Thursday, 8 December 2011

Art Filters

I'm a photoshop guy. I've taught it to my photography students for years - and used it in my graphic design and photography business even longer.

So when I read that the Pen cameras had 'Art Filters', I snorted, rolled my eyes, and chalked it up to another 'useless' feature that modern cameras lumber us serious photographers with.

And then I got an EP-3. And I started using the Art Filters - purely for educational purposes you understand. And I wasn't rolling my eyes anymore (well, not with a few of them at least). In fact, I may use a couple of the Art Filters more often than not - they really are that good.

Boat Ramp. Olympus EP-3, Grainy B&W Art Filter, 16:9 aspect ratio
I'm in love with the Grainy Black and White filter and will probably use this a LOT. I'm a black and white fan anyway - but add to that the best digital application of film grain I've ever seen straight out of a camera, and I'm in heaven. The engineers/software guys at Olympus who developed this filter should take the rest of the year off - they deserve it.

I also enjoy the fact that you can view the results live - in real time - on the back of the beautiful 3" OLED screen on the EP-3. That's how I got the shot above - I saw it on the back of the screen as I was walking along with the camera pointed down. The shadows and shapes stopped me in my tracks, and 'click', I had the shot. I know I wouldn't have got this image had the Art Filter not been on and tracking in real-time. Brilliant!

Coastline. EP-3, Dramatic Tone Filter
Another Art Filter that I'm using a lot is the 'Dramatic Tone' filter. It's not quite HDR - but close enough. As the name suggests, it adds more 'drama' to your image - bringing fairly lifeless lighting to life. Just like HDR, you wouldn't want to apply it to every shot (probably not great for portraits), but once again it's an amazingly effective one-touch effect and something that would definitely take a while to replicate in Photoshop (for the novice at least).

Storm approaching. EP-3, Dramatic Tone Filter
You can also add border effects (the film-like edges is my favorite) instantly just to finish the 'arty' look off - and why wouldn't you? Again, it's better to do it at the time of capture, than in Photoshop later on. And if you decide you don't want the border, just crop it out. But I do like it, and it's a look that I gave to a lot of my images in post-processing. Now, the EP-3 does it all for me!

Another feature I'm really enjoying on the EP-3 (and other cameras feature this as well) is the different aspect ratios you can shoot in - from the digital 4:3 standard, to a more 35mm 3:4, a wide-screen 16:9, or a medium-format looking square 1:1. Very cool.

And the EP-3 makes it so easy to 'play' with the art filters by adding filter bracketing. Just decide which filters you want to include, and after you shoot a normal image, the camera goes about processing other photos, applying the art filter modes you've chosen. It does take a while for the camera to process the new images - about 1 or two seconds each - but compare that to the time you would have had to spend doing it in Photoshop, and it's a no brainer!

Other filters I intend to play with depending on the situation include: Pin Hole (adds a dark vignette and slight colour shift), Diorama (pseudo tilt-shift effect), Cross process (self explanatory) and Gentle Sepia (again, fairly self-explanatory). Not only will these be fun to explore on their own, you can also 'stack' certain filters - combining Cross Process with Pin Hole for example. Lots of opportunity for fun images.

The less impressive filters (for me at least) are the Soft Focus (too strong), Pale & Light Colour (too pastel), Light Tone (too wishy-washy) and Pop-Art filters (too trippy). I'm not sure I'll use these at all. And if I don't they can actually be turned off in the Pen's menu system so as not to get in the way.

Greymouth Wharf. EP-3. Grainy B&W Art Filter
It's early days, and I'm really only scratching the surface of the possibilities that Art Filters open up for creative image making. But it sure is making the Olympus Pen P-3 a lot of fun to make images with. And isn't that the point?

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Pen EP-3 Ordered!

Okay, I've done it.

After much gnashing of teeth and fretting over finances, I've ordered an EP-3 twin lens kit, with the EV-2 Electronic Viewfinder accessory (a must have as far as I'm concerned!).

The silver is very retro and very sexy, and I've opted for this instead of the understated black or chic white.

Will all be arriving tomorrow, so I'll charge up the battery (bought an after market spare one of them as well), configure the camera to my liking, and shoot like mad over the weekend!

Will obviously post more then - but until then go here to see a short advert for the new Pen. Very cool.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Pulling the trigger on a Pen EP-3

I'm a 'big' guy when it comes to photography. Big cameras, big lenses, big backpacks, big reflectors. The bigger the better. Whenever I buy an SLR, I have to have the vertical grip that goes with it! And if the camera doesn't come with a vertical grip as an option, then I don't get the camera. Simple as that.

Yes, I like the extra real estate that a grip gives, even though I don't have particularly big hands. And yes, I appreciate the extra vertical shutter button and second battery option that these grips accommodate.

But over and above all that, I really like the extra weight you get with a grip attached - and the added 'coolness' - the extra professionalism if you will - that a grip offers. I love em!

Which is why I've struggled over the years to come up with a 'compact' camera system to carry around and use when I'm not in an SLR mood. Compact just isn't in my DNA. And believe me, I've tried.

The closest I've come to enjoying using a compact camera was way back when I first got into digital - about ten years ago, with a Canon G3. Not that you could call any of the Canon G series cameras 'compact'. And I guess that's what I liked about them. They weren't all that compact - but compact enough so that there was an obvious difference between them and a DSLR.

But that was ten years ago, and a lot has happened in the digital world since then.

Over the last couple of years, my interest has definitely been peeked by the introduction of the mirrorless EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) cameras - especially the micro 4/3rds range from Panasonic and Olympus. I LOVE the look of the Olympus Pen range, but never felt that it had matured to the point where I was ready to jump in. The autofocus has always been suspect - especially on the original Pen EP-1, so I held off and waited... and waited... and waited...

Pohutakawa Flower - NZ Native. Olympus EP-3 and 14-42mm kit lens
This year, with the launch of the Pen EP-3, it seems that my wait may actually be over!

With the EP-3 it seems that Olympus have a real winner on their hands. Not only does it continue the sexy retro Pen look, but it is also claiming the fastest autofocus of any camera - period! Don't know about that, but at least now we are in the right ball park as far as autofocus is concerned. I'm interested.

Rusty Lock. EP-3 and 14-42mm lens
Not only is the autofocus worthy of a look, the EP-3 has touch screen technology which they have implemented better than the competition. Using a hi-res touch screen, the EP-3 enables you to choose a focus point, or even take a photo, with a touch of the screen. Swipe to move through images in playback a-la the iPhone, or access some basic image 'fixes' in IA (Intelligent Auto) mode.

All Tied Up. EP-3 with Grainy B&W Art filter. 1:1 Aspect ratio
And then, of course, there's the Art Filter modes. Yes, I know - in-camera filters are crap! But hang on a minute. A couple of the Pen Art Filters are actually very cool, and really well done. Especially grainy B&W combined with the black art frame. It's great to be able to actually see the effect on the large 3" screen while you're composing the shot - and you can even use them in movie mode, if you're that way inclined?

Emily. EP-3, Diorama Art Filter and 40-150mm lens
I had the privilege of getting to 'play' with the EP-3 before deciding whether or not I want to purchase one for myself. And I have to say, it's the most fun I've had with a camera of any sort in a very long time!

