Monday, July 30, 2012

SMC Takumar 55mm Lens Review

I Think He Saw Me

As you know, I have a strong preference for using older Manual Focus Prime Lenses on my Canon DSLR. I've also been delighted to find that my 7D is the best camera I've owned for doing so, because it has the best possible Optical Viewfinder installed on any APS Sensor camera on the market, being the biggest, with near 100% coverage, as well as being made with a specific amount of grain on the prism component to make focusing really visible to the eye. In fact, manual focussing isn't near as difficult as it sounds when compared to Auto-Focus. With AF, by the time you get the right focus point selected and all that stuff that goes with it, like whether you need a single-shot, or automatic follow-focus, you can have your subject in focus and ready to shoot with a good manual focus lens. Also, with a deep aperture setting like f8 or f11, you can easily pre-focus a manual focus lens to it's hyper-focal distance, making everything from a distance 10 feet in front of you all the way to infinity to be in focus, so you don't need to worry about being in focus at all - simply pre-focus and you're ready to go. That's how I took the picture of the young couple on their 4-Wheeler. I had to be real quick with this one - they had just come up onto the highway and turned in front of me, at speed, and I had no time to deal with focusing at all - even with AF I probably would've missed the essence of this shot. Thank goodness for manual hyper-focal pre-focusing!

I snapped a number of pictures a couple of evenings ago, with the intent of giving my Pentax SMC Takumar 55mm lens a good test - and here are those pictures. I'm not going to make any dumb statements like some lens reviewers do by saying these good old lenses have a "film-like" quality - just because they come from film cameras, they don't assume any such quality. In fact, I would have to say that if anything has a film-like quality, it's the 7D camera itself. At one time, I owned a Rebel XTi (EOS 400D) and a Nikon D70 at the same time, and used the same manual lenses on both of them. What I saw from that was the Nikon was the clear winner when it came to being "film-like". It made much nicer, richer colours, and somehow, rounded objects like tree trunks appeared much rounder and realistic with the old D70. I've since sold both cameras for more money than I had paid for them, and am down to one camera, the Canon EOS 7D, which I think takes on those image qualities of the older Nikon very well.

The Takumar lenses which Pentax put out in the '70's were "Super Multi-Coated", that's what the SMC stood for, and were considered to be extremely good. This 55mm focal length would have been within the range of normal eyesight for an angle of view on a 35mm Film SLR, and would be the same on a full frame SLR, but on my APS sized sensor DSLR, the focal length is 55 X 1.6 = 88mm, which makes it a "mild telephoto". Experience wise, you need to step back quite a few paces to get in a whole picture of a steam-roller, for instance:

Standing Back About 30 Feet

To put this in perspective, I had to stand back about 30 ft. according to the lens's distance scale, but with a Full Frame camera, this would have been reduced to around 18 ft. to get a similar picture. This has it's advantages, in that there are lot's of old 50mm prime lenses on the market at low prices, and these in fact become mildly telephoto, but not so much as to create any obvious telephoto distortion. It's great for street photography, because it almost doubles the distance you can be from your "victim", and in fact, with these lenses being so incredibly sharp, you can shoot your street photos using the full camera resolution (mine is 18 M-Pixels), from way far away, and then crop from as little as 2 or 3 M-Pixels and still have a good sharp street shot of people who probably didn't notice you taking their picture as you were hiding behind a corner of a building. (Notwithstanding the ethical issues of taking pictures of strangers). 

The SMC Takumar lens is very compact, and therefore lightweight, having only a 49mm front filter mount, and yet, it's aperture opening goes to f1.8, making it an ideal night shooter too. At f1.8 of course, it has a very shallow depth of field, and with a six-bladed aperture, offers reasonably nice "bokeh" (the out of focus blur effect). A rule of thumb here is that the more blades your aperture has, the nicer the effect will be, which is why my lovely Russian made Jupiter-9 85mm lens, with it's 11 blades, is my "bokeh king"). This Takumar's blades are rounded however, which keeps the aperture more circle-like, making the effect much better than with cheaper lenses with six flat blades, which tends to make little "stop signs" in your blurred effect - not cool.

I find the Takumar exceptionally easy to focus, because of it's inherent sharpness (made possible by it's super multi-coating treatment), and how it allows a lot of light into the camera, making your focus very clearly visible in the viewfinder. Also, if you choose to use the camera's focus assist (an audible beep and / or a visible flash of red, or blinking green dot, depending on camera model), this one works well al the way down to f8 where the focus assist is no longer reliable. Remember that the focus assist only works if you've purchased a "chipped" lens adapter, which retains some of the camera body's automated features, like Aperture Priority, and Phase Focus Detect. If you have a non-chipped adapter, you must use Full Manual Mode, and you have no focus assist. 

I find the SMC Takumar 55 to be wonderful, with rich colours, deep contrast, and a great presentation of texture, which gives that film-like "roundness" to objects I mentioned above.

The best way to buy a lens like this is to look for old film SLR package deals in your local market classifieds (like Kijiji). I bought my Takumar 55 earlier this year as part of a $140 package deal that included 2 Spotmatic Cameras, 1 Minolta SLR with lens, the Bushnell 28mm, Bushnell 90-210 Zoom, a Vivitar 70-210 Zoom, 1 SMC Takumar 200mm Telephoto, 1 set of Close-Up Filters and several other filters of various sizes. So, I suppose this would put the price of the lens lone at about $15.00, and it's a far superior lens to that plastic Canon EF-50 f1.8 that sells new for $139.00.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Basic Terminology, Part 3

This post will quickly round out our look into the basics of image "parameters" - the things you can adjust in a photograph, either in camera, in software post-processing, or both.

I cannot neglect mentioning White Balance and Auto Colour Corrections to end off this discussion. Also, there are several other less encountered, but sometimes important parameters such as Colour Spaces and Colour Models.

White Balance

Camera Accidentally Set for "Tungsten" WB

As you can see, White Balance is one of the most important parameters to get correct from the beginning if your camera will only shoot JPEG, but if you're shooting with RAW files, once again, it will save the day, because you can recover the correct WB, or deliberately select any "wrong" WB using your RAW Conversion software. In fact, that's exactly what I did for this example - I selected "Tungsten" from the list of WB values, which are typically "Daylight", "Shade", "Cloudy", "Tungsten", "Fluorescent", "Flash", or "Automatic". I normally set my camera to "Automatic", and find it's very good at making this decision for me.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, if you're old enough, you might recall when you bought your camera film at the drugstore, you had a choice between "Daylight" or "Tungsten", depending on whether you were going to shoot that role of film outdoors, or indoors with normal incandescent light bulbs. The latter would compensate the colours with a bluish tinge, overcoming the yellow-orange glow produced by incandescent light. If you used "Daylight" film indoors with nothing but household light bulbs, the pictures would turn out with a yellow-orange cast. If you had to use Daylight film indoors, to get the correct colour, you would have to use a flash. Further to this, if you were to use Daylight film indoors under fluorescent lighting, you would end up with a greenish cast, which could be overcome by screwing a "fluorescent filter" onto your lens, or by using a flash. finally, if you had to use Daylight film on a cloudy day, you might end up with a slight purple tinge in the pictures, which you would have to compensate for wit a "Daylight Filter" on your lens. So, you see how easy digital cameras have made this now? You can either select the correct WB from a much broader menu of choices, or simply shoot your camera with Auto-White Balance (AWB) and forget it.

