Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dusting off an old friend

Pursuant of my stated goal in my last post, I got out my Canon AE-1 outfit out of the closet yesterday. I have three lenses for it, a 28/2.8 Albinar, Canon 50/1.8 and a Vivitar 80-200/4.5. Here it is with the Albinar mounted.

I haven't used the AE-1 in a while, so I spent a few minutes wondering why I couldn't see the aperture blades on the lenses move when I twisted the aperture rings. I thought they were all stuck, and was feeling a bit bummed out about it, but as it turns out FD-mount lenses don't function until they're screwed on a camera.

The AE-1 is basically a shutter-priority camera. You twist the aperture dial until it locks in the "AE" or "A" position. Then you twist the shutter dial, and the camera chooses the aperture setting. A needle points to the chosen setting, which you see through the viewfinder. Simple as that. No wonder there was an old Saturday Night Live sketch that said "The AE-1 is so easy to use, even Stevie Wonder can use it." Sorry, Stevie.

The first roll is Tri-X 400. I'm 3/4 of the way through it. And to my embarassment, I found myself glancing at the back of the camera after squeezing off a shot.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

One of my goals for 2009

One of my goals as a photographer in 2009 is to shoot an occasional roll of film, and have it developed & scanned. I've got a manual-focus Canon AE-1 and a few FD lenses (my electronic Canon lenses won't work with it) that I'll dust off. But I've also been shopping around for an old camera.

I've started looking at rangefinders because I think they're cool, they're small, and they're easy to operate. They're cheap, too, so long as you stay away from popular brands like Leica. In the past, I stumbled upon the Collectible Cameras site while searching for Pentax screwmount lenses. It's a treasure trove, with anything from the simplest Brownie camera to Hasselblad outfits.

I don't know what most of their cameras are, and luckily I found the Camerapedia, a great resource that has some info on most of the cameras in CC's inventory.

Since I probably won't use it all that often, I'm going to settle for something cheap and working. I don't care at all what it looks like. As long as it works and can run a roll of readily-available film through it, I'm there. I am a believer that forcing yourself to think differently about your craft from time to time yields better results later.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Cold snap

The recent cold snap has hit Virginia, though not in quite the same manner as some other places. Still, it's been cold. I figured the stream nearby would be at least partially iced over. Here's what I found.

I didn't have a tripod with me (or a neutral density filter, for that matter), so I flicked the dial to shutter priority and dialed in a 1/10-second exposure. I know I can hold still enough with the 28-235mm IS lens to get a sharp shot at 1/10 or so.

The 28-235mm IS lens is, I believe, Canon's first IS lens. Or at least their first consumer-grade IS lens. The point it, it's an older design, and the IS is supposedly "primitive" compared to today's models. Whatever the case may be, I find that it works really well for impromptu silky water shots. Panning a bird? Not so much.

Canon must have a warehouse full of those lenses, because they show up as part of a kit on cameras that don't make sense — like my crop-sensor 40D and the newer 50D. That's a field of view of about 45-216mm, not nearly wide enough for a "walk-around" lens. I thought it worked great on the 5D Mark II, though. I really like the lens, and you can find one used for around $300.

Root system, streamside.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tiny grip

I like these shots, and not just because of the super-cute baby. As much as anything, it's because the blurry parts of the photo are distinguishable, adding some detail to the composition.

Of course, I am a bit biased.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Retouching baby photos

Now I know why people always brought their kids to Sears for their "official" portraits, even though they had working cameras at home: babies have skin worse than teenagers. I was getting some closeups ready for my little girl's blog when I saw it up close and personal.

I don't love spending all kinds of time playing with my photos. But this is my little girl we're talking about — I wouldn't be much of a daddy if I didn't make her look her best, right? I was looking for a quick and easy solution, so I went looking for "portrait" plugins for Photoshop.

I knew anything I found, no matter how fancy, would smooth out skin tones while sacrificing detail. But I was willing to compromise a little detail if it saved me a lot of time. I settled on Portraiture 2 from Imagenomic, which is available as a trial download. It's a pretty complex plugin, and does its job well, I think.

Before applying Portraiture 2 plugin.

After applying Portraiture 2 plugin.

I call the above shot the "Olan Mills effect." It's smooth as a baby's bottom, but missing a lot of detail, like skin texture and wrinkles, little hairs, etc. But on the other hand, it's quick and easy to apply.

The shot below uses filtered daylight from a window blind, and really accentuates the baby's dry skin and acne. I couldn't leave it that way. But I like the way the light and contrast of the shot looked, so I didn't want to just smear away all the imperfections. I chose a more labor-intensive approach, using the healing brush and blur tool.

Before painstakingly removing skin blemishes manually.


t took maybe 10 minutes to get rid of the skin blemishes manually. Not my favorite way to work, but we're talking about precious memories here!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

My 5D Mark II impression

I was lucky enough to get my hands on the Canon 5D Mark II for a few weeks recently. Toward the end of that time my daughter was born, so I've been pleasantly distracted from writing down my thoughts on this camera.

I am not a camera reviewer, I am an amateur photographer. You can read detailed reviews at dpreview that go into a lot of the technical stuff. I figure I was lucky enough to borrow one for a little while, so I'll just tell you what I thought about it.

