Family Photo Time

11.10:
Nikon D300, Nikon 35mm f/1.8 (various shutter speeds and apertures), Nikon SB-900, Cowboy Studio 24 Softbo

Nikon D300, Nikon 35mm f/1.8 (various shutter speeds and f/stops), Nikon SB-900, Cowboy Studio 24" Softbox

My friend Clint and his family needed some nice family photos for the holidays. I helped them out and was glad to use my new Cowboy Studio 24″ Softbox. It worked surprisingly well, especially at counter balancing the late day sunlight. I was even more surprised that it worked because my flash was not properly syncing with my shutter because the shutter speeds were way too high. I guess I’ll be shooting at ISO 100 next time?

Photo Backups: iPad vs. Epson P7000

posted by on 2010.06.11, under Photography Equipment
06.11:

One of the luxuries of being a photographer in the digital age is the ability to back up your photos in the field to insure that you don’t lose any of your hard work. This is especially important for weddings or expensive trips where there are no second takes if a digital catastrophe claims your data. There have been devices on the market for years that enable photographers to backup their memory cards. I use the Epson P7000 and it has served me well at weddings and on various trips where I wanted to be sure that I came home with all my photos. With the introduction of the Apple iPad and the Camera Connection Kit, there’s been a lot of buzz in the photography world about the potential for the iPad to serve as an in-field backup device. Here I briefly compare the pros and cons of the iPad and the P7000 for photo backup purposes.

The Pros for the Epson P7000:

The main advantage of the Epson over the iPad is storage space. The P7000 has a 160GB hard drive. Currently, the largest iPad you can get is only 64GB. Why on earth would you need more than 64GB for photos? Well, at a wedding I shot recently, I ended up with nearly 40GB of photos in one day (RAW files, not JPEG). Imagine being on a two week trip where you’re shooting extensively everyday and you need your backup device to cover you the entire time. Also keep in mind that your iPad will most likely have other files on it (movies for the plane?) that will take up precious space.

The Epson P7000 is designed specifically for the task of backing up photos. It has both SD and CF card slots as well and USB ports. It even allows you to connect another portable hard drive to make a backup of your backup without needing a PC. The Camera Connection Kit for the iPad only has an SD slot. If you need to backup CF cards (which most pro-level DSLR’s use) you have to plug a CF card reader into the USB port on the Camera Connection Kit. I did a quick speed test between the iPad and P7000 comparing the backup of a CF memory card with 188 RAW files on it. The iPad took roughly 11 minutes where the P7000 took less than 6 minutes. That’s a huge difference if you have a lot of cards to backup.

The Cons of the Epson P7000:

Price is the biggest downside to the Epson P7000. At $799 it is almost as expensive as the top of the line 64GB 3G iPad which can do so many other things.

The Pros of the iPad:

The display on the iPad is quite simply amazing. It’s gorgeous. The Epson P7000 has a beautiful 4 inch display, but it’s nothing compared to viewing your photos on the iPad’s 9.7 inch IPS display and being able to pinch and zoom to examine detail.

The iPad obviously has much more flexibility in terms of potential uses. With the App Store, you can download apps that allow you to edit your backed-up photos and email them or post them to the web. There’s even an option to post your photos to a MobileMe album which is the ultimate in backup security because it ensures that your photos will make it home even if you or your gear don’t. There are also rumors that there may soon be iPad versions of Lightroom and Aperture which would open up even more possibilities for editing and sorting your photos on location.

The Cons of the iPad:

Like I mentioned before, physical storage space is the biggest downside to the iPad right now. The download speed of a CF card to the iPad was also disappointing (Epson was almost twice as fast).

Conclusion:

If you have less than 64GB of photos to backup (or however big your iPad model is) and you don’t mind the slow download speed, the iPad and Camera Connection Kit are the way to go. You’ll be able to review your photos on a large and beautiful screen and have a lot of options for editing them.

