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Few Tips to Improve Your Photographs Immediately

Here are few quick tips that are in no particular order.

Below your knees and above your head. Things might look more interesting from a different perspective. Lay down on the ground or get to higher grounds.

Zoom in or out with your feet once in a while. It’s not the same as rotating the zoom ring.

Observe your subject silently. But be prepared. Few more seconds just might give you something better than a boring shot.

Sneak in a candid or two or more.

Lighting plays a major role.

With and without flashers.

Human elements add to the picture.

But nature is always glorious on its own.

Sometimes you need more than one picture to capture all that glory.

Arugam Bay

Get up before sunrise.

Wait until sundown.

Focus on the eyes.

It’s okay to frame tight.

Sometimes there are frames all around us.

But backgrounds can also be interesting.

Does your picture tell a story?

Images may not be copied, printed, re-displayed on another website or otherwise disseminated without the express written permission of the photographer.
Copyright © Jayaruwan Gunathilake. All Rights Reserved.

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RAW vs Jpeg – Which one is for you?

I think almost every photographer (including me) is at least a little bit guilty of telling people to shoot RAW. While learning how to shoot and process RAW is of utmost importance if you are to exploit the most out of your RAW capable camera, it may not be the best option for every situation. Let’s get straight down to business and see what these two really are.

RAW files are not really image files that can be viewed directly without a special software and the files are usually a proprietary format (the exception being Adobe’s DNG format). Canon’s RAW files have the .CR2 extension while Nikon’s RAW files have the .NEF extension. It is difficult to say how long these file formats will be supported by RAW reading/processing software. However, it’s safe to assume that whenever you buy a new camera, it will include a software to read its RAW files. The problem is that newer software may not support old RAW formats. Adobe claimed that they will always support their DNG format. So some people convert their RAW files into DNG files, which is a lossless conversion (no data lost during conversion, unlike JPEG compression). This can be easily done when you import your pictures into your computer if you’re using Adobe Bridge. Adobe also has a free DNG converter available. You can think of a RAW file as a digital negative. Thus it has to be developed (processed) in the same manner that you would develop a film negative. RAW files contain all the data captured by the image sensor which gives the photographer a wide range to work with during the development phase.

JPEG on the other hand is a universal format. You don’t need any special software to open them and they are readily available for printing straight out of the camera. They are fast and easy to handle but they lack some of the advantages that only RAW files offer. 

Screenshot 2014-07-09 14.18.33

Adobe Camera RAW 7.0 – The picture you see there is a RAW file straight out of the camera without any modifications. I sincerely apologize for cat pictures! I’m a dog person. It’s not even our cat but I digress.

Pros and Cons of Shooting RAW

  • You get all the possible data from the camera sensor.
  • If your white balance is off, it’s much easier to change it later.
  • Higher bit depth. Without going into technical details, this allows smoother transition between colors. Most DSLRs take 12 bit or 14 bit RAW whereas Jpegs are 8 bit.
  • Non destructive editing. Anything you do to a RAW file will be saved in a ‘sidecar’ .XMP file. However, when you’re editing Jpegs, you have to save an addition copy if you want to keep your original.
  • RAW files can be used as evidence. If you ever find yourself in a courtroom and need to prove that a picture belongs to you, providing the RAW file pretty much ends the argument in your favor. Let’s just hope it never comes to that.
  • Higher in dynamic range. If you shoot RAW, it’s much easier to recover underexposed or overexposed areas than shooting Jpegs. Although severely overexposed details are lost no matter what.
  • Pseudo HDR – This is where you make several different files with different exposures using a single RAW file and combining them together to achieve a better result. Of course real HDR will look better but sometimes we just don’t get the chance to bracket our shots the way we want. It’s good to have a fall back option. This is a task which could prove difficult for JPEGs to achieve.
  • Easier to battle with image noise.
  • RAW files take more space. A RAW file from a 15 MP camera would roughly take 15 MB. This of course depends on other settings like ISO etc. But with storage options being dime a dozen now, this shouldn’t pose much of a threat.
  • RAW files fill up the camera buffer faster. This may become a problem when shooting in the continuous mode. Since RAW files take more space, your camera buffer will be filled after you take a certain number of pictures. Then your camera has to stop and write those files to the memory card before you can shoot again. My camera clocks in at 9 RAW files before it needs to stop. This of course depends on the camera.
  • Requires special software to view and edit and is not suitable for printing directly. RAW files need to be processed before you do anything with them. You do need a relatively faster computer to edit RAW files since they contain a lot of data. Any modern computer should be able to handle RAW files with ease though.

Pros and Cons of Shooting JPEG

  • Smaller in size.
  • Can be printed directly.
  • No special software needed.
  • Can shoot a significantly higher number of Jpegs before it fills up the camera buffer.
  • JPEG is a universal format.
  • Camera does some processing for you.
  • Lower in dynamic range.
  • White balance data, color spacing data etc. are embedded to the JPEG. It’s difficult to correct white balance later with a JPEG than with a RAW file.
  • Some data are lost during the compression. Each time you open a jpeg and save, it goes through the compression process over and over again. It is advised that you keep the PSD file and export a jpeg whenever you need and if you want to make further changes, you can always fall back to the PSD file to prevent jpeg compression multiple times.
RAW vs JPEG

RAW vs JPEG comparison. These two were straight from the camera. On the left you can see the RAW image and on the right you can see the JPEG. It is obvious that when you compare these two images, the JPEG looks better. The camera did some processing for you. It appears a little brighter, sharper and there’s more contrast. So if you are not planning to process your pictures at all, shooting JPEG seems to be the better option. These two pictures were taken using the RAW + JPEG option which means they were taken at exactly the same time using exactly the same settings. The RAW file is 19.52MB compared to the 5.75MB JPEG. Click on the picture for a better view.

RAW vs JPEG 1

RAW vs JPEG processed comparison. The processed RAW image is on the left and the processed JPEG is on the right. Once they were loaded into Photoshop, both pictures went through exactly the same work flow. The only difference is that the RAW file was tweaked using Camera RAW before loading it into Photoshop. If you look closely, you might see a very subtle perspective difference too. This is because I applied the ‘lens correction profile’ to the RAW image. Whenever you take a picture, there is some distortion due to the lens. Shorter your focal length, higher the distortion. It can be easily corrected using Camera RAW. Since this was taken at 300mm, there is almost no distortion. You should be able to open your JPEGs using Camera RAW too but for some reason Adobe wasn’t letting me open it. I kept getting an error message. I did some research and it seems to be a common problem. While Camera RAW offers some control over your JPEGs, it won’t offer all the controls it does a RAW file. The processed RAW image is 9.53MB whereas the processed JPEG is 6.15MB. Click on the picture for a better view.

Now, after I processed the RAW files, I converted them to JPEGs to upload here. However, when you do, you lose the advantage of higher bit depth as it goes to being an 8 bit image. If you’ve noticed on the first screenshot up there, I loaded the RAW file into Photoshop as an 8 bit image (where it says Adobe RGB (1998); 8 bit; 4752 by 3168 (15.1MP); 240 ppi – you can click on this and open it as a 16 bit image) since I knew I was going to save it as a JPEG anyway. If you want to retain the higher bit depth, converting to a TIF file is the better option. Most professional printing services use TIF files (they will print JPEGs too of course). But if you’re getting your prints done in Walmart or printing them very small or both, don’t bother. So all of this depends on your needs. 

While during ideal situations where you have control over most elements (like studio lighting etc.), RAW offers little advantage over JPEGs. The further you drift away from ideal situations, and when speed and space is not a concern, shooting RAW is the best option in my personal opinion. In practice, you will be taking a lot of pictures in non ideal situations. I’m not going to go up to an angry charging elephant to hold up a gray card against it to get my white balance correct in camera. I seriously doubt he would be happy about it. I’d much rather spend an extra 30 seconds to correct my white balance during post processing. 

pseudo HDR

Here’s an example of a pseudo HDR I was talking about. On the right side you can see the original RAW file I used to make the pseudo HDR on the left. There was absolutely no way I would’ve achieved this level of details with a JPEG. I did not have a chance to bracket my shots here either as I took this shot while I was in a moving car. Click on the picture for a better view.

Which one is for you?