RAW Conversion software offers one more possibility that you can play around with - that is "Manual White Balance". This whole White Balance thing is connected to "Colour Temperature", and when you select from one of the presets discussed above, there is normally a temperature number showing in a box underneath. This number is 4 digits (order of thousands) and represents colour temperature in "Degrees Kelvin", with the lowest numbers being the red, and the highest numbers being the violet ends of the spectrum. By using the software's Manual White balance, you can customize this colour temperature to be exactly what most pleases your eyes, by 'warming" or "cooling" your overall colours.  You might also notice that adjusting the temperature manually could have an influence on how much detail is revealed in the picture, so for example if you slide it a bit warmer, some hidden details might emerge, and keep in mind, by doing this, even though you might end up with a hideous colour cast, (say red), the uncovered detail will still be there if you convert the picture to Black and White by desaturating the colours completely as a next step.

Auto Colour Correction

 Original JPEG from Camera

JPEG With "Auto-Fix" Applied

This is good news if your camera doesn't shoot RAW files. All JPEG Editing Software, even the basic Windows Picture and Fax Viewer that comes with every computer, has a very effective single click "Auto-Fixer". Above, you can see for yourself what a tremendous effect this has on a JPEG file. Quite often, this is all you need to fix up pretty much everything we've been looking at in these three lessons - a pictures Contrast, Saturation, Brightness, Gamma, White Point, Black Point and Colour Temperature can all be fixed with one mouse click! 

This is always the very first thing I do to a JPEG file - try the Auto-Fix (which, by the way, in GIMP is found under Colors > Auto... then there are several different "fixes" that you can apply - if you're a GIMP user, take the time and try them all). I've found over the years that the better quality my camera is, the less change the "Auto-Fix" will have on my JPEGs. So, you might be asking, why is my "from camera" JPEG so bad as seen above from my top of the line EOS 7D? I would say that in this case, it was high noon, with the sun directly overhead, and I didn't have my lens hood on. This usually causes all kinds of problems, no matter how good your camera is. Anyway, the point is, don't think it's "unprofessional" to simply try the "one click solution" first. If the result makes you happy, you can save a load of time, and if you are a professional, time is money.

Colour Space

I'm not going to talk about this at all. There are two Colour Spaces  - RGB and Adobe. With some cameras (like mine) you can select one or the other, and I suppose if you're an Adobe Photoshop user, it's best to select Adobe in your camera. <citation needed>. That's all I can say.

Colour Models

This is where it gets real scientific, and again, I'm not going to spend any time on this. When you're using a RAW Conversion Software, you're bound to run into some of the following terms, which are all Colour models. They are RGB, CMYK, LAB, and HSV, among other lesser known ones. If you want to know more, just search Wikipedia for each of these, or do a general search on Color Models, then try to apply what you've learned in using your software.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Basic Terminology, Part 2

Reference JPEG, Straight Out of Camera

Yesterday, I introduced the most common Picture Parameters, all of which can be preset within your camera to achieve desired effects, or manipulated by simple JPEG (or RAW) software after the picture is downloaded to a computer. Today, I'm going to get into more advanced Parameters, which usually need to be done with RAW files, unless noted otherwise.

Texture Contrast

Some RAW Developer Software has a Parameter called "Texture Contrast". It is a kind of "selective contrast". As it's name suggests, it adds specific attention to the texture details within a picture, which leads into a specific branch called "Texture Photography". In this picture, the most notable texture is that of the clouds, so here is the picture with a high amount of Texture Contrast applied:

Texture Contrast Added with Photivo

Local Contrast

Local Contrast is another kind of "selective contrast" that gives you control over specific tones within the picture you want to add contrast to, Because it is done at a Pixel level, it is sometimes referred to as "Micro Contrast". You can select whether you want to add contrast to the shadows, the mid-tones or the highlights, and also add variables in terms of soft or hard, and the "radius" (which always means the number of pixels you want to spread the effect out from - in other words, do you want to apply local contrast with a single-haired brush or a putty knife, or anything in between). Here, I've applied an extreme amount of Local Contrast to the mid-tones with a 100 Pixel Radius:

Local Contrast Added with Photivo

As most of this picture is composed of mid-tones, the effect can be seen throughout the entire scene, and is of course way too heavy handed, but this is all for demo purposes, right?

Colour Curve

This one is particularly useful, easy to use, found readily in all Photo Imaging software (even the one that came with your camera, most likely) and even works well on JPEG files. Is you picture too dark or too bright? Simply change the colour curve. It adjusts all three colours (RGB) equally. It allows you to brighten or darken a picture somewhat (not to great extremes) without losing any shadow or highlight detail. This should actually be the very first thing you should try on any photo downloaded to your computer - even if you think it looks OK, try it anyway. You can see here how the overall brightness was elevated, brightening the foreground, without loosing any of the nice detail in the clouds. 

Colour Curve Raised

Dynamic Range Adjustment

This is sometimes referred to as Compression, because the idea is to "increase" the dynamic range by compressing the RAW file into a decreased 8-Bit tonality. I find this quite hard to understand, and even harder to explain, because I don't quite get how you can increase something by compressing it, unless you perhaps look at it like "compressed air", where the air is provided with a lot of stored-up power when you compress it into a tank, or a car tire. Anyway, the effect can be quite dramatic, and it can only be accomplished with a RAW file, because only RAW files contain enough data to compress. So here, I applied a moderate amount of Dynamic Range Compression to the already elevated Colour Curve example:

Dynamic Range Compressed with Photivo

Notice especially how a lot of detail was picked up in the sky that was otherwise invisible. Don't ask me how! Obviously, the data for this detail was present within the RAW file, and made visible by dynamic range compression. This is approaching a High Dynamic Range (HDR) type of picture.

I've run out of time for today - there are still many other parameters to be discussed, but that'll be for another day.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Basic Photo Terminology, Part 1

JPEG Straight From Camera

Fully Tweaked RAW Version-1

This is the first of a two part Post in which I will explain some of the basic Photo Terminology, sometimes called "Parameters" or "Styles" that you might run across. Part-1 will deal with the more basic set of terms which are probably adjustable for the JPEG output within the Picture Menu of your camera - in other words, you can use nothing but the "Picture Styles" (or some other such term, depending on your camera model) to adjust these Parameters. The approach I'll use here is to show you what can happen when some of these Parameters go wrong, and what you must do to correct them. I will be using the picture above throughout this exercise. For starters, the first one - the JPEG output from my camera with the Picture Style set to "Faithful" is sort of OK - I had exposed to get the most detail from the clouds, but overall, the picture is a little bit ho-hum, especially in the foreground. The second sample is the same picture, but I worked a lot on the RAW file to give it some added punch. For new photographers, I want to take this opportunity to mention that this shows the power of shooting RAW files - I could never have accomplished this degree of enhancement by trying to tweak a JPEG file.

But on to the Terminology. The first one is -


Positive (High) Exposure

I don't want to say this is "over-exposed" especially, because you can see that the foreground is correctly exposed, and if this is what you wanted to accomplish, then this is the correct exposure. However, you can see that the best part of the picture, in this case the spectacular clouds, is all blown out, because the exposure was set higher than in the original JPEG.