However, if you shoot in RAW and are shutter happy like I am, the iPad’s limited storage is currently a deal breaker. I’ll be grabbing my Epson P7000 when I head out on trips in the near future. But down the road, when we have iPads with more storage and apps for Lightroom and Aperture, the situation will change entirely.

A Photographer’s Perspective on the iPad

posted by on 2010.04.05, under Photography Equipment
04.05:
The iPad is hard to photograph because its so shiny!

The iPad is hard to photograph because it's so shiny!

So if you don’t want to buy an iPad, whatever you do, don’t go look at them in the store. That’s the mistake I made yesterday on launch day. The iPad is stunningly beautiful and will immediately find a spot in the heart of any geek. It sure found a spot in mine…I walked out the door as a proud new owner of a 32GB model. This brief review is basically my first impressions of the device coming from a photographer’s perspective.

First off, photographers are sure to appreciate the iPad’s GORGEOUS display. I am most interested in the iPad as a way to show off my photos to people and it does a stunning job of that. The IPS screen is better than many computer monitors out there. It’s crisp, bright and has very good viewing angles. It’s also pretty color accurate. I freshly callibrated my Samsung 245T monitor (on which I do all my photo editing) and then synched some of my favorite photos (from Aperture through iTunes). The photos on the iPad looked very close to the way they displayed on my monitor. Impressive color accuracy for a consumer device straight out of the box. The only gripe I have is that the photo synching process in iTunes down-rezes and compresses the images and there doesn’t appear to be a way to control that process. Zooming into the photos on the iPad shows noticeable compression artifacts, but overall it’s no big deal…they still look amazing.

Other observations:

  • It’s fast. Sooooo much faster and snappier than my iPhone 3G
    The apps that have been reformatted for the iPad are where it’s at. Standard iPhone apps work but are greatly disappointing on the large screen.
  • The optional VGA output adapter will only output a signal when a video is playing (such as a TV show or movie). It wont show you the screen operations of the iPad. It does work for photo slideshows through which look pretty good. I haven’t tried it with Keynote yet. The output resolution is obviously VGA so don’t expect to get blown away by HD video or anything.
  • Typing will take getting used to just like the iPhone, but I think it’s fine for emails or short bits of writing (I’m doing this entire post on the iPad and I’m typing pretty fast).
  • If you’re a photographer and want to take the iPad into the field and use it for location scouting purposes, be sure to wait for the 3G version. The wifi version won’t do you any good unless you have a portable wifi hotspot that works with your phone service.
  • For some reason, it doesn’t charge when connected to the computer…only when plugged into an AC outlet. Annoying, but not a big deal.

That’s all for now, but as I continue to use the iPad, I’ll post more in the coming days.

Portraits

03.22:

I’ve been more interested in portrait photography lately. When my friend CJ asked for some head shots, I jumped at the opportunity to practice my flash photography techniques with him. We planned to do the shoot outdoors, but it was lightly raining that day so we had to stay indoors mostly. I used my neglected Nikon AF 50mm f/1.8D lens which is the best $112 I have ever spent on photography gear. It’s SUPER sharp, pretty good wide open and has decent bokeh. Did I mention that it cost $112 brand new? With the crop factor of a DX format camera, 50mm is a nice portrait focal length where you can get close to your subject without feeling uncomfortably close. Thanks to CJ for being such a great model!

Nikon D300, Nikon 50mm f/1.8, Nikon SB-900 Speedlight, a bunch of reflectors, diffusers and light stands

Nikon D300, Nikon 50mm f/1.8, Nikon SB-900 Speedlight, a bunch of reflectors, diffusers and light stands

Image Quality in the Digital Age

01.03:
Kee Beach, Kauai - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Color Combo & 3 stop grad ND, f/16, 1/6 sec. ISO 200

Ke'e Beach, Kaua'i - Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Color Combo & 3 stop grad ND, f/16, 1/6 sec. ISO 200

I’m a perfectionist when it comes to image quality. Like most photographers, I love getting the sharpest, smoothest images with the highest resolution and dynamic range that I possibly can. Recently though, I’ve started wondering if the whole photography industry might be a little too caught up with digital image quality. As a little Christmas present to myself this year, I picked up a nice coffee table book of Galen Rowell’s photography. I am surprised at what I see in his images. There is graininess, motion blur and focus errors in a surprising number of his photos. It’s not isolated to Galen’s work either. The same flaws are present in a National Geographic retrospective book that I looked at with photos from dozens of different photographers. Here’s the question I have to ask myself. Do these technical image quality flaws subtract from the awesomeness of the work in those books? Absolutely not.