By now you should have realized that photography is a very subjective field since I mentioned it over and over again. Thus there is no one right or correct way to do things. Whether you will benefit from either RAW or JPEG depends on your needs. If having absolute precision is critical, RAW is the way to go. It offers a wide range of possibilities than JPEGs. This also means that you will probably have to sit and process through copious amount of RAW files. When you keep doing it, you will find easier ways, short cuts and it will significantly reduce the amount of time you spend with one RAW file. RAW is both the holy grail and the downfall of a beginner. As a beginner, you’re likely to make a lot of mistakes when shooting and that’s okay. But if you shoot RAW, much of that can be corrected during post processing. Now, this does not mean that horrible snapshots can be magically converted into world class photographs though. I know there’s a ‘get-everything-right-in-camera’ group. Sure, if you can get everything right in the camera, that is absolutely fantastic and you will get there eventually. But I personally am not there yet. So I shoot RAW. The reason why RAW could be the downfall of a beginner is because the work flow can appear overwhelming at first and even your processed RAW files may look worse than your camera processed JPEGs. But don’t be discouraged. You can only learn by doing it. A while ago, Adobe released a free version of CS2. So if you don’t want to pay a lot of money for software, that may be a good starting place. You are going to have to make a free account with Adobe to download this or you can pick it up from numerous links available throughout the internet. I’m not entirely sure what type of RAW files are supported in CS2 however.

If your pictures are only going to end up in social media and you don’t intend to make and large prints, shooting JPEGs may save you a lot of time. If you’re taking pictures for a craigslist ad, there’s no need to shoot RAW either. Some action photographers resort to JPEGs to save the camera buffer from clocking in early. Some wedding photographers shoot JPEGs just because they don’t want to sit through 2000 RAW files. An untrained eye won’t be able to tell the difference between a properly shot JPEG and a processed RAW image.

As you can see both formats are useful in their own way. I set my camera to RAW couple months after I bought it and it hasn’t been changed since. But that’s my personal choice. I prefer the range it gives me to work with. I make large prints from my pictures for exhibitions and RAW files give me exactly the controls I need over an image. Shooting RAW however doesn’t make you a ‘professional’ (whatever that means) over night.

Modern DSLRs offer the possibility of shooting RAW + JPEGs at the same time. Why don’t people use this and end the debate once and for all? Because it takes a lot more space and while it may be the best option when it comes to the range of possibilities, it can be confusing as hell at times. You will have two files with the same file name and can be difficult to organize your files etc. This is a good option if you want to compare RAW and JPEGs because it will make the both files exactly the same time using the same settings like my examples above. It also comes in handy if you want to display/print something immediately but still want the option to process them in your leisure. This is however a terrible option when shooting in the continuous mode.

What do other people think?

Ken Rockwell says why he “never shoots RAW” and Petteri Sulonen makes his point on shooting RAW. It seems like much of Ken’s examples are rather old. He mentions how his friend was filling up his 256MB card so fast because of shooting RAW. I doubt anyone is using 256MB cards anymore. You can still buy them for like $5 from Amazon but at the same time, a 16GB card is only around $10. So why would you? Like I said before, space is no longer an issue. Ken also mentions something I disagree on; “Which should you shoot? If you have to ask then just shoot JPEG”. Unfortunately most of us were not born with all the photographic knowledge. I know I was not. I learned everything I know today by talking to experienced photographers, reading, and practicing. Nonetheless, both are interesting articles and I will leave it up to you to decide which one is best for you.

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Canon vs Nikon – The Great Debate

When you’re in the world of photography, you’re bound to hear this debate more often than you really want to. It has been going on for decades and there’s always someone claiming that one is better than the other. But these two are not the only DSLR brands out there? Why don’t we hear much about Olympus vs Sony or Panasonic vs Pentax etc? Konica Minolta (now Sony) was in fact a very popular brand back in the day. Back in the 70s my father’s choices were Minolta and Pentax. I still have couple of those old lenses (unfortunately unusable) lying around the house. Canon and Nikon simply devoured the SLR market share of other brands within the last couple of decades, especially with their entry level digital SLRs which allowed a lot of people to experience the wonders of photography that previously has been a realm restricted to few professionals.

Canon

Image Courtesy – Mark Josue

So which one is better then? Canon or Nikon? The simple answer is, neither. But you knew that all along, didn’t you? It is impossible to claim that one is better than the other. Both companies make excellent, nearly identical, DSLRs capable of taking stunning images. Unfortunately it seems like photography also had religious touch. So there are extremists in photography too.

However, that being said, choosing a camera brand is probably one of the most important decisions you will make in photography. In the years to come, you will accumulate gear that is specific to your brand of choice and it’s rather difficult to switch after that point. So how does one go about choosing a brand? It’s simple really. I assume that you’ve already decided to go with either Canon or Nikon if you’ve read this far. The advantages of going for either one of these are the amount of support available, their excellent lens line up, and the availability of third party gear. Down side is that famous brand name is going to cost you and you will be paying a little bit more than what you would pay for a less famous brand with near identical features.

First you need to figure out your budget. When you do, look up several camera models from both brands that you think would satisfy your needs. Then go to a camera store and try them out. This is probably the best way to find out what brand works for you. Which one feels best in your hands? Do you like the button and menu layout? What ‘seems’ right to you? Take couple of shots using each camera to see how you like them. This will give you a far better understanding on both brands.

There are few other things that you might want to consider.

  • What do most of your friends use? Canon or Nikon? If you pick the same brand they use, it would be easier to exchange and borrow equipment from them. Photography is expensive. It’s nice to be able to borrow a lens to take a picture that you really need rather than buying a lens. But if you constantly find yourself needing a particular lens, it’s worth investing the money.
  • Do you intend to use your DSLR for videos? Then it might be a good idea to stick with Canon just because Canon is a big name when it comes to videos. They have dedicated cinema cameras which should take all of your EF lenses if you decide to upgrade.
  • What type of lenses will you be using most of the time? Both brands have excellent lenses available but it might be a good idea to take a look at what they have. For instance Canon offers slightly faster 50mm f/1.2L and the 85mm f/1.2L whereas Nikon has the 50mm f/1.4 and the 85mm f/1.4. Although Nikon does have a 50mm f/1.2, it only works in manual focus.

These two companies took slightly different routes to arrive at the place they are today. Nikon has a great legacy. They have kept their Nikon F mount which dates back to 1959 until now. So if you have an old Nikon lens stuffed in a closet, it would still work on a newer Nikon body. However, some metering modes and auto focus functions may not work without special adapters. The Nikon F mount is one of the only two lens mounts which hasn’t been discontinued since the introduction of autofocus. The other one is the Pentax K mount (aka PK mount, introduced in 1975). Nikon has been making their F mount for over a 50 year period and the only brand to do so. These are mostly Nikon’s bragging rights. While Nikon’s marvelous integration system is a great news for lifelong Nikon users, the old Nikon lenses are full of archaic technology and glasses. They won’t out do the new Nikon lenses. The rumor has it that Nikon is trying to put the medium format cameras out of fashion. Hence their D810 packed with (almost unnecessary) 36 megapixels. I’m not so sure about this rumor though. If you’re still dazzled by the megapixel count, you can check out the Nokia Lumia 1020 with a 41 megapixel camera sensor.

Canon, on the other hand, introduced a new system in 1987. The EF mount (Electro Focus) is the standard lens mount on Canon EOS (Electro Optical System) cameras. The EF mount succeeded the FD (Focal plane shutter with Dual link for diaphragm control, introduced in 1971) mount which replaced the FL (Focal plane shutter Linked, introduced in 1964) mount which replaced the Canon R mount (introduced in 1959). While this seems like Canon is inconsistent, they started from scratch to build something excellent and they sure did. Canon has also been spending a lot of resources in refining the CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) sensors which was a huge leap in DSLRs. Before CMOS sensors became popular, the CCD (Charged Coupled Device) sensor was the name in town. In the 90s CCD sensors produced much higher quality pictures. They performed much better in low light. The disadvantage was that CCD sensors were much more expensive to make. However, Canon managed to bridge this gap by improving their CMOS sensors. The CCD vs CMOS is a story on its own. There are only five EOS cameras with CCD sensors and out of those five, four of them were produced with the help of Kodak. Canon provided the body but the electronics and sensor came from Kodak. The other EOS camera that features a CCD sensor is the EOS 1D. The body and the electronics of the 1D was both designed and built by Canon but they outsourced the sensor. This should tell you how much time Canon has put into improving their CMOS sensors. Now Canon not only designs and build their CMOS sensors, they also manufacture the equipment that make the CMOS sensors. 

Some interesting points about both brands.

