Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Rebel In Your Pocket

There are definite advantages to having your camera small and pocketable, which is always difficult, as generally speaking, it is only the "Point and Shoot" digital cameras that are small enough to fit a pocket. I'm not knocking P&S compact digicams, but again, generally speaking, even the best compacts are deficient in two areas - speed of Auto Focus and Image Quality in low light.

For street shooting especially, and also for just about any other type of walk-about outdoor photography, it's very nice to have your camera small. But often in these situations, the "decisive moment" is all important, and these two well known disadvantages of compacts - even the best of them, can work against that all important capture of the peak split second of interest.

I have pictured here my Canon Digital Rebel XTi, which is a smallish DSLR - the smallest that Canon ever made if I'm not mistaken, fitted with what looks like a strange little body cap with numbers on it. But that isn't a body cap - it's an Industar 50-2 Lens. Another one of my Soviet Russian wonders, this lens is small, extremely simple, has the right 50mm focal length and opens up to a respectable f3.5. Also, I've included a photo that I took with this camera and lens. Best of all, this rig fits into my average sized jacket pocket. The lens has a reputation of being exceptionally sharp, and they sell on Ebay for less than $50.

Yes you can pocket most of the smaller DSLR's (Canon Rebels good, Olympus E series even better) by fitting it with this lens, or what are now called "Pancake Lenses", and join in on the happy world of street shooting.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


I love snapshots! Pictures that are taken quickly without a lot of thought is my own definition of a snapshot. But this may not be the best definition. Snapshots may be better defined by the subject matter, and the degree of just one element - "love" which the picture contains. In a great snapshot, there may be little if any technical skill, and normally the equipment would be a simple point and shoot camera, but my belief is that love is the single most important ingredient - snapshots are made simply because the photographer "loves" the people or pets that end up in the picture, or because (s)he "loves" the particular place.

I've included here a picture of one of the most loved snapshot cameras of the film era, along with a picture taken with that camera. The Olympus Trip 35 got everything just right - absolute bare bones simplicity, with automatic exposure that used the photocell arrangement that encircled the zone-focus lens. In spite of being automatic, it needed no battery. The lens focal length was a "just right" compromise of 43mm - a normal view that was slightly wide angle. It was also fast at f2.8 making night shooting possible. Also, the lens was exceptionally sharp and of great quality. Best of all, the Trip 35 fits easily into a shirt pocket.

I'm not sure if the picture fits my best definition of a snapshot - it's not about "love" for the man in the picture. I don't even know who he is. But I do "love" the time of year depicted by the long evening shadows and still bare trees - that being early spring. I also "love" the small town I live in. Also, I spent no time composing this picture, I simply turned around and snapped the shutter.

Now, with film a thing of the past, the Cellphone camera is the new Olympus Trip 35. With most Cellphones now equipped with cameras, and the fact that people always have their phones with them - (that's the whole idea isn't it?), the ability to make true snapshots, and snap-videos has never been more universally available.

Walk Right In... Sit Right Down!

I just had to post this to further demonstrate the point I was trying to make in my last posting. I couldn't find the original, so I had to use a link to my Flickr. I probably threw this one away because of the "mistakes" - the really bad centering and partly cutting off both of the pillars. This is because the Zorki-4 is a Rangefinder camera, so you don't see "through the lens" like on an SLR / DSLR. The viewfinder is offset from the lens that you have to know how to compensate, and this being a vertical shot, I lost my bearings.

But I ask you - have you ever seen a picture that "invites you in" quite as good as this? Yes, I'm sure you have, but the point I'm making here is that this is a special quality of Rangefinder cameras, that results from the very close proximity of their lenses to the film plane. This simply "just happens" with a Rangefinder, but almost impossible to accomplish with a DSLR. My hope and expectation is that it will also "just happen" with the new breed of large sensor mirrorless (MILC) digital cameras too, which is why I'm steering in that direction.

Equipment Part-B

I realize my previous page wasn't very helpful to the person who is just getting started and wants to know which camera to buy, or at least narrow it down to a particular type of system. It turns out there has never been a better time to buy a camera system than right now, and it's only going to get better. A mere two years ago, the only real choice was the DSLR design dominated by Nikon and Canon. Since then, a new breed has been born and is starting to mature - the Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens  Camera (MILC). If I were starting over, this is the way I'd go. 

However, even if I were starting over with the MILC system, I would still insist upon keeping one foot in the world of old-school manual lenses. I would make certain the system brand I buy into would work well with thread-mount lenses, which brings me to my secret weapon... the Soviet made Jupiter series of lenses. That's right - as the rest of the world watches the recent recognition that the Russians had the best rocketry for launching into space all along, I would argue that they've also been making the best optics for cameras for the past 60 years. I took the above pic of my newborn grandson with a Jupiter-9 lens mounted via an adapter to my Canon Digital Rebel Xti. I get results with this lens that I cannot get with any other. And getting back to my previous page, it turns out that all the great film shots I did on that Zorki-4 Rangefinder were also through either a Jupiter-3 or Jupiter-12 lens. These lenses are simply incredible for not a whole lot of money.

That's one part of it. The other important bit is that the MILC design does away with one of the more pesky aspects of DSLR cameras - the Mirror and Prism assembly. There is an optical advantage to this - without the flip-up mirror in the way, the camera lens can be mounted much closer to the "film" (sensor). It is for this reason that the pics I used to take with the Zorki-4 had a certain look to them, like you could walk right into the picture. As long as the new breed of MILC cameras are made right, this aspect of photography will once again blossom in the digital domain, notwithstanding the $7000 Lieca M9.