The menu system is incredibly extensive, and takes a bit of getting used to. The flip side of this, however, is that the Pen EP-3 is incredibly customisable. You can set it up exactly for your style of shooting. Nothing is really there for good if you don't want it to be. It is a small form factor, so the buttons and dials are a little fiddly. But not so fiddly to be unusable (although I wouldn't want to try it with gloves on!?), and it's the price we pay for smaller cameras I guess? The body itself is constructed of magnesium alloy, so it has a good heft to it - which can't really be said for the kit lenses. They are very plasticky, and incredibly light - but having said that, I can't complain about their image quality. And Olympus/Panasonic are releasing some 'serious' prime lenses with all metal construction if you've got the need (and the deep pockets) for such lenses.

What didn't I like? Well, outside in the harsh daylight, the lcd screen that you have to use to compose with (the Pen's have no built-in viewfinder) is almost unuseable! Aaargghh!!! They do sell a very good electronic viewfinder that fits on to the cameras hotshoe and clips into the back of the camera - but you pay for it! If/when I get the EP-3, the electronic viewfinder will be a necessity, and not an option!

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Just add people

If I had to pigeon-hole myself, I'd say that I'm a landscape photographer - even though I shoot weddings as part of my business.

While I really enjoy shooting weddings - love it, in fact (despite the stress and worry over the weather etc) - I also resisted it for the longest time because, at my core, I'm a bit of a loaner. I much prefer getting away from people, rather than seeking large groups of them out. Growing up I would have said that I was shy, although that shyness has certainly decreased the older I get. But I still don't like large groups of people. They make me nervous.

So, not surprisingly, when I wanted to start taking photography seriously, I gravitated towards the more lone pursuit of the landscape. All of my exhibitions have been on the landscape, and most of the framed prints in the house are (with the exception of family photos of course) landscapes. All of which is a long-winded way of saying "I'm a landscape kinda guy".

Driftwood. Canon 20D + EF-S 18-55mm IS @ f8
Where am I going with this? Well, this weekend we went for an afternoon walk along a local beach, and of course I took my camera. It was the middle of the afternoon, so I never expect to get amazing photos - but then again, you never know, right?

While walking along the beach we came across some pretty cool driftwood. Whenever I spot a photo opportunity - even when I'm with the family - I get into the 'zone' and start approaching the scene as I would if I was out taking landscapes on my own. So I tell the kids "stay out of the frame - don't get in the shot" - basically "leave me alone, I'm taking a photo". Yeah, not very nice, I know. Although in my defense, I never take very long at these moments, and the kids do have the whole rest of the beach to play on... just not in 'my' spot for a few minutes. Usually I'll end up taking a few of the kids playing in the same spot once I've finished as well - and that's what I did this weekend. I took my 'arty' landscape shots, and then some more family friendly 'snapshots' afterwards.

Driftwood and family. Canon 20D + EF-S 18-55mm IS
When I got home and looked through the downloaded images from the day I was pretty happy with some of the photos, despite the harsh mid afternoon sun. The clouds were pretty cool, and the driftwood quite dramatic - although I don't think I got anything portfolio worthy.

Maybe it was the time of day, or maybe it was my mindset when I took them, but the more I looked at the images, the more I felt myself drawn to the ones that had people in them, and the less interested I was in the 'arty' lone-landscape images. Upon reflection, the more I think about it, the more I realise this to be the case in the images that I find the most compelling - there's some human element there that makes the landscape more personal, more interesting and more intimate.

I purchased two photography books recently - both large books of landscapes taken on medium format. As impressive as the large landscape images were, I found myself simply flicking through the books very quickly, and then putting them down - somewhat dissatisfied (and if I'm really truthful downright disappointed) by the experience. The few images that really held my attention for more than a couple of seconds were those that contained at least some reference to the human (a sign, abandoned building, small figure) and I'm finding this increasingly relevant to my own photography.

Does that mean that I will never go out on my own again and make 'pure' landscape images? No - absolutely not. Maybe that's the challenge of taking landscapes that hold no human content?

Or maybe it means that we come to an image wanting to relate to it in some way - even if it's a small way - in human terms. A road, a hut, a footprint, a bridge - anything that connects our humaneness to the landscape?

What I do know, when looking back through my image library, is that I respond more to an image when it has a human element to it - and that's good enough for me.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Rugby World Cup 2011

Tonight is the night - the start of Rugby World Cup 2011 here in New Zealand!

Lots of people today wearing black to support New Zealand in the opening match against Tonga. There are even a few brave souls sporting Tongan colours too!

We won't get a lot of traffic from the tournament down this end of the country, but we are still jazzed that it's happening in New Zealand - and of course we are all praying that the mighty All Blacks can do it this year, and win the cup with home-town advantage!

To mark the start, it's been 'wear your colours' day - and so the kids headed off to school dressed in black from head to toe. There's also been a smattering of businesses getting in behind the hype - the most impressive is probably one of the local hotels who have been waving flags around the building for the last few weeks.

The Royal Hotel waving the World Cup flags. 20D & EF-S 18-55mm IS
I'm a huge rugby fan - have been ever since I was a boy and would watch the All Black test matches on tv with my dad. My wife, however - not so much. She surprised me this week though, and asked me if we could watch the opening ceremony and first game together.

So tonight that's what we'll be doing. The whole family will watch the opening ceremony together, and then Joanna and I will watch the mighty All Blacks destroy Tonga! GO BLACK!!!

Canon 75-300mm f4/5.6 USM II

In my last post I extolled the virtues of the 18-55mm 'kit' lens as a decent all-purpose walk-around lens worthy of keeping on your camera. I also mentioned my intention of getting its companion telephoto, the 55-250mm.

I had my eye on a couple on Trademe (NZ's internet auction site), but was also coming across a few other options in the process. And I should preface all of this by saying that I already own the outstanding Canon 70-200mm f4 'L' which I use on the 5D (and occasionally the 20D) - and which I have absolutely no intention of getting rid of.

So why do I need another telephoto lens? Well, as part of a lighter 'travel' kit, I'm looking for an option that I can put together as a complete package - a two lens, go anywhere kind of kit that I will take away on holidays etc. A lighter lens that I can use with the 20D without its grip attached - with even more reach than the 70-200mm gives me at the moment.

Which leads me to the Canon 55-250mm lens - or variants on a similar theme. My two criteria: light enough to carry around all day and use on the 20D body, with as much 'reach' as possible. So with this in mind, the other lens that kept coming up on Trademe is the 75-300mm in all it's different guises.

Canon have produced more 70 to 'something' telephoto zooms than any other focal length you can name, so you would expect them to have a fairly good handle on producing them by now. And never one to shy away from offering options, whenever they introduce a new 75-300mm lens they always produce a USM motor and non-USM motor model, together with an IS version.

Canon 75-300mm f4/5.6 USM II
The IS model would be great, but is usually at least $400+ more expensive - so it's out of my price range. What I usually try to find is the middle of the three - the USM motor driven model, normally available for only $20 to $30 more than the non USM version. With the 'micro' USM system, autofocusing should be a tad quicker - so that's the model I go for. It's worth saying, however, that optically all three models (of that version) will be identical.