Here are some basic stats, which you probably already know: 21.1 megapixel, full-frame sensor, ISO 100-6400 (expandable to 50-25,600), 3.9 fps, shoots 1080p movies in Live View mode. The latter has been made famous by commercial photographer Vincent Laforet's "Reverie" video. And while I couldn't resist playing with video a bit, this is a stills camera first and foremost, and that's how I was using it.

I'm no fan of posting "gear lists" whenever I prattle on about cameras and photography online, but in this case it's worth mentioning. I read a lot of articles about the 5D Mark II saying that the sensor would outresolve all but the best lenses, or that any inherent flaw in a lens would be exploited to the hilt. So here's what lenses I'm packing these days:
  • Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM
  • Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM
  • Canon EF 100-300mm f/4.5-5.6 USM
  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.8
  • SMC Takumar 55mm f/2 M42 lens
  • Jupiter 37A 135mm f/3.5 M42 lens
  • Tamron 28mm f/2.8 M42 lens
So as you can see, I have no professional lenses. Generally speaking, I use the 28/1.8 indoors and the 28-135mm outdoors. My primary camera is a Canon 40D. The M42 lenses are available cheap and are manual-focus only with an adapter.

The 28/1.8 was the first lens I screwed on the 5D Mark II. The first thing I noticed was a much brighter viewfinder than I'm used to on my 40D. It's nice! And the so-called "full frame" thing is really cool, because you're looking at the whole image circle, not just the center. I really like the 28mm focal length, I've decided (it looks like 45mm on the 40D). I've read that 28mm is the most common focal length for journalists. Journalists, is that true?

You mean 28mm is wide? Cool!

I really dig available-light photography and hate to use a flash, so naturally my first snaps with the 5D Mark II were indoors, wide open, at higher ISOs (alright, I'm starting to agree with Ken Rockwell here. Why couldn't Canon call it the 6D or something? It's a pain to write. From now on I'm calling it the 5Dmk2).

Moon shot taken with Canon 100-300mm USM lens and a
Quantaray 2x teleconverter. Total lens cost: $250. Live view
and the 5Dmk2's nice screen were a big help.

Noise alone shouldn't be your only criteria for a good low-light photo. Detail must be retained. Contrast needs to be sufficient. A little noise (formerly "grain") has always been fine with me...it even enhances some photos, in my opinion. I'm used to my 40D, which has very little noise until you get to ISO 1000, and ISO 1600 is very useable. ISO 3200 is ok in a pinch, but pushing it.

The 5Dmk2 supresses noise amazingly well. Eyeballing it, I'd say ISO 1600 shots on the 5Dmk2 look like ISO 400 on the 40D. That's a two-stop advantage, so on the 5Dmk2 ISO 6400 is very useable, and I wouldn't hesitate to shoot a wedding at ISO 3200. How incredible is that? Imagine, you can use your slow zooms indoors, sans flash, without any problem. Or, instead of missing focus at f/1.8 because you didn't want to push ISO past 800, you could stop down to f/4 at ISO 3200 and get the same shot. Wedding photographers, rejoice!

ISO 3200, f/4, 28mm

100% crop of above photo, ISO 3200.

According to spec-heads, the autofocus was unchanged from the 5D to the 5Dmk2. The stated number of autofocus points remained unchanged for sure. But let me say this: the autofocus on the 5Dmk2 is fine. And you know what else? Most of the time I only use the center point, anyway. I never felt, after hundreds and hundreds of frames shot with the 5Dmk2 and my non-professional lens arsenal, that I missed focus and it was the fault of the camera. Not once. It's a non-issue.

And the "black dots"...I never could reproduce that. I even tried a few times. Every time I've seen an example of that, it's been at least a 100% crop. Considering how far into your pictures you must delve to even see the alleged problem, I'd consider that a non-issue also. Especially considering Canon has promised a fix.

Backlit leaves, 300mm.

Tight crop of above photo. Shouldn't I see black dots?

My other 5Dmk2 posts cover my experience with the camera pretty well, so I may as well cut to the chase: the Canon 5Dmk2 is an outstanding photographic tool. Full-frame digital is really where it's at, and if you're a landscape, wedding, studio, parent of small children, motivated hobbyist, or fine art photographer, you'll never have a thing to complain about with this camera. It's a high-resolution beast with a sharp, accurate screen that can shoot in near darkness.

If you're a journalist or shoot sports, obviously it's going to fall short. One thing I love on my 40D is the machine-gun burst I can dial up on occasion. It's one thing the 5Dmk2 can't do.

But I really can't imagine anyone who has actually shot with this camera saying it's junk — that's best left up to those comparing spec sheets and lamenting that this thing lacks this or that feature they felt Canon owed to them. Get real, this is an amazing camera. Go get one today and don't look back.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Vivitar is back

Thanks to the tireless bloggers at 1001 Noisy Cameras for bringing this to the fore — Vivitar is back in the lens game. I have an old 80-200mm f/4.5 push/pull manual focus Vivitar zoom for my old Canon AE-1 that brings back some good memories.

Rumor has it an 85mm f/1.4 is among the initial offerings — with prices on the new line of lenses being between $150 and $400. Yippee! You bet your ass I would buy a cheap 85/1.4.