Solution- in Photoshop (or equivalent), reduce the Exposure by one or two points. Next -


Added Contrast

Here you can see how a bit of Contrast Boost has an overall benefit to the picture in this case - compared with the Camera JPEG, an increase in the contrast really enhanced the detail in the clouds, as well as added some much needed brightness to the foreground. This is the way Contrast works - it is very linear, in that it will boost both the highlights and the deeper shades at the same time. But quite often, you might not want to boost both the shadow and highlights at the same time. It worked well in this picture, but it's quite rare that Contrast Boost alone will have such a good overall effect.

Solution - set your Camera's Contrast setting 1 or 2 points higher, if you want overall good contrast. Next-


 Reduced Saturation

Increased Saturation

The Saturation Adjustment only works on the colour levels of the picture, and not on the Tonality. Here the top picture shows reduced saturation - as you can see, it's almost Black and White. In fact the most common way of converting colour to B&W is simply reducing the Saturation all the way to Zero (although common, this is not necessarily the best way). In the bottom picture, I increased the Saturation quite a bit, making all of the colour in the picture really "pop", but not really adding anything in terms of detail, especially in the foreground. If the foreground looks a little brighter, it is only because the colours are more intense.

Solution - if you want bright cheerful colour, increase the Saturation setting in your Camera. Next-


Gamma Adjustment Badly Needed

This can be a tricky one. At first glance, pictures with Gamma problems look over-exposed, but the problem doesn't go away by using an Exposure adjustment. Instead, it's like a bright milky film or glaze is all over the picture, and it's usually caused by too much UV light coming in. The use of a screw on UV Filter on you lens usually prevents this from happening, but if you don't have one, all is not lost. Gamma can be taken out by adjusting it with software. Depending on the software you use, it is sometimes accomplished differently - sometimes you have to move the Gamma slider to the + side and sometimes to the - side. Some other software's use the terms "Blackpoint" and "Whitepoint", where you have to work with both sliders, either + or - to eliminate the haze.

Solution - there is no "in camera" Gamma adjustment, at least not with Canon products, but you can use most anyJPEG editing software to get rid of the haziness. Next, the last one for today - 


Sharpness is another Parameter that can be set via your Camera menu in most models. It is exactly as the name suggests - how sharp or "un-blurry" a picture can be. Naturally a lot of this depends on the lens you are using, how good you are at focusing, and the lens aperture setting, but there is also a Sharpness component within the pixels of the photo itself. I demonstrated it here by cranking up the sharpness to the extreme limit, and you can see both the positive and negative effects of doing so. It made the picture quality very snappy overall, but it also created some obvious problems in the "Irving Circle-K" signs. There are photo styles, especially Portraits, where you should reduce Sharpness, which is usually more flattering to the subject.

Solution - Sharpness is best set in your camera itself, based on what you want to achieve. Choice of lens is also important here. Software adjustment of sharpness after the photo is taken is effective, but is done "artificially" which will be obvious if you are too heavy-handed with it.

Part 2 of this tutorial will deal with Parameters that can only be done outside the camera, by processing your RAW files. I broke it up this way because not everybody has a camera that will output a RAW file.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Ten Coolest Cameras of All Time

I thought I'd have a bit of fun today and create my list of “the ten coolest cameras ever made”. This is strictly my own list of what qualifies as “cool” - not necessarily “good”. It's a bit strange that only three digital cameras made the list, and there are no DSLR's!

Honestly, I cannot think of a single DSLR that is “cool”. I own one of the best, and it has a lot of “cool” features, but this does not make a cool camera. Hopefully this will spark some comments – does anybody out there actually think that DSLR's are cool? Can anybody even think of one that might be cool?

Maybe it would help if I explained why I think that DSLRs are so “un-cool”. I think I look like a total geek going around with the EOS7D around my neck. I feel like people think I'm either showing off or that I must be a total fanatic, both of which are un-cool. Although the 7D, or most any other DSLR will certainly do all things well, it is not the right type of camera for cool photography. It's made for serious, professional photography. It's meant to be a pro tool, and everyone knows that a tool is not cool!

So to my list. This isn't in any particular order from one to ten, except that I've listed my digital choices last. Just to show where I'm coming from, it seems to me that there were so many film cameras that had that cool factor, it was really hard to choose only seven, but here it is:

The Rollei 35

In my opinion, the Rollei 35 was one of the coolest looking cameras ever made. It is a marvellous piece of industrial design, which placed the controls in such a way as to be the smallest design possible that could accomodate full frame 35mm film.

The Canonet

I love Rangefinders, and I've owned a few, but never had a Canonet. But among fixed lens rangefinders, it seems the Canonet got things right while remaining just a little unusual and innovative. I favour lens focal lengths between 40 and 50mm, so if there has to be just one lens, the Canonet is just on the wide side, with a very fast f1.7 40mm lens. It's also a little unusual in that its automatic mode was Shutter Priority instead of Aperture Priority. The Canonets were rugged and very simple rangefinders, and therefore very cool.

The Minox Miniature

A true cult camera if there ever was one. It could be concealed anywhere on your person (stop imagining things – if I had one, I'd keep it down my sock or a shoe!) These cameras are James Bond cool, not to mention M*A*S*H's Colonel Flagg.

The Olympus Trip 35

I can speak from experience with this one – absolutely the coolest, maybe even the best camera I've ever owned. I've never known a camera so easy to use, that at the same time gave me such consistently good results on film. It seemed to work well in every situation, in spite of not even needing a battery to work, and yet was strictly Aperture Priority automatic. Also, the 45mm focal length is exactly where I like to be most of the time.

The Contax IIa

The Contax IIa was the rangefinder camera used by my favourite photographer Charles Cushman, and therefore real cool. I sure wish there could be a Contax digital rangefinder – even if some company like Samsung would make it. Oh wait – Epson tried once, didn't they?
Contax IIa conrf3a1.jpg

The Pentax Spotmatic

I still have my old Pentax Spotmatic – the camera I used in the late 1970's to take pictures for reference material for my paintings. Instead of field sketching, I used the Spotmatic as my sketchbook, while at the same time, learning the basics of operating a fully manual SLR. It has the M42 Pentax Thread-Mount lens system, which I still favour today for my Canon DSLR.

The Zorki-4

Have you ever wanted to experience a Leica Rangefinder? Well, you actually can, for less than a hundredth of the cost. The Zorki-4 is a very close clone of the Leica-III screw-mount lens system. In fact, Zorki cameras came about after Russia's victory over Nazi Germany, when Russia dismantled the Leica factory in Germany and rebuilt it in the Ukraine. It was here that they continued production of these older Leica cameras after Leica recovred and went on with the new M-Mount, and you can still buy really good ones from Russian Ebay sellers for under $100 that work perfectly. From what I can figure, Soviet Russia was very good at manufacturing two things – cameras / lenses and wrist watches. I still use a Russian wind-up watch every day, and three of my favourite M42 lenses which I use on my DSLR are Russian. The hallmark of the Zorki-4 was the uncanny way it made photos that felt like you could walk right into.