So in looking around on Trademe I found a version II (they're up to version III) USM motor 75-300mm Canon lens (see above) for $140NZ. That's about half what I was going to have to pay for a 55-250mm, and while it means I give up IS - it does give me an extra 50mm reach at the long end. That takes my focal length on the 20D effectively out to 480mm! Now where talkin!!

Of course I've read the reviews on the internet, and for such a 'budget' lens the news isn't all good (depending who you read). Most talk about edge softness throughout the zoom range - and overall softness at the maximum 300mm focal length. Not a brilliant performer then...?

But dig a little deeper - think a little harder - and you might come up with a slightly different 'take' on these reviews. For a start, a good deal of them were written by people shooting film and then looking at their slides/scans at 100%. If that's the case, then all discussions about 'edge' softness become moot when we look at it in the digital era. And indeed, a more recent review of this lens gave two final conclusions - one for a 5D, and one for a 20D. On the 5D - a full frame camera -  the lens does exhibit edge softness at all focal lengths. The reviewer didn't recommend the lens for a 5D user. But, on a 20D, where the edges of the lens are always cropped out due to the smaller sensor size, the reviewer saw excellent edge to edge sharpness! And highly recommended the lens for a 20D user. Makes sense to me.

The overall softness at 300mm? Well, that very may well be true - or it might depend on lens variances?  When I was a Nikon shooter, I owned the equivalent nikkor lens which also got a bad rap from reviewers at the 300mm end - but I found my lens to be a good performer, even wide open. In fact, one of my favourite images is taken with the Nikkor 75-300mm wide open at full zoom. And it's tack sharp.

I'll reserve judgement until I actually have the lens in my hands (should be next week), and then I'll do some testing. Will post some images and results with the lens when I have them...

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Why buy a kit lens?

Why not?

"Because they are plastic and crappy" would be the general answer.

Ok. Fair enough. But are they really plastic and crappy, or are we just told this by retailers (and lens manufacturers) so that we will upgrade to the better ( and by better they mean more expensive) lenses?

Without getting too far ahead of myself - ultimately when choosing the appropriate lens it's going to be about choosing horses for courses. What do I mean by that? Well, if you are a professional photographer who needs their gear to work flawlessly all day every day, then you're going to want to (have to) pay a premium for the solidly constructed, rugged, weather sealed lenses that cost more than your average car!

But what if you're not a professional? Are you really getting 'better' by spending $600+ more?

I've just bought a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f3.5/5.6 IS kit lens to use as my walk-around standard lens on the 20D - for the grand total of NZ$160.00. I also plan on getting the Canon EF-S 55-250mm IS lens as well, and that will probably cost me about NZ$250.00. So for just over NZ$400 I'll have a light weight, two lens kit, that goes from wide (29mm) to telephoto (400mm) for less than half the price of a new Canon EF 28-135mm IS or Canon EF-S 18-200mm IS, both of which are probably considered 'better' lenses.

Better in what sense though? Better build? OK - maybe. But not by much. Yes, the two kit lenses have plastic lens mounts - so what? The hardened plastic used in lens manufacture has proven itself up to the task, and I'm not going to be changing lenses back and forth a hundred times a day (horses for courses remember).

The fact that these lenses are of plastic construction really doesn't bother me as much as it used to - and in reality you have to spend a lot more (L series quality) to get a lens that isn't made mostly of plastic nowadays.

Okay then - maybe the autofocus system isn't much good on these cheap models? Granted, they don't use the ultra fast, ultra quiet USM systems of the more expensive lenses, with no full-time autofocus over-ride and generally inferior manual focus capabilities. They make a little noise when focusing, usually have the front element or manual focusing ring rotate during focusing, and aren't super-fast constant aperture lenses. But are they also really as bad as they are made out to be?

In all but the most demanding of situations (Formula 1 racing maybe), the speed of the auto focus on these 'cheap' lenses is plenty fast enough. And really, the noise the auto focus motor makes is minimal. I guarantee you that I could use the EF-S 18-55mm at a wedding and never get noticed. The shutter noise of the 5D is way louder than the focusing motor on these lenses. And as for full-time manual focus over-ride... well, I'm sure it's useful for somebody, somewhere, but I've never - repeat NEVER - used it on any of the lenses where it's been available. On modern camera bodies, using even the cheapest of modern lenses, autofocus is amazingly accurate. That's been my experience at least.

So it's got to come down to image quality - right? Time and again I hear enthusiast photographers told to 'upgrade' their kit lenses - as if they've been taking crappy photos for the last year and suddenly all that will change now that they have a 'better' lens. Yet at the same time, many will say that with modern computer aided design, manufacturers no longer make 'bad' lenses. And they'd be right.

I tested the EF-S 18-55mm kit lens against an 'L' series 17-40mm f4 professional lens a year or so back (see the post here) and I was surprised at how close it was in terms of image quality! Yes, the 17-40mm was a tad sharper, with a touch more contrast and a little less colour fringing - but not by a lot. Certainly nothing that a little sharpening and a quick levels adjustment in Photoshop couldn't fix. Yet we're made to feel that if we don't have a $1000 lens slung around our neck then all our images are going to suck!

For the first two years as a freelance wedding photographer, I used Nikon's 18-70mm 'kit' lens that came with the 70D as my main wedding lens (together with the 50mm f1.8 for wide-open portraits), and I never once had a client complain that my images weren't sharp, lacked contrast, or had too much CA. I'm sure I could use Canon's 18-55mm lens in the same way and get equally as good a result.

Now having argued all of the above, I would like to finish by saying that if you're going to pour your money into anything in photography that will make a difference to your images, then pour it in to lenses. What! I thought you said it didn't matter what lens I used!?

No - I didn't actually say that. What I'm trying to say is that the kit lens you own probably isn't as bad as you've been lead to believe it is - and that an incremental jump to a $800 mid-range zoom might not really be worth it.

But what will be worth it, for any photographer, is an investment in fast glass. And by 'fast', I mean constant, fixed aperture lenses that go down to f2.8 or lower. These are usually prime lenses (although fast fixed zooms can be had for crazy prices), and these really will open up a whole new world of photography for you. And they are also an investment. Camera bodies come and go - whereas fast glass often only gets better with age - and tends to hold its price well in the used market. It doesn't have to be horrendously expensive either. A fast 50mm f1.8 will only set you back $150.00 - cheaper than I just bought the kit lens for.

So the next time you think about 'upgrading' your kit lens, have a serious think about whether it's actually worth it - or what you might upgrade to. You may find that it's actually cheaper to keep the kit lens, and buy a 50mm f1.4 or 85mm f1.8 instead? in my humble opinion this will serve you better than any mid-range zoom for $1000 bucks ever will.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

iPhone photo madness!

There is a lot of talk - crazy, inane talk if you ask me - amongst photographers, about the capabilities of the camera on an iPhone. Camera phones (in general) they say, will soon become good enough (and in fact are already good enough according to many) to obviate the need to carry a point-and-shoot around for serious photography. And while technically, with the very latest iPhone (4) and android smart phones, this may be true in principle, I hope it never actually eventuates in practice.

