Sunday, October 27, 2013

Another Cat Show

"I Have Contempt For All of You!"

Cats make the ultimate pets. They're self cleaning, and if you left them a can-opener, they'd find a way to survive an extended absence, I'm sure. Every so often, devotees of these splendid creatures cram together, usually in the smallest and cheapest convention room that can be found, to show off their felines, have them adjudicated, and above all, discuss among themselves all the ins and outs of breeding exotic varieties.

Yesterday, Kathy and I went to a show in Halifax, NS, and found it to be true to form - especially the cramped and stuffy part. I love the cats, but I also go to these events to practice my photography. This time, I was armed with something quite different - on the way into Halifax, I bought a Sigma 50mm f1.4 Auto Focus Prime (not Zoom) lens, to at least try it out, on their 15 Day return policy. Mounted on my Canon EOS 5D Mk-1, this makes up the best camera - lens combination I've ever used, and it shows! In the past, I've done cat shows with one of my old manual fast primes, with good results, but the Sigma is super fast, and I'm beginning to see the advantage of having Auto Focus on a high end lens, especially where some motion is involved - the camera can truly follow the movement and retain sharp focus a lot better than I can manually.

In purchasing a lens of this type, I had a less expensive option, being Canon's own EF 50mm f1.4, and I actually have 15 days to decide. But while in the store, it seemed to me that in this case, the more expensive, heavier and much larger Sigma is the better choice. I know, there are people out there who still think that Sigma cannot possibly make a good lens, but by doing a direct comparison in the store, I could see right of the bat that the Canon had a lot more light fall-off in the corners, which was visible even on the old 5D's small and crappy rear display. The Sigma did not show anywhere near this amount of vignetting, so base on this alone, I made the Sigma my first choice to try out.

Shooting the cat show, I was amazed at how well this lens performed, and when I got home to my computer, even more amazed at the image quality. I used the lens at f2 all through the show - I felt this would be about right for close-ups to get the cat's whole face, and not just the tips of their noses in sharp focus. The lighting at the judges stations was adequate for me to have the camera set to ISO 800, and I was getting shutter speeds between 1/100 and 1/250 - plenty fast to stop action and avoid motion blur. I was not using RAW this time either - just "Medium Fine JPEG", and again, the image quality simply floored me! Other than cropping in GIMP, these are un-edited JPEGs - it's as if this lens was blowing a whole new spirit into my camera, as I usually shoot with RAW, and make adjustments to give photos a nice "pop"... totally unnecessary with this lens.

On the way home, at sunset, I tried a few scenic pics with the lens wide open (at f1.4) just to see if there is any sharpness at such a wide aperture, as reviewers all claim this lens is capable of. See for yourself:

 EOS 5D, Sigma 50mm f1.4, RAW Photivo Enhanced

 EOS 5D, Sigma 50mm f1.4,  JPEG From Camera

 EOS 5D, Sigma 50mm f1.4,  JPEG From Camera

EOS 5D, Sigma 50mm f1.4, RAW Photivo Enhanced

Again, very impressive - I actually prefer the JPEGs straight from camera, which is something I've never seen before with any other lens I've used. Is it a keeper? The only other choice is Canon's own 50mm f1.4, which is highly regarded, and less expensive, but I don't think it is quite the lens that the Sigma is.

Monday, October 21, 2013


RAW Proc'd with Photivo and LensFun

I was very recently on an overnight trip (again, for another "waste of time" medical appointment - oh well...), but on the plus side, also had visits with two old friends, as well as my daughter and grandsons. I took a lot of photos, (some here) but couldn't really think of much to write about them, except for a processing "treatment" I kind of stumbled upon for one of them in particular.

