Monday, August 17, 2009

Photo Talk: Gearing Up

This posting will talk about photo gear. I will cover some of the gear I have, why I have chosen it, and some other tidbits related to photo gear. The intention here is to shed some light on gear that you may have been pondering. If you have any specifc questions regarding any of the gear mentioned, please feel free to drop me a line at

Bags & Cases
I have gone through more camera bags than some women have gone through purses. I think since I regained my passion for photography in 2006 I have gone through 4-5 bags. At least I get rid of them when they still have some kind of resale value.

The bag I am using now is the Lowepro Magnum Pro bag. It is the largest shoulder bag made by Lowepro and is working for me just fine.

I now carry two camera bodies (both with battery grips) and they fit in the bag great. The photo above is an sample photo. On the sides of my Magnum Pro bag I have added a Lowepro Sliplock Pouch 60 AW and a Lowepro Utility Case.

Here is a run down of what fits in my bag system:

- Canon 40D with battery grip (attached Tamron 28-75mm SP Zoom)
- Canon 30D with batter grip (no lens attached)
- Canon 70-200mm f/4 L USM (with hood reversed)
- Sigma EF 500 Super Flash
- Tamron 1.4x teleconverter
- Hoodman Loupe
- Two Canon Battery Chargers
- Energize AA & AAA charger
- Air Rocket
- Cleaning brushes
- Countless odd & ends

The Utility Pouch carries a Lowepro Filter Pouch, cleaning supplies, sunglasses and few other odds & ends. The Pouch 60 carries a Gary Fong Lightsphere and an extra Tamrac N-27 neckstrap.

I think I found my last bag. There is still plenty of room for various small items. The bag is built like a tank and really not that heavy full loaded.

Camera Body
I have had the opportunity to be able to have both a Canon 30D and 40D. Both are semi-pro bodies and will last me a very, very long time.

I recently chose the 40D over the 50D for clarity reasons. Camera companies are getting caught up in the hype and producing cameras with far too many megapixels for the sensor size, and with the latest HD video craze…I will like be not buying a new body for a long time.

Both the 30D and 40D have metal bodies and are more durable than plastic bodies. Both produce wonderful photos. There are some slight button changes between the two but not a real big worry.

As of now I do all my work with three lenses. Each has a purpose and function for how I approach photography.

The Tamron SP 28-75mm f/2.8 XR Di LD-IF provides a good focal range for landscape and some portrait photography. Being a part of the Tamron pro-series this lens has very good clarity. I also like that it has a fixed 2.8 f/stop.

Many zoom lenses will note a maximum aperture range throughout the lenses zoom range. For example a 75-300mm zoom may have a aperture range of f/3.5 to f/5.6. This means the largest opening at 75mm is f/3.5 and the largest opening at 300mm is f/5.6. Fixed means the largest aperture stays constant during the entire focal range. In this case the largest opening stays constant at f/2.8 throughout 28-75mm.

The Canon 70-200mm f/4 L USM picks up where the Tamron left off. I use this lens the most. It does well in many landscape scenes, super for wildlife, and a great portrait lens as well.

Then lens is also fixed so the aperture will stay open at f/4 throughout the 70-200mm focal range. This is a Canon L lens and part of their pro-series. The clarity and overall quality is awesome.

The Canon 400mm f/5.6 L USM is a fixed prime lens. The aperture is fixed and so is the focal range. This is not a zoom. It is strictly a 400mm lens.
This bad-boy is my wildlife lens. The picture quality and clarity is awesome.

These lenses are not my first lenses. I have bought and sold several lenses to upgrade to them. If you have checked out my other Photo Talk blogs you will notice that I feel very strong that it is more wise to spend less money on a camera and more money on your lenses. Glass matters!

Camera Support
Once you get a semi-pro body, add a battery grip, and slide on a Canon 70-200mm lens…you will feel like Jesse Ventura in Predator…you will be carrying a canon of a camera!

The answer? Good camera support.

