Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ok I bought a dSLR now what?


I bought a digital SLR camera. . .

now what?

A few people have approached me lately with essentially the same question, some were asking about what kind of lenses they should buy others about what kind of software they should use. Thinking that these were probably fairly common questions I decided to write up a little guide outlining a few things you should consider. They are arranged roughly in the order you should consider them too ;)

What attachments/accessories/lenses should I buy?

This all depends on what you plan to do and your budget but here are a few suggestions:

UV Filter

Chances are good that if you bought your camera at any respectable shop they would have tried to sell you one of these right away. No it's not a con by the sales associates (mostly) the idea is that it if something is going to get scratched it'll be a $30 filter instead of a costly lens. If you're just starting out in photography you probably won't need a top of the line brand filter so don't let the sales person get carried away trying to upsell you there.

*Tip: One interesting quirk to watch out for is what you see in the image above. It happens if you're using filters when taking long exposures at night of northern lights. I won't get into the physics of it but it has to do with a certain wavelength of light and the two parallel faces of your lens and the filter.


I think that all photographers should have one of these in their bag. At around $10 you'd be crazy not to have one anyway. One one end is a retractable brush that is good for knocking loose dust and debris and on the other side protected by a cap is a slightly concave felt pad for getting more stubborn materials off your glass. Over time (and depending on usage) they should probably be replaced so you have a new felt tip, that being said I've had mine for years and see no need to change it yet.

  • Tip: They also make lenspens for point and shoot cameras, they have a smaller triangular felt pad for cleaning the smaller lenses.

Carrying bag/Camera Backpack

You just dropped a lot of money on your new camera so you should spend a little cash in order to protect it. There is a plethora of options in this department, unfortunately once you're getting into dSLR size bags the price goes up because there is less demand for them.

Above are some choices from LowePro, a company that's been around for decades and is well respected among photographers. There are a variety of choices ranging from simple hip pouches to sling bags and full backpacks which even accommodate laptops.

*Tip: One word of advice is buy a slightly bigger one than you need so that if you pick up a few lenses later on you can still carry them.


Investing in a decent tripod would probably be next on the list for most people.

Why do I need a tripod? There are a number of reasons but mostly it allows you the luxury of shooting at slower shutter speeds without producing blurry pictures. If you read my guide on understanding lighting you'll already know that you always want to keep your ISO as low as possible (sensitivity to light) in order to get the sharpest photos, however if your available light is already quite low the only options are to increase your aperture and/or lower your shutter speed.

If you're wanting to do any of the following photography you'll need a tripod:
Landscapes, wildlife, macro, sports, lowlight/night photography (lightning, northern lights) and anytime you're using a telephoto zoom lens

The rule of thumb is that 1/60th of a second is the slowest shutter speed you can safely shoot handheld (though this is changing as image stabilization technology improves) but with a tripod you can have exposures lasting as long as minutes or even hours. As I mentioned above any time you're using a zoom lens you should be using a tripod, the reason is when you're zoomed in that far any small movement gets multiplied by your magnification X.

Good brands for tripods are Manfrotto, Slik, Gitzo, Velbon to name a few. Avoid tripod's designed for video cameras, they tend to be sloppier. When you're looking for a tripod you want one that is sturdy and won't allow your camera to move when all the adjustments are tightened up.

Tip: A monopod may be what you're after as well, they are good for sports photography because they don't take up much space . Keep in mind though that you can always use your tripod as a monopod simply by not splaying the legs out. I'd recommend starting with a good tripod and if you think you need a monopod later then go for it.

Extra lenses:

In short the best two lenses you can add to your kit are a zoom that compliments your kit lens and a nice fixed prime lens.

Zoom lenses:

Most dSLR's come with a general purpose standard lens, typically around 18-55mm. For most situations this is the best lens to use however sometimes you need a little extra zoom and that is where the telephoto lenses come into play. A good companion to say an 18-55mm kit lens would be something like a 70-200mm or a 70-300mm, this way you're not missing much range between the upper end of your 18-55mm and the lower end of your telephoto. If you find a good deal on a lens that will leave you with a gap don't rule it out though, it just means you'll have to keep this in mind when shooting and you may have to move back a little to get the same composition in your shot.