OK, here we go, onto the Digital Cameras. I actually found it difficult to think of ANY digital cameras that are actually cool. I think digital photography is super-cool, putting picture-making back into the realm of true art where the photographer has complete control over the image from beginning to end, never having to surrender your photo processing to someone else. I can state this real simple – like; I love digital photography, but hate digital cameras, and I hate film photography but love film cameras. I had to really dig deep to try to find some digital cameras I could actually fall in love with, and I only came up with three to put on my top ten cameras of all time list:

The Pentax Q

Did you happen to notice how all the film cameras on my list are all small? The biggest one is the Spotmatic, a film SLR that is still smaller than most DSLR's. I believe the coolest cameras are the smallest cameras, and if anything should take advantage of modern computer miniaturization, the Digital Camera should! So why don't they? It's getting better for sure, but the general rule still remains – to get the best image quality, you have to have a big honkin' DSLR while miniaturized / compact cameras give second-rate image quality. I think that Pentax has broken through here with the Q System. It has a miniature sensor, and it's own unique system of miniature interchangeable lenses, and from all accounts, gives very good image quality – certainly not DSLR good, but better than compact-good. It's most endearing quality is that it looks incredibly cool, does some incredibly cool image processing right in the camera, and yes, I think you could conceal it in one of your shoes!

The Panasonic DMC-LX5 or LX7

I really think this will be the one I'll buy. This camera kind of created a new niche of “serious compacts that a real photographer wouldn't mind using”. It was an immediate predecessor of the new “mirrorless” design, although it has neither a large sensor or interchangeable lenses, but what it does have is an extremely good small sensor, and a wickedly great fixed moderate-zoom lens. There are a lot of similar cameras on the market now, from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji and Samsung, but none of them look quite as cool as this one.

The Smartphone Camera

I'll leave this generic, because, even though Apple's iPhone was the first to put a decent camera into a smartphone, the Android competition is every bit as good. These things are amazing really – the ultimate in camera miniaturization, and living proof that extremely small lenses and sensors can be put together to provide exceptionally good image quality. The smartphone camera is the new “walk-around” camera, in fact revolutionizing camera mobility – you usually have your phone with you – isn't that what cellphones are for, after all?
Samsung Galaxy S2 11x0428gsii.jpg

There are a lot of cameras that nearly made my list – like why not the new Olympus Pen series, or the Panasonic GX1 or Canon G1X for heaven sake! Or, as I love the old rangefinders so much, why not the Fuji X10, that at least looks exactly like an old Leica, even though it isn't really a Rangefinder? Well, this was not easy – some of these could be on my list, but here's the question – for truly small digital cameras, why would you necessarily need interchangeable lenses? Interchangeable lenses in my opinion are “tool”, not “cool”. Ah, so why then did I pick the Pentax Q system? Well, it takes a different approach to interchangeable lenses that actually is “cool” - instead of each lens being of ultimate quality, they only offer a couple of lenses of exceptionally good quality, and the others are for “cool” effects like “Lomo” and fish-eye, which are intended to work well with the camera body's built-in creativity. The Pentax Q system is an artist's camera – that's why I chose it.

I'm really looking forward to comments from this one!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

HDR Photography

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography has long been popular, especially with the realization that early digital cameras had a rather limited dynamic range, and various means had to be created to correct this problem. The JPEG Digital File Standard remains only at 8 bits, which only allows 256 distinct shades of light to be processed (thinking strictly in terms of black and white). More recent cameras do their processing with 14 bits, which increases that number dramatically to 16384 values, which provides much smoother transitions from dark to light, and when combined with shooting mode options like Canon's “Auto Lighting Optimizer”, this extended range can be used by the camera to increase shadow detail. However, conversion down to JPEG will ultimately reduce the range back down to 256 values. If you convert images to the Tagged Image File Format (TIFF), which can accommodate 16 bits instead of JPEG, the range of values your camera used to process an image will be retained.

This has little to do with the technique that evolved from this need to improve digital pictures however – the above merely describes where the HDR technique came from, as in “necessity is the mother of invention”.

Instead of explaining the necessity in terms of numbers, I'll explain it in terms of what the eye can see (which I should have done in the first place, right?) In a lot of photographs, (even when done with film), there are two really big exposure problems – details that are lost in the shadows, and details that are lost in the highlights (“blown highlights”). Processing with a greater than 8 bit depth can help diminish these problems, but the HDR technique takes it even further. With HDR, you take three or more of exactly the same picture, preferably with the camera on a tripod and absolutely nothing moving in the scene. These pictures must be all exposed differently, with the lowest exposure showing all the shadow detail, and the highest exposure showing all the highlight detail. These photos are then “stacked” using Photoshop or equivalent software, and then blended and combined into one image that shows all the detail – from deep shadow through to the brightest light. What you get is a strange but often wonderful looking piece like my shot of St. Alban's Church above.

My opinion of HDR is that it has become a branch of the art of Photography. I think that HDR Photographs look a lot like paintings, because a painter will often brush in all of the detail he is seeing, as his eye adapts from dark to light within the scene he is painting. But here's the thing – our eyes do not see all this detail at one time. Our pupils must adjust to the light as we alternately peer between deep shade and bright light. Yes, our eyes discern all the detail at both extremes, but like a camera, our eyes don't see it all at one time. This is why an HDR photograph, or a lot of paintings (depending on what the artist intended), tend to look “hyper-real”. I should say that the best HDR photos look that way, but most of what I've seen simply look “flat and over-bright”. They lack in depth, because all of the contrast that our eyes can take in within one spit second has been eliminated from the photograph.

Let's consider it in yet another way. High Dynamic Range is essential in Cinematography, because a movie camera is constantly moving from dark to light in much the same way our eyes do. A really crappy movie camera might not respond to these extreme lighting changes, and create movies that look dull because a lot of deep shadow and bright light detail is missing. A good movie camera, on the other hand, will respond correctly to the changes as it moves through a scene. But, like the human eye, a movie camera never has to see deep shadow and bright light detail all at the same time, and yet, this is exactly what the HDR photo technique is seeking to do.

Finally, I will mention a couple of other, and perhaps more suitable ways to make the dynamic range of a photograph stand out.

  • Use a Graduated Neutral Density Filter on your camera lens, if you're shooting a traditional “bright at the top, dark at the bottom” landscape. These screw-on filters darken the top half while leaving the bottom half of the picture in full light, thus reducing blown out highlights, allowing more highlight detail to come through, especially in the clouds.
  • Convert your pictures from RAW to TIFF instead of JPEG. This will retain all of your camera's efforts to keep graduated light detail intact. The downside is that TIFF files are many times larger than JPEG's. I would recommend this only if you intend to print the image on a TIFF capable printer. (Note – this will not create the “HDR-look” - it will still look real, but slightly better)
  • An HDR look can be achieved with just one picture – you don't need to combine three or more. Because you are going to collapse the whole output of the HDR processing down to 8-bit JPEG anyway, you can still get the same look of an HDR by using your RAW conversion software to 1) brighten the picture, 2) apply “dynamic range compression” 3) apply “local contrast” to the mid-tones, and 4) de-noise the shadows. This is what I did to the church photo above, using Photivo as my RAW sotware. The picture started out looking like this:

Some people call this “Fake HDR”, which I find kind of funny, because of the fact that the human eye does not see all levels of detail in one instant, then HDR is all fake anyway, no matter how it's done. With HDR, you gain lots of lost detail, but, mainly because of the final compression back to 8-bit, you lose a lot in the way of depth suggesting contrast (or Luminance). I think to make a good HDR project requires a light-handed touch.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Bushnell 28mm Lens Review

One of the nicest photography spots in my home town is the Campus of Mt. Allison University. Like most campuses, it is replete with beautiful architecture, and Mt-A has been exceptionally good over the years at maintaining its older buildings, and when new buildings are added, they continue with the well established theme. I went out this morning with a dual purpose in mind, to once again photograph some  of this beauty, made even more serene by the lack of activity in the summer months, and also to give my 28mm f2.8 manual focus Bushnell lens a thorough evaluation.