LensFun is software that is bundled with a handful of open-source Photography packages, with it's main intent being to accommodate and make appropriate corrections to lens and camera imperfections - an idea which is getting very common now in the mainstream, with lots of camera makers actually incorporating something similar right in the camera, so that corrections are made at the time of shooting. I've never paid any attention to it personally, as I have a strong preference toward accepting imperfections - in people as well as cameras. But LensFun, at least in how it's incorporated in Photivo (my favourite Photo Editor by far) offers far more than simply tweaking your camera and lens combination to perfection (again, that doesn't interest me in the slightest)... it's also great for creativity, and as it's very name implies, lots of fun too!

In the photo above, I got poking about in Photivo, besides giving it my usual treatment, and discovered the LensFun module. What I wanted to do was to stretch this picture, and also kind of "rotate" the tree stump away from centre -

JPEG Straight From Camera, no Treatment At All

What I'd discovered is that not only does LensFun allow you to "de-fish" a fish-eye lens, but you can also apply a fish-eye effect to a normal lens, and in so doing, keeping all of the picture's content intact (as opposed to simply stretching and cropping)... very cool! This was a case where I felt a fish-eye effect would work well, because it's little more than an abstraction of a pattern (as opposed to a bit of scenery, or a portrait of something). But on it's own, the picture is forgettable, because the composition wasn't so great - I would've done much better by  crouching down closer to the circle of leaves, with a wider lens, and made sure the tree trunk was intersecting a line off-centre, to make a much stronger composition. LensFun allowed me to easily (even I could figure it out) make all of this happen right on my computer! The processed picture gives a much stronger impression that I was crouching down, even though I wasn't, the fish-eye effect makes the view look like I used a much wider lens, and the neatest thing of all was that I was able to "turn" (as opposed to "rotate") the whole scene, as if the circle of leaves were on a huge horizontal platter, to locate the tree trunk where I wanted it. When all was done, I was forced to "crop" the picture vertically, simply because of the geometry of what I was doing, but I'm still pleased - it's still a very attractive 2:1 Crop that did not leave anything out that was essential. Most of all, I love how the effect flattens the photo in the "Z-Axis", giving a much stronger feeling of being able to walk into the picture.

Check out LensFun if you've never tried anything like this before. If you have Photoshop, I'm sure there must be something similar in there, but if not, give Photivo a try - it's the most comprehensive 16-bit colour Photo Processing package that Open-Source has to offer, and it has versions available for Windoze and Mac too!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Seeing In The Dark

How well your camera is able to see in the dark may be of interest to you if you do a lot of night shooting, or plan to. It can be a tall order, demanding high ISO values, low noise, a lens that shoots well wide open, and shutter speeds that can be hand-held, unless you've always got a tri-pod with you. In this case, I would favour digital SLR's, because film simply can't reach the high ISO values needed, especially for colour - a tri-pod is essential. A lot of DSLR's can fall down on the job at night too, especially when you need to under-expose the shot... there are two reasons to under-expose at night... 1) to make it look like night, because modern DSLR's can reach such incredibly high ISO's they can literally turn night into day, and 2) under-exposing can help you reach shutter speeds that can be hand-held. Conventional wisdom for shooting a digital camera in daylight is to "expose to the right" (over-expose) slightly, to avoid adding noise during post-processing. It works this way because most of the 'data" in your RAW file is held in the brighter values, and so the brighter you can shoot, without blowing out highlights, the more plentiful, and cleaner is the data you have to work with.

All of these night shots were taken with my EOS 5D Mk-1 with Canon's low cost EF 40mm f2.8 (the Pancake) lens, wide open at f2.8, with the camera set at ISO 3200, which is as high as it will go, and under-exposed by two stops.

In post-processing, I dialled up the exposure a bit, to recover shadow detail, and enhanced the Local Contrast in both the shadows and highlights, but not the mid-tones. This raised some noise, for which I applied a touch of noise reduction, because I didn't want to remove all the noise - just enough to remove the digital looking "speckle", but also to keep the noise that looks like film grain. It is surprising how much detail is available in a RAW file that can be raised back up above the noise floor, so to speak. In fact, I might have gone a little too far in raising the brightness here, as these pictures are much brighter than what my eye was actually seeing.

