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.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Travelling Companion - Canon G3

I've well and truly moved back into the Canon camp with all my recent purchases and total kit rethink. So the final piece of the puzzle had to come in the form of what 'compact' camera I chose to use.

As a Canon user, I've always had a soft spot for their 'G' series of 'compact' cameras, since buying one for the art gallery I was director of around 10 years ago. (Oops. hang on a second. I'm not sure that 'spot' and 'G' should go together in the same sentence, should they? Anyway, I digress.) :-)

They are solid, reliable, full-featured digital compacts designed with the serious photographer in mind - and have been marketed as such by Canon from day one.

The series is now headed by the G12 - and as nice as it would be to own one, my ever decreasing budget won't allow it.

The last time I looked into the G series seriously, for a friend considering a compact digital camera purchase, was when the G5 was first released in about 2004. I also recall that they did eventually buy one, and I was hugely jealous. As the top of the line 'G' model at the time, they weren't cheap - costing about the same as an entry level DSLR (and the current top models still do). So I couldn't really justify getting one too.

But given that was seven years ago, you've gotta think that the prices on the G5 have come down! And you'd be right. On the used market they are going for about $250NZ. So now might just be the time for me to get one?

So in preparation I did what we all do when considering a 'new' camera purchase, I Googled it on the internet. And not surprisingly, there are lots of reviews on the G5 - most of them glowing. It's a well spec'd 5MP compact, solidly built, with a great lens and RAW shooting capabilities. I'm in - right?

Well, a little further reading seemed to suggest that actually, pound for pound, and with image quality taken into consideration, the G3 might actually be the better camera to go for. Why?

It seems that seven or eight years ago, not surprisingly, sensor development was in its infancy, and the move from 4MP in the G3 to 5MP in the G5 created a lot more noise than people were expecting, especially when you consider the negligible increase that 1MP makes. So as a 4MP camera, the G3 was considered by many to have the better image quality.

Others claim they also prefer the more snappy, punchy colours you get from the G3. The G5 seems to render more 'neutral' colours straight out of the box (although this is no big deal in todays age of post-processing).

Compared side to side, and spec to spec, the only difference seems to be the 4 v 5MP sensor - otherwise the cameras are basically identical.

So for even less that half the price of a G5 on the used market, I got a G3 instead.

Yes, it's a nine year old camera. But so is my 20D (roughly). These cameras don't stop working just because they get surpassed by 'newer' technology. And sometimes, as in the case of the G5, it would seem than 'newer' doesn't always mean better?

At ISO 50 (its lowest ISO setting), the G3 will produce noise-free images. And even at ISO 400 (its highest ISO), there's nothing there that Noise Ninja can't fix. Yes, it was a developmental period for camera sensors, so no, they are not as 'sensitive' at low levels as todays crop of cameras are. But that also  means that they didn't push it as much with the ISO's as todays cameras do, so you get truly useable results at the highest ISO.

We are planning a family vacation to Melbourne, Australia for later this year. I'm hoping to take a photography course or day long tour when I'm over there, so will take the 5D and lenses/flash in my Lowepro backpack. But I will also want to carry around a camera with me for the rest of the time for family shots that we can put in an album as 6x4s. I think the Canon G3 will fit the bill perfectly.

I'm a photographer - so I'm a control freak - even with my snapshots. I want to shoot RAW, and I want to tweak exposure etc. Canon's 'G' series is perfect for guys like... me.

My Canon Camera Kit

Well it's now complete - and it's (mostly) all Canon. And with winter on its way, it will give me time to get to grips with all the gear, to see if I've made the right decisions or whether I need to tweak lens selection etc.

Here it is - the whole Canon kit.
Running down the list we have:

1)   Slik PRO700DX Tripod. Although listed first, this is actually my last acquisition. I have had a set of dodgy Chinese knock-off tripod legs for a few years, and have finally got sick of tightening legs or struggling with locks constantly. So the Slik Pro700DX is a much needed addition to my new kit.

