Category Archives: Photography

So, I placed an order for the Canon 24-105 f/4L IS lens from Abe’s of Maine. It has been out of stock forever, but I just got notice that it shipped. Can’t wait to try this out, since it’s a great walkabout range with L quality glass and IS to boot! I’ll post about its performance as soon as it comes in and I have a chance to try it out.

Just bought this little point and shoot gem after the usual loads of research. Being a Canon family, I was tempted to get the SD450 or 550 when looking to upgrade my S400. Then I read Ken Rockwell’s review of the Casio EX-Z750. It’s a 7.2 MP P&S that’s just a hair smaller than the SD550. Why did I opt for this camera? Well, first, it actually has a manual mode. No, really, a real manual mode. It can do shutter and aperture priority as well as full manual. You can set the shutter up to 60 secs and I’ve already taken some night shots with it successfully. It also records 640×480 30fps video encoded in MPEG-4. Most P&S cameras record using MPEG-2, which is clearly inferior from a compression standpoint. I can fit about 3x the recording time on this little Casio than I could have on the Canon. That equates to over an hour on the 1GB SD card I got for it. That said, there are a few gotchas. There have been some reports of a “Lens Error” that occurs when the mechanism that extends and retracts the lens goes “off track”. This can happen if the camera inadvertantly turns on when in your pocket or with your hand blocking the lens. I’ve turned off the setting that allows you to turn the camera on using the Play and Record buttons to limit exposure to this. Also, the default settings for sharpening and saturation were a little extreme for me. Casio released a firmware fix that reduced this a bit, but it wasn’t enough for me. No biggie, I just changed the defaults in the settings to -1.

All in all, I’ve been very pleased with my new toy.

Update: over two years later, and I’m still loving the Casio. They’ve come out with newer models, but screwed up many of them with inferior image quality. The manual mode has been great and I’ve taken a number of night shots with shutter speeds of several seconds. Of course, a tripod or someplace to rest the camera is needed and you have to activate the 2 second self timer, but it works great. I’m still looking for the perfect point-and-shoot (Panasonic is getting close), but for the meantime, the Casio does the trick.

OK, digital camera technology is moving fast enough that it’s time for an update. If you have a digital point-and-shoot that’s over a year old (yes, only a year), you might want to take a look at the new crop of cameras that are out now. With point-and-shoots, most people complain about shutter lag (the amount of time from when you push the shutter button to when the photo actually gets taken). Movie modes in older cameras were also pretty dismal, with low resolution and poor quality. The newer crop of cameras out have addressed these issues and are adding great new features like image stabilization.

Point-and-Shoot

If I bought a point-and-shoot now, I would get the Canon SD400 (or wait a few weeks for the SD450, which has a larger LCD screen). In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a big fan of Canon. Between my wife and me, we now have 7 Canon cameras (2 digital point-and-shoots, 4 digital SLRs, and an SLR film camera). Their build quality is great and they take great pictures. The SD400 is a 5-megapixel camera in an extremely small package. It has a 3x zoom and takes 640×480, 30fps movies (basically DVD quality). And did I mention it’s tiny? Oh yeah, I guess so. As of today, it can be found for about $300. There is also an SD500, that’s a very nice 7-megapixel camera, but it’s a little larger and a bit more expensive. For a “throw in your pocket” little camera, I think the SD400 is perfectly suited.

“Hybrid” Point-and-Shoot

There’s a new class of camera that bridges the gap between the point-and-shoot and SLR. The provide the creative control of an SLR (aperture/shutter-priority and full manual exposure control, RAW file format, etc.) but have fixed lenses and movie modes like P&Ss. In my last post on this topic, I recommended the Panasonic Lumix FZ20. Since then, they’ve released the FZ30, which has some significant improvements. It’s now an 8 megapixel shooter, has a 35-420mm (35mm equivalent) image stabilized lens, a much improved LCD and EVF (electronic viewfinder), and a mechanical zoom ring on the lens (rather than a electronic zoom) that you can use during the movie mode. From the specs and what I’ve read, it kicks butt over Canon’s equivalent, the S2IS, and is therefore the one departure from Canon in my recommendations. I don’t have this camera yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Oh, and you can pick it up for about $600, but it’s brand spankin’ new, so the price’ll come down.