Why not, you ask? Well, I'm glad you asked. And I'll tell you why not. In the end, for me, it comes down to user experience - and using the appropriate tool for the job. Notice I didn't say 'the best tool', but the 'appropriate' tool. Called me old fashioned (and in some respects I'm sure I am), but when I want to take a photo - even a snap shot - I like to use an actual camera, and not my PHONE.

Removing the cast. 2MP 3G iPhone.
Now I am willing to admit that there are times when it is inconvenient to carry even a small point-and-shoot around, and you want to take a quick snap shot. Like, for example, the image here I took of my daughter having her cast removed at the hospital. I didn't have a point-and-shoot (or SLR) with me, but wanted to get a quick shot of the moment. Out came the iPhone and hey presto - got the shot.

I suppose this follows the 'best camera is the one you have with you' mantra we hear so often nowadays to justify (it seems to me) using your camera phone to take images with. But imagine, just for a second, that you were actually serious about your photography! If that were the case, wouldn't you try to make sure that the best camera you had with you was at least a dedicated point-and-shoot - and maybe even (shock horror) a digital SLR (or the new breed of micro four thirds cameras)?  Why should the best camera you have with you, by default, be your camera phone?

Shantytown. 2MP 3G iPhone + Pixlromatic App

By my own admission, I don't have the most up-to-date iPhone. Hence, my 2MP camera phone kinda sucks. Yes, the camera on the new iPhone 4 is much better, clearer, crisper, more resolution etc... So if I had one of these I'd change my mind - right?

Well no, I don't think I would. Because as I stated earlier, I really would much rather the user experience of an actual camera, rather than an add-on to a phone - even if that means having to carry around a camera and a phone! See, I told you I was old fashioned.

This is the same beef I have with digital SLR's and video. Yes, I know they can do video now. And yes, I know you can use all your supercool lenses. And yes, I know that there's no going back and all SLR's from here on out are going to have this functionality built in. But is it really any better/easier/superior to using a dedicated video camera? Again - for me personally (and believe me, I do know that I'm swimming against the tide here), if I want to shoot video, I'd rather use a video camera. A specific tool, for a specific purpose, to achieve a specific job, just makes more sense to me. Crazy, I know.

Princess Theatre, Shantytown. iPhone + Old Photo App
Finally, there's the whole app and social media sharing thing. We all know there are thousands of cool photo apps you can have on your phone that will allow you to instantly modify your masterpiece. And some of them are pretty cool. But OnOne's series of plug-ins for Photoshop are pretty cool too, and also allow you to create some really amazing images. Granted it doesn't cost $1.99 at the app store - but I would also argue that the final result is a little superior :-)

Photo apps for the iPhone have replaced the 'special effects' filters of the Photoshop era. Many a photographer has tried to 'fix' a boring image by applying a water colour filter in photoshop - and the same, I feel, is often true with iPhone camera apps. Both the images of Shantytown above are fairly ordinary - taken at the wrong time of the day under harsh sun, but whip them through an old-timey photo app on the iPhone and viola - you've got yourself some art! Really?

I'll finish my rant on social networking - the other big reason to use your internet-connected, wi-fi protected, spiffy-doo-dah smart phone to take pictures with. Cause guess what - you can share them instantly. That's right folks. Don't hold of tomorrow what you can do today - now - immediately! Snap that crappy photo and have it on your faceblog page quicker than you can say 'google'.

I don't know about you (really, I don't), but I've never taken a photo - even an amazing one that I'm super proud of - and thought "man, I've got to share this NOW or I'll simply explode!"

For photo agencies, news reporters and journalists covering breaking news I can definitely see the benefits of immediate sharing. But for the rest of us? We can probably hold off on showing the whole world pictures of our cat, or our best mate Dave throwing up at his bachelor party. I mean, seriously.

Please don't get me wrong - I love technology as much as the next gear head. Give me a fully kited out digital SLR with the biggest, baddest lens you've got and I'm happier than a pig in mud! And I LOVE my iPhone - as an iPod, email device, and phone. But I really don't subscribe to the 'fit it all in one device' swiss army knife kind of mentality that is starting to pervade the professional ranks of photography. Yes, I know the scissors on a swiss army knife can be used to cut paper - at a pinch. But seriously people... wouldn't you rather use an actual pair of scissors?

The right tool, for the right job. That's all I ask.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

PK 2011 Event Photography

Just got back from shooting in Christchurch at Promise Keepers, a weekend-long christian men's event where I was one of the official photographers. I wrote in my last post about ISO settings for the indoor event - and how I was most likely going to shoot on ISO 1600 all weekend (and this turned out to be the case).

In this post I want to show some of the image from the weekend, and go into the nuts and bolts of shooting the event - a sort of personal de-brief now that the dust has settled (and my feet have recovered).

Sung worship. Canon 5D & 20-35mm
To begin with, lets talk technical. How did I set my cameras up to shoot, what gear did I use, and what did I learn from the exercise?

Well, to start with, I used both of my Canon DSLR's - the 5D and the 20D - and set them up exactly the same. Both were set on centre weighted metering, tungsten white balance, AI Servo auto focus and ISO 1600. I also shot in AV (Aperture mode), wide open for the whole weekend. Both were also set to highest quality jpeg so I could download and hand-off the images instantly, without having to go through RAW conversion software. I decided not to bother with RAW + JPG since I thought I might be shooting a LOT over the course of the weekend and didn't want to have to be dealing with too many Gigs of images.

PK Band. Canon 20D & 70-200mm
The only difference between the two bodies was the inclusion of the vertical grip on the 20D, and the exclusion of a grip on the 5D. Why on one and not the other? The decision had to do with the lenses I decided to use on both cameras (see, there is a method to my madness).

I borrowed a Canon 100mm f2.8 to take because I thought I would need as fast a lens as possible - but at the last minute I also bought along my 70-200mm f4 L. And boy, am I glad I did! When I got to the venue, I set up the 70-200mm on the 20D, effectively giving me a 112 to 320mm f4, and attached this outfit to a monopod for better stabilisation. I found that I was getting anywhere from a 60th to a 125th second shutter speed, depending on the lights, and decided that this was fast enough. It's a big venue - even though I had the run of the place and was told that no where was out-of-bounds for me (except actually on the stage itself of course) - so I opted for reach over speed. Considering I used this set-up about 70 to 80% of the time, I'm happy that I bought the 70-200mm f4 L along.

Lost in Prayer. 5D & 20-35mm
On the 5D I went with the widest lens in my bag, the Canon EF 20-35mm f3.5/4.5, and again, it was another really good choice. With the 20D, long lens and monopod in one hand, I slung the 5D with wide-angle over my shoulder and was good to go. I wanted it to be light and maneuverable with the second camera, hence not attaching the vertical grip, and with my new camera strap (see two posts ago) the 5D and wide-angle stuck at my side all weekend. Don't want to harp on about the whole strap thing, but I really did feel that the 5D was very securely planted on my right shoulder all weekend. I was moving around a lot, and never once felt the camera start to slip off of my shoulder. I know I couldn't say the same thing about the standard canon strap.