  • The name Canon comes from Buddhism – Bodhisattva Guan Yin. Guan Yin is actually pronounced Kannon (beats me!) in Japanese. In English, it roughly translates to Goddess of Mercy. Nikon stands for Nippon Kogaku (Japan Optical).
  • Canon’s first full frame DSLR (EOS 1Ds) was introduced in September, 2002 and Nikons first full frame DSLR (D3) was introduced in August, 2007.
  • Canon lenses are branded Canon but Nikon lenses are branded Nikkor.
  • Canon’s flashers are known as speedlites and Nikon calls their flashers speedlights.
  • Canon’s APS-C sensors are slightly smaller (22.3mm x 14.8mm) compared to the Nikon’s APS-C sensors (23.6mm x 15.6mm).
  • Canon has APS-H format DSLRs available. Nikon doesn’t. However, the last APS-H camera was released in October, 2009. I doubt they are making them anymore.
  • Nikon’s some entry-mid level cameras don’t have a auto-focus motor in the body. So older Nikkor lenses without auto-focus motors won’t auto-focus. But Nikon has been releasing newer versions of these lenses with autofocus motors. So this is hardly a problem. All Canon EF and EF-S lenses since 1987 have autofocus motors built in.
  • Older Nikon DSLRs had a lower megapixel count compared to Canon counterparts. But the tables have been turned. Newer Nikon DSLRs have a higher megapixel count than Canon counterparts.
  • You can mount a Nikkor lens on a Canon body with a special adapter but the reverse is not true. This is another reason why people who like to do videos on their DSLRs prefer Canon. You can mount almost any type of lens on a Canon DSLR with an adapter. This is due to the distance between the sensor and the lens flange. More technical reasons. Let’s just stop there.
  • Nikon (and many other brands) has great lens caps where you pinch in the middle to remove the cap from the lens. But to remove Canon’s lens caps you have to press the side of the cap, which can prove difficult with a lens hood on. You can simply put a different cap on a Canon lens though.
  • Some Nikon DX lenses (designed for their APS-C bodies) can be used on Nikon full frame cameras, though it will crop the image. Canon’s EF-S lenses cannot be used on their full frame bodies. The lens will hit the mirror.
  • Nikon’s 800mm lens is currently $17,896 and it weighs 10.1 pounds whereas the Canon’s 800mm lens is $13,999 and weighs 9.9 pounds. The reason why I mentioned these two here is because these two are the big brothers of super telephoto lenses. There are specially designed telephoto lenses (mega telephoto?) that exceeds 800mm, if you can afford to spend more than the amount you would spend on a brand new Mercedes. No really, they are easily pass the $75,000 mark. Well you probably could count the teeth (and deduce what they had for lunch) of someone who is half a mile away. At this point, those lenses are really cannons 🙂
  • Canon’s 5D Mark III (released in March 2012) currently has the highest number of focus points – 61. Nikon’s D810 (released in June 2014, 2 days ago at the time of writing this) has 51 focus points. These are extremes just so you know. My camera only has 9.

Now that the history lesson is over, I should say that both companies have been around for a long time. Although they did certain things quite differently, both produce excellent optical equipment. So if someone tries to tell you that their 50mm lens works better than yours, ignore that person much like you would ignore people who claim they are better than other people because they wear a different type of hats.

The bottom line is that go get yourself a camera without wasting too much time pondering which brand is better. The sooner you have a camera, the sooner you can take pictures, which is the ultimate goal here. Honestly, in order to see any difference between these two brands, you would have to push your camera to the extreme but the majority will never have to do it. I probably won’t either. If you’re still asking this question, it’s very likely that you don’t have enough experience in photography to distinguish any minor differences that they may have. There are so many photographers out there whom I respect immensely. Some use Canon, some use Nikon, and some use other brands.

Personally, I shoot Canon. My brother shoots Nikon and like I said before my father shot with Minolta and Pentax. The reason why I went for Canon is simply because I had to pick one and I just happen to pick Canon. There are no camera shops out where I live. The few shops we had in our capital exploited the little DSLR market they had here. They were charging an insane amount of money (like couple hundred dollars more than the actual price) for each item they sold. Luckily, things seem to be changing for the better now. Anyway, I didn’t have the luxury of walking into a shop and trying them out. I read reviews online and decided what I wanted to get. I ordered mine from Amazon, shipped it to a friend, and got him to bring it back to Sri Lanka. I was not disappointed with my choice. Make sure you like what you get and get what you like. If you keep thinking that your camera is crap (it isn’t), you won’t be making any good shots with it.

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Things to Know Before Buying a Lens

If you’re just starting out photography and bought your first DSLR, it’s very likely that you got it with the kit lens. Different camera bodies come with different kit lenses. Higher end bodies usually come with pro grade lenses whereas entry to mid level bodies come with regular lenses. For instance, the Canon 5D Mark III (Canon’s current flagship camera) comes with the EF 24-105mm f/4.0 L IS USM which is an excellent lens. Mid level cameras like the Canon 60D, 70D, or 7D usually come with either the EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM or the EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS UD or the EF-S 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM. Finally the entry level cameras come with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM. Although some of these lenses are excellent glasses, they do have their limitations. Of course, you can just buy the camera body and get any lens you want. I do strongly suggest that you play around with your kit lens before you consider getting a new piece of glass because the more experience you have, more easier for you to figure out what type of lens you want to buy next, rather than winging it.

Once you’re either fed up with your kit lens or pushed it to its limits and finally decided to get a new lens, you need to be able to make the choice. What I’m trying to do here is to suggest several things you could do, in order to make a smart choice. Even though I explained a bit about lenses, how they work, and some lens lingo, I didn’t really say what to look for when you’re buying a lens. There are several questions that you need to ask yourself before buying a lens.

What kind of a photographer are you?

Are you the type of person who enjoys taking beautiful sceneries, cityscapes, seascapes etc.? Then you’re looking for a lens with a focal length below 35mm for landscape/architecture photography. If all you take are portraits, you are going to need something in the range of 70-135mm. If you’re fascinated with tiny little details and would like to see a whole new world open up to you, macro lenses are your calling. If birds, wildlife, or sports interest you more than anything, you’re looking at telephoto lenses. This is why I said it’s important to play around with your kit lens for a while, until you figure out what type of a photographer you are. Otherwise you might just buy a lens out of the blue and might end up not getting its money’s worth.  Of course if you enjoy every type of photography (nothing wrong with that), get ready sell couple of body parts unless you’re loaded because it is going to cost you!

When and where will you be shooting most of the time?

Once you finally figure out what type of lens you need, you need to think of the occasions you’re going to use this lens. Is it going to be inside or outside? What kind of light available to you? Do you have the opportunity to use a tripod? If you’re going to be shooting under low light conditions most of the times, you should probably invest in a lens with a wider constant aperture like f/2.8 (or f/4.0 on super telephoto lenses) throughout the focal length range and has image stabilization. Unfortunately these lenses are expensive than the others. Usually wedding photographers and event photographers use these type of lenses. If you’re shooting landscapes etc and getting a wide angle lens, the maximum aperture is not a huge deal because you will be stopping down the lens to get a deeper depth of field anyway. Also, more often than not you can afford to use a tripod. You don’t really need image stabilization with wide lenses or when you’re using a tripod. In fact, it is advised to turn off the IS if you’re using a tripod because the lens will “look” for movement when there is none and create not as sharp images. Most lens manufacturers have couple of different versions of similar lenses. For instance, Canon has four 70-200mm lenses and all of them are pro grade lenses.

  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/4.0 L USM ($709)
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/4.0 L IS USM ($1349)
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L USM ($1449)
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM ($2499)

The prices are from Amazon at the time of writing this. So what makes the difference? The first two lenses can only open up to f/4.0 which means they won’t be ideal for low light situations. The second one has image stabilization. So it would be a little bit better than the first one. These two lenses however, weigh less significantly compared to the other two. Canon doesn’t make the third one anymore because they came up with the second version of that particular lens. That’s what “II” means on the fourth lens. But you can still find the third one if you really want. All four lenses are equipped with USM (Ultra Sonic Motor). This makes the lens focus faster and virtually silent. The bottom line is that these lenses have different functions, different dimensions, and different weights. Knowing what you really need can save you a lot of money because while it is very desirable to get the fourth one, you may not need it.

How much weight are you willing to lug around?