Digital SLR

On the digital SLR front, we have 2 20D cameras. It’s an 8.2 megapixel camera that takes the entire range of Canon EF and EF-S lenses (as well as third party lenses from Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina). For about $1300, it’s one kick-ass camera. As for lenses, we mostly use Canon’s 28-135mm IS (image stabilization), which is a great “walkaround” lens because of the zoom range and the IS. We also have a couple of “L” lenses, which are Canon’s luxury line (mostly used by pros). They usually cost well in excess of $1000 each, but there are a few that are reasonably priced (in the L world, “reasonable” is relative). The 17-40mm f/4 and the 70-200mm f/4 can be had for about $600 each and are great quality lenses if you don’t need the low-light performance of a faster (f/2.8) lens. Canon is also adding a 24-105mm f/4 IS lens to the lineup at the end of September that we’ll likely purchase, but it looks like it’s going to come in at around $1100 (a bit much for a “slow” L lens, but the IS should make it worth the premium). I’m also planning on getting Canon’s new 70-300 IS lens. It’s a consumer lens (not an “L”), but it’s still of good quality and is ALOT more affordable (will probably retail for about $400). The IS is great in a long zoom, since the greater the zoom, the more difficult it is to get a handheld shot without shake. Note that Canon currently has a 70-300 IS lens, but it doesn’t have the newer ring-type USM (ultrasonic motor) focusing, so it doesn’t focus as fast and quietly as the new one should.

I was looking for some photo gallery software for my wife’s photography site with a couple of strict criteria: it had to look professional, render fairly quickly, and be easy to administer. Oh, and I’m cheap, so I didn’t want to spend alot of cash (hence the anal consumer thing). After demoing countless products, I found one that stood out among the rest: Simpleviewer. It’s Flash-based with a simple, but elegant implementation. It uses the Flash – XML interface to pull in image and album information and is customizable to an extent. Oh, and it’s free (or a small $45 if you want the source). Best of all, you can also get this terrific admin interface. Written in php, it allows my wife to log into her website and administer the photo galleries – add, delete, reorder, captions, colors, and more. I also used the php functions provided by this program to learn more about php myself and ended up completely rewriting Simpleviewer from Flash to php. Of course, the Flash version is way more slick, so I’m reserving the php version for the two people who don’t yet have Flash installed in their browsers – it was more of a learning exercise anyway.

This was the best viewer/admin combo I found out there, free or paid. The fact that this was on the free end of the spectrum was icing on the cake.

I bought a new tripod! OK, I know that’s not really that exciting, but it signifies the culmination of hours of research, so it’s all good. I got the Manfrotto MF0553, which is made of magnesium and carbon fiber (some blend they call “Magfiber”). It’s a little heavier than a carbon fiber tripod, but still lighter than aluminum with the stiffness and strength of cf and priced somewhere in between. $650 for a tripod? I don’t think so! So here’s the skinny: If you’re looking for an OK tripod that’s light and will hold your SLR and most lenses and won’t break the bank, the Velbon EF-3 is a pretty good bet. It weighs under 4 pounds, you can get it with a pan head (or no head at all), is reasonably tall, has three-piece legs that will splay out to three different angles and will only set you back less than $100. If I were to buy one for myself (and didn’t have a wife in the photography business), that’s the one I would have gotten. There’s also an EFL-4 that has 4-piece legs if you need something that packs down to a shorter package, but it also doesn’t extend quite as far. There’s a pretty good synopsis of the Velbon here. As it is, a good tripod is an investment that you should be able to use pretty much indefinitely, so I decided to scale up to the Manfrotto. It’s a highly respected brand and has a build quality that’s obviously better than the Velbon. It’s also rated to carry significantly more weight than the Velbon, so if you want to slap that new 600mm lens on your camera, this tripod can deal. It has a cool, though questionably useful, feature that allows you to mount the center column horizontally – which is supposed to be good for macro photography so you can point your camera downward. It also has three-piece legs that adjust to three different angles and extends to a very good height (eye level for me without extending the center column). It will, however, set you back $300 and then you still need to get a ballhead for it. If all you have is a point and shoot that you’d like a more stable platform for, you have the option of getting one of the ultra-lightweight tripods like Manfrotto’s Digi line (something like the 728B) or the Velbon MAXi343E . These things are under 2 lbs., which is pretty remarkable. The problem is that they’re pretty flimsy and almost too light – you need a little weight in a tripod to keep it stable. So yes, it will hold your camera steady, but might be susceptible to wind and vibrations. I’d probably still opt for the EFL-3/4 – they seems to have a great balance between weight and stability. If you really want a lightweight travel tripod, you can check out this report. It’s a little outdated, but not much has changed and it’s the single most comprehensive compilation of specs I’ve seen on this class of tripod. Or you can take my word for it and just buy the Velbon (which is what the article says to do).

