Thursday, September 30, 2010

Compact digital cameras

*Why own a compact digital camera?
Even though I have taken the route of simplifying my DSLR outfit to the bare minimum I still own a compact digital camera as well. There are several reasons for this. The most important reason is for an emergency back-up in case the DSLR goes down. Another is there are times and places it is just not as practical to carry the larger camera, even if only the body and one lens. There is also a down-side to using a compact compared to a DSLR.

*Size, weight, carrying ease and visibility
Sometimes it is just much easier to carry only a compact camera. It might be a windy day on the beach with blowing sand and salt spray or it might be storming with blowing rain or snow. A compact camera can be carried in a pocket and is ready to shoot when pulled out and be quickly protected again. A DSLR is either exposed on a neck strap or in a much less accessible case. Replacement cost in case of damage from the elements is a factor, too. In some areas it might be much wiser not to make a show of carrying camera gear, even if just cheaper “amateur equipment, and becoming a possible target of thieves or hostility. Carrying just a compact camera is less conspicuous. It can be taken from a pocket and a photo taken without bringing it up to eye level and quickly removed from sight again. For “street” photography a compact can be carried hidden in one hand and frames exposed on the fly. A compact is also much quieter than a DSLR so observers don’t know when or if exposures are being made. It can be very liberating to wander around looking for images without a larger and heavier DSLR outfit hanging from the neck or attached to a tripod.

*Image quality
Image quality from compact digital cameras is not the equal of DSLR’s but steps can be taken to maximize that quality. The smaller cameras mostly suffer from a smaller sensor which means smaller individual pixels. Image quality suffers much more as ISO speeds increase than it does with larger sensors. As with a DSLR, always shoot at the lowest practical ISO to get the best image quality. Zoom lenses with very wide focal length ranges tend to suffer much more from linear distortion and aberrations at both the shortest and longest ends of the zoom range. Longer range zooms on compacts are always much slower, too, limiting the usefulness of the longer focal lengths unless a tripod is used.

*Desirable features
When selecting a compact camera I look for a good image stabilization/anti-shake function as a tripod or monopod will not usually be used. Either easily accessible manual exposure or exposure compensation is a must to correct for backlighting or other exposure difficulties. I prefer a zoom in the 4x to 6x range to minimize both image quality fall-off at the focal extremes and speed loss at the long end of the range. I much prefer a zoom range starting at 28mm equivalent or shorter for versatility. It is usually much easier to move closer to a subject than to try to back up through a wall to fit more into the frame. The ability to shoot RAW files is a huge plus but not an absolute deal-breaker. Fitting into a pocket rather than requiring a neck strap or case is high on my list and another reason for choosing a medium-range over a longer-range zoom. A hot-shoe for accessory flash when needed is another plus but also not a deal-breaker.

*What to expect
A good compact digital camera, which includes most of the models currently available, should provide more than adequate image quality for on-screen and web use and for prints up to 8”x10”. Most will start having image-quality issues at larger sizes including softness and noise(grain) as compared to similar shots from a DSLR with a larger sensor. Color and noise problems can be more obvious if RAW shooting is not possible. Using the quality-enhancing techniques outlined in the “Most basic equipment” series will minimize these problems when using compact cameras, too. Just don’t expect to use a compact at maximum focal length and ISO800 for 16”x20” prints for the dining room wall – you will be very disappointed with the results. For images to post on a web site or Flickr or to e-mail to friends or to make 4”x6” prints to show, no one will know what kind of camera was used.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Using the most basic camera equipment-Part 4

This is the fourth and final installment of this series exploring photography using only the most basic of “modern” digital camera gear: one “beginner’s” camera body and two “kit” zoom lenses. I will talk about techniques to optimize the image quality from any camera/lens combination and how these techniques minimize image quality differences between “basic” and “top-of-the-line” equipment.  Part 1 covered my reasons for doing this prolonged experiment. In Part 2 I talked about why I enjoyed using the minimal “amateur” kit. Part 3 discussed the things I missed most about not having a complete “professional quality” camera system.