So while you're doing your homework concerning which serious camera system you're going to invest in, take one tip from me - it's the lens, not the camera that makes the difference.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Does Equipment Matter?

I want to get this question laid to rest as quickly as possible - does the camera that you use make a big difference in your photographs? According to Ken Rockwell, it's not supposed to, but yet, I read his column every day (, and he always seems to be wetting his pants over the latest and greatest cameras, including the "pre-ordered" Nikon D800 and his Lieca M9, which if you don't know are extremely expensive cameras!

I've always gone with the cheapest gear I can get away with, because when I only paid $5.00 for a camera or a lens at a yard sale and take a fabulous picture with it, I feel that gives me more to brag about than any picture I might take with a $10,000 camera, which I will never own in this lifetime! Case in point - this picture was taken with a very old Russian made Zorki 35mm film camera, with absolutely no electronics in it whatsoever - not even a built in light meter. In fact, when I look back at photos I took with that camera, and similar old gear like a Zenit SLR, or an Olympus Trip-35, I think in many ways I was a much better photographer back then. That old film gear made me really think about everything I was doing; because it was film, every shot had to count - I refused to waste film. I also had to calculate all my camera settings in my head, all within the narrow confines of ASA 100 to 400, and shutter speeds that only went as high as 1/500. Just about every picture I took back then was as good as this one. I took a lot less pictures of course, because there had to be something "magical" happening, and I couldn't waste any shots.

So, yes, equipment does make a big difference, but not in the way you might think. I too sit and drool over at over the latest trends and features happening in the world of digital cameras, but nothing about the latest DSLR with ISO's that go to 12,800 and higher, and shutter speeds of 1/8000 shooting at 8 fps is going to enable me to take a picture any better than the one you see above.

Move ahead 4 years, and I've made tremendous changes. I now hate film, in spite of the tremendous successes I had with it. I'm on my sixth Digital Camera now, actually my third DSLR - a Canon EOS 40D which I just bought used at an amazingly low price. I truly believe that digital is the way to go - there are so many advantages, I cannot fathom that I would ever shoot a roll of film again. But I highly recommend that any and all photographers should start out with a completely manual film camera - that's how you learn the craft. And then, when you graduate to digital photography, try and pretend you're still using film. Don't go shooting everything and anything just because you now can. Keep on looking for the magic, and make every shot count, as if you know in advance that you are going to be picking up an envelope of 24 or 36 photographs, some of which you might have taken last spring, and you don't want a bag full of disappointment.

It is somewhat helpful to buy old school manual-only lenses if you have a DSLR. I have a great collection of M42 thread-mount, and Pentax K-Mount Prime Lenses with which I must focus and set my exposures manually. The camera's built in computer cannot communicate with these lenses at all, so I'm still forcing myself to slow down and think about the "craft" of photography. Even better, none of these lenses cost more than $75, with some I actually picked up for $5 with working cameras attached. When I manage to pull off a great photo with one of these lenses, I feel more like bragging about it than when I'm using my $600 fully automatic Sigma Zoom (not worth bragging about anyway, because a lot of new DSLR lenses are well over $2000). I steadfastly refuse to spend large sums of money on cameras and lenses when I know I actually do much better on a low budget.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Open Source Photography

Every picture I take gets the "Open Source Treatment". That means Photo Software that is available at no cost, among other things. If you have heard rumours about the Open Source world, you might be thinking "Linux", and yes, that's true, and yes I do use Linux as my preferred computer experience for everything. But what you might not have known is that a lot of truly great OS Photography Applications are created for Linux first, and then ported to Windows. My favourites are GIMP. Photivo, Hugin and Tintii and all of these are available for Windows at exactly the same cost as they are in Linux - $0!! And they work just as well. They also work just as well as the very costly Commercial Programs most often referred to.

GIMP is an absolute essential. Although not exactly a "Photoshop Clone", it has a similar set of features. To say it's a "clone" would be doing it a dis-service! GIMP is every bit as good as PS in every way - it does it all - it is quite similar, has its own set of creative filters and script add-ons, and will now even run some PS add-ons.

Next is Photivo. It has been compared to both Elements and Lightroom in function. Although most powerful as a RAW Processing Workflow Program, it will do amazing things with any image file - not just RAW format. I worked the above picture through the many "sliders" in Photivo while it was still in my Canon Raw format until my own eyes were amazed, before exporting it to GIMP for a final resizing and conversion to JPEG.

Cheating at Photography

OK so I know this is nothing new. This photo is a panorama - five vertical shots stitched together with Hugin. I want to call it "cheating" because it results in a very large usable dimension - like that of a Medium Format camera. This technique allows me to preserve a great amount of detail from front to back. I could have gotten the same composition by taking one wide angle shot, correcting the perspective, and cropping from the centre of the image, but the result would have been lacking the spectacular detail I accomplished here. There are 14 Turbines being built on this site - I somehow wanted to get all of them in the picture, along with the straw-bales in the foreground and everything that spectacular sunset had to offer at the same time.

If you find yourself "stuck" with a 50mm Prime (a lens which I like a lot, especially as it becomes 80mm on my 1.6X Canon) , and you find yourself staring woefully at a wide vista that would be better served by a 24mm lens, just turn your camera on it's side and start mowing.