Thursday, October 30, 2008

6 photo myths

I read a lot of photo articles every day. And inevitably, a lot of forums. It's really funny how much misinformation there is out there — and how some people will believe everything that they read. A lot of the same sort of misconceptions seem to crop up over and over again. Here are a few common photography myths I see again and again.

1. You need X amount of megapixels to make Y-sized print. You'll see phrases like "12 megapixels for stunning prints up to 10x13" or "megapixels mean clarity." Best Buy and other big-box stores tell you that you need to be making 300dpi prints for them to look good, and that anything less sacrifices quality. While perhaps mathematically true, the idea that good prints are only made at 300dpi is absolutely untrue. I recently made a 24x36" print
from a 10-megapixel file (that's a 108dpi print if you do the math) out of my 40D and it looks wonderful as long as you're not up on top of it with a magnifying glass. Which you shouldn't be, anyway, for such a large print. Do you plant your face right up against a painting that size at an art museum? Of course not.

2. Expensive cameras take better pictures. First, cameras don't take pictures, you do. And second, if I buy a Steinway, do I sound more like Beethoven? Get real. Shoot with what you've got, and shoot often, you'll get better at it. I learned on an entry-level camera before I could truly appreciate the step-up features of a "fancier" camera.

3. A sharp shot is a good shot, period. Really, nobody who takes a lot of pictures believes this. Not that sharpness is bad, but get the exposure, focus, and colors right, you've got a good picture. Well, I guess it has to be interesting, too, but not necessarily "tack sharp." Man, I hate that term.

4. "Screw it, I can just fix it in Photoshop." Photoshop rules — but it's no substitute for proper technique. Highlights clipped really bad? They're gone forever.

5. Noise ruins photos. ISO 3200 Photos from my 40D look like ISO 400 film. Grain is good, baby, embrace it. Here's a tip — if you still hate your photo because of all the noise, convert it to B&W and see what you think. Me, I'd rather have a noisy shot with detail than one with smeared details due to heavy in-camera noise reduction.

6. Sensor dust is a huge problem. I shot with my Digital Rebel for 5 years, never once cleaned the sensor. If you turn your camera off when you change lenses, you'll keep it from attracting dust due to an electromagnetic charge. Point your lens toward the ground as you change lenses. These things will help. Don't worry about dust.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The R-Strap makes all kinds of sense

Let me be the latest to sing the praises of the Blackrapid R-Strap. I got interested in the strap by reading about it on David duChemin's blog — he's sponsored by Blackrapid, and has come to love the R-Strap after dragging it all over the world. Sounded like enough evidence to me. But if you prefer, just Google it and see how many others have had great experiences with it.

The idea behind the strap is that you can easily get the camera up to your eye from your carrying position. A small bracket screws onto the tripod mount (or tripod collar on a larger lens), and attaches to the strap with a small metal clip. The camera hangs upside-down next to your hip or just above your butt cheek. The whole assembly slides along the strap, so all you do when you're ready to shoot is grab your camera by its grip and bring it up to your eye, like a western gunslinger.

Others have done this already, but I made my own "quick draw" video to show you the strap in action:

You could probably make your own R-Strap. The design is simple, yet effective. DIY versions have popped up already. Personally, I choose to trust the craftsmanship of the folks at Blackrapid, who seem to listen well to photographers — already they have a replacement clip assembly that they offer as a $0.01 upgrade (albeit with a separate $4.99 shipping charge).

Believe me, or believe everyone else - this is a great strap that'll free up you hands when you're walking, hiking, or using two camera bodies at a wedding or other event.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Great example of manipulating light

I read a great article on Joe McNally's blog today. Joe's shot for National Geographic, Life, Time, Newsweek, you name it. He's someone who, when he sees the light is not ideal, simply creates it. When I read articles like that it reminds me how much I have left to learn. Joe does a great job in the article of showing a progression from an uninteresting image to a very good one through his manipulation of the lighting. It's a useful read if you're like me, and "manipulating light" means turning on a couple lamps in the room.

But while it's humbling, it's nice that we can all learn from people like Joe who spill all their secrets for us to chew on. And it's so fun to have a hobby which demands that you keep on learning about it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

D90 video mode: room for improvement

I saw a TV spot starring famed photographer Ashton Kutcher last night touting the video capabilities of the Nikon D90. In it, Ashton is packing for a trip and shoots a quick video clip of his goldfish and shows it to his maid. Bing, bang, boom, the whole thing takes a few seconds, and he says something like "Let that blow your mind" when he shows her the goldfish video he just shot.

Now I understand the logic behind the ad campaign: these cameras are so easy to use, even Ashton Kutcher can get them to make pictures. I actually thought the Coolpix spots were clever; big hunky star Ashton leaves his Coolpix behind to take a phone call, while hot women snap photos of themselves and return his camera before he notices (happens to me all the time). His D60 spot shows him at a wedding snapping away.

The D90 spot is misleading. First of all, he is clearly using the 18-105 VR lens that comes bundled with the camera as a kit, and he's practically touching the fishbowl with it. Too close! Plus, he never focuses the lens. And herein lies the problem.

I took a D90 home from work a couple weeks ago simply to play with the video mode. Video in the D90 is shot through the Live View feature. And while it's just two button clicks to start shooting a video, you have no autofocus and the viewfinder is blacked out. You can't lock exposure, either, so the exposure is constantly adjusting itself — slowly, and in steps — to changing light conditions.

Focusing is very hard, despite the great LCD screen on the D90. And forget it if what you're shooting actually moves. About the only thing you can do is set the camera up on a tripod, carefully focus, then start filming. But who cares about your video of a still subject? It has to do something, it has to move to be interesting. That's why they're called movies.