We will start out by taking a look at some of the differences between “entry-level” and “professional” camera bodies and lenses. There are plenty of differences but not necessarily the ones beginning photographers assume. This will tie the reasons why “basic” equipment is often perceived to produce inferior image quality to more expensive gear.

The most noticeable differences between the two levels of gear are size and weight. The two are tied together and the reason “better” gear is both larger and heavier is build quality. “Professional” cameras and lenses are designed for heavy, every-day use in tough conditions and for continual rough treatment during frequent travel. The bodies and lenses are built inside a metal skeleton, usually with shock-absorbing materials between the skeleton and internal mechanical/electrical components and often with more shock-absorbing material between the skeleton and external shell. Heavily stressed components such as the mechanical shutter and controls in a body or the focus and zoom mechanisms in a lens  are much tougher and longer-lasting than those used in “starter” gear. “Professional” camera bodies have larger memory buffers and faster processing software to allow faster frames-per-second burst rates for more frames than “amateur” bodies. The high-end bodies include a lot more “bells & whistles” features and lenses will have internal focusing and constant apertures throughout the zoom range. “Professional” lenses will often feature elements of special-formulation glass and/or aspherical elements to further minimize optical and color distortions. Some of these differences have a slight impact on final image quality but most do not affect image quality at all.

Another difference between the two levels of gear is price. The “professional” equipment can easily cost five to ten times as much as the “entry-level” gear. This price difference pays for all of the upgraded features listed in the previous paragraph. I expect “professional” gear to last for many years of hard use, taking hard knocks in extreme weather conditions and being constantly vibrated by car and plane travel. It is always a pleasant surprise when an “amateur” body lasts me more than a year or two. This is one of the areas that cheaper gear has really improved in recent years. My Canon digital Rebel XSi and “kit” zooms are nearly two years old and going strong.

The “real” differences of final image quality between “professional” and “amateur” camera equipment are caused by the way the gear is used. There are many techniques used by professional photographers wanting maximum image quality in each and every frame that most casual and beginning photographers don’t know about, don’t think about or just think are too much trouble to deal with. Professional and top amateur photographers do use these techniques, every frame, and that makes the real difference in final image quality.

Maximizing image quality with any camera:
First and most important is to use a tripod with image-stabilization turned off whenever possible. A tripod is much superior to any image stabilizing technology built into a camera body or lens. I f it is not possible to use a tripod, use a monopod with image-stabilization on instead. A tripod will deliver maximum sharpness every frame by eliminating camera shake during exposure. Additional benefits are the ability to use lower ISO’s for minimum digital “noise” as well as better color and dynamic range. A tripod mounted camera promotes more care with framing, composition and focus. The ability to use longer shutter speeds also allows the use of smaller lens’ apertures to maximize sharpness and/or depth of field(most lenses are not at their sharpest at maximum aperture). Using a self-timer or remote shutter release and avoiding shutter speeds between ¼- and 1/60- seconds will reduce camera vibration during exposures even more.

Color accuracy and fine details can often be further enhanced by using a polarizing filter. A polarizer can reduce or eliminate color cast reflections which mask true subject colors and mask fine detail. Using a lens shade designed for a particular lens also helps in these two areas by minimizing internal lens reflections that reduce image contrast and detail.

Get the best exposure each shot to maximize the amount of data in every image. More data means greater ability to adjust the image in editing software without degradation. Digital camera sensors produce more depth of data at higher exposure levels than in the shadow areas of the image. Keep the exposure histograms turned on and pay attention to them. Do a test to see how much a scene can be over-exposed on the camera histogram and still have retrievable detail in the highlights. Give as much exposure as possible to every frame for maximum data and then adjust as needed in editing software.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sunday gear round-up 9/26/2010

*Aquatech has a new underwater housing for DSLR’s, the CO-7. This is a hard-shell case, so each camera model requires a specific housing. More for snorkeling than scuba, the housing is designed for depths to 33 feet. It should be available for approximately $1,900 on-line.

*Pentax showed a new Model 645D at Photokina in Cologne, Germany. The body has a 40-megapixwl sensor and will accept all previous 645 lenses from Pentax. New lenses with automatic correction in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom are also planned. Pentax has some heavy competition in this medium-format digital camera category and is getting a late start compared to Hasselblad, Leaf/Mamiya, Leica and the full-frame 35mm digital bodies from Leica, Canon and Nikon.