This time of year in the Northern climate lends itself perfectly to night shooting, with the night falling at around 7:00 PM. When you go out to give it a try, remember these steps - 1) shoot RAW if you have it, 2) select the highest ISO possible, 3) open your lens aperture to it's widest value, and 4) adjust your Exposure Compensation or Shutter Speed to get your camera's light meter to show around -1.5 to -2, and verify that your shutter speed is hand-holdable, like 1/20 or better (or minimum 1/5 if you have Image Stabilization).

Monday, October 14, 2013

My Blue Period??

Picasso was famous for his "Blue Period" paintings, which may have come about because, as a young artist, he had to work with what he had - perhaps the only colour he could afford was blue! Whether his blue paintings were of such practical happen-stance is debatable, but I discovered something just as practical, driven by affordability too! In so many ways, the EOS 5D Mark-1 was arguably the best DSLR ever made - the first affordable full-frame they called it--- but I couldn't afford one until recently, now that it's such an old camera. Being so old, it has a very crappy LCD display on the back, and I find it far more useful to display the histogram on it than the actual picture (well, in fact the histogram view actually crams both on the very small screen). But even the newest LCD's, although a vast improvement over what was available for the 5D Mark-1, are still pretty crappy in bright sunlight. This probably explains why so many almost new LCD - only (no optical viewfinder) cameras are suddenly becoming so available in the local classifieds.

I might have discovered a way to make any LCD - even a newer one - more visible in strong sunlight, and therefore much more useful. Simply set up your camera to shoot RAW (for colour) + JPEG, but set the picture style for Black and White with a Blue Filter. What you'll then see as your picture preview will be a B&W with a blue tint, which seems to cut through the bright daylight when viewing your LCD a lot better. Don't ask me why, I think it just does.

Further, having your camera display in "Blue and White" so to speak, will help you in judging your composition if you want to know which shots to delete, or with a newer LCD-only camera, when actually composing the shot. Composition somehow just seems easier when you see it in any form of monochrome. For me, having the blue tint makes it even more helpful.

Remember, you want to be shooting in RAW + JPEG, because the RAW will still have your colour information. You're actually shooting in colour and black and white at the same time. Don't "compose for colour" so to speak - it really isn't necessary.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Being A Part of Something....

... is a great way to make lot's of "people pictures", especially in a street photography setting. Last week I took part in a city march to raise awareness for mental health. It was a perfect fall day, and the marchers made it very colourful with their T-shirts and banners. I shot the whole thing with my EOS 5D and EF-40 f2.8 lens. When you're within a march - actually part of it, takes away all reservations about photographing people, because all of a sudden, they're all friends, you don't have to ask permission, and it's a party! It also offers lot's of opportunity for interesting shots off to the side, such as this:

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Beginner Friendly, and an Act of Kindness

There are those times when you get affirmations from God - that He exists and really does care about our affairs, although world events, both current ones and way in the past, as a whole seem to literally scream otherwise. But yesterday was one of those times. I was driving home from a medical appointment, about a two hour drive away, and I had a very strong impression that I had to stop at Moosehorn Creek to take pictures of the covered bridge and surrounding area. The thought was, these are the only pictures I will take on this return home - it has to be Moosehorn Creek. So, keeping my eyes open for that location, when I saw the sign, I pulled over. Up ahead a few hundred yards, I saw another car pulled over - I could tell it was real old, and thought it might be a Camaro. I didn't give it any more thought and started taking my pictures, but then I noticed a guy was walking slowly in my direction - I immediately could tell this must be the driver and he's in trouble. I walked ahead a bit to meet him, and he asked me if I knew of any nearby garages. I said I knew of a nearby store where we could go in to ask, and told him to hop in. We pulled up to the car he was driving first, and I soon saw it was not a Camaro, but an old Mach-1 Mustang. I also took note of the man's midwest USA accent and it turns out he was from over 4000 miles away, and was delivering this car to a location at least another 1000 miles further! Anyway, I'll say no more about the man, and where he was from and where he was headed for privacy reasons, but within less than an hour, I had him sorted with a nearby garage / salvage yard and a tow truck, and resumed my journey. He was a really nice guy, and I really hope he made it to his destination. I know that eventually somebody would've stopped to help him, but just with my strong impression to stop at that very place at that exact time, to me, was the hand of a Higher Power. For whatever reason, I was the one to help this man.