Clearly the D90's video feature is just a last-minute throw-in so that the marketing folks can claim "first DSLR that shoots video" (true, by a couple of weeks). And now they're throwing it out there like it's a hybrid video/stills camera. It is not. It's a great stills camera. Forget about shooting Junior blowing out the candles on a whim; you need about 5 minutes to plan that shot, and Junior had better not lean into it.

Instead, Nikon should point out that the D90 is an outstanding camera, and oh yeah, you can sort of shoot videos with it. Any parent who buys it thinking "now I can just carry this around!" will be pretty disappointed. I mean, D90 videos don't even have stereo sound (and no mic input to mount on the hotshoe). Panned shots look awful. It's going to disappoint those people.

The Canon 5D markII's video mode, at least, has a stereo mic input, shoots in full HD, has a large sensor, and can shoot 12-minute clips. See Vincent LaForet's short movie "Reverie" to see what that one can do.

All of the next wave of consumer DSLRs will have video capability. And you can bet it'll be a whole lot more functional. The D90 is a wonderful camera in a lot of ways — just not as a video camera.

I think shallow depth-of-field in home videos is exciting. Being able to control white balance and change lenses for video is cool, too. But shooting videos with the D90 borders on being impossible — Nikon should be careful how they advertise the D90, because they're setting unreal expectations.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sometimes the small features are key

One of the things I like best on my Canon 40D is right up on the dial: complete setup memories. There are three of them (C1, C2, C3) which let me pre-program all the shooting settings I need, with instant access at the twist of the dial.

This came in handy when I shot a wedding earlier this year. I set it up so C1 was for outside the chapel, C2 was inside the chapel, and C3 was indoors at the reception hall. I was on the move all day, and there were a few times that this setup saved me precious seconds — and got the shot I wanted because of it.

But it's not just useful for the fast-paced madness of your typical wedding day. Earlier today I went for a walk, and set my camera up like this before I left:
  • C1: "All purpose mode" ISO 200, f/8, aperture priority, one-shot AF, center-weighted average metering, center autofocus point, -1/3 av exposure compensation
  • C2: "Action shot mode" ISO 400, f/8, aperture priority, AI servo AF, evaluative metering, high-speed burst, all the autofocus points, -1/3 av exposure compensation
  • C3: "Panning mode" ISO 200, 1/30 second, shutter priority, one-shot AF, spot metering, center autofocus point, -1/3 av exposure compensation
I ended up using C1 and C2, but not C3. But at least I was ready for a sweet panning shot.

Lazy Sunday

Today was likely one of the last Fall days where it was really warm — 70 degrees or so. We went for a walk in the park after running our typical weekend errands. I had my 40D and a 28-135mm IS lens, which gave me just enough reach to grab a tight crop of a circling hawk.

I spent the last couple of weeks testing the new 18-200mm IS lens for work, and I could have used the extra reach a couple of times today, like when another walker spied the camera around my neck and pointed out a Blue Heron perched on a log in the river.

Further down the path there's a rope swing, and there are always some people there whenever we're in the park. We heard a lot of splashing on the way over, and at first we both thought maybe someone was swimming, odd because it's so late in the year, despite the temperature. Well, someone was swimming — a cute little female pit bull. And not only was she swimming, she was using the rope swing!

All told, it was just a nice little walk on a Fall day, one for snapshots. Leaves are changing and falling, and the best colors may be yet to come. I hope everyone else got a chance to get out and enjoy some nice weather today.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Instant jpeg from RAW

I first read about the Instant JPEG from RAW (IJFR) utility on Scott Kelby's blog — it's a little program which lets you extract the embedded jpeg from any RAW file. It works on DNG files, too, if you're in the habit of converting your RAW files.

Once installed, all you have to do is right-click on the file(s) and extract the jpeg.

Every RAW file has an embedded jpeg, so with this handy little tool you won't need to shoot in RAW+JPEG any more. It'll save you space on your flash cards and hard drive. Plus, it's free!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Manual fun

Old manual-focus lenses are plentiful on eBay and in the used bins of KEH, Adorama, B&H, and others. Your local camera shop will have them, too — not the mall stores, but your smaller local retailer. With an adapter, you can mount them on your camera body and shoot away.

Pentax screwmount, or M42, was a popular mount for many years, and as an accident of camera design they work great with Canons. You'll have to do some research if you use another brand of camera, but there are so many adapters out there I'd be surprised if there wasn't some sort of old mount you could adapt to your particular body.

For these photos, I used a SMC Super Takumar 55mm f/2, wide open at f/2. The adapter screws on to the bottom of the lens, and then fits in my EOS mount. To control aperture, twist the aperture ring on the lens. I shoot in Av (aperture priority) mode on my 40D. The camera meters perfectly; you just focus manually and shoot away.

Nailing focus isn't easy — digital cameras don't use those handy split-prism focusing screens any more, so you just twist until it looks right. It gets easier with practice. And if your camera can change focusing screens, maybe there's a split-prism screen for it. I just use what I've got.

There are a lot of different adapters. Some have glass elements, while cheaper models are just a metal ring that fits your camera mount. If you shop for adapters, make sure they mention that it allows you to focus to infinity. Mine is of the simple, glass-free, metal ring variety.

So why bother with this? For one, the lenses are cheap. My 55mm f/2 was $25. It's made of solid metal and has a nice, creamy bokeh, and it's fast enough to use indoors. You might fill a hole in your lens lineup, or find something fun you would rarely use, like a fisheye, for a lot less cash than you'd lay out to get a new one. It's a fun way to experiment, hone your manual focus skills, and get pictures with a different look and feel from your other lenses.