Let’s be honest here. There are so many people who will get a DSLR but rarely use it because it’s too heavy. Until you get used to your camera, it does seem a little heavy. However, the lens can make all the difference in the world. This is especially true for pro grade telephoto lenses because they are built like tanks. Pro grade telephoto lenses are made with metals unlike regular lenses which are made with high grade plastic. They have a lot of lens elements contributing to their weight too. These can easily weigh anywhere between 3.5-4.5 kilograms (~8.5-10 pounds). These lenses are near impossible to handhold due to their weight and magnified camera movement. So you’re going to have to carry a tripod – a tripod that is capable of holding these beasts. A $30 tripod won’t cut it. These tripods are heavy and expensive too. It may sound easy to carry around but remember that you will most likely to have this around your neck for couple of hours at least. Therefore, weight is a serious thing to consider before buying a lens. So if you think weight is not going to hinder you from taking photos, by all means get these lenses. They produce very high quality images. Although I’m going to be very sad if I see a $12,000 lens sitting on a shelf unused.

Do your homework

Reading reviews is a great way to find out about a particular lens. There are so many unbiased reviews out there and there is no reason why you shouldn’t read them. Not only the professional reviews, read reviews from consumers to see what they think about the lens. Most online stores, such as Amazon, has customer reviews. They are usually very helpful. If you want to justify buying this lens, go to flickr and search for the lens you have in mind. This will bring up pictures taken using that particular lens. Make sure it’s the correct lens because sometimes flickr tags can be misleading. You will either inspired by the results or look for another lens. You’re about to spend your hard earned money and lenses are not cheap. So it’s important to be well-informed.

Try it out before you buy it

There are so many services/companies that rent out lenses for a reasonable price. Take your potential choice on a “date”. See how you like it. All the reviews can be positive but only you can decide if it’s the right choice for you because you might just find something annoying about the lens. Renting out lenses is a great way to learn a lot about lenses. This is also very useful if you’re a portrait photographer but you need to get that one landscape shot or similar situations. It’s obvious that you don’t want to spend couple hundred dollars on a wide angle lens if you are not going to use it often. Renting a lens is the smart choice here (or borrowing it from a friend).

General purpose lenses

This may be the solution for those who want a “do it all” lens or for those who are too lazy to change their lenses. These lenses have a big focal length range, from wide angle to telephoto. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s because there is a down side too. The downside is that these lenses sacrifice a little bit of optical quality for convenience. Of course these lenses come in several levels too. So if you buy a pro grade general purpose lens, the optical quality would be much better than a regular general purpose lens. But if you want to do a specialized type of photography like macro or fish eye, general purpose lenses won’t cut it. You wouldn’t go to a gynecologist for a brain surgery, would you? Lenses are kind of like doctors in a sense. If you want a fantastic job done, a specialized lens is the way to go. Others may or may not screw you over, although not to the same level a doctor would.

There are some lenses that can do multiple jobs. I think it would be fair to call them “multi purpose lenses” rather than general purpose lenses. The 100mm f/2.8 macro lens for instance makes an excellent portrait lens specially when coupled with a full frame camera. You won’t be sacrificing any optical quality here.

MTF chart

This could very well be the most technical way to compare two lenses or even learn how a particular lens performs. If you want an objective point of view on a lens, it is vital that you take a look at its MTF chart. MTF stands for Modulation Transfer Function and it measures the optical performance of a lens compared to a hypothetical perfect lens. You can find the MTF chart of a lens usually in the camera manufacturer’s website or in some review websites. Keep in mind however that different manufacturers may use different measurement standards. Therefore it won’t always be possible to compare two lenses from two different companies. But this would hardly be a problem because most of the time you’re sticking with one camera brand anyway. Explaining how to read an MTF chart is a very lengthy process. So I’m simply going to redirect you here where they have done an excellent job explaining all the details.

Hopefully this will help you to make an educated choice when it comes to buying a lens. If you have specific questions, I would be happy to help you out in any way I can.

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Deciphering The Camera Jargon – Part 3 – Loose Ends

This is the third and the final part of the Camera Jargon series. Hopefully, I explained most of the popular terms in such a way that a beginner can understand. I left out some of the technical details when I felt that they are not necessary to understand the concept. Some of these terms are only explained briefly and has much more to it. As I keep writing this blog, I intend to go in to details in depth.

Depth of Field

Depth of Field or DoF for short is the area of an image that appears reasonably sharp or in focus. I discussed about DoF in the previous article in brief and I mentioned how the aperture affects the DoF. There are couple of other factors contributing to the DoF. However, I think I’m going to leave out most of the technical details out in this discussion.

Aperture – No point in repeating myself. See the previous post.

Sensor Size – Have you ever noticed when you’re taking pictures with your phone or your pocket camera, everything seems to be in focus no matter what you do? Hence the increased popularity in the Instagram and its blur feature. But when you’re using a DSLR, it’s much easier to achieve a blurred background and a sharply focused subject. FYI the blurred out background is called bokeh and nobody knows how to pronounce it (or to spell it). Anyway, the DSLRs have a much larger image sensor compared to mobile phones or pocket cameras. Larger image sensors allow shallower DoFs.

Camera to Subject Distance – When you’re up close and personal to the subject, you get a shallower DoF and if you step back couple of feet, you get a deeper DoF.

Subject to Background Distance – If the distance between your subject and the background is greater, you will get a much blurred background. If the said distance is smaller, you will get a deeper DoF. Just think of a person standing right next to a wall. The wall will almost always will be in focus. But if your subject is standing out in an open field, the far away mountains will almost always will be out of focus.

Focal Length – This gets a little tricky to explain without going into technical details. Contrary to the popular belief, focal length does not contribute to DoF. But there’s a reason why I included it here. It APPEARS to have a significant impact on DoF. There is an apparent change in DoF with a long lens vs. a short lens because the length of the lens changes the perspective in the scene – longer lenses render the background larger in relationship to the subject making it seem more blurry thus creating the impression of less depth of field. This is because when you’re shooting at a very wide focal length (say 16mm), your field of view is much greater. But when you’re shooting at a telephoto length (300mm or so), you field of view gets narrower. Thus your subject occupies different fractions of your image. Tele lenses magnifies the subject and therefore, they occupy a greater portion of your image whereas in wide angles, the subject appears smaller and they only occupy a smaller portion of the image. If the subject occupies the same fraction in both scenarios, the DoF will be the same. In order to do this, you have to step back a lot when you’re shooting with the telephoto lens. But that kind of defeats the purpose of a telephoto lens, doesn’t it? So the take home message is that technically, focal length does not have an effect on DoF. However, artistically it does. Since photography is an artistic medium, I will leave it up to you to interpret this one. It has been raining in Sri Lanka like crazy for the last couple of days. I will demonstrate this with an example the first chance I get and post it here. Bare with me until then.

White Balance

I think it would be fair to say that white balancing is a way to reproduce the colors as accurately as possible. Each light source has a different temperature (or a color) associated with it. Day light, tungsten lights, candle light, fluorescent etc. has different colors. However, modern DSLRs are more than capable of doing a decent job when the available light is uniform, or you have one type of light source. When you’re using couple of different types of light sources, it gets a little tricky. Imagine you’re shooting inside a room that is lit by fluorescent bulbs and tungsten bulbs. Your pictures are likely to have an unnatural color cast on them.

White Balance_1

Left – White Balanced. Right – Not White Balanced.

Have you ever taken pictures, specially with a compact digital camera, inside a room and all of your pictures had an amber color to them and you wondered why? This is because your camera gets confused under these conditions unlike human eye, which does a fantastic white balancing job. Simply put, white balancing is telling your camera what white looks like, hence the name white balancing. When you tell your camera what white looks like, it automatically puts all the other colors in to their proper places and thus produces an accurate image. If you’re mathematically inclined, you can think of this as a circle centered at origin (0,0) on a XY plane. The radius is irrelevant here. Imagine that inside the circle is all the colors you need. When the camera is not properly white balanced, the circle shifts its position. So what’s supposed to look like white, does not look like white anymore. When you white balance your camera, the circle shifts back to its proper place, and you have all the natural colors again.

White Balance

If those red straight lines are our X and Y axis, the one on the left is when you have your camera properly white balanced for the situation and one on the right is when you don’t have your camera properly white balanced. Note: This does not represent all the colors your camera can produce. This image is only used to illustrate my point. I grabbed the color wheel from PemaMendez in DeviantART. Kudos to him for making it.