As far as using a tripod, there are a couple of tricks that are good to know. First, make sure that you can do the majority of shooting without the center column extended – consider it an emergency feature only. Raising the center column introduces a much higher chance that flex and vibration with affect stability. Also, with some of these lightweight tripods, it’s sometimes a good idea to hang your camera bag from the center column to provide more weight and therefore more stability. And even with the stability of a tripod, you can introduce shake with something as minor as pushing the shutter release, so I would recommend either getting an external shutter release (wired or wireless) or using your camera’s self timer mode to take the shot. Alot of current cameras even have a 2 sec. self timer mode specifically for this.

Actually, this is pretty well covered in my friend’s blog. In this post, he picks the point-and-shoot cameras that I’d recommend. Namely, if size is your main priority, the Canon Powershot SD300 (also mentioned in my previous post) is my favorite. It has a 4MP sensor, which is more than enough for anything up to 8×10 or even a little bigger, which should satisfy most people’s needs (especially for a little walkaround camera). It also takes little video clips (up to 3 minutes) – a feature I’ve come to know and love. Who needs a camcorder anymore?

If you want more creative control, get the Panasonic Lumix FZ20. A 5MP sensor, 12X image stabilized Leica lens (and a f/2.8 lens all through the zoom range!), TIFF mode, movies up to the limit of your memory card,…. And all for under $500 street. If you want a true camcorder replacement (so a really good movie mode is your priority), I’d go with the Canon Powershot S1IS. In fact, if this camera had a higher resolution sensor (it’s a 3.2MP), I’d probably give it a higher recommendation than the Panasonic. What it does have is a super quiet ultrasonic, image-stabilized 10x lens and a movie mode that lets you shoot to the capacity of the memory card. The differentiating factor is that you can use the zoom during a movie. Most point-and-shoot zooms are too noisy and the camera’s microphone picks up all that noise when zooming. You will, however, sacrifice picture quality and some creative control over the Panasonic.

What am I carrying in my camera bag? Well, in my pocket I have a Canon Powershot S400. It’s a 4 megapixel camera in a tiny package. I bought it specifically for its size, but it takes great pics too. Yes, that link is to an article that published one of the pics I took on my hike to Mt. Whitney taken with the S400. If I were to buy a camera today and my priority was size, I would probably opt for the Powershot SD300. It’s even smaller and has a big LCD for viewing images.

When I need more creative control, I use a Canon Digital Rebel. It’s a 6.2 MP digital SLR and takes the entire range of Canon EF lenses. When I bought it, it was the only digital SLR under $1000 and the little brother to my wife’s camera, the 10D. We primarily bought Canon because she already had a Canon film camera and an assortment of lenses and we had great experiences with Canon equipment in the past. Since I bought my camera, Nikon came out with their sub-$1000 competitor, the D70. If I had a strict budget to spend for a digital SLR and no other affinity to Canon (like an existing set of lenses), that’s probably the one I would get. It costs a little more than the Rebel, but it’s features match or exceed Canon’s 10D. If, however, I had $1500 to spend on a camera, it would hands down go toward Canon’s new 20D. It has a 8 MP sensor, Canon’s new DigicII chip (faster with better noise reduction), and is lighter than the 10D. Don’t tell my wife, but she’s probably getting one for her birthday (which, of course, means I get to upgrade my Rebel with her 10D!). More on cameras I don’t own but would recommend later.

Let’s start with Photography. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m no pro (though I did win $25 in a contest once!), but I’m definitely an avid enthusiast. I’ve been shooting digital for about 8 years, which means I took some pretty crappy pictures 8 years ago. Between my wife, Jean, and myself, we have 3 digital cameras we actively use (more on that later). There are several sites I use as great references for a number of different purposes. For equipment reviews, the must read digital photography site is DPReview. They have the most comprehensive reviews I’ve seen and their forums have a very high participation rate (you often have your questions answered in minutes). Steve’s Digicams also has good reviews and is where I go to find printer reviews. If you have a digital SLR and are looking for new lenses, check out Fred Miranda’s site. I usually go there for good, user-contributed reviews of an assortment of lenses (especially Canon, Nikon, Sigma, and Tamron). They also have some tutorials, but many of them involve purchasing Fred’s Photoshop Plugins (haven’t actually tried any of them yet).

There are several sites that have product information as well as tutorials to improve your photography. My favorite is probably Luminous Landscape. They have very comprehensive reviews (including field tests), though mostly of higher-end equipment (digital SLRs and accessories). They also have really good lessons on how to use your camera more effectively and how to maximize your photography through post-processing in Photoshop. Photo.net has tutorials that cover the basics and reviews from contributing pros. What I find interesting there is that readers can comment on many of the articles and the authors will actually respond. So don’t stop at the end of the article, keep reading the comments. I use Vivid Light Photography mostly for the tutorials, though they do have some reviews (not nearly as good as dpreview). They also have an monthly email newsletter highlighting their latest articles (one of these days all these sites will learn about RSS!).