Depending on your camera manufacturer you might be able to find older lens used for a fraction of the cost of a new lens. For example Canon's EF lenses will work on their dSLRs but due to the fact most dSLR's have a smaller sensor the magnification factor will be larger and I'll explain this below in a bit. When in doubt call your local camera shop (Don's or Phase II for example) before purchasing a used lens to make sure it will work with your camera and if possible try it out on your camera first to make sure it fits and the auto-focus is compatible.

A note on cropped sensors:

If you have a dSLR camera and paid less than $3000 for it chances are good that your camera's sensor is what's referred to as a “cropped sensor” or “crop sensor”. This goes back to the days of 35mm film cameras, the film was the part that “sensed” the light and was 35mm diagonally across. The sensors in consumer grade dSLR's are smaller than that of the 35mm frame hence the term “cropped sensor”. What this means is that if you find an older used lens that was made for a film camera the zoom rating will not be accurate anymore. For example if you put a Canon 100-300mm EF lens on a Canon Digital Rebel dSLR which uses a 1.6x crop sensor your effective zoom will actually be 160mm-480mm.

1.3x – Canon EOS 1D/1D MkII
1.5x – Nikon D40/D50/D70/D70s/D80/D200/D2XD2Hs Minolta 7D/Fuji S3 Pro Pentax *istDS/K100D/K110D/K10D
1.6x – Canon EOS 300D/400D/20D/30D

Here's a nice little reference table of standard zoom sizes and their effective zoom's on a crop sensor.

Full Frame 1.3 Crop 1.5 Crop 1.6 Crop

Don't let any of this dissuade you from saving some cash by picking up an older telephoto though as there is another advantage besides the extra zoom. All lenses suffer from some inaccuracies due to how the lenses are ground and what materials they are made from etc, this results in the center of the lens being sharper than the outer edges of it. When you put one of these older lenses on a crop sensor camera you dramatically improve the quality of the image because the sensor only uses the central portion of the lens thus discarding most of the area that is degraded.

As mentioned previously if you plan on shooting with a zoom lens you should really consider using a tripod, at higher zoom ranges any vibration or shakiness is multiplied dramatically and will result in blurry images.

One last thing to note is that when buying any lenses you typically pay a lot more if you want a larger aperture (aka a faster lens). Where a 70-300mm F5.6 lens may cost $250 the same lens capable of f2.0 may run in the thousands.

Prime Lenses

Before the days of variable zoom lenses they were all fixed zoom aka prime lenses. Why would anyone even consider a lens so limiting? Below are 3 very good reasons:

1. Image quality
Variable zoom lenses are made up of many more elements than a fixed prime lens, this means any errors in how each of these elements are ground will add up and therefore decrease the total optical quality of the lens. Due to this fixed lenses tend to be sharper across the entire image, not just the center. Other optical issues like barrel distortion, pincushion distortion, and chromatic aberration are reduced in prime lenses.

2. Speed
This term may be new to you but when someone refers to a lens as being “fast” they mean it takes in a lot of light allowing you to use a faster shutter speed. Due to how they are made they often are available with very wide apertures (1.2, 1.4, 1.8 etc) compared to the variable lenses. Why is this important? Photographers always run into the same problem: not having enough light. Say you're shooting indoors and want to avoid the use of a flash (at a wedding for example) and your camera tells you in order to get a proper exposure you need to shoot at 1/4h of a second at ISO 100 at f5.6. 1/4th of a second is going to result in a blurry shot even if you're using a tripod because the people will probably be moving a little. If you have an F1.4 prime lens available that would give you 4 more stops of light to play with letting you shoot at 1/60th of a second instead which is shoot-able handheld. In short it gives you options.

3. Shallow depth of field thanks to wider apertures

By using a very wide aperture (F1.4 or 1.8 etc) a very dreamy effect can be accomplished as backgrounds softly blur away allowing the viewer's eyes to be drawn to what matters.

So which focal length should you buy?

If you're going to pick up a prime lens I suggest going for a 50mm. The reason is that this is a very popular focal length for portraiture and therefore manufacturers make higher volumes resulting in lower prices. For both Canon and Nikon a 50mm prime can be found for under $150 and most likely other manufactures have similar prices to stay competitive.

Keep in mind though you may have to apply that multiplication factor to the focal length that we covered earlier in this article so your 50mm may end up working more like an 80mm if you're shooting a Canon. Don't get hung up on that though as generally “portrait” lenses are regarded as anything between 50-100mm.