The '71 Mach-1 With Back Wheel Almost Off

Now, back to the topic - beginner friendly photography. Today, my advice is, if you can possibly find a way to get a true 35mm DSLR (assuming you wish to have digital over film), do it! Even if you have to hold out to save the extra money, do it! It's worth it - I know that now, after years of struggling with the much more affordable APS-C (24mm) size. Even if you're a beginner, hold off if you have to, and just do it! In fact, now with 35mm Sensors in their third generation, you can now buy second hand 35mm DSLR's for the same price as brand new 24mm DSLR's - I'm telling you - do it this way if you have to!

Why? Is it really that much better? YES!!! It is better because a 35mm sensor has more than triple the surface area than a 24mm (APS-C) sized. That "crop-factor" ratio of 1.5X or 1.6X is misleading - that's what you get when you simply scale the sensor size in relationship to the lenses used in each system. But when you do the real math, and calculate the area for each sensor size, it turns out that a 35mm sensor has an area of 864 square mm, and Canon's ASP-C is only 1/3 that size, at 284 square mm. The "full-frame" sensor is 3X better at catching light - this means a whole lot when it comes to getting truly great pictures. Light capture is the Number-1 factor I look for - if I see strongly interesting light reflections, that is what makes me stop to take a picture.

In the following examples, I knew just from looking at the JPEG's straight from the camera that the EOS 5D Classic is one helluva camera. But when I started working with the RAW file output to get an even better looking picture, once again, this camera was simply blowing my mind! With all of my previous 24mm sized Canon DSLR's, I couldn't get very far in my post-processing of RAW files without a lot of noise beginning to appear, regardless of what ISO I was using - I would even get noise showing up with 100 ISO in some cases. And if it wasn't noise, it would be some other problem, usually in relation to emphasizing highlights over shadows - to get strongly stated highlights, I would end up with literal mud in the shadow regions. Now, with RAW output from the 5D Classic, it seems like I can do anything I want, with no mud and no noise - it's fantastic!

Like I said above, the JPEG's are just fine from this camera - the best I've ever seen by far, and so with post-processing, I didn't want to stray too far from what was already very good. But once I got into "mining the data" of the camera's RAW output, I couldn't believe my eyes - I was able to take the range of light way further than my own sensibilities would allow - in other words, from one shot, I could've made things look like HDR if I'd wanted to, but you should know me better than that by now! All I ever want to do is emphasize the interesting light capture that made me sit up and take notice in the first place, and I finally have a digital camera (note - film just does this naturally) that will do that without having to make other compromises and create struggles in my workflow.

Processed RAW File

JPEG Straight From Camera

Processed RAW File

JPEG Straight From Camera

Processed RAW File

JPEG Straight From Camera

Processed RAW File

This last one is a crop from the only Moosehorn Creek picture I got to take before being called into service as a Good Samaritan. I just wanted to include it here to show off how great the Black and White conversions look from the 5D Classic's RAW output - please don't criticize the composition.

Full-frame versus APS-C? That's just marketing talk. In my mind, eventually full-frame 35mm has got to become the new standard, and be made a lot more affordable. Meanwhile, I can't emphasize it strongly enough - it's a no-brainer. Just buy the full-frame, and don't ask any more questions! You'll never regret it.