I’m guessing that the vast majority of people who enjoy Galen Rowell or National Geographic don’t even notice those technical errors, so long as they are not photographers themselves. I think they are more impressed with the subject matter, lighting and composition of a photograph. This is a huge relief for me. There are countless wonderful images that I have grievingly cast into digital purgatory because they have a slight technical flaw. I have been taught how to look for these flaws by the countless camera review websites and photography blogs out there. People on these sites routinely discuss the sharpness of their photo prints when viewed under a loupe. Really? A loupe? When you have a gallery show, do you hand out loupes to all the visitors? The camera manufacturers love this because the inevitable conclusion to all our problems is always to buy more expensive gear. Are the corners of your images a little soft? Well then you need a “pro” lens. Are you making prints of your photos? Certainly nothing less than the highest resolution digital camera available will suffice. What’s interesting is that the personal work of most of the camera reviewers out there is artistically mediocre at best. But darn it, their images are “tack sharp.”

There are extremes in every debate. The infamous Ken Rockwell would try to convince us that he’d give up his digital SLRs and just shoot with the camera on an iPhone, but he’s too cheap to actually buy one. Gimme a break. Of course your camera matters and you should do everything you can to avoid blur, focus on the right spot and expose correctly. But seeing what Galen Rowell and the folks at Nat Geo accepted as good enough gives me a new perspective on how to judge acceptable vs. unacceptable quality in my own images. I can only hope to be as adventurous and creatively brilliant as the photographers on my coffee table, but it’s nice to know that technical perfection takes a back seat to more important aesthetic considerations.

The Impossible Safari Shot

posted by on 2009.11.23, under Photography Equipment, Tanzania
11.23:
Lion Pride - Nikon D300, Nikon 200-400mm, f/14, 1/125, ISO 200

Lion Pride - Nikon D300, Nikon 200-400mm, f/14, 1/125, ISO 200

The above photo represents a depth of field challenge. This shot was taken this past January on a safari in Tanzania with my Nikon D300 and a Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR lens. Our guide got us as close as he could without disturbing the animals, but I still needed the telephoto lens to get closer. My hopes of getting all, or at least most of the lions in focus were dashed when I realized how shallow the plane of focus is on a telephoto lens like the 200-400mm.

The first thing that came to mind was to stop down to f/11, f/16, or even f/22  in order to increase my depth of field and get the lions in focus. That causes the shutter speed to slow significantly, however. A general rule of thumb for big telephoto lenses is that you want to shoot at a shutter speed at least twice that of the focal length you’re using. This helps to avoid motion blur caused by vibrations in the lens. The shot above was taken at 280mm, so that means I should’ve been shooting at least 1/560 sec. But f/14 yielded a shutter speed of 1/125 sec which is dangerously slow for a big lens, especially since I was only resting the lens on a bean bag on the roof of our Land Cruiser. I suppose I could’ve increased my ISO to get a faster shutter speed and still have a small aperture, but I’m a snob. I want the best quality I can get out of my camera and I resist raising ISO unless I absolutely have to.

100% enlargement

100% enlargement

The truth is, there was no way to get all the lions in focus even at f/22. This was one of the biggest lessons I learned about photography while in Africa. Although I wish I could’ve captured all these lions together in focus, the next time I’m fortunate to come upon a scene like this I’ll look for creative ways to work with the shallow depth of field of my telephoto lens. I’m sure you’ll agree that getting closer to my subject was not a really an option in this case!

