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.

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