*Sigma has a new Foveon-sensored SD1 camera body with APS-sized sensor. The sensor is rated for just over 15-megapixels. Sigma claims an improved sensor but people have tended to either really like or really not like the “look” of images made by the Foveon sensor.

*Panasonic has a lens fitting its Micro Four Thirds format cameras that produces stereo images that can be made into 3-D photographs.

*Part of Canon’s upgrade to its telephoto lens line is a smooth powered focusing option to take fuller advantage of the video capabilities of most the company’s current DSLR camera bodies. The long focal-length lenses will also be slightly smaller and significantly lighter in weight. Canon is also introducing a super-wide fisheye zoom lens that will be only the second of its type(Tokina makes the first).

*Fujifilm has a new dual-lens 3-D compact digital camera, the FinePix Real 3D W3.

It will be a very interesting few years ahead of us as we see just how popular 3-D imaging becomes with the general public. I can understand its popularity in the movie theaters, impressed with the 3-D effect but still annoyed by the distorting, low-quality glasses. Will 3-D televisions quickly become a must-have item the way large flat-panel televisions did or will it take a while to catch on? Are stereo-pairs of 3-D photographs really going to become mainstream for amateur and/or professional photography? I want to know now!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Using the most basic equipment-Part 3

This is the third installment of a four part series exploring photography using nothing but the most basic of equipment. I will discuss the things I miss most about not having a complete “professional quality” camera system. Part 1 covered my reasons for undertaking this experiment. In Part 2 I talked about why I enjoyed using the minimal “amateur kit. Part 4 will delve into some of the “real” reasons for the perceived quality differences of images made with “beginner” versus “professional” gear.

There are many things, some small and some large, that miss about having a “complete, professional” camera system. As I go through this list you might notice that some of them are the same things I like best about having only a “amateur, minimal” camera kit. This is the nature of photography as well as many other parts of life – everything is a trade-off, giving up one thing to gain something else.

What I miss most of all with the amateur kit are really fast lenses. I shoot a lot both before and after sunrise and those f/1.4-f/1.8 single-focal-length lenses and constant-aperture f/2.8 zooms sure come in handy compared to the f/4-to-f/5.6 variable-aperture kit zooms. A tripod works fine to keep still objects sharp at 1 ½ or 2 seconds shutter speed but don’t help if the subject is a moving bird or wind-blown flower. The larger maximum aperture also gives a brighter viewfinder image, especially important with “amateur” camera bodies which often have dimmer “mirror-box” prisms rather than solid glass prisms. I definitely do not miss the huge size and weight of those fast lenses.

Second on this list is the internal focus of the “professional” lenses. Internal focus means that the lens stays the same length throughout the focusing range and also that the front lens element does not rotate during focusing. That latter makes the use of polarizing filters much simpler. With “amateur” kit lenses the polarizing filter must be re-oriented each time the lens is refocused. A small additional benefit of internal focus, especially for sports or fast-moving wildlife, is they tend to focus slightly faster than standard lenses.

The third most-missed of a “complete” system are the extreme lens focal lengths: 16mm fisheye, 14mm super-wide-angle, 400mm tele-photo(with or without tele-converters). These lenses can always be added to even the cheapest camera body in a manufacturer’s line-up, of course, but that defeats the purpose of a minimalist kit. Instead, the photographer is forced to think creatively to accomplish the vision for an image with the equipment at hand. For very wide angles this usually means backing up a little if possible, or exploring different points of view, or just making the decision of what must be in the shot and can be cropped out. On the tele-photo end, the photographer can either get closer when possible or crop down to the subject after the shot is made. Some shots are missed or just not possible and this is something that must be accepted. This is also something that is true no matter how much gear a photographer accumulates over the years.