There are several methods to white balance properly. You can shoot RAW format and adjust your white balance later during post processing. This is what I personally do. If you shoot JPEGs, you limit your ability to properly white balance during post processing because you burn your white balancing profile into the image and doesn’t collect enough data to do it later. You can adjust it a little bit but not as much as shooting RAW. If you want to get it right in the camera, you can use something called an 18% grey card. As the name suggests, it’s simply a card that is grey. What so important about the color grey? Well grey has equal amounts of each primary color and reflects natural light and the camera can use it as a reference point. What you do is, you place the grey card against the subject you want to shoot and take a picture of the card, properly exposed, filling the entire scene. Then use this image as a reference custom white balance image. Refer to your camera manual on how to achieve this on your camera. When you do this, your camera will produce accurate colors.

Aspect Ratio

Aspect ratio describes the ration between the width and the height of an image. This is something often ignored by many people because the aspect ratio is something that is fixed. This ratio reflects the width to height ratio of your camera’s image sensor. Canon, Nikon, and Pentax have a 3 : 2 ratio whereas Olympus and Panasonic have a 4 : 3 ratio. The 3 : 2 ratio comes from the 35 mm film where the area that records the image is 36 mm wide and 24 mm tall. This becomes a very important subject when you’re going to print your pictures. If your camera’s aspect ratio is 3 : 2, you can make 2 x 3, 4 x 6, 10 x 15, 16 x 24, 20 x 30 prints or anything that matches the 3 : 2 ratio without cropping out your image. However, the problem is that most of the popular print sizes, like 5 x 7, 8 x 10, 11 x 17 don’t match with this ratio. There are some places that will make prints that matches with your ratio, so don’t fret. I don’t like to throw away pixels but most importantly, when you crop your picture, it changes the composition of the image. So when you’re out there taking pictures, and if you plan to print these pictures with anything other than the native ratio of your camera, you need to take into account the fact that you have to crop this image later. Personally, I always stick with  3 : 2 ratio because that’s what my camera gives me.

FPS

In photography, fps stands for frames per second, not first person shooters. When you look at a camera’s specifications, this number is often under continuous mode or burst mode. This mode allows you to take a series of shots by holding the shutter button. This is mainly used when taking action shots, like sports or birds in flight. This increases the chance of getting a sharp shot and later you can discard the rest of the images if you want to. Thank goodness we’re shooting digital. The fps depends on several things. Buffer, the temporary memory where the images are stored before they are transferred into the memory card. Higher the buffer, high the fps. Image processor is another factor. If your camera has a faster image processor, the fps is higher too. The megapixel count has an indirect impact on fps. Since more megapixels mean bigger file sizes, it fills up the buffer really fast and thus results in a lower fps. This is why the Nikon’s the D800, fully equipped with all the other modern features, still shoots at a very low 4 fps because it has a unnecessarily large 36.8 megapixel count.

Image Stabilization

Remember I mentioned the one over focal length rule? Now that I have discussed the effective focal length, I should say that it’s actually one over effective focal length. This rule gives you a rough idea of how much your minimum shutter speed should be to handhold your camera in order to obtain a sharp image. This is of course not a rule written in the stone and it varies from person to person. However, the Image Stabilization (IS) technology gives you the option to handhold the camera at lower shutter speeds. Usually a lens would say that it has 2 stop IS or 4 stop IS. What this means is that you can shoot either 2 or 4 stops of shutter speed lower than the regular shutter speed when handholding the camera with an image stabilized lens. There are two main ways of stabilizing images.

Lens – Based

This is accomplished by introducing gyroscopic sensors. It would move the lens elements to counter the movement of the camera due to hand shake and direct the light into the sensor. There are two gyroscopic sensors, one to detect horizontal movement and the other to detect vertical movement. Some high end lenses come with a secondary mode of image stabilizing which allows you to turn off the horizontal gyroscopic sensor. This is useful when you are panning your camera to follow a subject, like a moving car.

Sensor – Shift

In this method, the sensor is shifted to compensate for the movement of the camera. The advantage of this method is that the image is stabilized irrespective of what lens is used. The disadvantage is that the effectiveness of stabilization is limited to the movement of the sensor and that if your camera has an optical view finder (most DSLRs do) the view finder won’t be stabilized. Sensor Shift IS is also called the in body image stabilization.

IS

Effect of Image Stabilization. The left one was taken with the IS on and the right one was taken with the IS off. Both were taken using the same camera, lens, and settings. The shutter speed was 1/50th of a second at 300mm (480mm effective focal length). As you can see, the IS makes a huge difference specially when shooting in such slow shutter speeds at higher focal lengths.

Different lens manufactures like to call this feature different names.

  • Canon – Image Stabilization (IS)
  • Nikon – Vibration Reduction (VR)
  • Olympus – In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS)
  • Sony Cyber Shot – Optical Steady Shot (OSS)
  • Leica and Panasonic – MegaOIS
  • Sony – Super Steady Shot (SSS)
  • Sigma – Optical Stabilization (OS)
  • Tamron – Vibration Compensation (VC)
  • Pentax – Shake Reduction (SR)

Olympus, Sony, and Pentax uses sensor shift stabilization whereas the others use lens-based stabilization. Image stabilization only works to compensate for the camera movement. If your subject is moving, you will still get a blurry image if you don’t use a fast enough shutter speed. IS is specially useful when shooting in low light conditions where handholding the camera is necessary.  

This does not obviously conclude all of technical terms used in the wonderful world of photography but some of the most important ones. Other terms will be explained as they come along in our discussions.

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Deciphering The Camera Jargon – Part 2 (Focal Length and Lens Choices)

This is the 2nd part of the camera jargon series. Once you finally pick out your first DSLR then you are faced with another challenge. How can you possibly pick out a lens from all those lenses available to you? Which lens is right for you and what are some of the limitations that you may face? This article aims to answer some of those questions.

Focal Length

Focal length is probably the most basic description of any given lens and is usually represented in millimeters. It is horrifying to hear that some people think this is the actual length of the lens. If it was, imagine the size of a 10mm lens. While it would be so nice to have such tiny lenses, that is not the case. So what is it then? The focal length of a lens is the distance from the optical center of the lens (where light rays converges to form a sharp image when focused at infinity) to the image sensor of the camera. Without discussing physics behind this, it is easier to think of the ways certain focal length ranges affect the image. Note that the focal lengths described here are in terms of full frame cameras. The sensor size of the camera determines the effective focal length of a lens as mentioned in a previous article.

Sorry about the crappy scene. I'll update this as soon as I get the chance.

Sorry about the crappy scene. I’ll update this as soon as I get the chance. Click on the picture for a better view.

As seen in the picture, short focal lengths allow a wider viewing angle whereas longer focal lengths gives you a narrower viewing angle (Field of View – FOV) and magnifies the subject. So the focal length and FOV are inversely proportional. If you really want to know, FOV = 2 arctan (x/2f) where x is the diagonal length of the image sensor and f is the focal length. But that’s just bonus information. Strictly technically speaking, anything lower than a 50mm is considered wide angle and anything higher than 50mm is considered telephoto. However, in popular culture, this is not the case. We put lenses into several categories.

Normal Lenses – If the focal length of the lens is equal to the diagonal length of the image sensor, it is said to be a normal lens for that particular camera. For instance, a full frame sensor has a diagonal length of 43.3mm but there are no such lenses. So on full frame cameras we consider 50mm (or between 35mm – 70mm) lenses as normal lenses. Normal lens roughly gives you the same field of view as your eyes. Thus everything looks normal. These lenses are used for documentary, journalism, and street photography.

Extreme Wide Angle Lenses – Lenses with focal length less than 21mm is considered extreme wide angle. These lenses have a very large field of view. Mainly used in architecture photography, although I use a 10mm (16mm effective focal length) for landscapes.

Wide Angle Lenses – Focal length between 21mm – 35mm are considered wide angle and are used in landscape photography.

Medium Telephoto Lenses – Lenses with focal lengths between 70mm – 135mm belong to this category. Specially used for portraiture.

Telephoto and Super Telephoto Lenses – Anything between 135mm – 300mm and above are considered telephoto lenses. These are mainly for sports, birds, and wildlife photography.

Macro Lenses – This is an entirely different domain on its own. These lenses come in various focal lengths. In a very technical sense, a true macro lens has a 1:1 magnification. This means, the reflection that is created on your image sensor has the same dimensions as the actual object. For instance, if you’re focusing on a penny that has a, say 10mm, diameter. The reflection of this penny will also have a 10mm diameter. But some lenses are designated as macro lenses using a less strict definition if they achieve a reasonable magnification. The Sigma AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 APO DG Macro is such an example. It’s not a true macro lens but it achieves a 1:2 magnification. Meaning, the diameter of the reflection of that penny would be 5mm instead 10mm if you use this lens. Macro lenses generally have a very small nearest focusing distance. So you can get very close to the subject and still focus fine. Macro photography opens up a whole new world for photographers. You can see amazing details on tiny little things. However, this requires an advanced understanding of the medium, proper equipment, patience, and adequate technical knowledge. Taking close ups and taking true macro photos are two entirely different things. Perhaps I will cover this subject in depth in a future article.