My tripod set up is a Bogen 3011 Tripod Legs w/ Amvona Telos Series ATH-A03 Ball Head. It is a very sturdy set up. The ball head is rated to hold up to 30lbs. The tripod has leg adjustment latches that are easy to use in winter.

Like my lenses I have bought and sold a number of tripods until I found the one I like. I do a fair amount of frigid winter shooting and some tripod legs have clasps that become brittle in Wisconsin sub-zero temps. The legs on the Bogen 3011 adjust very well in cold temps.

My monopod set up is a Bogen 681 Monopod w/ Amvona Telos Series ATH-A03 Ball Head. The Bogen 681 is a three piece monopod. With only two leg adjustment latches it is very fast and easy to set up and maneuver.

I like the convenience of not having to switch my ball head from tripod to monopod. Each camera has an arca style quick release plate, and I also have one on each of the Canon lenses.

Supporting the camera and lens from a lens ring is much easier on the camera body and also makes the balance on the ball head a bit more even.

On The Go
Although my camera bag holds all my gear, it is awkward and cumbersome. Whether it be hiking back in the woods to shoot a waterfall, trekking through a wildlife refuge to photograph birds and wildlife, or walking for hours at a zoo…I like my gear arranged for quick accessibility.

My newest piece of gear is the Cotton Carrier. This state of the art system allows me to easily, confidently, and securely carry one or two camera bodies without having them swinging all over.

I just purchased my Cotton Carrier and will be using it with my Lowepro Field & Sport Belt & Harness System. The belt allows me to carry an assortment of lens pouches and utility bags so they are out of the way and have easy access. The weight of all the gear is well distributed to make hiking, trekking, and hours of being on my feet much easier.

Sometimes I wonder if a compact camera is a better option. LOL!!

Seriously, not everyone will want to carry so much equipment. Not everyone wants invest into all kinds of equipment. That is really ok.

The point of this post is to provide a little insight for those looking for gear and not sure what to purchase. Please do feel free to drop me a line with any questions.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Photo Talk: A Little Light On The Subject

My intention with this blog is to share what I have learned in hopes it can help you with your photography. I have much to learn, but what I have learned I will certainly share with you.

I tend to receive a fair amount of questions about photography techniques and such. One common question asked is – “how can I make my picture look less like a snapshot?”

Well in the last blog I shared about composition and the rule of thirds. This time I will talk about lighting, more specifically natural lighting.

A common misconception is that a beautiful sunny day is a great day for photos. In many cases that is simply not true. Bright sunlight creates harsh shadows and washout. If you are looking to use such elements on purpose then sunny is good. In most cases overcast or party cloudy is much better.

In the following photo – “Runt” there is a direct light challenge. To better handle the harsh shadows and bright light, I had to position myself in a way to place the shadow where I wanted them in the photo.

You can see there is a shadow on the little fella’s left side but it is actually lightened by the reflection on his body. This angle worked out well for such challenging lighting conditions.

In the photo – “Small Pond” you can see the sky is rather cloudy but the sun popped out between the clouds. For this shot I had to expose for the brighter area. At the time I did not own a Split Neutral Density Filter, so I had to take several shots at different exposure to come up with the best overall exposure.

In this next shot – “All By Myself” the subject was actually backlit, meaning the light was on the back side of the subject. To fix this I used my on camera flash as a fill-flash. I added just enough light to brighten the subject and still have a well lit background.

In this one - “U Looka Dis Way…” the sun was really bright and harsh. I had to again arrange myself so the harsh shadows were in a place appealing to the shot.

Finally in the shot – “Do You Hear A High Squeaky Sound?”, it was an overcast day. The lighting is very even and easy to work with. Shadows are minimal if not non-existent.