2)   Lowepro Slingshot 200AW. A bit of an impulse buy when a local store was having 30% off camera bags - although I'm very glad that I bought it. Will carry my back-up body, lens and flash easily, with room for a couple other lenses. Well designed 'slingshot' style backpack that I will also use as a day-pack when I don't want to carry around the full arsenal with me.

3)   Canon 20D with EF 28-105mm f3.5/4.5 USM. My back-up body. 8MP shooting at 5 fps. I will also use this for sports when I need the faster frame rate and the extra x1.6 reach that the smaller sensor gives. Has a vertical grip attached with two batteries and is loaded with an 8Gig Kingston card.

4)   Canon 5D with EF 28-135mm f3.5/5.6 IS USM. My main camera body with a full-frame sensor. Will use it for everything from portraits and weddings to landscapes. The 28-135mm is an image stabilised lens that should make a perfect 'walk about' lens for the 5D. Both the 5D and 20D have a near identical menu system and button layout which will make a for a seamless transition between the two cameras.

5)   Canon EF 20-35mm f3.5/4.5 USM. Purchased as my landscape 'ultra-wide' angle lens for the 5D. Makes little or no sense to use it on the 20D since with the x1.6 factor it becomes a strange 32-56mm lens? Will also get some use at weddings when I need to go wider for larger groups and family formals.

6)   Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II. Everyone needs a fast 50 in their kit. The 50mm will get a lot of action on both the 5D (where it makes a great low-light 'normal' lens) and the 20D, for an amazing telephoto portrait lens (equating to an 80mm f1.8).

7)   Canon EF 70-200mm f4 L USM. Picked this up for a crazy good price, and is another lens that will get a lot of action on both camera bodies. I will take it with me on weddings to use with the 5D, especially for individual head shots and images of the couple together - but it will also go with the 20D as my 'sports' lens for netball, hockey, speedway etc - where the effective focal range becomes a 112-320mm. Later I may even consider picking up a 1.4x extender to use with this lens to give me a 450mm f5.6 optic!

8)   Phottix Strato Wireless triggers. With the 5D and 20D I don't have the same 'wireless' flash capabilities that I had with my Nikon gear, so the Phottix wireless trigger system fills that gap. Although they are a Chinese made system, they get rave reviews from eveyone who uses them - even when compared to the likes of Pocket Wizard.

9)   Canon 420EX Speedlite. Got this pretty cheap. It was actually the first item I purchased when I knew the 5D was going to be fixed - since the 5D has no in-built flash. It's an ok flash, but will only work in full auto (ETTL). Does have a slave mode though. Will stay in the bag with my 20D as a back-up flash.

10) Canon 580EX Speedlite. The 'daddy' of Canon flash units (although it's been replaced by the 580EX II), this will be my main flash unit. Although it can work as a Master, it needs to be attached to the camera to do so. Mostly it will be used with the 5D, together with the Strato's triggers, for both off and on-camera flash at weddings etc.

11) Canon RS80N3 Remote Switch (not shown). Forgot to include this in the image, but this remote release rounds out my Canon kit. Works with the 5D to facilitate hands-free triggering of the shutter. Got it for an insanely low price on Trademe. Don't think the guy selling it even knew what it was for?

And there you have it. My 'new' Canon Kit. All that remains now is for me to get out there and use it! I'm actually looking forward to this winter :-)

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Kit coming together

My 'new' DSLR kit is coming together nicely. In fact, I think I'm done! (Yeah, right. Are we ever fully finished with GAS: 'Gear Acquisition Syndrome')?

The Canon 20D arrived today, and I had also purchased a vertical grip for it (from Progear in Auckland). The grip for the 5D arrived last week too - all the way from Adorama in the USA. Took about a week to get here - not too bad. And it's in exceptional, 'as new' condition - as is the one for the 20D. So I'm very happy with the two bodies.

Emily calling for the pass
Canon 5D with 28-135mm @f5.6
Talked last post about getting the 28-135mm IS lens, which has also now arrived. I tried it out this weekend at one of Emily's netball games, and it performed OK - but I could have done with a little more 'reach'. And f5.6 at the telephoto end is a little closed down to produce a blurred out background. It's not so bad if you can manage some subject isolation, but as seen here, the background is still a bit too detailed.