This was taken with the Sigma AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 APO DG Macro. It's not a true macro lens. But these types of lenses are not too bad either.

This was taken with the Sigma AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 APO DG Macro. It’s not a true macro lens. But these types of lenses are not too bad either.

Now, I should also mention that these categories are just to get an idea. This does not mean that you cannot use a 50mm lens to take portraits. In fact one of the most popular portrait lenses is the 50mm f/1.8 AKA the nifty fifty. Perhaps the reason is that it’s available for almost any brand of camera, it’s fast, light weight, considerably cheap (probably the cheapest, I know it is with Canon not sure about other brands), and still delivers amazingly high quality pictures. A must have lens for anyone, beginner and professional alike.

To illustrate the point, here are three portraits I took using three different lenses. Experiment with different focal lengths to get your desired result.

Taken with the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8, the nifty fifty.

Taken with the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8, the nifty fifty.

Taken with the Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM at 15mm. This is a self portrait, well a combination of 3 self portraits taken in my room. I had little space. So I had to use a wide angle lens to get a large field of view.

Taken with the Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM at 15mm. This is a self portrait, well a combination of 3 self portraits taken in my room. I had little space. So I had to use a wide angle lens to get a large field of view.

Taken with the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 L IS USM at 200mm

Taken with the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 L IS USM at 200mm

Inside The Lens

A lens is constructed using several lens elements, apart from the lens barrel. The main role of these lens elements is to focus the ray of light on the image sensor as accurately as possible and recreate the image in front while minimizing any distortions and aberrations. This determines the optical quality of a lens and ultimately dictates its price tag. Lens manufacturers are constantly trying to build high quality lenses using least expensive elements.

Light, however, does not behave exactly the way we want. Visible light is a very small fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum. The wavelength of visible light ranges from about 390nm to 700nm. Each wavelength refracts differently when going through different medium. This is why we see rainbows. Due to this phenomenon, when light travels through the lens, each lens element refracts each wavelength (different color) differently. This leads to false alignment of colors and results in chromatic aberration.

A ray of light being refracted in a plastic block. Image courtesy - Wikipedia

A ray of light being refracted in a plastic block. Image courtesy – Wikipedia

Chromatic aberration is just one measure of optical quality. There’s also vignetting (darkening of edges), loss of contrast, blurring, and distortion. This is why your lens is more important than your camera body. If you’re to exploit your camera to its full potential, it’s vital that you have a good piece of glass in front of it. Otherwise your high end professional DSLR won’t deliver the results you would expect. High quality lenses have various techniques to battle these problems. Therefore, they are more expensive. That is why you see lens manufacturers have several lenses covering the same focal length range. One is either optically better or faster or both than the other and is more expensive. However, it should be mentioned that lenses have come a long way since the beginning. Even the consumer grade lenses now deliver decent results. You wouldn’t notice a quality difference until you make a side by side comparison  with a professional grade lens.

See that purple line along side the tree branch? That's chromatic aberration. Click on the image for a better view.

See that purple line along side the tree branch? You’re going to have to click on the picture to see this. That’s chromatic aberration. Also note that this is a 400% crop. This picture was taken with an L grade lens. So the chromatic aberration is minimal. I had to hunt for an example.

Different lens manufacturers have their own methods to designate or identify their top quality lenses. Canon has their “L” series (luxury) with a red ring at the end of the lens barrel. Nikon has a gold ring at the end of the lens barrel. Sigma designates them as “EX” for excellence. Tokina has AT-X Pro so on and so forth. From my experience, the most noticeable difference between consumer grade and pro grade lenses is the frequency of getting sharp images. Consumer grade lenses will still give you sharp results, but not as often as a pro grade lens would. But this is just one side of the story.

Zoom vs Prime Lenses

In the good old days, there were only prime lenses. These lenses have fixed focal lengths. Therefore, the only way you can change the composition or the perspective of a picture is by moving in or out. Zoom lenses on the other hand offers a predefined focal length range. This allows you to change your composition or perspective without physically moving. Thus zoom lenses are very versatile. But there are many reasons why prime lenses are still around.

Advantages of Prime Lenses

  • Cheap – Prime lenses generally tend to be cheaper due to the fact that it has less lens elements. This does not mean that there aren’t any expensive prime lenses though.
  • Faster – I mentioned the speed several times already. So what does it mean that a lens is fast? It refers to the maximum aperture of the lens. As you already know, if a lens can open up more, it lets in more light. Thus you can use faster shutter speeds. Prime lenses are almost always faster than their zoom counterparts. Very handy in low light situations. This also makes your view finder a little brighter.
  • Weight – Prime lenses are smaller and light weight compared to many zoom lenses, again due to less lens elements.
  • Sharp Images – While cost, speed, and weight are the three main advantages of prime lenses, they tend to produce sharper images. There are less moving parts inside a prime lens (less lens elements). Therefore, it’s easier to accurately focus light which results in sharper images.
  • Bonus – Prime lenses have the potential to make you a better photographer. This is because you’re limited to one focal length and you’re forced to move around a lot to get the shot you want. This teaches you how to compose properly and forces you to think a little bit harder. Zoom lenses are likely to make people a little lazy but that’s just what I think.

Advantages of Zoom Lenses

  • Versatility – Like I said before, these give you the option to change the composition and perspective without moving. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t move though.
  • Keeping up with the subject – If you’re shooting dynamic subjects, a zoom lens is the way to go, so you can follow your subject without too much of a hassle.
  • Bang for the buck – I know I said that the prime lenses are cheaper. But if you want to constantly use several different focal lengths, you’re going to need several different prime lenses or one zoom lens. So it depends on your needs.

When zoom lenses first came into play, the optical quality was far inferior than prime lenses. However, with the advancement of technology, the gap has been narrowed significantly. Now they make remarkable zoom lenses that deliver high quality pictures to a point that an untrained eye is unable to say the difference between the two.

So, zoom or prime?

Well I think by now, you already know the answer I’m going to give. It’s up to you. I will say this though, I think everyone should have the 50mm prime. It’s inexpensive and extraordinary. That is the only prime lens I’m carrying at the moment. Give this lens a try. Then you get to experience the mesmerizing qualities of a prime lens. If you think primes are not for you, you can always sell it with very little loss.

I hope I answered some of the questions you may have had. If you still have questions or need a little more help, leave a comment and I will get back to you. Stay tuned for the next part of this series.

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Deciphering the Camera Jargon – Part 1 (Sensors and Megapixels)

When you’re going to buy your first DSLR, it’s so easy to get lost within the technical terms. Without knowing what they mean, it’s difficult to make a choice. Even when you read reviews online, they often don’t make any sense if you don’t know what they are talking about. In an effort to explain some of these terms that tend to appear over and over again, I’ve decided to write a series of posts. I’m going to publish this in several parts to keep each post relatively short. It’s near impossible to explain one term without relying on other terms as they are inter-connected with one another. So if you run into something unfamiliar here, it’s very likely that it will be covered in a future post.

DSLR

This goes without saying but I thought I’d add this here anyway. DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. The reflex mechanism is the main difference between a DSLR and a compact digital camera. The light travels through the lens and hits a mirror, which reflects it to the view finder through either a pentamirror or a pentaprism. When you click the shutter button, the mirror flips up, allowing the light to hit the image sensor. The term “single lens” here can be a bit confusing because DSLRs use many different lenses. However, the term refers to the fact that the light travels to both the viewfinder and the image sensor via a single lens as opposed to having a different lens for the viewfinder.

Full Frame vs Crop Sensor

Different Sensor Sizes. Image courtesy - Wikipedia

Different Sensor Sizes. Image courtesy – Wikipedia

In photography, we use the 35mm standard film SLR camera as the reference point. Of course the digital cameras don’t use film but instead full frame cameras have an image sensor with the same dimensions as the 35mm film, which is 36mm x 24mm. Now, why on earth is this called 35mm if the width of the film is actually 36mm? It’s because it actually refers to the full height of the film which is 35mm, including those tiny little holes on the sides. And if you think this is bad enough, it is also called the 135 photographic film format. Why? Because Mr Kodak said so and ain’t nobody’s messing with him. All in all, any DSLR with a 36mm x 24mm image sensor is considered a full frame DSLR. But there are so many different sizes of sensors out there. Technically speaking, a crop sensor is anything smaller than a full frame. But we don’t hear people referring to their pocket cameras as crop sensors even though the image sensor in those cameras are significantly smaller than full frame sensors. This language is mainly used to describe DSLRs.