Software Options

Here are a few options when it comes to image editing/library management. I highly recommend trying all of the free ones first as well as any trial downloads you can find before spending any cash at all.

Photoshop (CS4 is $1000, Elements Ver 8 is $129.99)

Now for image editing software Adobe Photoshop is the gold standard in the industry (CS4 is the current version), it’s the program that everyone uses. It is also ridiculously expensive which leads to a lot of pirating, there are tons of torrents available if that is the path you choose (I'm not condoning it). Another, more affordable option, is Adobe Photoshop Elements which is a "lite" version that sells for $129.99 as I write this at London Drugs. Check Adobe's website for downloadable trial versions before dropping any cash.

  • Pros: It is the industry standard bar none.

  • Cons: Pricey, A bit of a steep learning curve, I've used it for 8 years and am still learning new things every day.

GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) FREE!

GIMP has been around for years now and has come a long way, it is by far one of the most full featured photography programs second only to Photoshop and maybe a few others. The best part is that since it started out in Linux the software is FREE. I recommend downloading simply because it is free and trying it out, chances are it will do everything you need it to do. Realistically the stuff that Photoshop has that GIMP lacks is more for advanced users anyway. There are parts of GIMP that aren't very user friendly or just outright backwards if you're used to Photoshop but the price kinda makes up for that ;)

  • Pros: Its FREE, full featured, and has an abundance of free tutorials and books online

  • Cons: Steep learning curve, not user friendly in some instances, awkward if you're used to Photoshop

Picasa a FREE program made by Google

I'm a huge fan of FREE and often recommend this program. It's no Photoshop when it comes to features but it is very user friendly and covers all the basics like cropping, resizing, exposure correction, and some nifty filters for spiffing up your photos. Picasa also acts as a photo manager for organizing your pics and has other handy features like "email" that will re-size your photo and automatically place them in a new email for you to send (supports outlook, gmail, and a few others). Personally I don't like the photomanager portion of it but that's just me.

  • Pros: It's FREE, covers most if not all of the “basics”, allows for fun projects like collages and slideshows

  • Cons: Due to its easy to use nature more serious photographers may not like the lack of complete control.

Adobe Lightroom ($369.95)

It takes its name from the film days where photographer's would view their negatives on a light table etc. Essentially it is a workflow tool for organizing your photos and is also a feature rich "digital darkroom". It gives you a plethora of controls for developing your photos and most "pros" use this to import & tweak their images before editing them in Photoshop. This isn't really a tool for beginners but if you're shooting in RAW already you might want to look into it.

  • Pros: Its fast becoming the industry standard for workflow and photo management, offers finer development control and Photoshop, great for processing RAW files

  • Cons: Price, Semi-steep learning curve, really meant for serious photographers

Friday, April 9, 2010

Everyone photographer should have a pocket camera...

Altoids, the curiously strong (and cheap) camera case!!!

It doesn't matter if you have a billion-pixel-best camera in the world-uber-DSLR hopped up on steroids it won't amount to jack squat if you don't have it with you when you need to take a shot. A few times now I've had my shots or videos used in the news simply because I was the only one present with a camera, the shots were not always the best quality but they were often the only ones available. In one instance there was a large accident near where I work, photos I took were used by the local newspaper in an online story and the video was used by a few local stations. One day at work we had some stray moose wander into our parking lot and once again I had some of my footage make it onto the news. Last winter during a -40ยบ C cold snap a spur of the moment experiment let to a video that ended up being used province wide of water freezing before it hit the ground. They played it throughout the winter whenever there was a cold snap ;)

Point and shoot cameras are sometimes looked down upon by us "serious" photographers but there is still a place for them for multiple reasons, the main one being size and portability. Another key advantage is that they don't attract a lot of attention, something very handy for street photography or events where "professional cameras" aren't allowed. A few years back when I visited China I accidentally left my point and shoot back here in Canada. I was so envious of my fellow travellers as they popped candid street photos while I had everyone shying away from the business end of my monstrous 40D. When I first purchased my G10 I read an article of a man who had to cover a university's championship baseball team's trip to the white house, his G10 slipped under the radar because it wasn't an SLR. [On a side note that last link is an interesting read since he accidently snapped his SD card in half whilst trying to dump the shots]

My current camera "family" is like the 3 little bears story, my SD780IS is the baby, my G10 is the middle one, and my 5DMKII is the big one. In this story however the "middle" one isn't necessarily the right one. Each have their place and for this post I'm going to focus on the SD780IS and the G10.