I guess the final thought with this blog is that before you snap the photo, take a look at your lighting situation. Position yourself or the subject in a place where you can control shadows the way you would like. The end result will be much more satisfying.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Photo Talk: Composition & Framing

As much as it is important to expose your image correctly, composing your photo is also very important. You have probably heard of the rule of thirds. I think it is a great guide and I do bear it in mind when I am taking photos. On the other hand I look for other factors in the frame of the image that I may use as I compose the photo.

Rule of Thirds
As mentioned there are photos that I take when I am totally using the rule of thirds. Here are a few examples of the extreme use of the rule.

Then there are examples of when the use of the rule is a bit more subtle but still present.

In this photo you can see that the elk is not exactly in one third of the image. The back end of the elk starts in one of the thirds. Your eyes follow his body and move toward his huge antlers. The flow keeps you eye focused on the elk which in this case is the main subject. You will notice as you look at the elk your eye is still noticing the surroundings of the elk but your eye is not drawn away from the elk.

Here is an example where I have used the road starting in one third of the image to lead you into the rest of the image. The road leads you into the depth of the shot, ending in the final third of the image.

This is yet another example where I have used more than a single third of the frame to compose this image. Granted this is a tighter crop and it is clear the wolf is the subject. In this framing I purposely waited for the wolf to turn his head over the back part of his body. This helps route your eye to the face of the wolf.

Skipping The Rule
There are times I do not think about the rule so much and think more of eye flow. I may want to lead your eye to the back part of a photo or I may want to make sure your eyes capture the full essence of the shot. In these kinds of situations I think less about the rule of thirds. I compose based on how your eye will be drawn into the photo.

I tend to use this approach more with nature. I am from the old school so I use a tripod most all the time when taking landscapes and nature photos. The tripod is not just for stabilization but more so for helping me compose the shot. If I were hand holding and want to take the photo in different metering or exposure approaches, I may not get the same framing as I desire.

In this image I wanted the focus to be the rich colored porous rocks and how the water flows around them. I tried to compose this in a way to have your lead throughout the photo.

The angle and framing of this shot was intended to have your eye follow and see the entire bridge and its length.

You can see the top of the waterfall is nearly dead center in this image. I used the rock formations and flowing river to lead your eye to the top of the falls.

Full Frame & Tight Cropping
If you spend time reviewing much of my work you will find I like tight cropping, especially with people and animals. Each of us see photos in a different way. I tend to like tight crops and full frame. I dont know why...just do.

I hope these examples will help you as you compose and frame your photos. Try not to make the same mistake I do, try and not frame your photo too tight to start with. Give yourself some room to do your cropping in your software. Still compose well in the view finder. Just when you think...ah...that is the way I want it to look, zoom out just a hair. That will give you some room to finalize the desired look when you crop it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Photo Talk: Exposure Simplified - The Big Three

Whether I am at Yellowstone National Park, a local zoo, or some other type of tourist area I am seeing a huge increase in DSLR users. I am always curious as to how the photographer is shooting the scene, especially when I see a flash being used on a scenic mountain scene. So it is not unusual for me to strike a conversation with a fellow photographer or take a peek as what mode their camera is in.

Sadly many people are shooting in Program Mode and dont know how to change their ISO. Often I find people do not understand f/stops, shutter speed, ISO and how they work together. My intention of this posting is to try and simplify how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together. Knowing a bit more can help you create top quality images.

ISO stands for International Organizatoin for Standardiszation. It is bascially a system that establishes standards. The ISO standards are used when refering to film speed. The term film speed is really what we want to talk about when we talk about ISO. I think it is easier to understand and remember. Ah...the good ol film days!!

What does film speed mean anyway? It is bascially a way to decribe a sensitivity to light. A slower film speed means that it takes longer for light to burn through the film. The faster the film speed means it takes less time for light to burn through the film. With that said an ISO or FIlm Speed of 100 would be considered slower than an ISO or Film Speed of 1600.

Of course in digital photography we are not shooting film so what gives?? Well the sensor is your film in the digital world. Setting the ISO, for lack of better terms, sets the sensitivity of your sensor...its sensitivity to light. So again if you set the ISO at 100 your sensor will need to be exposed to light for a longer period of time than if you used an ISO of 1600.