I also bought a 50mm f1.8 with me (again, because I thought I might need super-fast glass), but didn't use it. Ditto my 580EX flash.

The wide angle allowed my to get in really close to the crowd and get some very emotive images - as well as step back and get in a sweeping crowd shot to fit in as much as I could of the venue.  Both scenarios worked really well.

Ian Grant. 20D & 70-200mm
Most of the images of the speakers were taken using the 70-200mm on the Canon 20D - and most of those at the longest 200mm end. I waited to shoot until a: the speaker looked interesting, and b: the light was good - to give me the best chance of getting a sharp, interesting image. And I shot a lot! Even so, my hit rate was maybe 50/50. I took as many blurry images (normally because of subject movement) as sharp ones - and tried to up this rate by shooting in short bursts (so that at least one would be sharp). This worked very well, and I am very pleased with the amount of keepers I got for each speaker.

The event organisers wanted at least 10 good images of each speaker to choose from - but using the technique above I managed to give them twice as much!

Corridor. Canon 5D & 20-35mm
Of course the whole weekend was dedicated to taking photos for the Promise Keepers organisation - trying to cover all the images that they required. This meant taking wide crowd shots, photos of the speakers, capturing the various group break-outs, as well as getting intimate worship images of fathers and sons, individuals etc. With every shot I took, I had these criteria in the back of my mind.  Over the whole weekend, there was only one shot I took for myself - a 'grab' shot that doesn't really fit any of the required categories - and it just happens to be my favorite shot of the weekend.

It's the image above, 'Corridor' and literally was a grab shot I took while going from one room to another. As I was about to go onto the top floor to get some wide crowd shots looking down from above, I spied this group just standing at the end of a long corridor. I swung the 5D to my eye, snapped one shot, and went on to get the photos I was after. This is 'my' shot for the weekend. I love the light, the silhouette, and enigma of this image, and despite it not fitting in with the brief, I'm glad I took it.

Bill Subritzky. Canon 20D & 70-200mm f4L
Finally, an image the definitely does fit the brief, and one of my other favorites from the weekend, is this image of New Zealand's most famous faith healer, Bill Subritzky. Promise Keepers is organised by his two sons, Paul and John, so it was important for me to get some very strong images of their father giving his message. I positioned myself purposefully to include the cross in the image, and waited for Bill to strike an obviously 'religious' pose (which didn't take long).

Overall, the weekend shooting at the Christchurch Promise Keepers event was incredibly positive - and fun. I was nervous going in to it since it was such an unknown quantity (photographically speaking), but it turns out I needn't have worried. I got some fantastic images that the PK event team are thrilled with, and at the end of the day that was all I wanted to achieve. I was very sore by the end of it (I have a problem with my ankles if I stand for too long), but looking back over the photos, the pain was worth it.

Even though I enjoyed the experience, it might be a while before I do it again. Next year I'm going to take my son Joshua to Promise Keepers to actually sit and be part of the crowd. He'll be 11, and old enough to take part in one of the break-out groups for young boys. He's very excited about going, and so am I. Only one year to wait!  :-)

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Canon 5D at ISO 1600

This weekend I'm off to Christchurch to attend Promise Keepers - a christian men's event that runs from friday through to saturday night. It will be the fourth time I've attended the event (there are different speakers and a new theme every year), although this time it will be very different - I'm one of the official photographers for the event!

I'm very excited about this because I think that it will be a: challenging, b: rewarding and c: fun (hopefully). In preparation for shooting the event, I've read up a little on concert/stage photography (although there are conflicting views and it's nothing I couldn't have figured out for myself), and bought a manfrotto monopod head to use with my 5D and 70-200mm f4 L.

Of course I'm taking the 5D, as well as the 20D with an assortment of lenses. There will be no flash during the presentations, but I'll take one anyway since I may get to use it during the breaks for group shots etc. I will also need to take my laptop for burning CD's and maybe for some quick editing? The event organisers would like as many images as possible supplied immediately - although there may also be the option of taking the files away and working on them for supply at a later date.

I know the venue reasonably well, and am happy that there will be plenty of room for me to work in. I can probably get as close to the stage as I like without actually getting on it(!) - so I may not even need to use the 70-200mm a lot? I'm actually thinking of using my 50mm f1.8 on the 20D (giving me a 75mm f1.8 effectively) for stage shots when the presenters are doing their thing, together with the 20-35mm f3.5/4.5 on the 5D for wide angle shots of the crowd, band etc? Then of course there's the 28-135mm IS lens on the 5D if I want a 'one lens fits all' kind of approach - and finally the 70-200mm f4L on either the 5D or 20D, depending on how much 'reach' I need?

Canon 5D @ ISO 1600
Having never really pushed the 5D in terms of high ISO's, I figured I had better do an 'experiment' before next weekend to see how comfortable I would be shooting at max ISO (which is 1600 for both the 5D and 20D without using the 'extra' high setting to go to 3200 on the 5D).

I simply focused on a dark area of my daughters bedroom - giving me both highlight and shadow detail - and made a shot at all the different ISO settings, up to the 1600 max. I then gave all the files identical processing in terms of sharpening, levels and curves adjustments, and then zoomed in to 100% to examine the results.

Without going in to too much detail, I'm very happy with the high ISO results the 5D gives, and won't have any worries shooting all weekend maxed out at 1600 if I have to.

The results above probably don't show up all that well on the internet - they probably all look much of a muchness? Even clicking on them for a bigger look probably doesn't help much - although you're more than welcome to do so :-)   Yes, there's noise there - of course there is. But it's not horrible, and there is still lots of detail as well. This is, after all, a full-frame sensor with a very large pixel size, so the detail isn't turning to mush (like it will with many compact digitals).

So really, what it does say, is that the high ISO performance of the 5D (and also the 20D which is said to be comparable in all the reviews I've read), is very good - and nothing to worry about. No, it won't be as good as the 5D MkII, or recent 7D, or even the new 60D - but it's good enough for me. Especially if I put the really good images through a noise reduction program later on when I can edit at my leisure. But even without it, they will be fine.

ISO 1600 should be enough to give me shutter speeds of around 125th sec when under the bright stage lights, especially if I can use the 50mm f1.8. It will be a different story when I turn around and shoot the crowds, but the monopod should help me to get steady shots - even around 15th or 10th of a second. Hopefully I can get the crowd to stay still for that long?  :-)

Monday, 1 August 2011

Get a new Strap!

Hands up those who are using the supplied strap that came with your camera?

Yeah, I thought so. That would be most of us - right?

'Hey buddy, there's nothing wrong with the strap that came with my camera' I hear you say. 'It's got a cool Canon/Nikon/Sony etc logo on it - say's 'Digital' on there somewhere, and is in the company's trendy colours. What more could you want!'

How about comfort? How about extra features like cushioning and grip? Think they might make a difference when you're talking about supporting a 2kg+ load of camera gear around your neck for a day? You betcha. And these are the features that you don't get with the camera strap that comes with your digital SLR - even the Pro bodies that cost megabucks.

