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...