Here are the few pictures that I took on the Campus, and along York Street.

As for the Bushnell Lens, it seems to be very rare and I cannot find out much about it. Bushnell of course is famous for its Binoculars and Rifle Scopes, and they did make a brief entry into camera lenses in the 1970's, although I cannot find any info on the Web for dating mine. It is an M42 Pentax Thread Mount type, as are all of my manual lenses, which by default puts it in the late '60's through mid '70's. It is extremely well made - perfect, really, with a satin black aluminium finish and rubber grip with no plastic parts at all - even the end caps are machined aluminium. My assumption is that it is of Japanese manufacture, simply because the Koreans and other Asian countries were not making lenses during the M42 era. Like I said, this lens is mechanically and aesthetically perfect, and also fairly large in size, with a 58mm Filter Thread (same size as Canon's Kit Lenses). I also own a Bushnell 90-230mm f4.5 M42 Zoom, which is absolutely "stupid huge". It's heavy enough that it has it's own tripod mount, and in terms of build quality, every bit as excellent as my 28mm.

Just to review how I manage to use lenses like this on my DSLR, for you new-bees. Since the advent of Digital SLR cameras, there has been an explosion in the manufacture of lens adapters. You can pretty much adapt lenses of any brand and type, from any interchangeable lens camera made since the 1930's, to any new DSLR. For some combinations, these adapters have to include one optical "helper element" to ensure focus-ability to infinity, and this is best avoided if you can, but as a Canon owner, old lenses that were made with M42 and the newer Pentax K-Mount work perfectly with non-optical adapters. However, older Canon "FD" type lenses, such as was used on the famous Canon AE-1 will not work with the newer Canon EOS mount without the extra optical element being included. I had tried this a couple of years ago, and was never happy with the results. So it can be done, but some combos work much better than others.

One other cool feature is that most of these adapters have a built in electronic chip that mates up with your DSLR body contacts. This allows two things to be enabled on a DSLR that goes beyond the capabilities which these old lenses were designed for, and how cool is that!! The first is that Aperture Priority mode can be used, and the second is that, although you have to focus the lens manually, your camera body still uses it's phase-detect focusing, and will give you the "beep" signal when focus is achieved - in other words you get an audible focus assist! There are a few proviso's to keep in mind to make this work properly:

  •  Make sure your focus alert audible beep is turned on (via a camera menu item)
  • The focus detect that makes it beep requires a lot of light to operate, so if your older lens aperture is stopped down any more than say, f5.6, there won't be quite enough light coming through for the focus phase detect to get a reading. If you need to stop down more than f5.6, then what you need to remember to do is go wide open, then focus until you hear the beep, then stop down to you desired aperture. 
  • These chips on the adapter will only allow your camera body internal aperture setting to go to f1.4 - no lower. This means that your actual exposure is affected by about 1-1/2 to 2 stops, so to get correct Aperture Priority exposure, you need to set your Exposure Compensation for up to 2 stops under-exposure. 
Once you get used to these things with a little practice and experimentation, you might find a real preference to using old manual focus lenses. You can clearly see what's in and out of focus in the viewfinder, and with the chipped adapter, you get the audible focus confirmation. 

Back to the Bushnell 28mm. I found it to be a rather soft lens, when compared with an old M42 Takumar especially, or even compared with the Canon EOS kit zoom, which is very cheap, but sharp. If you don't mind slight softness, it's not a bad lens. I also found that it gives a very slight greenish cast to some photos. Bottom line - you can easily compensate for both the softness and colour error in Post Processing (assuming you're shooting RAW), but unless you insist on using the Bushnell 28mm (assuming you can even find one), because of it's amazingly great build quality and smooth action, there are much better optical qualities to be had with genuine Pentax Takumar, early (pre-Korean) Vivitars or even most of the Russian or East German M42's

Saturday, July 21, 2012

How to Know You're Taking It Too Seriously

In spite of all my recent talk about RAW Converters, it means nothing if you don't have anything worthwhile to convert, right? To be honest, I'm not even sure of myself - do I have anything worthwhile to make a print from, either to try and sell, or even give away as a birthday gift to someone?  I asked this question to myself recently - the first sign that you're taking it all too seriously is when you talk to yourself, especially if you answer back. I am considering another big purchase (which is the second sign) of a wide format printer to get myself started in making good prints to somehow "offer", probably from an addition to this website. So I challenged myself with this question - how many photos do I really own that would be worth advertising as prints? As I started combing through my collection, I  went back to the RAW files for certain ones that I thought might be good enough, and re-converted them to a more print-friendly scheme, and saved them in a folder simply called "Prints". I soon realized, there aren't very many that I would consider "good enough", but so far, I do have a half dozen set aside - enough to convince me that my printer purchase isn't viable quite yet, but someday might be.

Then it dawned on me - although making prints to sell is something I would love to do, it's just a part of the whole. It could easily become a rat hole that would get so all consuming, photography wouldn't be fun for me any more. The picture above of the guy on the Zip Line is one example of a picture I would not consider print-worthy, but yet represents the larger part of why I like taking pictures. The simple art of capturing a moment when it happens is the biggest reason why I take pictures. So far, I'm finding that maybe one out of five-hundred of these would qualify for selling - the rest is just for sharing.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Ahead of Its Time

I spotted this early 1970's Citroen DS in Moncton two evenings ago, and it was such an unusual sight that I parked behind it and took a few pics of it with my Smartphone Camera. This picture reveals something that cannot help but be noticed - that's my 2010 VW Golf SportWagon parked behind it. I find it quite amazing how similar the design of the front of the Golf is to this old Citroen... especially the headlamps and the shape of the fenders leading to the hood. The Golf is not a whole lot different from the styling of a lot of cars these days, so could it be that many car makers are now borrowing from the iconic style of this 40+ year old design from France?

Citroen used to import these cars into the US and Canada, ending in 1972, largely because of the "non-standard" headlamp design. Interesting how things slowly come around here in North America! Here are a couple of other pictures - enjoy!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Rah Rah for RAW!

In my previous Post, I was a little hard on Linux for the way all of the Open Source RAW Developers was putting a hard Magenta cast into the highlights of my RAW Files. I suspected this was because the Canon Medium and Small RAW Files (the ones I prefer using) were not being handled well by the underlying DCRaw Code. Happily, my suspicions were confirmed, as yesterday I shot a bunch of RAW + JPEG's on my way to Cape Enrage in Albert County, New Brunswick, using the full-sized RAW setting. With full-sized RAW, I didn't notice even a hint of false Magenta in any of the pictures, and so until DCRaw can fix this bug, I know what I have to do, and I'm happy to be using all Open Source RAW Developers again. You may want to review my RAW vs. JPEG Post for a refresher.

