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.