Which lenses to take to Africa

posted by on 2009.10.25, under Photography Equipment, Tanzania, Travel Photography
10.25:
Young Male Lion - Nikon D300, Nikon 200-400mm, f/8, 1/800, ISO 200

Young Male Lion - Nikon D300, Nikon 200-400mm, f/8, 1/800, ISO 200

Ever since I returned from Africa earlier this year, I’ve been wanting to analyze the EXIF data of my photos and figure out which lenses I shot most. I’m interested in seeing if it was really necessary to haul the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens on the safari. The 200-400 is truly an excellent lens, but it’s a pig and I grew tired of carrying it. It’s also a little unnerving traveling with a $5500 piece of glass (I rented!). There’s no question that I needed the reach of 400mm, but did I need the constant f/4 aperture? Would a smaller, lighter lens like the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 work just as well? Below is a chart of how many shots I took with each lens I brought on the trip and which apertures I used. I didn’t bother breaking out f-stops below f/5.6 since that’s usually the maximum for most variable aperture lenses like the 80-400mm.

  Total number of shots   f/2 – f/2.8   f/2.8 – f/4   f/4 – f/5.6 Less than f/5.6  
Nikon 35mm f/2D 20 19 0 0 1  
Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G 710 N/A 15 29 666  
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G 575 N/A 80 39 456  
Nikon 200-400mm f/4G 2342 N/A N/A 245 2097  

 

I am really not surprised that the overwhelming majority of my photos were shot at smaller apertures than f/5.6. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. First, we really weren’t in that many low light situations. Tanzania’s National Parks typically close around 6 or 7 PM and you must be out by then, or you risk being fined. Secondly, the focus plane of big telephoto lenses is extremely shallow. If you’re taking a picture of a lion at f/4 with a 400mm lens, you’re likely to get his nose in sharp focus, but the rest of his face out of focus. This becomes even more of an issue when there are multiple animals. One afternoon we came upon a pride of 13 lions all sitting together. It was totally impossible to get them all in focus even at the smallest apertures and highest ISOs.

So could a smaller, variable aperture lens like the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 replace the big 200-400mm on a safari? If I was going on an African safari tomorrow (I wish!) I would still take the 200-400. The 80-400′s biggest drawback is that it doesn’t have the internal focusing motor that Nikon’s more modern lenses have. This makes it slow to focus. In Africa, you typically need very fast autofocus to track moving animals. The 200-400mm focuses very quickly because it has the AF-S motor. But there are rumors that Nikon may soon update the 80-400 to include fast autofocus. The current word on the street is that the 80-400 may be replaced with a lens in the 100-500mm range (I have no insider info). If that lens is real and has the excellent optics of the 80-400, I could definitely see it going on my next safari in place of the 200-400. For the time being, though, the best safari lens combo (for Nikon) is the 70-200 and the 200-400.

Mud and Blood in Hawaii

posted by on 2009.09.20, under Landscape Photography, Photography Equipment
09.20:
Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo, Singh-Ray 3-stop Reverse GND, f/16, 30 sec., ISO 200

Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm, Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo, Singh-Ray 3-stop Reverse GND, f/16, 30 sec., ISO 200

Imagine for a moment if you were to go on a photographic expedition to Hawaii. The scene that probably unfolds in your head is a very pleasant one… you casually setting up your tripod on the beach with a warm tropical breeze at your back. It’s hard to imagine worrying about anything more than maybe getting a sunburn or missing first light because you had too many Mai Tais the night before.

You can probably guess by the title of this post that my brother and I had a somewhat different experience when we recently spent 5 days on Kauai and 3 days on the Big Island taking photos. In reality, it was a humbling experience because we had greatly underestimated the extreme nature of the Hawaiian landscape. Like any place, it has it’s dangers and those dangers often become worse when you’re setting up sensitive photo gear in precarious places to get the shot of your dreams.