I'll admit I'm a bit biased towards Canon personally but even if you're a die hard fan of brand X it doesn't really matter when it comes to point and shoot cameras. Its not like the SLR world where you have hundreds or thousands of dollars invested in glass that's keeping you loyal to a specific manufacturer. Some of the Nikon cameras coming out are becoming tempting, likewise Pentax has some cool water and weatherproof point and shoots and Panasonic's Lumix series is quite good as well.

Getting the most out of your tiny camera.
CHKD is one of the biggest reasons I'm still going back to Canon for my tiny camera "fix". If you haven't heard of it I recommend clicking the link. Basically its what is referred to as a "firmware extension" that unlocks tons of control in your point and shoot giving you SLR-like features. Shutter speed, aperture, ISO, custom bracketing and even RAW! Using the shutter overrides some people have claimed insanely fast shutter speeds above 1/20000th of a second. But the fun doesn't stop there, you can even run scripts on your camera like a motion detection script that some have used to capture lightning, or an intervalometer script to take cool time-lapse shots. These clever MIT students used a cheap Canon A470 running CHDK to take pictures in SPACE!

Perhaps you're a photographer who is just starting out, say you want to get into using some off camera flash ala strobist well if you're running CHDK you can set your on-camera flash to manual to avoid that nasty pre-flash that is preventing you from using those cheap optical slaves. This summer I'm planning on doing a fashion shoot using only my SD780IS just to prove it can be done. If/when that happens I'll post the results here.

Know your limits, then bend or break them
The image quality of a point and shoot may not rival a full frame SLR but if you wield it correctly and know your limitations amazing things can still be done with these cameras.

Generally the really tiny cameras (like the Canon Elph series) all suffer from the same thing, a small sensor and small optics. The very thing that makes them so nice and portable is their biggest downfall. Small sensors don't work well with low light situations or tolerate high ISO's very well. The small lenses they come with often suffer from barrel distortion and pincushion distortion when they are either zoomed all the way in or all the way out. While the lowlight issues can't always be avoided the optical distortion caused by small lenses can be easily corrected using software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom.

One of the frequently overlooked issues with point and shoot cameras that is getting worse with every generation is the mega-pixel race, every year they're cramming more and more photosites into the same size sensor. In more than a few instances its been proven that older version of the same cameras that are lower MP actually produce better images.

For the most part the image quality of most point and shoots aren't going to win any awards but what I told you this doesn't have to be the case? Well one way is to take a bunch of pictures then stitch them into one huge picture. Essentially you fake a large sensor. Confused? Let me explain. Say your point and shoot at full resolution and highest quality takes a really sharp 5x7 but once you start to blow it up to 8x10 or 11x14 it starts to look poor. Now take that same subject but zoom way in (optical zoom only) and take 20 pictures to cover the same area. Now since each of your photos have enough resolution to make great 5x7's when you stitch them together with some software like this you'll have a very large shot that looks sharp. The shot below is an example of trying this technique out, it was taken using a piddly 3.2MP Canon SD200. It was made up of about 50 individual photos and I later printed it sharply at 16x20!

Delta Besborough

What about the middle road?
Ok some of you may say those little cameras are too tiny, I want something a little beefier. No problem, the Canon G series, the Nikon P600, or the Panasonic Lumix LX3 among others might be right up your alley. All 3 bring SLR-like control to the table, are still pocketable (mostly) and have. Once again I'm biased towards the G10 but this time it is attachment based in that I can use my 580EXII on it. That being said the other two have some nice perks of their own, the P600 for example has built in GPS for automatic geotagging and the Panasonic will do HD video. All 3 still suffer a little from the smaller sensors with respect to ISO noise (try to keep it below 200) but the G10 at least in good light could give some dSLR's a run for their money.

I'm not sure about the Nikon or the Panasonic but the G10 has one huge ace up its sleeve, amazingly high speed sync. Using a wired connection the G10 can sync a flash up to 1/4000th of a second thanks to its electronic shutter. This feat can let you do some pretty amazing things like overpowering the midday sun. There are two ways to do this, either use a very high power strobes full blast like an AB1600 or White Lightning 1800 and crank your aperture up to f16 or higher, or use a few speedlights at low power at a very fast shutter speed.

