with the camera seems ok, and it certainly handles better with it attached.

The lenses autofocus quickly and reasonably quietly, although I didn't really get a chance to push them to the limits given I was shooting landscapes. Sharpness appears to be acceptable from the results so far, but I will do more tests against my 17-40 f4L soon. That will be a real test.

So far so good. I enjoyed using the camera very much, and it has an excellent user interface. Kinda wish some of the features were on the 5D as well. I can tell I'm going to enjoy using it, and will hopefully use it a lot more soon. More thoughts and pictures when I do.

Monday, 16 March 2009

400D Arrived

Well it turned up today - my XTi, together with a vertical grip and 18-55mm kits lens. I've already changed it for the EF-S 18-55mm IS lens, but will keep the standard lens for possible re-sale.

First impressions are positive - it's a very clean unit - looks almost brand new. Other first impressions? It is very small and light - so I'm very glad I got the grip to go with it. Makes a huge difference to the way it handles (to me at least), and certainly remains light and responsive. Focus response with the EF-S lenses seems quick and precise and the large lcd display on the back makes changing camera settings very quick.

Have also found the 'perfect' bag for my new travel kit - a Lowepro EX 180. As you can see in the photo, it's big enough to hold the 400D with grip attached, plus the 18-55 standard lens, as well as the 55-250mm EF-S, a Canon 50mm f1.8, a 430EX Speedlite, plus cards, blower brush, manual and other small assorted accessories. Quite a bit really. With all that packed in, it's still a very light load.

I plan on getting out tonight to take some landscapes with the whole kit, which will give me a better feel for the camera, and the load. Although I can already tell that there's no comparison between this and the whole 5D kit I carry around in a backpack. Their may be no weight comparison to be made, but I'm hoping there's an image comparison. It might not be full-frame, or a 5D, but from what I've read I'm looking forward to viewing some of the images made from the 10MP sensor of the Rebel XTi. Will post some soon. I might even get around to a camera/lens/ISo comparison between the two kits. That might be 'very' interesting.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Denise & Ashley

Denise & Ashley were my first wedding couple for 2009 - married on January 17th at Holy Trinity Anglican Church here in Greymouth. Denise is a local girl, so came 'home' to get married, even though both of them are based overseas (they both work for an international airline).

The day wasn't the best weather-wise and unfortunately this was to be a reoccurring theme throughout this wedding season. It rained for most of the day, although it did manage to clear enough so that we could get outside with the wedding party and take some photos.

Even though the weather wasn't really on our side, it didn't dampen Denise and Ashley's spirits. They were (are) a lovely couple to work with, and made the day a relaxing, pleasurable and fun experience for all involved.

The wedding reception was out at Shantytown - a replica gold-rush township that showcases early New Zealand history. This is a perfect venue to get some great 'old world' type images for an album, and is also the best place to shoot if its raining because it has a lot of cover that still allows for interesting views. It is a very popular wedding destination here on the Coast, and rightfully so.

Nicky (my assistant) and I had a heap of fun on this wedding and it was a great way to start 2009 - even if the weather had other ideas.

A few days after the wedding, Denise and Ahsley got in touch with me and asked if I would mind taking some more photos, this time at the beach. Denise had grown up at the Cobden Beach, and was disappointed that her wedding images didn't reflect that (since it was too wet to get out there on the day).

Of course I was up for it, and so after work we met down at the Beach and had a great evening shooting images that will 'round out' their album. It's the first time I have shot more photos a few days later, and although not taken on the 'same day' as the wedding, I think they still fit into the theme of their wedding day, and will make a great inclusion to their album. It is, after all, about producing something that the client is happy with and that brings back the memories of that time in their lives - be it one day, or several.

So 'thanks' Denise and Ashley. Your wedding was amazing, I enjoyed every minute of it, and the album is going to be fantastic! What a great way to start my 2009 wedding season.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Canon 400D arriving soon.

Another year gone, another month along - another camera on the horizon. Am I a camera junkie? Maybe...

Out goes the EOS 1D, and in comes the 400D. Yep, that's right - from the sublime to the ridiculous. I've sold my top-of-the-line 1D and decided to change it with a (you could argue) bottom-of-the-line consumer-grade Canon Rebel. Am I insane!?

Now before I answer that, I will hasten to add that their IS method to my madness. In fact there's several methods (reasons) to my madness - although that probably still makes it madness!?

I fell into something of a routine towards the end of the last wedding season - I used my 5D full-frame pretty much exclusively. Sure, I had the 1D with me, but I never really got it out of the bag. Fair enough, you say, it's your back-up camera after all - isn't it? Well yes, it is, but after lugging my camera bag around for a whole season, I've got to say it's an incredibly heavy back-up. And what's more, I don't find myself all that keen to lug it over my shoulder and go for an afternoon stroll with it either! I could see a pattern emerging, and in as much as it was my 'dream' camera, I could see that I just wasn't ever going to use it unless I 'made' myself use it.

At the end of my last wedding, having just lugged my backpack full of gear around for several hours and almost getting a hernia, I made a vow that during the off season I would 'down-size' and lighten my load. So the decision to sell the 1D was, in the end, relatively easy - if not still somewhat sad.

My decision to sell the 70-200mm f4'L' (gasp, shock, horror) was less easy, but still the right one based on this years shooting experience. For a 70-200mm it isn't particularly heavy, but it does take up quite a bit of space - and heavy is relative when you look at other options. So out it goes as well. But what to replace them with?