Fourth on my most-missed list is size and weight(yes, also the two things I like best about the “amateur” kit). I have quite large hands and am a big, strong guy. I just like, and feel more comfortable using, a “full-sized” camera body that fills my hand. The Canon Rebel XSi body is tiny and feather-light compared to the EOS 5D-II, 7D or 1D-MarkIV bodies. It feels like a toy. It has won me over with its image quality and durability but every so often I still find myself thinking “this is just a toy camera with a Napolean complex”. The extra weight of a “pro” body/lens combination also makes for steadier shooting when not on a tripod. Image stabilization only makes up for so much.

Last but not least I still get occasional anxiety attacks about having only one camera body. I tell myself I can go to any big-box store and walk out with a replacement within a half hour(something not usually possible for a “professional” body). I miss being able to keep two bodies with different focal length lenses ready to shoot around my neck(but my neck doesn’t). This was probably the easiest adaption to make, all things considered.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Using the most basic equipment-Part 2

This is the second of a four part series exploring photography using nothing but the most basic of equipment. I will discuss the best parts of using a minimalist camera kit. In part 1 I talked about some of my reasons for doing this. A discussion of what I miss most about not having a full-blown, “professional quality” camera system will follow in Part 3. Finally, in Part 4, some of the “real” reasons for perceived quality differences between “cheap, entry-level” and “top-of-the-line professional” equipment are discussed.

Using only one camera body and two zoom lenses has been an enlightening experience in many different ways. I was always anxious about equipment failure and “needed” to have at least one back-up camera body “just in case”. There was the feeling that not having a wide enough or long enough or fast enough lens should not ever be an excuse for missing a shot. Rain or heat or snow or blowing sand and salt spray were not reasons not to use the camera when there are a couple of spares if one develops a problem. For most lens focal lengths I had both a “standard” lightweight and a “professional” f/2.8 version. The result was a full 45-pound backpack plus tripod that went everywhere with me.

The very best part of using only a minimalist two-lens kit is its weight. My back and neck thank me every day for the change. Now a half day hike along the beach requires only a medium-sized fanny pack to carry everything. The whole enchilada consists of one body, two zoom lenses, one polarizing filter(conveniently fits both lenses),  a shoe-mount flash and either a carbon tripod with ball head or a carbon monopod with tilt head. I also carry a Canon G10 compact digital camera in its own shoulder pouch and a pair of Nikon 10x25 Trailblazer waterproof binoculars. Well under ten pounds for everything and nothing on my back. Freedom!

There is also the freedom from choice, which was unexpectedly quite liberating. No more deciding between the “old” Minolta Maxxum 7D or the “amateur” Sony Alpha100 or the Sony Alpha700 camera bodies. The new Canon digital Rebel body produces better image quality at higher ISO’s than any of them. No more choice of Minolta 16mm fisheye or Minolta 17-35mm “g” lens. Gone is choosing the Minolta 75-300mm f/5.6 or the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8. All of these lenses produced  approximately equal image quality. The two zooms in the new Canon kit are just as good or better and also very lightweight.

I have recently added a set of automatic Kenko extension tubes for macro work and a Lensbaby “Composer” just to have fun. I had a Lensbaby “3G” for the old Minolta/Sony kit and loved it. The “composer” is smaller, light, easier to pack and carry and does almost everything the “3G” could. It all still fits in the fanny pack or cargo pants.

After the first year the anxiety about equipment failure went away. I realized that these newest cameras, even though very compact and light-weight, were pretty tough and fairly well sealed against the elements. The main reason for previous camera break-downs was dust or water intrusion causing either mechanical or electrical failures. I am pretty hard on my gear and have no problems after two years. No dents or dings(polycarbonate is amazingly resilient), no worn-through paint(that polycarbonate again), no intermittent electrical problems(lighter weight and tougher shell mean less internal shock from a fall) and no dirt inside the mirror box or prism, which surprises me more than anything else.

I have also thoroughly enjoyed the experience of finding ways around the new kits limitations. Sort of a re-learning of some of the basics of photography and an acceptance of the focal lengths available. Having so little to use made me realize how little is really needed. It has certainly changed my thinking about what other equipment I would like to have and why I want it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Using the most basic equipment-Part 1

This is the first of a four part series exploring photography using nothing but the most basic of equipment. In part 1 I talk about some of my reasons for doing this. Part 2 will discuss the best parts of using a minimalist camera kit. A discussion of what I miss most about not having a full-blown, “professional quality” camera system will follow in Part 3. Finally, in Part 4, some of the “real” reasons for perceived quality differences between “cheap, entry-level” and “top-of-the-line professional” equipment are discussed.