My new Kaiser (made in Germany) camera strap for the Canon 5D.
Unfortunately the Leica doesn't come with the strap.
If you've never used any other strap on your camera than the one supplied by the manufacturer, then you owe it to yourself to make a change. I guarantee you will wonder why you put up with the crappy supplied one for so long!

There are myriad number of camera straps available as an alternative, and like anything to do with photography, you can spend as little - or as much - as you like.

Straps like the 'Black Rapid' have become very trendy with 'pro' photographers, but even going to a very basic cushioned neoprene style camera strap will totally revolutionise your camera-toting experience. I finally decided to change the supplied camera strap on my 5D (which is a pretty hefty camera, especially with the vertical grip attached), and opted for a 'Kaiser Pro Camera Strap'. It wasn't very expensive - only $25NZ - but makes a huge difference when carrying the 5D around the neck or on the shoulder - and has a few extra features over the Canon bog-standard strap.

No, it doesn't have a big 'CANON' logo on it - and guess what - I think that's a good thing. It's obviously attached to a big Canon camera, but it doesn't scream at you from across the room "hey look at me, I'm a Canon camera". It's just black, with no big expensive looking logos across the neck - just a couple of very discreet 'Kaiser' logos on the side.

What it is, is cushioned (mmmm...) and made of neoprene which is much more slip-resistant than the standard material type. I'm forever hitching my camera back over my shoulder if I use the supplied strap - but not so with a decent strap. And don't dismiss that cushioning. It really does make a great difference - more so the heavier your camera is.

Maybe it's not very sexy? Maybe it's not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of 'upgrading' your camera, and it's probably not top of your list of 'must have' camera gear. But that's a shame - because maybe it should be at the very top of your list! As I said, you don't have to spend too much money to get an infinitely superior product to what you're using at the moment. And once you've used a decent strap, you'll never go back to the supplied straps ever again. Promise.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

100th Post and HDR!

According to blogger, this is my 100th post! Yippeee!!!

Over the last few days I've been using HDR software, with an eye to writing a review/article for publication. I've pitched the idea at a couple of editors, but they haven't gotten back to me yet. But it's early days.

I have stayed clear of HDR (High Dynamic Range) Software in the past, but have grown increasingly more interested in what is out there. As someone who uses Photoshop extensively, I'm certainly not adverse to manipulating pixels for a HDR 'look'. Yet until relatively recently, the options were limited. But in the last year some major software developers have released HDR programs (including Adobe with CS5), so I figured it might be time to see for myself what all the fuss is about.

'True' HDR uses a range of exposures (at least three and up to five) that expose for both highlight and shadow detail. These are then 'blended' (more correctly referred to as Tone Mapping) together to create one HDR exposure. Some argue this is cheating. Others claim it better represents what our eye actually sees when we take a photograph. I don't know that I quite agree with either side of the debate - and I'm not sure I care. It's my photo, and I'll do what I want with it, thank you very much. And if that means HDR, then so be it.

Anyway - you can also create an HDR image with just one RAW photo - and that's what I'm going to show here in this post.

First - the original image, as captured. Yes, its a little dark - and so that's why I used it, to see what these HDR programs could get out of it.

Original image - as shot.

To get the ball rolling, I downloaded the 'grandaddy' of all HDR programs - the one that started it all - Photomatix. Anyone who has played around with HDR has probably used Photomatix at some stage, and it remains a strong player in the market.

Processed with Photomatix
As you can see, it does a good job of pulling detail out of the shadows, but retaining it in the highlights, while adding that HDR 'punch' that this process is (infamously) known for. It is only a small program (7MB) compared with some of the others, and doesn't offer as many pre-defined styles or tweakable sliders, but there is enough, and I really liked the result I got using Photomatix. So far so good.

As a side note: I downloaded trial versions of the software discussed here - bar one (which was a free, but limited program). Photomatix is the only company that insists on placing a watermark over the image until you purchase the full product. Boo hiss. Shame on you Photomatix!

Anyway, onwards and upwards.

Next is HDR Efex Pro, from Nik Software -  a giant in the software plug-in industry. I was very excited about this product, and was expecting big things. They pioneered 'U-Point' technology that I first saw in Capture NX software for Nikon cameras, and with big names like Tony Corbell behind them, I hoped it would be a winner.

Processed with HDR Efex Pro
Efex Pro certainly goes all out with its pre-sets and styles to give you the HDR look, which it achieves often at the sake of detail. Try as I might, I couldn't get any detail out of the trees at top left of the image - which wasn't an issue with any of the other programs I tested. Having said that, I like the dramatic look you get using HDR Efex Pro, even though I struggled to get the detail I wanted out of it - even with U-Point technology.

Third on the list is HDR Express, touted as giving a more realistic HDR look to its Tone Mapping algorithms.

Processed with HDR Express
I processed the image using a 'Cool' pre-set, simply because I liked to look. True to its marketing hype, all the set styles looked more natural as a starting point than you get from HDR Efex Pro. It also has fewer sliders or style options, but I found this a good thing. Results can be tweaked, but there is no doubt that HDR Express gives a more subdued HDR result that Nik's offering. Depends what you are after.

And finally, I checked out a FREE application specifically for Mac users - HDRtist. As files go, it's even smaller than Photomatix (5MB), and has basically no options whatsoever - save for a 'Strength' slider. Surprisingly, though, it actually did a pretty decent job - especially for FREE.

Processed with HDRtist
You can spend a little more (US$29.99) for the PRO version, which does give you styles and sliders so you can customise the look. And considering it is at least US$60 cheaper than the other offerings, might be worthwhile if you only wanted to do HDR very infrequently. It definitely works, and has to get the 'bargain' award for HDR software if nothing else.

Which do you like? What would suit your needs or budget? If you like a more natural HDR effect, then HDR Express might be fore you. Looking for something more gutsy and in-your-face for your images? Check out Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro. Want to use the tried and true software that started it all - and produces really great results - look no further than Photomatix. Then, of course, there's HDRtist for FREE if you use a Mac - and there are certainly others out there for you poor Windows users. So, something for everyone.

More importantly, I've discovered that converting images to HDR is a lot of fun? Of course you can do what I did, and try them all for free (trial versions range from 15 days to 1 month). I'm sure you will create some truly stunning images with any of these programs. I know I did.

Decisions, decisions. For me, the question remains. Which one will I choose...?

Thursday, 12 May 2011

First shots with Canon Powershot G6

It was overcast, but not raining, at lunchtime today - so I decided to go for a walk down at the wharf with my G6.

I wanted to get the feel for using it for my style of shooting; playing with the exposure value dial, using the lcd screen or optical viewfinder, reviewing, deleting etc. Basically just getting used to how the G6 operates.

I fumbled around for a little while getting used to button placement, but on the whole the camera is set up very intuitively.

Exposure compensation is a feature I use for almost every shot - even though I also shoot in RAW. I appreciate that RAW gives you a little exposure latitude, but I still like to nail it on every exposure as much as possible. I do this by viewing the shot on the lcd screen and checking the histogram (not the jpeg image on the screen), and then moving the exposure compensation up or down as necessary. The G6 makes this pretty easy, with the exposure compensation function (+/-) built right into the main selector pad. A quick flick up and you access the exposure compensation screen, flick left or right to add or subtract exposure, and flick up again to make it all go away so you can take the shot. Easy.