You have probably heard of film grain. That is when the detail of the image becomes less sharp and sometimes even hazy. The lower the ISO the better quality image and less grain you will receive. On the other hand a higher ISO is likely to result in increased grain levels. To some degree grain can be control with proper exposure. Nevertheless, the general rule of thumb is the higher the ISO the less quality image.

Really that is about it. In the digital camera world ISO is refering to the sensitivity setting of your sensor and how much light it will need. So if ISO 100 needs more light than ISO 1600, how do we control how much light gets exposed to the sensor? That brings us to the next two of The Big Three.

In optics aperture is a hole or opening in which light travels. The larger the hole, the more light is allowed through the lens. In this case the more light allowed through the lens to be exposed on your digital sensor.

How is the size of the opening measured? To start, just so you know, I dont know why they number it this way but they do. On a lens the aperture is measured by f-numbers. The larger the f-number the smaller the opening. The smaller the number the larger the opening. Check out the illustration.

You have probably heard that aperture settings determine the depth of field. Depth of Field (DOF) is bascially the portion of the scene that appears sharp in the image. Lets say you are taking a portrait of someone and you desire to have the background blurry but you for sure want your subject sharp. If you use a f/2.8 which is a rather large aperture the DOF will be short and the the background will be blurry. But be careful. Your DOF could be too short and the sharness could start falling off sooner than you would like and the result could be that the subjects hair line is not sharp. The answer? A smaller aperture setting. I tend to shoot portraits between f/5.6 and f/8, depending how much I want the background blurred. The smaller aperture also helps ensure my subject is sharp and completely focused.

So lets say I want the opposite result. Lets say I am taking a photo of a cool rock formation in front of a waterfall that is slighty in the distance. Lets say I do not want the background (in this case the waterfall) blurry, I want it in focus. You guessed it!! Then I want to set my aperture at a rather small aperture like maybe f/18 or even f/22. With the smaller aperture the scene sharpness will be longer. I will have the foreground rocks and the background waterfall all in focus. Awesome!!

So aperture is the opening that allows light to hit the sensor. If we are shooting at f/4 we can see the opening is rather large. How do we control how long that light is exposed to the sensor? That leads us to the next of The Big Three.

Shutter Speed
Shutter speed is the length of time the shutter is open to allow the light being exposed through the lens to hit the sensor. If light is very intense in all likelihood it will need to hit the sensor for a very short period of time. Therefore you will want a fast shutter speed, maybe even something like 1/1000 th of a second. If the light is very low you may need to expose the sensor to light for a rather long time, maybe up to 3 seconds.

Depending on the size of lens and how far you are zoomed in, you can typically hand hold a camera at shutters 1/60th of a second and faster. Slower than 1/60th like 1/10th or 1 second you will need a tripod or other means to support your camera to avoid a blurry image.


Hopefully these simple explanations are beginning to help you see that The Big Three are rather easy to understand and a combination of the three makes for well exposed image which in turn makes for a quality photo.

There can be a lot more time spent on explaining The Big Three. My intention is to shed light on the basics and help you see how they work together.
So lets talk through a couple examples.

Example 1
Lets say I want to take some photos of nightime cityscapes with the city lights illuminating the streets of the city. I am not going to use a flash and I would like to have images of high quality with little or no grain. I set my ISO to 200. Based on what I have learned an ISO 200 is not very sensitive to light and will need to be exposed for a longer period of time. In all likelihood I will need a tripod.

With the ISO set at 200 I need to next decide on my aperture setting. I want to make sure my DOF is not too shallow yet at the same time I do not want all of the background in focus. I choose f/11.

Since I have a less senstive ISO and a somewhat smaller aperture selected I may have to choose a slower shutter speed to make sure everything is exposed correctly. Depeding on the actual amount of light the shutter speed will vary. To follow through with the example I will say I will need to set my shutter speed at 2 seconds.