Since that last Post, I've learned a little more about Open Source RAW Developers, and also reviewed some things I already knew. First of all, I was reminded how each Camera maker has it's own proprietary RAW Code, which troubles some people who fear obsolescence. There is one well known non-proprietary RAW Code, which is Adobe's DNG, making it a standard of sorts, much like Adobe's standard for Printed Text, which is the well known PDF.  But not many Cameras use DNG, instead they pack their own RAW Software for Windows and Mac, meaning that if you switch brands from Canon to Nikon, you have to start all over with a completely different RAW Developer.

This is where Open Source Software (read "Linux") comes in. Most if not all of the RAW Software Packages that are included with Linux are based on one "pioneering" Program called DCRaw. The DCRaw Package has no Graphical User Interface (GUI), so you need to know how to do Linux Command Line stuff in order to use it. But, because none of us want to do that, a number of other Linux Projects have built some awesome GUI Software using DCRaw as a foundation. There are UFRaw, DarkTable, RawTherapee and Photivo to name a few. Each of these Projects keeps abreast of all the various camera's proprietary RAW Code. and frequently update their product (and DCRaw itself) with the latest changes from Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc. This means OpenSource Software takes a lot of the worry out of obsolescence, in much the same way as PhotoShop and LightRoom do, except that OpenSource is all available at no cost, usually for both Linux and Windows Operating Systems.

So, once again "The Folk Photographer's" question - should I be using RAW if my camera has it? I'll proceed with a demo that might help you decide.

Yesterday, on our little outing through Albert County, New Brunswick, a beautiful composition happened right before my eyes as I was driving. I quickly applied the brakes, and had to back up a little bit, but it was really worth it. I had my camera set to shoot a Standard (large) RAW and a JPEG at the same time;

Here is the JPEG straight from the Camera:

Here is a Conversion I did from the RAW file with Photivo for making a nice print:

And finally, here is a High Dynamic Range (HDR) I did from the same single RAW file, also using Photivo:

 HDR isn't really my cup of tea, but I like to try it out once in awhile. The cool thing about Photivo is that it can do it with just one file, not in the usual way of blending two or three different exposures into one HDR exposure.

So, I prefer using RAW because it allows a much greater range of final results compared with the limited possibilities of working with an already locked down 8-Bit JPEG (RAW Files use a Bit Depth of 16, which greatly extends the possibilities. I've used several of the DCRaw based programs, and here are my very quick impressions of each:

  • UFRaw - real quick and easy, intended primarily for making broad exposure and Gamma adjustments, and exporting the adjusted result to GIMP for further work. RAW does not include an actual RAW to JPEG converter, but once exported to GIMP, you simply "save-as" JPEG, or whatever other format GIMP can handle (which are many). One thing I really like about UFRaw is that, to process a lot of files, you can "select-all" from your file system, and UFRaw will automatically open each one in turn - as you export one to GIMP, it will follow by opening the next one in the sequence.
  • RawTherapee - this one can be as quick and easy, or as complicated as you want to make it. It includes a File Preview Tab which shows all of the RAW Files stored in any given Folder, and you simply double-click on the one you want to work on. The Canon Digital Photo Pro (for Mac and Windows) works exactly the same way, but RawTherapee has a lot more features than DPP. One of the best features is a library of Presets, which you can use with a single click to enhance the appearance of your picture. Often, it's enough to open a picture file, select one of the Presets, and then save the result, which will automatically export your picture as a JPEG to whatever Folder you have pre-specified. If you don't like any of the Presets, you can build some of your own, simply by manipulating the manual control sliders until you get the results you want, then "Save_As" a Preset Template, for quick single-click re-use on other pictures. Oh - one other thing - RawTherapee automatically saves a little Text File with every picture, showing every step you took to "develop" your picture. This can be disabled if you wish
  • Photivo - this one doesn't have a "quick and easy" way about it. However, it is by far the most powerful of the three. It has an overwhelming number of control sliders, all arranged in a common sense set of Tabs on the side-bar, and by adjusting these (altogether which look like the dashboard of a Boeing 747), you can get really amazing results from your original dull looking RAW files. It is oriented to working on pictures one at a time, with no provision for bulk-loading. Another great thing about Photivo is that it can be used to greatly enhance JPEG, PNG or TIFF files, not only RAW's, although naturally, RAW files still contain the greatest latitude for adjustments.
For me, it's Open Source all the way. I see no point in buying PhotoShop and other expensive Windows Software - I'd rather invest in a nice Printer, or more lenses.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Car Show and the Day Linux Failed Me!

First a quick word about the Atlantic Nationals Car Show in Moncton. Naturally I took a lot of pictures. Have a look. There were some amazing works of art on wheels this year!

However, I had a devil of a time processing these files this time. See those weird Magenta artefacts in the picture above? I had noticed this happening with my Port Elgin show pictures, but somehow managed to work around most of the really bad ones. But part way through processing my RAW files of the Moncton event using RawTherapee in Linux, I was ready for another kind of therapy! The only way I could really get rid of all the Magenta was to convert the pics to B&W, and it left me wondering if my awesome new 7D might be defective. I tried opening my files with other Linux tools - UFRAW and DarkTable, and got exactly the same results. So I went to bed, feeling rather sad, and the next morning, I thought I would try Canon Digital Photo Pro (DPP) under Windows-7. Success! The files all looked awesome and there was no strange colour artefacts of any kind. So, I worked through all the pictures again using DPP.

Next step was to try to determine where the trouble really was happening. I installed RawTherapee in Windows (yep - there is a Windows version), and to my mix of dismay and relief, I found that opening my RAW files in the Windows version of RawTherapee gave exactly the same artefacts as the Linux version! So, I went online and joined RawTherapee Forums to see if anyone else was having the same problems, and it turns out that several people were reporting this same bug. And, two of the complainants reported they were using the EOS 7D camera; the others didn't mention what kind of camera they were using.

It turns out that most, if not all RAW Software developed under Linux all use a more fundamental Command Line software called DCRaw as a base. I didn't find a definitive answer on RawTherapee Forums, but I'm guessing that, although the EOS 7D is one of the supported cameras, it could be that the interface between this camera and the DCRaw software needs some further work. That's why I was seeing the same weird Magenta streaks in UFRaw and DarkTable also, I'm guessing.

So, a Linux Program let me down. I'm going to submit a bug report of my own, stating my suspicions. Meanwhile, I can live with using the Canon DPP Software in Windows-7. Actually, having tried it, I found it to be very pleasant to use - the various adjustments were exactly like the basic settings on all Canon DSLR models themselves, with a lot of additional functionality as any good RAW file developer should have. Thumbs up to Canon DPP!

Update - I gave my latest files a try with Photivo, which is the most comprehensive Open Source RAW Developer of all, and found the same problem existed. I had never seen this before when using my former camera, the EOS 40D (I even re-opened some old files taken with that one, just to be certain). It turns out that Photivo also is based on DCRaw. It enabled me to reduce the Magenta however, because it allows certain adjustments on the Camera Input, which is defaulted to the Adobe Colour Profile. When I selected "Flat Profile", or "External Profile", the nasty Magenta does reduce quite a bit, but not completely. I think I have my case prepared for a Bug Report - I'll keep you all posted.