Although I normally prefer to hold a camera up to my eye, with the G6 (and almost all other compacts for that matter), using the lcd screen to compose is really the better way to go. The optical viewfinder is only 80% of view, and isn't easy to compose critically with. Whereas the lcd screen is 100% of the final image. And with the flip-out screen and reasonably large 2" monitor, it is quite nice to use. I am, however, painfully aware of the camera shaking when it's being held out away from my body - and the G6 doesn't have stabilisation. So I kept an eye on shutter speeds and made sure that they didn't fall lower than I thought I could manage. Reviewing the images from the shoot I seem to have gotten this right - no blurry photos, even though often times the boats were rocking slightly in the water.

And speaking of hand holding the G6, I find it easier to do with the lens adapter tube attached. It gives a nice solid 'lens' barrel to hold on to, while the lens is free to zoom around inside. It also allows me use a UV filter on the front - and of course a polarising filter or other filters if needed.

The G6 also has a built in ND (neutral density) filter that you can turn on whenever you feel the need to lower the shutter speed or lighting values. I turned it on for a few shots, but it didn't really have that much of an affect. I will wait until I have a waterfall or other classic subject to try this feature out a bit more. Should be handy though. Would have been even greater if it could somehow have been graduated  :-)    Now that would be handy.

Even though it was overcast lighting, the G6 sensor has produced strong colours and heaps of detail. I kept the ISO at 50, although I'm sure pushing it to 200 wouldn't have hurt either. I have played a little in photoshop with the images you see here, but not a lot. No more than I would with an image from any of my digital SLRs.

Overall I had fun with the G6 today. And isn't that the main reason to take photos for yourself - for the fun of it?! Of course the image quality matters, and fortunately the G6 has fantastic image quality with its 7.1MP sensor and high quality 35-140mm lens. I'm looking forward to using it more often.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Canon G6 Converters

The Canon Powershot G6 arrived today and I'm very pleased with its overall condition. 

I was keen to get a Canon G series camera because of their handling, image quality, ease of use and features. I used a G2 about 10 years ago and loved it. I've wanted another ever since. I was especially keen to get this G6, because it also came with wide and telephoto conversion lenses.

The lenses are from Opteka, and simply screw on to the front of the adapter tube that can stay on the G6 at all times. The tube allows the use of 52mm filters or, of course, the lenses.

So what sort of difference do they make? I fitted the adapter on the G6, placed the wide conversion lens on, and took some images to find out.

First, without the wide angle, the lens on the G6 goes down to 35mm. This is what it looks like.

So what happens when you put the wide conversion lens on with the adapter...?

Oops. At the extreme wide end it gets, well, extreme. You can see the adapter tube showing at the corners - not really a good look. Don't know if this happens with the official Canon wide angle conversion lens - but it certainly does with the Opteka brand. You can crop in a little, and still get a wider image than you get without using it. Looks like this...

Even cropped, the image is probably still around the 28mm mark, and is obviously wider than the wide end of the G6 without the adapter.

If you zoom in a little so that the adapter edges go away, you get this...

Probably around the 30mm mark. Wider than the G6 lens, but not super wide. Don't know if I'd bother pulling it out and using it on a regular basis, but if you need to get a little wider it's good to know it's there.

The same is true for the telephoto converter. Without the adapter lens the Canon lens goes to 145mm.  This is how close it got me without changing my position for the wide angle shots.

When I attached the Opteka telephoto and kept it at the greatest telephoto setting, this is what I got...

Is it closer - yes. Is it remarkably closer - nah. Again, it works - but... Not sure it's going to find me reaching for the teleconverter for this kind of result. 

So all-in-all, even though I was excited about the possibilities the wide and tele converters would afford me, the actual results with the Opteka converters are less than impressive. I'll hopefully get outside this weekend and have a better play. But initial results ain't that impressive.

I am happy with the G6 though. Great little camera with a stellar lens, and really good image quality from a compact sensor. Looking forward to capturing some great travel images with it.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Canon Powershot G6

Yes, I do know my numerals, and can tell a 3 from a 6. The Powershot G3 that I won on Trademe arrived in the post the other day - and long story short - it doesn't work!

Still not sure whether I should be annoyed by this, or chalk another one up to a learning experience? Upon reflection, I probably didn't ask enough questions about the G3, since the seller did state there was an issue - but they 'presumed' the issue was with the CF card, and not the camera itself.

Never presume. Ever.

I presumed they were right, and it would just need a new CF card. I was wrong, and so were they.

So I now have a useless G3 (turns on, but doesn't write to the card - it shuts down giving an E52 error), and I'm not quite sure how much I can push the 'you didn't tell me' line of enquiry with the seller? I have emailed them to let them know that the camera still doesn't work with another Cf card, and I guess we'll take it from there.

It does mean, however, that I come away from the experience a little wiser - no matter the outcome - but still without a Canon G series compact.... or do I?

Never one to muck around, and, watching many other camera auctions as is my want, I had been following an auction for a G6 (in mint condition), with both tele and wide converter lenses that looked like it might go for a very good (i.e. low) price. And I was right. Because I won it! For a very good price.

So it's out with the G3 (even if I end up cutting my losses and keeping it) and in with the G6. And I'm pretty pleased about that.

The Canon G6 is an 'almost' doubling of megapixels (from 4 to 7.1) which will give great A3 sized prints (again, more than enough for me), with the same excellent lens that was on the G3 (and G5). But this time I get both the wide and teleconverter lenses with it as well! For not much more than I paid for the G3 in the first instance! Bonus!!

The G6 also increases the screen from a 1.8" to a 2" (with the same resolution), and uses the same battery as my 20D and 5D - very handy indeed.

ISOs remain at 50 to 400, although a test I saw recently rated them more like 100 to 640, with excellent noise control despite the larger megapixel rating.

Button placement has been fiddled with for better ergonomics, and the G6 is lighter and smaller than both the G3 and G5 that it replaces.

Actual G6 from auction with conversion lenses

But what I am most excited about with the G6 is getting the accessory lenses included with the auction.
Above we see the telephoto lens on the left which takes the focal distance up to 245mm (from 140mm) and the wide angle lens on the right that takes the lens down to 24.5mm (from 35mm). The conversion adapter required for both lenses to fit also has a filter thread allowing for the use of 58mm filters.

Add to this the ability to use my 420EX flash in full ETTL mode, and I'll have an instant 'compact' kit.

I realise that it's not as 'compact' as today's offerings, but I actually like that fact. I don't like my compact cameras to be too small, because then they become too light and tricky to stabilize (even with built in stabilization). I like a little bit of 'beef' to a camera. Gives me something to hang on to. But that's just me.

So the instant demise of the G3 may turn out to have been a blessing in disguise. I have a feeling the G6 and I will become very good friends. :-) Can't wait.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Stop the upgrade madness

A couple of posts ago I outlined my recent Canon gear purchases, and also talked about the Powershot G3 that's due any day now. In deciding on the G3 I visited a few internet review sites, watched some videos on YouTube, and read through some (admittedly old) user reviews.