I didn't, however, buy it as a sports lens - I got it primarily for weddings - to shoot the service, group formals etc, and for that purpose I see it as being ideally suited for the job. As well as being a great walk-around lens for the 5D.

I will probably shoot a bit of netball this season, and may even get into doing some Speedway photography (it's almost a stone's throw from my back door), so to that end I've gone and got another lens - a Canon 70-200mm f4L.

I've owned this before, and it's a great lens. My friend Nicky has the f2.8 version, which I can probably borrow for weddings etc., so I 'ummed and ahhed' over getting this for myself. But in the end the price was right and I figured that I'm not always going to be able to use other people's lenses, so I've gone for this one for myself. Yes, the f2.8 version would have been nice - but it also would have been 6 times more expensive. And I'm not too concerned about the IS version either. I've got it for an outdoor sports lens, to be used in good light, so the IS isn't that important to me. It's a light enough lens to hand-hold at the 200mm end comfortably as well, although I have also purchased a third-party tripod ring for it since it doesn't come with one as standard.

And finally, to round off my kit, I've got a 580EX flash coming via Trademe this week as well :-)

I've got a buyer lined up for my Nikon SB900, so with the money I'm getting from the sale of one, I'm using to purchase the other! The 420EX I have already is a pretty basic - all automatic - flash, although it does a great job. But the 580EX will just give me so many more options - especially when used as a Master in conjunction with the 420EX (which can be used as a 'slave').

Opens up good possibilities for experimentation with multiple strobes. Could be a long and productive winter getting used to all this gear :-)

Great fun.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

First/Last Wedding with Canon 5D

Yesterday I shot my first wedding with my repaired 5D - which just happened to be my last wedding for this 2010/11 season (hence the confusing title).

And I've got to say that I really enjoyed using the Canon 5D again. Switching ISO,  EV and Apertures on the fly went relatively smoothly. I didn't fumble with switches or settings too often and looking through my set of images after the shoot the exposures look fairly consistent.

Train at Shantytown.
Canon 5D and 28-105mm @f8
 The wedding was at Shantytown - a local historic park that is a very popular wedding venue. They have their own (small, dark) church, although another popular option is to get married outside. My couple (Diane and Paul) got married in the church - which at this time of year (early Autumn) at 4.00pm makes for a very dark interior. I got there early to check light levels and with my 28-105mm lens attached I was managing to get about 1/30th sec at f3.5 on ISO 640.

Why ISO 640? Well, I read somewhere (and heard recently on Scott Bourne's Photofocus podcast), that Canon sensors run smoother in multiples of 160. So rather than setting it at ISO100 - ISO160 is actually more noise-free? Which also means 320 is cleaner than 200, and 640 is cleaner than 400! Go figure.

Anyway, I decided that I wanted to have the versatility of my 28-105mm zoom, rather than switching to my 50mm f1.8 prime for the extra low-light speed - but I was going to have to deal with a little movement blur because of this. Cranked the ISO up to 800 (yeah, I know, it's not a multiple of 160) for a bit more shutter speed, and hoped for the best.

I was actually pretty pleased with the results. Noise is OK at ISO800, and I didn't loose too many due to subject blur. I looked for 'pause points' - moments when the action wasn't to frenetic - and got a pretty decent hit rate.

Canon 5D with 28-105mm @ f4.5 ISO160
Looking back over the images from the day, I'm thrilled with the performance of my Canon 28-105mm f3.4/4.5 zoom. It is a very sharp optic, even shot wide open, and the colour rendition and detail is perfect for portraits. As a walk-around lens for the 5D it's almost perfect - but for the church interior images I was a little worried and felt a bit limited. An f2.8 aperture would have been better, as well as Image Stabilization, but you're talking big dollars for both of those.

I can, however, have one of them - Image Stabilization - in a lens that is very similar: Canon's 28-135mm f3.5/5.6 IS. This lens is talked about in the same breath as the 28-105mm, with the same good image quality, but with extra reach at the telephoto end - and with the addition of IS.