To cut a long story short - I've settled on the 400D (Rebel XTi for our American friends). In fact, the camera that I have purchased (on trademe) is from America, and so will have 'Rebel XTi' on the front and not the 400D label as seen above. I am getting it with the vertical grip (I'm not 'that' crazy), as well as the slightly upgraded 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 Image Stabilized kit lens. That should lighten the load plenty!

And from reviews I've read, the image you get from the 10MP Canon CMOS sensor in these is very clear and noise free(ish) up to its maximum ISO1600. Not to mention the same 9 point focus system found on the 40D.

And the 70-200mm f4'L'? Well I've 'replaced' that with an EF-S 55-250mm f4-5.6 Image Stabilized Canon lens which has also been getting very good reviews. I appreciate it won't be the same as the 70-200 - but I don't intend using it for weddings. I've got an 85mm f1.8 Canon prime lens that I've been using for my close-up wedding portraits with the 5D, and I absolutely LOVE it. So the 55-250mm EF-S will become my 'travel' option, paired with the 400D (XTi) and 18-55mm.

So now I will basically have two kits; my 'pro' wedding kit with the 5D and some 'L' and prime lenses, and my travel kit (backup) with the lighter EF-S lenses that will cover me from 28 to 400mm! All together my travel kit probably weighs less than the 1D body by itself! Now I'm actually looking forward to going out and taking my camera with me. My back, and my hernia, both thank me...

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Random Image

I hadn't been out to shoot landscapes for a while (been too busy processing weddings), so my mate Stewart and I decided to head down to our local beach last evening and shoot some landscapes.

This is one of the images I took using the 1D and a 17-40mm f4L. It was shot hand-held, simply because I had left the contact plate for my tripod at home, so couldn't connect the 1D to my tripod.

As the light was getting low, I was forced to look up into the sky to get more light for hand-holding - and noticed this cloud formation. I don't normally look up into the sky for my landscapes, other than as a component for the overall picture. I use sky as an element in the composition, but hardly ever as the main subject itself.

Maybe that's why I like this image so much. It's a departure for me, a different way of looking and thinking about my images, and if I had been able to use my tripod, it is probably a photo I would never have taken. It might not be an photo that will win me too many awards - if any - but it's a bit of a lightbulb moment.

Hopefully now I will 'look up' more often.

Monday, 26 January 2009

A Journey into Infra Red

It's interesting to see where things might lead if you keep an open mind.

I have (or should that be 'had') no interest in Infra Red photography whatsoever. Sure, it was the kind of technique I thought I might 'give a go' one day - I even bought a roll of infra red Kodak film back in the good old days - and I've probably still got it somewhere? From the little I had read about it infra red photography seemed like, well, too much hard work.

But that, of course, was before digital. Not that I had any burning desire to play with infra red techniques with digital either. Until I saw a camera come up on Trademe.

Infra red in the past, even with digital, meant using special (read expensive) filters, long shutter speeds, guesswork in terms of exposure and focusing (manually because the infra-red colour spectrum is on a different 'length' than normal) - and lots of trial and error. See - too much hard work.

BUT - as with most things technical, some clever-clogs had the idea of pulling apart their perfectly good digital SLR, removing the infra red filter that blocks out IR from the sensor, and replacing it with a filter that will actually capture the IR wavelengths. And viola - a digital camera that 'sees' in infra red.

Above is an image I took last weekend with my 'new' infra red Canon 300D - a digital camera set up to capture IR images. It's a breeze to use - having been calibrated to focus in the IR spectrum (although it still pays to use fairly small apertures of around f8). On a bright, sunny day (great for infra red) you can hand-hold all day with shutter speeds of 125th - 250th. This is unheard of with 'traditional' IR using filters.

I was initially excited about the cameras Wedding applications - skin gets an eerie glow to it - almost ghost-like, together with the white of foliage, will make stunning photos here on the 'green' West Coast. But the more I looked into what others were doing with 'digital' IR, the more excited I got about it for my landscapes.

Getting your 'old' digital SLR converted to IR is trendy at the moment - some are even converting their (gasp) 5Ds to Infra red! Boy, you gotta love the results to do that. Once converted, the camera will ONLY take IR images - unless (and until) you convert it back. This is fairly major surgery, and something best left to the professionals. There are a handful of technicians willing to do the conversion, as well as some company's offering it now as well. I would strongly suggest you use them, rather than attempt the conversion yourself - although their are sites on the web that will take you through it step-by-step if you have a deathwish for your camera (or more money that I have to throw around).

I gotta say, it's pretty addictive - and I think I'm hooked. But I'm not 'quite' happy with the 300D I got from Trademe. Turns out that there are different 'grades' of filters you can use, to get different effects, and my camera just happens to use a very strong grade of filter so that I can only achieve the Black & White IR look. Other, less strong filters, will allow more colour to pass through as well - and this is called 'false colour' infra red. The effects of which can be simply stunning!

I have a 10D kicking around doing nothing now that I use the 1D and 5D at weddings. Maybe the 10D will find its way to a technician who will convert it into 'false colour' IR for me? I'd say that's more than likely...

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Happy 2009

Happy 2009 to all. I know it's a week late - but I've only just picked myself up from a lousy start to the new year (had a nasty tummy bug).

Consequently, I haven't been out much lately, but I did manage to get this image (above) last night. Quite a bit of post photo-shop work went on to get the final image - surprisingly (not) the sky wasn't that colour at all.

I'm gearing up for a model shoot this weekend - shooting bridal gown images for a local woman who is starting a business selling imported wedding dresses. Several locations, 7 models, and lots of dresses! I'm really looking forward to it. Will post some images and relate the experience on the blog when the dust settles and the images are processed.

Until then...