One comment that struck me was posted by someone responding to a very positive review of the G3 and it went something along the lines of: "I can't believe you use that camera anymore. What a brick!"

I laughed about this at the time and treated it as just another inane comment from an opinionated internet idiot who loves the sound of his own voice. But later it did get me thinking - about the decisions I have made with my recent camera purchases, and about the prevailing views on technology and using the 'latest and greatest'.

My 'old' Canon Kit. The newest camera is still 6 years old! 

I'll let you in on a little secret - but don't tell anyone. The digital camera you are using now won't stop working when the newer model comes out. I know - amazing, right!? 

Think about what you really need a camera for. Ask yourself some serious questions about your photography and the tools you require to create the images you want/need to create. Do you print bigger than 8x10" prints - ever? That's an important question. Because if you don't, then you really don't need anything more than about 4 megapixels. Especially if, like me, you tend to compose 'in-camera' and hardly ever crop your images in any serious manner.

If you don't need much more than 4 or 6 megapixels, then you can start to save yourself some serious money. The mid to late 2000's saw the megapixel wars, where changes to most cameras were only related to the sensor size. Almost everything else stayed the same (maybe a slightly bigger lcd screen, or slightly larger buffer - but most reviewers talked about 'evolutionary' rather than 'revolutionary' changes). So the differences between the Canon 20D and the 50D in respect to Image Quality, is arguably negligible for someone who will print at most to 8x12 (A3) sizes. Yet the difference in price between the two on the used market is substantial

OK, if you need Live View, or a 3" lcd screen, or ISO's up to 6400 then yes, you'll need to 'upgrade' to the 50D. But do you really need those things? Photographers worked for decades without ever needing Live View on their cameras. Heck, I had it on my Nikon D300 and honestly never ever used it. Not once. I will admit that the 3" lcd on the D300 is nice to look at, but again, do you really need it!? We were happy 6 years ago with a 1.8" or 2" lcd screen, and I don't believe for a second that our images suffered because we only had 1.8" lcd screens, or that we immediately became better photographers because we suddenly got 3" lcd screens. In fact, you could almost argue the opposite. Photographer's who rely on their lcd screens for their exposure are simply asking for trouble! Yes, the 1.8" lcd on the 20D is small, but it's not un-useable. And it's more than enough for a quick check of the histogram (which is what you should be using the lcd screen for) to get your exposures right so you can concentrate on what really matters, composing the image.

But what about ISO? It's true that the megapixel war has now been replaced by the high ISO war. Who cares about how many megapixels we've got, as long as we can shoot noise-free at ISO 64 million - right? Well, again, maybe there are some photographers who make their living shooting portraits down a coal mine, using natural light, who need ISO 64 million. But what about the rest of us? 

In the good old/bad old days of film, ISO 400 made photographers sweat and ISO 800 was unusual. Yet now we complain if we don't shoot at 800 noise-free all the time. And what about that whole noise-free thing anyway? I have never had a client look at any of my images and tell me that they loved the smile on their Grandmothers face, but hated the noise in the image! I'll let you in on another dirty little secret - the average joe (your clients) don't even know about noise! Only photographers do. And trust me - only photographers care! 

At ISO 400 my 20D and 5D create fantastic images with the barest hint of noise - easily fixed in Noise Ninja if I felt that way inclined. Even the Powershot G3 shoots fine at ISO400 - its highest ISO setting. Want my advice? Don't sweat the ISO thing. Even if your camera goes up to ISO 64 million, please shoot at the lowest ISO you can, and if you need to add more light. Yes, that's right, learn to use your speedlites! Don't give me that "I only shoot natural light because I'm an arteest" line of rubbish. That's just code for "I'm too lazy to learn how to use my flash properly."

Chase Jarvis told us all to shoot with the camera you have with you. This is great advice - but I still get the feeling that we are made to think that what we have with us needs to be the latest and the greatest. When the Canon G3 came out in 2002, it was the latest and the greatest. People drooled over it, reviewers glowed and users waxed lyrical. And yet nine years later opinionated internet flatheads will claim that "I can't believe you use that anymore"

What changed? Obviously not the camera. Sensors got bigger (do you need bigger), ISO's got higher, lcd screens got larger, and processors got quicker. All nice changes. But changes that are necessary for creating better images? I think not.

And now we have HD video in our DSLR's that we need. Don't get me started on that! All I'm going to say about HD video on DSLR's is that if video is really important to you, buy a dedicated video recorder and NOT a digital SLR. Nuff said.

Finally I want to say this. PLEASE, if you are thinking about 'upgrading' because you need x,y or z, STOP and ask yourself some really serious questions. Do you really need those features that you're upgrading for? Are you a photographer or a techno junkie? Think about it - and then go and buy some nice glass. That's what really makes a difference to your images.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

To plug-in or not to plug-in

That is the question.

Lots of photographers will say that using plug-ins to process your images is cheating.

Cheating what, exactly, I'm not sure? Cheating reality? Well, duh. But who ever said photography had to be about reality? Photographers have been cheating reality in the darkroom almost since photography began. Dodging, burning, hand-tinting - heck, even shooting in Black and White is cheating reality.

From my perspective, Photoshop plug-ins are an artistic tool, to be used by the individual as they see fit. Yes, sometimes people go overboard, and a style can get done to death (everybody say HDR). And No, a filter or an effect is not a substitute for a good image to begin with. But it can also help turn a reasonably drab image into a more pleasing one.

Often it also comes down to what the image is going to be used for, and who is going to use it. Some competitions have strict rules around any form of 'manipulation', while others let you go for it to your hearts content. Most magazines, however, will want untouched images so that their own graphic department can start from scratch - unless of course it's a photography magazine showcasing your own, finished, work.

I've used Photoshop since version 3 (or there abouts) and have been guilty of over-processing one or two images in my time. But that is also how you begin to learn when enough is enough. All artists go through this. And yes, that does mean I consider photography to be an art form. Of course it is.

My favourite suite of Plug-ins comes from onOne Software - PhotoTools Professional. They have a great range of one-click Photoshop presets that you can apply as single effects, or mix and match to create individual looks. Most looks are controllable from within PhotoTools, varying the degree of the effect before you apply them and export back into Photoshop on its own layer. I use single effects all the time in my wedding work, and they really do speed up the overall workflow.

Case-in-point today, when a file arrived at my in-box from a client who asked me to 'fix' the attached image  and 'make it look more moody etc' (they were his exact words).

Original photo as supplied for 'fixing'

Rather than spend a lot of time in Photoshop, I decided to see what I could get out of onOne's PhotoTools suite. I did a basic curves adjustment in Photoshop to boost the shadows, and then exported the image to PhotoTools from within Photoshop itself.

And the final result using PhotoTools Plugins
I went to the Landscape section of the suite and clicked "Overall colour boost", then a "Landscape enhance" and I was basically done! Played with the strength settings of both effects until I was happy, and then hit the "Apply" button. Easy peasy - and a much better result. A quick trip through Noise Ninja, a slight vignette applied in Photoshop and bam - job done. Total time taken? About 5 minutes.

Yes, I could have done everything from within Photoshop, but that 5 minutes would have turned into 15 or 20. And time, as they say, is money.