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.