Our overall experience on this trip is perfectly illustrated by our very first morning photographing the sunrise from the Mokolea Lava Pools on the eastern shore of Kauai. We had scoped out the location the previous evening and figured out that we would have to drive to a small beach about a mile away and hike in. With our 30 pound packs of camera gear, we hiked across the sand in the dark until we came to a large river that separated us from the lava pools. No problem. We found the narrowest part of the river and waded across, being careful not to fall because of the soft sand under our feet. After a little bush-whacking we made it to the lava bench and began looking for the famous maelstrom that fills with seawater when the waves hit it and then empties out like a toilet flushing as the waves recede. Immediately, we noticed the lava bench we were walking on was covered with algae making it extremely slippery. It took us several minutes to locate the lava formation (still in the dark at this point) and we proceeded to get inspired and find locations to set up our cameras.

Because landscape shots are often more interesting when there are extreme foreground elements to complement the middle and background, you have to use a wide angle lens and get very close to the ground. This was precisely my strategy for the Mokolea Lava Pools except that getting close to the ground meant getting close to the crashing waves on the lava bench…and when I mean crashing, I mean CRASHING. I literally got into the water with my camera and tripod, screwed on my brand new Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo filter and started setting up my composition. I noticed the image in my viewfinder getting progressively hazier as I adjusted the tripod. Sea spray was the culprit. Knowing that salt water is the kiss of death for digital cameras, I quickly ran back onshore (being careful to not slip on the algae) to get my rain cover out of my pack so I could protect my camera while I waited for the sun. No sooner than I got back to my camera, a huge wave hit me, grabbed the rain cover and started to wash it out to sea. A quick poke with my tripod leg saved the rain cover, but now it was soaking wet…with sea water. It was useless to me now.

My Camera in Peril on the Mokolea Lava Bench

My Camera in Peril on the Mokolea Lava Bench

While dealing with that and trying to stretch my thin t-shirt over my camera to protect it, I didn’t even notice the storm that was brewing just off shore. With no warning whatsoever, it started pouring rain. It was like someone just turned a dial to “torrential” and flipped the switch to “ON”. My pack on shore with all my camera lenses was getting soaked. So were all my Singh-Ray filters that I had set out on a rock. But I was in triage mode…save the most expensive gear first which, of course, was the camera I was using. The rain turned off and on a few times and during the breaks, I would wipe off the lens and make a few exposures and then switch back to protecting the camera from more rain…though it got soaking wet anyway. I have a new appreciation for Nikon’s weather sealing!

Fortunately, the only equipment casualty of the morning was my brother’s GPS geo-tagging device which stopped working after a suspected dunk in the water. In all the chaos I did manage to come away with an image that I’m pretty excited about (see above). But just about every other worthwhile image from the trip had some similar adventure associated with it. It is fair to say that Hawaii is a very challenging environment for serious landscape photography. But I honestly had a great time and would do it all again in an instant.

On the hike back to the car, there were a few more instant-on hurricanes and I tripped and fell face-first on the rocks (damn algae). Welcome to Kauai!

Panasonic Lumix TS1 – A Brief Review

posted by on 2009.08.16, under Photography Equipment, Travel Photography
08.16:
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1

For awhile now I’ve been wishing I had a simple point and shoot camera to take with me on trips so I could capture some of the more typical vacation moments and leave the serious photo work for my Nikon D300. Of course the Nikon would provide much better image quality and features than a compact camera, but who wants to lug a bulky DSLR and lens around if you’re just going out to dinner or documenting some touristy moment?

Since I’m going to Hawaii in September and might be doing some snorkeling…I thought it would be nice to get a compact camera that was waterproof…actually submersible, not just weather sealed.  I didn’t know if such a camera even existed. I also wanted some video capabilities since my D300 was made just before the recent DSLR video feature craze. With these parameters in mind, I quickly discovered the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1. I had already been impressed with the Lumix TZ5 that my family and I got my Dad for his birthday last year, and the TS1 seemed to have all the features I wanted, so I went ahead and ordered one.