Further Update - the sun came out today and I set out to take some deliberately bright pictures with my camera set on regular RAW. My suspicions were verified - where there were bright highlights, this time there was no magenta cast at all, proving (I think) that DCRaw isn't set up to deal with Canon's MRAW and SRAW file algorithms.

Frame Size - Does It Matter?

Over the past two years, the Digital Camera industry has produced more "buzz" over Frame Size than ever before. But what I find so fantastic is the way in which the final results in image quality really don't make huge, obvious differences, so that if you look at the millions of pictures on Flickr, taken with thousands of different Digital Cameras, there is no way you can really tell what the Frame Size / Camera type was used. Many pictures taken with the really good Camera Phones, which have the tiniest Frame Size by far often can't be distinguished from most Digital Compacts. Then you get into the  "big leagues" of DSLR Frame Sizes. of which there are only four distinct sizes:

  1. "Full Frame", so called because 35mm film is the "standard" of comparison of all Frame Sizes. There are still relatively few cameras on the market that are Full Frame - that is, their image is captured on a 36X24mm Frame being exactly the same size as that of 35mm film. Canon was the first DSLR to offer Full Frame, in it's EOS 5D, and they have simply kept improving the 5D through upgrading it through "Mark II" and "Mark III" models. Nikon has been less conservative, offering Full Frame on its D1 through D4 Model range (very large professional bodied cameras), and with the D700 and D800 "consumer-sized" bodies. Finally, there is Leica, the extremely elitist and expensive German made cameras that are in fact not DSLR's at all, maintaining the classic and very compact Rangefinder body design, true to their tradition that goes way back to the 1920's Their current M9 Digital Rangefinder body has a Full Frame Digital Sensor. So this is the complete roster of Full Frame Digital Cameras that are available today.
  2. APS-H, so called because it is based on a short-lived film frame standard of 27X18mm called "Advanced Photo System". This one is a real orphan, and only the Canon EOS 1D Series uses it.
  3. APS-C, also based on an Advanced Photo System film frame of 24X16mm. By far, most DSLR's made today by Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony and Sigma use the APS-C sized sensor, with very small variations in the actual dimension. 
  4. "Four-Thirds" and "Micro Four-Thirds" together are fast catching up to APS-C sensors. Originally used in Olympus DSLR's, this new frame standard which measures closer to half the Full Frame size at 20X15mm is also a little different, because the dimension ratio of 35mm and APS Film is 3:2, the Olympus standard is 4:3, hence the name. The difference between Four-Thirds and Micro Four-Thirds is that the latter is popular on the newest trend of "Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras" (MILC's) being sold by Olympus and Panasonic mainly.
Some other MILC's are establishing new, even smaller sensor sized, such as the Nikon-1 series. Although smaller than APS-C and Four-Thirds Frames, they are still much larger than the Frame Sizes that are used in inexpensive Fixed Lens Digital Compacts, which use very small sensors that are around 6mm in size. Camera Phones use even smaller sensors.

In spite of the huge differences in Frame Sizes, the number of Pixels on the surface of a sensor is remarkably similar. A good Camera Phone such as the iPhone and Android Phones use 8 MegaPixel (MP) Sensors, and so did all APS and Full Frame DSLR's five years ago. Now it is more typical for DSLR's to have between 12 and 24 MP, and Consumer Compacts typically range from 12 to 18 MP. This is accomplished by the larger sensors having much larger Pixels than Compacts and Camera Phones. This provides big advantages = bigger Pixels can collect more light, and so DSLR's and MILC's that use the Four-Thirds and larger sensors are capable of far greater light sensitivity than that found in Compacts. This translates into much less reliance on flash in low light, and also much higher sensitivity values (ISO), resulting in much lower noise (seen as speckles) when high ISO values like 3200 or 6400 are used. A DSLR can "see in the dark" much better than a Compact Digital, and in fact much better than any film that was ever produced. Naturally, the bigger the sensor, the better, so that Full Frame cameras like the Nikon D800 and Canon EOS 5D can "see in the dark" somewhat better than their little brothers that use the much more popular APS sized sensors.

What does this translate into in the real world? One easy example that comes to mind is that when you're photographing indoor events like Cat Shows, or Weddings, you can do it all without using flash with a DSLR, but with Compact Digital Cameras, this could never be done, or if you try, there would be so much noise speckle in the pictures they would be unusable.

However, the most profound effect that different sensor sizes (frame sizes) have in the real world is directly related to "lens size". If you're a DSLR owner, you already know all this stuff - so I'm providing this simplified explanation to people who are new to it.

Quite simply, the smaller the sensor, or frame, the smaller will be the lens required to fill the frame, both in the lens' diameter and its focal length. With fixed lens Compact Cameras, with frame sizes as small as 6mm, the lens can be about 1/6 the diameter and length of the lenses used for 35mm film, or "Full Frame" Digital Cameras. This is why you can cram a zoom lens that goes to a 300mm Telephoto Focal Length into a camera where that lens collapses completely and the whole thing can be carried in your pocket, but users of DSLR and film SLR Cameras still need to walk around with a heavy camera and a lens over 8 inches long hung around their necks to achieve the very same Zoom. It all comes down to the precision of miniaturization that has been accomplished with Digital Cameras.

To the Compact Camera owner, this doesn't matter in the slightest. They cannot interchange the lenses on their cameras, and the one lens that the camera is built with can cover the range from a 24mm Wide Angle, all the way to 300mm Telephoto, and the camera is still small enough to fit in a pocket. This is because the sensor is approximately 1/6 the size of "Full Frame", and reality, the lens is about 1/6 of the Focal Length of conventional 35mm lenses, so the actual focal length range of these miniaturized Compact Zoom Lenses is 4mm through to 50mm, to provide an equivalent 24 - 300mm Optical Zoom.

The Frame Size difference becomes more apparent to DSLR users however. If you own one of the relatively rare and expensive Nikon, Canon or Leica "Full Frame" cameras listed above, then all those 35mm film SLR lenses you've collected over the last 40 years will work on your new camera in exactly the same way they did on your old Canon, Nikon or Leica film cameras. Things get different only if you own one of the far more common Canon or Nikon APS-C sized DSLR's however. Technically speaking, all of your old lenses will still fit on your new DSLR's mount, but now the APS-C sensor is smaller than the lens was designed for. So in a sense, you still don't care because the lens mounting standard for each brand of camera, including the electronic contacts between the lens and the camera, have not changed, which is why a 30 year old lens from a Film SLR will still function fully and perfectly on a new DSLR. But there is a difference between the mount design and the lens's optical behaviour if you have an APS-C (not a full frame) sized camera. Because the lens is a bit larger than the frame, this means that the frame is "cropping out" a lot of the picture that extends beyond the rectangle in the middle which represents the APS-C sized frame. You don't really "see" this happening with your eye, because your camera's optics reflect the image through this very same lens up to the Viewfinder, so it's still "business as usual". Except for one thing. If you put an old 50mm film SLR lens on a new APS-C sized DSLR, everything will appear closer by comparison. This is because the smaller sensor is cropping off a lot of the image, exactly the same way you would do with Photoshop, to crop parts of the picture outside of the center that don't matter - now the camera is doing that for you, and there's nothing you can do about it. To get the same amount of scenery into the smaller frame with your old 50mm lens, you will need to step back a considerable distance if you use that lens on a APS-C sided DSLR. Another way of putting it is that your "normal" 50mm lens has now become a "moderate telephoto" equivalent to a 75mm (or Nikon) or 80mm (for Canon) lens.