In conclusion
Don't dismiss these diminutive cameras, keep one in your shirt pocket and keep these tips in mind:
  • When possible avoid low light situations
  • Try to keep the ISO below 200
  • Use the low key nature to your advantage (street photography, concerts etc)
  • Get large sharp images by taking a bunch of smaller ones and stitch them together
  • Use the features unique to smaller cameras like the electronic shutter to you advantage
  • Take advantage of the video feature, most point and shoots are near camcorder quality and newer models are

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Softbox Umbrellas from Steve Kaeser

Two 40" softbox umbrellas from www.skaeser.com

I picked these up a little while ago and have been meaning to write a review for a while but haven't had a chance.

I'll start by saying that I love softboxes, especially ones that I can use my speedlights in. Last summer (or was it the summer before?) I took the plunge and picked up the 28" Westcott Apollo softbox for speedlights after watching the Onelight Workshop DVD. Since then I've almost totally abandoned my umbrellas ;)

Obviously I was quite stoked to come across these softbox umbrellas while surfing the web, at the time of purchase you could get 2 for a measly $29.95 on sale. Unfortunately their site only listed UPS for shipping and living in Canada I've been gouged all too often by UPS's exorbitant brokerage fees. I decided to email the company and see if they'd ship USPS instead, to my delight they said they would and they sent me an invoice. They wanted$25 for USPS shipping ($5 less than UPS) and while I thought that was a little steep for a $30 item I realized the box was probably oversized so there wasn't much I could do. Fast forward a few weeks and UPS knocks on my door, no that was not a typo they still shipped UPS! I ended up getting charged another $20 for brokerage even though I went out of my way to get a USPS quote! So now I've paid $45 for shipping on a $30 item. Not pleased with this I emailed the company and have yet to get a response (about a month ago at time of writing). Thats the end of my rant, I'll get on with my review and sample images now. I just couldn't in good conscience write a review of this product without explaining some of the extenuating circumstances.

On with the review!
IMG_1073 blue w red vignette Levels n Lines
Shot with a 580EXII in Steve Kaeser Softbox Umbrella

The umbrellas came with nice carrying bags for the umbrellas, an extra that I wasn't really expecting for such a low priced item. My next surprise was the build quality which was in fact quite good! I've bought some cheap umbrellas in the past and regretted it when they nearly fell apart in my hands, these however I see sticking around for quite some time.

I couldn't wait to test them out so I arranged a quick test shoot with a girl I had actually just done a shoot with the week prior. Like the previous shoot we just did it in her apartment using a nice large section of blank white wall as a backdrop. Since the area we were shooting in was relatively small I opted to just use a single softbox umbrella.

Initial impressions:
Right off the bat I noticed that there was a lot more spill with these than with my Westcott Apollo, I'm not sure if it was due to the larger surface area or the fact that the Steve Kaeser boxes don't have a recessed panel like the Apollo. If you put a gun to my head I'd say it was probably the lack of recessed panel. This does limit you a little if you're working in a small environment but its definitely not a dealbreaker.

IMG_0967 subdued

One thing I had read on some forums was that light distribution was not equal across the whole umbrella. I really didn't find this to be that much of an issue, if there was a hotspot at the center I didn't notice it very much at all. I found the quality of light to be on par with my Westcott. As you can see from the shots my 580EXII didn't seem to have any problems filling the softbox.

I've yet to try them out with my studio strobes but would imagine they would work pretty well. I would imagine the region blocked by the head might be a little darker but I'd have to see whether it is negligible or not. The nice thing is that you don't have to go out and buy a specific speedring to use them with your equipment.

The breakdown:

  • Cheap (provided you don't have the shipping hassles I did)
  • Well built
  • Fairly even light (some sticklers might disaggree)
  • Versatile in that either speedlights or monoblocks can be used
  • Diffusion panel is not recessed and results in spill
  • Diffusion panel is not removable for cleaning etc

For the price you'd be crazy not to have at least one f these in your bag. They're as small and portable as a regular umbrella yet give you the effects of a softbox. I still like my Westcott better but when you think you could get 8 of these for the same price I'd say start with a set of these instead.

If there were ever a rev 2.0 made I'd suggest making this unit convertible so it could be used as a shoot through as well, if they also made the diffusion panel removable it could then also be used as a reflective umbrella making it one of the most versatile pieces of gear ever!

A few parting shots ;)

IMG_1273 red

IMG_1298 blue