Overall, I have been pleased with the TS1. The very first time I took it out was on a whitewater rafting trip with my co-workers down the Poudre River near Fort Collins, Colorado. It was the perfect test for a camera like this. The TS1 got completely submerged in water several times, knocked around in the class 3 & 4 rapids and even smashed between the floor of the raft and the sidewall. It performed very well in this environment. The still photos that we took that day impressed me for their sharpness, low noise and relatively good exposure. Of course, the TS1′s quality is no where near that of a DSLR, especially at ISOs over 400, but I never expected a tiny waterproof camera to blow my socks off with image quality. It does, however, produce more than adequate images for casual snap shots and video clips.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1, f/3.3, 1/1000, ISO 80

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1, f/3.3, 1/1000, ISO 80

Speaking of video clips, you can see one below. It’s a little choppy, but that might be because I de-interlaced the video when I converted it for the web. Finding a program on the Mac that could open the AVCHD lite video files was a major challenge. Toast Titanium 10 of all programs was able to open and convert the videos.

The most serious flaw I’ve encountered with the TS1 is how easily it is disabled at cooler temperatures. On a recent sunrise hike up to Lake Helene (10,580 feet) in Rocky Mountain National Park, the TS1′s autofocus system became totally confused and would not focus on anything. The temperatures up there were likely in the upper 30s to low 40s which is really nothing as far as cold temperatures go. Granted I was not carrying it close to my body to keep it warm during the hike, but I really think a camera that’s touted as being so rugged should be able to stand a few hours of 40 degrees.

Other gripes about the camera are really very minor. Overall it produces nice images & HD video, is reasonably compact and rugged with regards to water and being knocked around. I’m sure it will serve me very well. Just be warned that it may let you down on those cold alpine mornings!

Nik Software Complete Collection

posted by on 2009.04.05, under Photography Equipment, Photography Software, Tanzania
04.05:

Early on in processing my Africa photos, I stumbled upon the Nik Software suite of plug-ins for Photoshop and Aperture. I had heard good things about Silver Efex Pro for converting color photos to black and white, but I was also in need of a output sharpening solution. So I decided to give their whole set of plugins a test drive. I immediately saw how powerful they were and bought the Complete Collection which includes Viveza (dodging and burning on steroids), Color Efex Pro (tons of useful color processing filters), Silver Efex Pro (black and white tools), Define (noise reduction), and Sharpener Pro (creative and output sharpening).

I have used at least one of these plugins on almost every single photo I have processed from my recent trip to Tanzania. The thing I love most about these plugins, is that they work as Smart Filters in Photoshop so I can work completely non-destructively. This has been a huge workflow victory because I generally create two versions of each photo…a screen version for display on the web and then a print version which is tweaked to look good printed with pigment inks on my favorite paper, Museo Silver Rag. I can easily go back to any stage of my editing process and change settings so that the image looks good for the output medium. 

The feature that makes these plugins so powerful in the U point technology which lets you chose areas of the photo that you want to be affected by the plugin. It creates very accurate masks of whatever you’ve clicked on which greatly reduces the need to create complex layer masks to isolate certain areas of a photo. I just wish there was a way to export the masks that it creates so that I could use them with other Photoshop tasks. 

I also use Capture NX 2 from Nik Software to initially process most of my RAW photos. Although Capture NX 2 is powerful, it does lack the nice intuitive user interface that the plugins have. In fact, Capture NX is so clunky, I sometimes find it hard to believe that it came out of the same company as the plugins. The reason I use it instead of Adobe Camera Raw or Aperture is that it is specially designed to process Nikon NEF RAW files and gives me access to some of the in-camera processing features on the Nikon cameras. In side by side comparisons, it also yields the sharpest RAW conversion between ACR and Aperture…although Aperture is a close second. Strangely, ACR is in distant last place in my quality tests of RAW conversion.

Anyway, I just thought I’d share my experience with the Nik Software plugins. If you’re curious, download the trial, but be prepared to fall in love and thus have to spend money :)