The camera makers have gotten around this by providing new "digital lens" specifications, especially with Zoom lenses. So that when an old Canon Film SLR would have been sold with a 28-80 "Kit Zoom", the new standard for Digital SLR's is the 18-55 "Kit Zoom" - a smaller and lighter lens that covers exactly the same zoom range.

So to conclude - does size matter? The answer is, of course yes and no. Yes, because the bigger the frame, the bigger each individual Pixel can be, with corresponding increases in light sensitivity and picture quality. No, because the bigger the frame, the bigger and heavier your camera and lens have to be, and if you are usually shooting in normal lighting, or you don't object to using the built in flash a lot, the Compact Cameras where everything is about 1/6 of the scale of a Full Frame DSLR have a lot to offer, with respectable, usable picture quality, and light sensitivity that's about the same as the good old ASA400 Kodacolor Film used to be.

The advantages of owning a DSLR are few, but significant. They provide:

  • Ultimate picture quality, especially if you can afford a Full Frame model
  • You can use your old Film SLR lenses
  • Ultimate light sensitivity - with ISO's as high as 12,800 (compared to the old film days of 400, and also to get a reasonable quality from a Compact Digital), you can now get away with taking pictures at night without a tripod.
  • Greater creativity, and more built in features
  • Real Optical Viewfinders

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Very Basics of Fill-Flash

My post yesterday introduced the concept of fill-flash for photographing cars. On bright sunny days, fill-flash is absolutely essential for cars. But fill-flash is very useful in many other situations also, such as shooting most any subject in bright sunlight - be it people, animals, or sandcastles; when the sun is really bright overhead, there will be harsh shadows cast over your subject that fill-flash will serve to bring out the detail hidden in the shadows.

Yet, fill-flash can be a difficult concept to grasp. We start off using our cameras by turning the flash on only when there isn't enough light to give a decent exposure, or when the shutter speed is so low that the subject will be blurred by motion or camera shake. But fill-flash is different. It comes into play when there is plenty of light - when the natural ambient light is so bright we have to put on the sunglasses, we would naturally think that using flash would be totally unnecessary. So, in my car photography I hopefully demonstrated how useful flash can be, not to provide enough light for the subject, but only to light up the parts of the subject that are hidden in shadows.

Fill-flash has some theoretical basics I'll introduce you to. 1) First, a camera flash, no matter how big and powerful it might be, is never more powerful than the sun, so when you're using your flash to fill in shadows, don't worry - it is still the sun that is providing the overall exposure of the subject and the scene around it, and the flash, even with it's output purposely cranked up a notch or two (recommended), itself has little influence on the overall exposure. 2) A camera flash has a limited range - the one built into your camera is only capable of lighting a subject that is 10 to 15 Metres away at the maximum - everything else in the picture that is beyond that is not exposed in any way by the flash, and the exposure of your pictures background is set by the natural ambient light. 3) The camera's White Balance is being influence by two factors - the ambient light, and the light from the flash, so it is best to set the Camera's White Balance to "Automatic" (AWB) allowing the camera to set the best overall WB Colour Temperature. 4) Finally, the Camera's shutter speed can never go higher than it's Flash Sync Speed. This means that the speed of the flash's "flicker" dominates the exposure over and above that of the shutter, and if you manually set the shutter to be faster than the Sync Speed, then part of the picture will be cut off by the shutter returning to rest. This means that even though my camera is capable of a high shutter speed of 1/8000 sec., the highest speed I can use is the high Sync Speed of 1/250 sec.

This highest Sync Speed of 1/250 becomes important in the overall exposure, if the flash is to have it's desired effect. So, I need to introduce you to a little math known as the "Sunny-16 Rule". This is a universal rule that was used in the old days when cameras were not equipped with light metres; one could easily calculate the correct shutter speed and aperture to get a well exposed photo using this rule:

"Sunny-16" means that under bright sunlight, with an aperture setting of f16, you would set your shutter speed at the same number as the ISO (or ASA) of your film; therefore if you have ISO 100 film, the shutter would be set at 1/100 sec (or the closest available, say the more typical 1/125) with the lens aperture set to f16. Or if you have ISO 200, you set the shutter at 1/200, or if ISO 400, you set the shutter at 1/400 sec.

Now, most agree that "Sunny-16" means you use f16 and the above shutter speeds with full sunshine reflecting off a bright sandy beach. If the sun is partly blocked by clouds and / or the reflective surfaces are darker than sand, you need to let more light in, either with a lower than f16 aperture number such as f11, f8, or even f5.6, or with a slower shutter, like 1/60 or 1/30 for ISO 100 Film.

This rule still applies today with Digital Cameras, and it's not something you have to worry about normally, but when using fill-flash, it does become useful. You see, normally, when set to Full Automatic Exposure of any kind, your camera is free to select any of your higher shutter speeds, like say 1/2000 in bright conditions, (and at the same time it will auto-select a lower aperture number like f5.6 or even f4). But with your flash turned on, the camera has to limit itself to it's highest Flash Sync of 1/250 (in the case of Canon DSLR's). So, it's best to consider "Sunny-16" to "fool" your camera's exposure system.

A typical example - you're seldom in lighting conditions when ISO 100 combined with f16 and shutter speed of 1/100 is appropriate - it's usually a bit dimmer than that, even on sunny days. Therefore, if you're surrounded by anything other than bright sand, then f8 would be the more appropriate aperture. Remember also that the flash will have no effect on your overall exposure - all it's going to do is brighten some shadows to reveal the detain within them. The only "issue" is that your shutter speed limit is 1/250 or less. So to finalize my example. for this car show, it was partly cloudy, the reflective surface was grass which is darker than sand, the lot was surrounded by high dark trees and I wanted to "err on the side of over-exposure" to make sure I was getting a lot of "brilliance" from the cars' details. So the combination I dialed in for most of these shots was as follows:

  • Mode - Aperture Priority
  • Shutter - 1/250 (which was blinking at me in the viewfinder because it was limited by the flash being turned on, and so the camera "thought" I was going to overexpose with such a "slow" shutter)
  • ISO - 200 
  • Aperture f4 or f5.6
  • Flash Compensation - +1
  • Distance from cars - about 5 to 7 metres
  • Picture Quality setting "RAW" because it's much easier to correct exposure mistakes with RAW
With these settings I succeeded in getting near perfect exposures (some of them I had to brighten even further with my RAW software).

Normally I am not so technical with this Blog, but flash-fill can be a funny beast, and if you left it all up to your camera by using a fully automatic mode (Program = "P" on my Canon), then you would end up severely underexposing every time. I tried a couple of shots in P-Mode first and indeed they were very dark, as the camera "thought" that f11 would be correct because the flash was turned on. 

If you still feel kind of "in the dark" about this whole fill-flash thing, it would be a good idea to take your camera out into your yard and practice before heading to the beach or a car show.