Some readers might be wondering why someone with so much photography experience is using such basic “entry level” equipment. There is a good reason I chose this camera kit and why I have continued using it for nearly two years. I would like to tell a story about it. It is a story about putting myself in the shoes of someone just getting started in photography and having a very limited budget for equipment. It is the story of finding out whether it is really possible to produce a steady stream of “professional quality” images with a minimal amount of cheap equipment and how that equipment withstands fairly heavy daily use in not always camera-friendly conditions.

I have a lot of enthusiasm for photography and like nothing better than to get others excited about it, too. The most common complaints from beginner/sometime photographers is they are not happy with the quality of their photos and they can’t afford a “good” camera body and ten “professional” lenses and the top-of-the-line flash needed to get the quality photos they want. It is a very common misconception that more expensive, even “professional” camera bodies and lenses will improve the photographs people take. There is very little truth in this belief, even less so with modern digital equipment than with the film cameras and lenses of 15 or 20 years ago. Computer-aided-design for lens optical formulations, modern composite materials for camera bodies and even lens mounts, cheaper fabrication methods for specialty glass and the advent of molded as opposed to ground lens elements have all contributed to a much more level playing field concerning final image quality between the cheapest and most expensive products in any maker’s camera and lens lines-ups.

The old saying “the photographer makes the photo, not the camera” has always been basic to my personal philosophy. Not quite two years ago all of my gear was stolen from my car trunk after a wedding shoot and I had to start over completely from scratch. Having used Minolta film and then digital bodies and lenses for 30 years, and then continuing with Sony, it was time for a change. I settled on Canon because I really liked their lens selection, range of bodies, compact cameras and reputation. As an introduction to the Canon system I purchased the most basic complete kit I could find for under $800: digital Rebel XSi body with 18-55mm and 55-250mm image stabilized kit zooms. This could just as easily been a similar “intro” kit from Nikon or Pentax or Sony or Olympus, etc… I wanted basic functionality with the cheapest lenses at a rock-bottom price just like someone looking for their first “real” camera outfit would be likely to buy.

My idea was to debunk the “better, more expensive” equipment myth. Right out of the box I was amazed at the image quality of the “kit” lenses: sharp and contrasty throughout the full zoom range, no obvious vignetting at the corners and minimal barrel/pincushion distortion. Weight of the new body plus both lenses was about half of my previous “professional” body with 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. Size was also much smaller all around, requiring some getting-used-to because my hands are large but much easier to pack and carry around. The body gave me more megapixels and a full stop more speed without obvious noise than my previous bodies. So far, so good. Anyone would find it difficult, in a side-by-side comparison on a monitor or with prints, to tell whether an image was made with a Rebel XSi body and 18-55mm IS zoom or with a D700 body and 24-105mm “L” lens.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Welcome to the Florida Image Tools blog!

I am John W. Rivard and this is Florida Image Tools, a companion blog to the Florida Image Tools web site. I will supply a steady stream of information about photography in Florida. A wide range of topics and personal opinions will be presented. My goal is to make using a camera to make great photographs of the sunshine state easier and more enjoyable for everyone.

I have been using a camera since long before autofocus or digital capture were available. My tools of choice are Canon digital cameras and lenses, Adobe PhotoShop running on HP computers and prints from a 13” wide-body HP printer. Extras include a Wacom pen tablet, extra Western Digital hard drives for storage, a sturdy tripod & ball head, a monopod and a small laptop computer for traveling.

 Some of the topics covered here will be new camera equipment releases and occasional reviews, computer hardware and software for photography and photography techniques and tips. Florida’s many public parks, attractions and other photogenic areas will be covered. Tips for traveling with photography equipment, whether by car or commercial plane are also planned. And I will leave myself open for anything else related to Florida photography that inspires my writing bug.

I hope you enjoy this blog. Please let me know in the “comments” if you do. Also please let me know if you don’t like a post and feel free to suggest new topics.