The size of the image sensor is directly related to the effective focal length of a lens. What is the effective focal length you ask? The advertised focal length of a lens is always in terms of a full frame camera because it is our reference point. But if you put that same lens on a crop sensor body, the lens does not behave the same way it does on a full frame body. Since the crop sensor bodies only capture a portion of the image a full frame body would, it narrows the viewing angle and thus it has a magnifying (zoom) effect. While there are so many crop sensors out in the market, there are several popular ones. Canon APS-C (22.3mm x 14.8mm), Nikon DX, Pentax K, Sony (23.6mm x 15.6mm), Canon APS-H (27.9mm x 18.6mm), Olympus and Panasonic Four Thirds System (17.3mm x 13.0mm). There’s an awesome table in Wikipedia which includes all these numbers and the associated crop factor. Crop factor, or the focal length multiplier, as the name suggests is the factor by which you multiply your focal length to get the effective focal length (full frame equivalent focal length). For instance, the Canon APS-C system has a crop factor of 1.6 which means if you put a 50mm lens on a Canon APS-C body, you have to multiply 50mm by 1.6 to get the effective focal length. 50mm x 1.6 = 80mm and therefore this 50mm lens would behave like an 80mm lens on a full frame body. Thus the effective focal length of a 50mm lens on a Canon APS-C body is 80mm. As you might have already guessed, the full frame sensors have a crop factor of 1.0 just for book keeping purposes. Now that I mentioned APS-C, it stands for Advanced Photo System type C (Classic), in which the sensor size is approximately 60% of the size of a full frame sensor. APS-H stands for  Advanced Photo System type H (High Definition), in which the sensor size is approximately 75% of the size of a full frame sensor. There’s also an APS-P (Panoramic) albeit not very common.

So it all comes down to choices again. Which one is best for you? Well, that I cannot tell. What I can do is to tell you some advantages and disadvantages of each system. I’m going to limit this comparison to full frames and classic crop sensors because they are the most popular out there.

Full Frame Advantages

  • Improved dynamic range and better low light performance leads to higher quality pictures (larger pixels compared to a crop sensor with the same megapixel count).
  • Lenses behave the way they are supposed to. Although this is not a huge advantage due to the large range of available lenses.
  • Easier to achieve a shallower depth of field. If you keep all the other factors the same and shoot the same scene using a full frame and a crop sensor camera, the full frame camera will have a shallower depth of field. The sensor size is a factor determining the depth of field. This is why it’s near impossible to achieve a shallow depth of field with your point and shoot camera despite the fact that it has a f/1.8 lens.
  • Brighter view finder. Comes in very handy when focusing manually.
  • Larger field of view. If you use a 14mm lens on a full frame, you would capture a wider view than using a crop sensor body. Especially useful in landscape and architecture photography.

Full Frame Disadvantages

  • Expensive. That large sensor is sure going to cost you a lot more.
  • Generally heavier and bulkier than crop sensor bodies.
  • Shallower depth of field. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult to achieve a deep depth of field with a full frame because that would be a lie. There are many ways around this. But like I mentioned before, if you use the same settings, a crop sensor body will give you a greater depth of field. There are many occasions where you would want a deeper depth of field.
  • To fully exploit the advantage of a full frame camera, you need those expensive lenses. Mind you, I’m talking about the image quality here, not the photographic quality.
  • Higher quality pictures mean bigger file sizes. But this is hardly a problem now that storage options are dime a dozen.

 Crop Sensor Advantages

  • Cheaper. Most of the entry-level and mid-level DSLRs are crop sensor cameras. They are more affordable than those expensive full frame bodies. This was a reason why photography opened up for so many people, including me. Heck, I still can’t afford a full frame camera.
  • Light weight and less bulky.
  • Extra reach. While crop sensor bodies have a disadvantage on the wide end, they have an advantage on the tele end. This comes very handy especially in wild life, bird, sports photography due to the focal length multiplier. Crop sensor bodies magnifies the subject like I mentioned before.
  • Smaller file size.
  • Specially designed lens series. Canon has EF-S lenses and Nikon has their DX lenses specially designed for their crop sensor bodies. These lenses tend to be cheaper than their full frame counterparts while delivering amazing results at the same time. Crop sensor bodies can also use the lenses you put on a full frame (Canon EF and Nikon FX) but the reverse is not true. The full frame bodies cannot use EF-S or DX lenses. So there’s a wide variety of lenses available for crop sensor bodies.
  • Vignetting and soft focus at the edges are less likely due to the cropped field of view.

Crop Sensor Disadvantages

  • Well this section should be pretty obvious by now after you read everything else I said. So I will refrain from stating the obvious.

It should be pointed out that over the years camera manufacturers have closed the gap between full frame cameras and crop sensor cameras. For instance, there are specially designed lenses to battle the wide angle problem in crop sensor bodies now. Both systems deliver amazing results. There are good enough reasons to pick either one. While most professionals stick to high end full frame cameras, there’s a good amount of professionals who still prefer crop sensor bodies and they are in no way inferior. It’s just a personal choice and depends on what kind of work you do with your camera. For photography enthusiasts like myself, it makes much more sense to use a cheaper crop sensor system because I don’t earn any money from my camera. 99% of the time, each system would deliver similar results. But sometimes you have to push your camera to its limits and then the advantages one system offer over the other becomes important. A professional bird photographer would have to use a $20,000 system to get the results just because anything less wouldn’t deliver exactly what he needs. If you’re still unsure what you need, I suggest that you rent out some equipment and try it out for yourself. If you’re just starting out photography, I would suggest you just get an entry to mid level camera and some decent lenses. But that’s just me.

Megapixels

Where do I even begin? I think in the digital camera world, megapixels have the highest number of myths associated with it. I’ll try to keep it short. The smallest element of a picture is called a pixel (PICture ELement –> pixel, get it?). I’m not gonna go into sub-pixels because it’s not very relevant here. Just so you know, there is something called sub-pixel as well. If you zoom in on a picture, you’ll start seeing individual pixels. Remember the late 90s and early 2000s when digital cameras were gaining popularity? I’m sure you’ve heard a conversation somewhere along the lines of “hey, my camera is 3 megapixels. how many megapixels does yours have?” “five” “woah!”

Now, let us back up here for a moment. Does the number of megapixels really matter? Not really! Let me put it this way. Imagine a 2 cm x 2 cm square (note: most DSLR image sensors have an aspect ratio of 3 : 2 but for the sake of this argument, we’ll consider a square). This square has an area of 4 cm2. If we are to fill this square with 1 cm2 little squares, we need 4 of those. We’ll call each of these 1 cm2 squares a pixel. However, if we are to fill this 4 cm2 square with 0.25 cm2 little squares, we’re going to need 16 of those. Now imagine that the bigger square is the image sensor. This is exactly what happens when they cram in more pixels into the same sized sensor. Simply the size of a pixel goes down. Mega stands for 1 million (106). So a 10 megapixel camera has 10 million pixels. So why does the size of a pixel matter? Larger pixels have more light gathering capabilities, which means at a given time interval, the larger pixel will collect more light compared to a smaller pixel. This results in less noise (little grainy stuff you see when you take a picture, especially under low light. See ISO) and sharper, more detailed images. Hence, what determines the image quality of a camera is not its pixel count but the size of a pixel. This is one of the distinguishing factors between DSLRs and compact digital cameras (and one of the reasons why DSLRs are expensive) because DSLRs have larger image sensors and thus larger pixels when comparing the same number of megapixels.

So why all the hype? It’s one big marketing strategy! The megapixel count was used by camera manufacturers as a primary way of competing with other brands. Don’t you love it when a salesman keeps exaggerating this? If they feel like you don’t know what pixels are, almost always they are going to push this. Sometimes they just don’t have any idea what it actually does either. Once I was on the phone with AT&T and I wanted to get an upgrade. When I asked about different phones, he kept coming back to the number of megapixels. I told him I’m looking for a phone, not a camera. Funny how that works.