So after reviewing the images in the evening, and mulling over the day, I decided to take the plunge and get one! Just like the 28-105mm they are very reasonably priced on Trademe - and I found a new one going for half price from a guy who had one bought for him as a present, that he'd never used, because he has 'L' glass!

Canon 5D with 100mm macro @f2.8

Also got to use my friends 100mm macro for some of the portraits - wide open at f2.8. The lighting was beautiful, and the above shot of Paul and Diane is straight out of camera - no dodging, burning etc. The quality of this lens is simply amazing. Not to mention the sensor on the 5D. It really is a great wedding camera. I'm actually quite stunned at the series of portraits I took with this lens at the wedding. They look like I've done a whole heap of work on them in Photoshop, but in reality I've done zip. Nada. Zero to them. Just good light, a great camera, and an amazing lens  - combined with a fun couple who gave me the time I needed to get the natural portraits they were after. 

All-in-all a great first up experience, shooting with the Canon 5D again, on my last wedding for this season. Great way to end the year.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Canon 100mm f2.8 macro - Quick review

My Nikon gear is selling thick and fast. One of the lenses I am most upset about parting with has just been sold - the 105mm Micro Nikkor. What a great lens. I've determined that I will get the same lens in the Canon version for my 5D, so to that end I 'borrowed' one today (thanks Nicky) to have a bit of a play.

And here it is - the Canon 100mm f2.8 USM macro. A formidable lens, and the equal (if not better) to my Nikkor micro.

The first thing I noticed was the weight - it's a solid lens at over half a kg (584gms) in weight. There's good quality plastic being used, but there is also a lot of metal and glass that makes this one hefty piece of kit. I'm not complaining mind you. It isn't that heavy. But even on the 5D it holds its own in terms of weight and heft. That's a + in my book.

The other immediate positive is the focus system with the ring type USM. It makes for fast and silent autofocusing - especially when the lens is used as a telephoto portrait optic. This image of Emily was shot wide open at f2.8, and it's as sharp as a tack on the eyes and facial features - right where I positioned the focus points. It's as good, if not better, than the Nikkor in terms of wide open image sharpness for portraiture, and the out-of-focus background blur (or bokeh) is also working in this lenses favour. Very pleasing (although not completely round), out of focus 'balls' from the 8-bladed aperture produce a very creamy background quality - especially in 1:1 macro.

1:1 macro with beautiful colour rendition

Auto focus was even possible down to 1:1 macro, although it did hunt a bit and I switched to manual for most of the true macro shooting with this lens (as I did with the Nikkor).

I haven't purchased this lens myself yet - I'm waiting for a good used one to appear on Trademe - but in looking around I have come across the third-party offerings from the likes of Tamron and Sigma. They get pretty good write-ups most of the time too. The two things that put me off seriously considering them for my macro/portrait work are the inferior (noisy) screw-type focusing systems, and the fact that the barrels extend a great deal as the lenses are focused to full 1:1 magnification. The Canon might start out a longer lens, but it does all the lens extensions internally, and doesn't extend any barrels from the front of the lens. I find this a huge help when shooting macro, because I already know how close I can physically get the lens to my subjects - quite often small jittery creatures who are flighty at the best of times. So I see the Canon's fixed length as a real bonus.

My Girl   f2.8, Canon 100mm Macro
The other major drawcard with these lenses? They do double duty. Not only do they introduce you to the world of true 1:1 macro (whereas the 50mm and 60mm  macro lenses don't), they also hold their own as superb medium-telephoto portrait lenses! Talk about the best of both worlds!

NZ Native Pohutakawa Flower
That's why I think these lenses make fantastic sense. They may be a 'prime' fixed focal length lens (and not a zoom), but even for a wedding photographer like me, there are so many uses for a macro lens on a wedding day. Close up dress details, wedding rings, flower shots, table decoration, cake details - all shot in macro. And then there's the bridal party images you can shoot with the 100mm telephoto wide open at f2.8. Bride and groom portraits, bridal party individuals - the list goes on and on.

I could shoot a wedding without taking a 100mm macro with me. But would I want to?