Does the number of megapixels matter at all? Very little. If you want to crop out an image and still print it big, a higher pixel count would come in handy. This leads to another discussion on print resolutions. I promise I’ll keep it short this time. Two terms keep popping up. PPI (Pixels Per Inch) and DPI (Dots Per Inch). These are two different terms, although some people use them interchangeably. This page explains the difference in great detail. I promised I’d keep this short 🙂 Anyway, back to the matter at hand, a 15 megapixel camera will allow you to print 10 x 15 images at 300ppi without artificially enlarging (using algorithms) the image. If you want larger prints, you simply reduce the ppi and when you do, it appears pixelated, you know like when you really zoom in on a picture. However, it doesn’t really matter because the larger your print is, greater the normal viewing distance. For instance, you’re not going to make a print 2 meters tall and stand right next to it. You step back. This is how large bill boards work. They are printed at very low resolutions but since you’re viewing them from a greater distance, you don’t notice the pixelation. Of course, if you stand very close, it would look horrible but then you don’t see the bigger picture, do you?

I think I’ve covered most of the important facts about megapixels. Now repeat after me, “I’m not going to be fooled by megapixel count again!”

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On Cameras and Choices – What is the Best Camera?

Imagine that you want to build a dog house. Then you find out that you don’t have a hammer. Naturally, you start looking for one. Then you hear stories, legends, and ballads about this great hammer. You embark on a quest to find this legendary artifact. For years you travel through jungles, rivers, oceans, conquer mountains, volcanoes, blizzards and finally you find this supposedly mythical hammer. You take it, go home, and build your dog house. Then it turns out to be crappy. Why? Because you have no experience in carpentry what-so-ever.

Now imagine the outcome if you spent all those years you wasted finding this mythical hammer, honing your skills and carefully designing what you were planning to build. You would end up with a beautifully finished work of art. When you want to make something, do you focus on the product you’re making or the tools you use to get the job done? When you see a beautiful painting, do you ask the artist about his paint brush? When you enjoy a nice meal, do you ask the cook about his stove? Then why do most people end up asking a photographer about his camera?

With the introduction of entry-level DSLRs to the market several years ago, digital photography has become one of the most popular hobbies. Yet one question keeps appearing all over the internet. What is the best camera? It’s very simple. It does not exist. When you post a picture somewhere, there is always that one guy who inquires about the camera you used. The best camera is what you have. You cannot take pictures with a camera that you don’t have. Stop chasing around something that does not exist and learn to use what you have.

Now, a perfectly legitimate question that you can ask a photographer is how he planned the shot and what settings he used. If EXIF data is available to you (in most cases it is) you can easily look at all the settings that were used to make the shot. You can learn a lot from that. But all those famous camera brands have yet to release a camera that takes no bad pictures.

I think the question “what is the best camera?” originated from the misconception that the camera does all the work. But it is a tool just like a paint brush or a hammer. Perhaps the fact that there are so many brands and models is confusing. Why are some cameras more expensive than the others? It’s simply because some offer features that others don’t. Is it absolutely necessary have all these features? Not at all. At the end of the day, a camera just take pictures.

When it comes to buying a camera, you really are spoiled with choices. The range is incredibly large, going from cheap compact point and shoot cameras to high end professional DSLRs that cost as much as a used car. I know I said that the tool you’re using does not matter. But now I’m going to tell you why it would be advantageous to have a decent DSLR. This is a little tricky. Does it matter or not? Well, yes and no. If you can snatch a priceless moment with your cheap pocket camera, that would be much better than a regular snap shot captured by a very expensive DSLR any day. Let me put it this way, it’s something like 75% the photographer and 25% the camera. So it does matter a little. I know, I lied.

So what is the advantage of having a DSLR? First and foremost, it’s electronics vs. mechanics. Compact digital cameras use an electronic shutter system whereas DSLRs use a mechanical shutter system. So the shutter lag in DSLRs is minimal, allowing you to freeze the moment. A DSLR is as fast as you are. Unlike point and shoots that takes couple of seconds to turn on and couple more seconds to take a picture, a DSLR is always ready. Then there is RAW capability of DSLRs, although some compact cameras now offer this feature. But shooting RAW is a story on its own, which I’m hoping to cover in a future post.

DSLRs have larger image sensors than compact cameras. Which means, if you look at a 12MP compact camera and a 12MP DSLR, the DSLR will have larger pixels. Thus it performs way better (higher quality) than the compact camera, especially under low light conditions. High quality and speed, these are the two main advantages of having a DSLR. There’s more but there’s always a catch, isn’t it? The catch is that they are big, heavy, and annoying to lug around. Please do the world a favor and don’t buy a DSLR if you’re just going to keep it on your shelf. You’ve been warned. Now you know it’s heavy and not many people are ready to make the commitment.

Here’s the best and the worst part of having a DSLR. Interchangeable lenses. Why is it the best? Because the quality of the pictures mostly depend on the optics and with specially designed lenses for specific jobs, the performance is fantastic. Worst part? They are going to cost you an arm, a leg, and a liver. Soon you will find out that you’re going to need more than one lens and they cost way more than what you paid for the camera, which is already a hefty sum of cash. Remember, it’s much better to have a cheap camera body and a decent lens than a very expensive body and a crappy lens.

When you buy your first DSLR, it’s easy to get frustrated real fast because you probably only have the kit lens that came with it. The kit lens performs far better than its reputation but it has a lot of limitations. There’s no alternative other than slowly building up your lens arsenal. Until then, stay strong folks!

“Having a camera makes you no more a photographer than having a hammer and some nails makes you a carpenter” – Claude Adams.

DSLR

 

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On Photography

I’m sure that you’ve heard the saying “it’s not the camera. it’s the person behind.” It’s true. the world’s most expensive camera is useless in the hands of a person who doesn’t know how to use it or someone who knows nothing about the basics of photography. That expensive camera will take high quality snap shots but wouldn’t make brilliant photographs. Well, that being said, high quality gear (expensive stuff) does help. It improves the quality of the picture but to make it a memorable photograph is the job of a photographer.

If you’re just getting your first DSLR, read your manual. There’s a lot of information available in there and some of them will be specific to your camera. You need to know your camera like the back of your hand so you won’t miss an opportunity when it presents itself. Look at a lot of photographs. See what you like about them and what you don’t like about them. It’ a subjective field. Think of what you would’ve done differently. Accept constructive criticism. That’s one of the best methods to learn IMO. There are a lot of websites that teach you a lot of different things, different kinds of photography. Read them regularly. Some of them will start to make more sense when you read it for a second time. Be a part of a photography forum. Go on field trips with friends with similar interests. Talk to professionals/experienced photographers. Figure out what type of photography you’re most interested in. Sooner or later you will find out that you tend to take certain types of pictures (landscapes, portraits, street photography, macro, wild life etc.)

There are several stages an upcoming photographer goes through. When you first get your DSLR, it’s like ohh look I took a close up of a flower. My pictures are amazing stage. Unfortunately many don’t get over this stage. Next is my photos are crap stage. You compare your shots with everything else you see and then get disappointed. You see pictures on flashy travel magazines, all over the internet, art galleries etc. and then think to yourself that you’re not good enough. This is where you need inspiration. Instead of thinking that you’re not good enough, learn from all the pictures you see. There’s always a take home message. You will always learn new tricks, from how to compose a good shot to how to manage your pictures to how to process your pictures. Given enough time, anybody can master photoshop. But make no mistake, no amount of photoshopping will turn a snap shot into a brilliant photograph. After this stage, your skill level gradually increases. You will feel satisfied with some of your shots. Good photographs are hard to come by. Even Ansel Adams only expected one good photograph every month. Soon you will have a collection of your favorites. Upload your pictures to somewhere like flickr or 500px. They are great places to share your pictures. Facebook is not as good. It’s good if you want to share your pictures with friends and family but flickr and 500px are mostly for photographer and if offers a whole lot that facebook doesn’t. And I can’t stress this enough, print your favorite pictures. If you think your pictures look good on a monitor, it will blow your mind when you print them. It is a great feeling. This is what helps you feel good about what you’re doing. It’s like “wow, I made that”.

If it’s ever possible, forget digital and get a film camera and use a prime lens (fixed focal length, no zooms) for a little while. It will drastically improve your photographs because you have a limited number of exposures and you have to do the leg work to compose a pictures properly. At the same time, you will be thinking of aperture and shutter speed depending on your film ISO and available light. You need to understand the basics before you try this.

There’s a lot more I can tell but it already turned out to be longer than I expected. I’m sure you can find most of them all over the internet. However, as an end note, I’ll share this.

Ira Glass