ISO - 200
Shutter - 2 Seconds
F-stop - f/11

Example 2
It is late afternoon and I am taking photos of animals at a zoo. Not only is is later in the day but the animal I am photographing is in a shaded area therefore I have limited light. Typically during the daytime hours I would choose a lower ISO like 100 but I am not so sure that is going to work today. When taking photos of animals you will want a little faster shutter speed since they move unpredictably and faster than you think. I dont want blurry shots so I will need a faster shutter speed.

To get a faster shutter speed to work in this slightly lower light situation I will most likely need to use a little higher ISO. I set the camera at ISO 800. I know that I have selected a little more sensitive ISO so it will not need to be exposed to light nearly as long. To control this I will need to set my shutter and aperture accordingly.
I do want a faster shutter speed so I set it at 1/500th of a second. Although my ISO is sensitive, I have selected a faster shutter speed. The light will be exposed for a very short period of time so I will have to let more in through the aperture. Again, depending on the actual situation the f-number will vary. To follow through with the example I will say I set the aperture at f/4.

ISO - 800
Shutter - 1/500th
F-stop - f/4

Experiment...shoot, shoot, shoot. Since you are shooting digital you will not waste film. Try shooting the same scene in different ways. In no time you will feel comfortable to turn your camera mode dial off of Program and begin shooting in Shutter Priority Mode, Aperture Priority Mode, or even Manual Mode.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Photo Talk: The Skinny on Sensors

To start I must say I was rather surprised this weekend when I found out that people are actually reading my blog and liking it. A big THANK YOU!!, to you.

When I discuss a topic I like to keep it as simple yet informative as possible. I find some sight over complicate things or get too deep in the subject. I like to think there are a lot of people that want to learn more but do not want to read something that takes a college degree to read.

With that said, lets talk sensor size, mega pixels, and the clarify that more is not necessarily better, but bigger is better.

Most of you probably remember what 35mm film looks like, I mean in reference to its size. The negative is the original, your master image. The data captured on a 35mm film can be enlarged but you will get to a point where the clarity is lost and the enlargment starts to look not so good. The negative is 35mm wide, about 1 3/8 inches. When you print a 4x6, 8x10, and 11x14 print from a 35mm negative you can see the clarity begin to diminish.

Do you remember the old 110 film and how small it was? It was 16mm wide. In this case your source is a little more than half the size of a 35mm. You can image the clarity loss as you print a 11x14 print from a .63 inch master.

I tell you all this to help explain what is going on with digital sensors and why more megapixels is not necessarily better. Sure the marketing will tell you it is, they want you to buy the camera. But really...sometimes less is more.

Here is a little image breakdown to show you comparison of sensor size. Of course this is not actual size but I am sure you will get the idea.

A sensor that is equivilent to a 35mm piece of film is called "Full Frame Sensor". Professional camera bodies are the ones that will have a full frame, or 35mm wide sensor and will cost you some serious cash. The most common size sensor in Digital SLR's is the APS-C which is 22.7mm wide. Many of the compact cameras have sensors that are 5.3mm wide. You can see already the difference in the size of your master image and the impact it will have on how large of an image you can really print.

Now that we have established some groundwork in sensor size...lets talk megapixels.

Don’t be fooled to think more is better. An APS-C sensor is 22.7mm wide and its size does not change with the addition of more and more megapixels. For the Mfg. to go from 10 MP to 15 MP the actual pixel must be smaller to crunch them on the sensor. In this example, 5 million pixels squeezed on the same sensor that once held 10 million.

Each pixel gathers light and exposed to color. One would think that having more is better. In fact you must remember that each of those pixels are now smaller, meaning it could take more light to maintain or increase effectiveness.

Everything I have read about the Canon 40D vs the Canon 50D indicates that the 40D is better in higher ISO noise. The 40D is 10.1 MP camera and the 50D is a 15.1 MP camera.

The big megapixel cameras (21.1 MP) for Canon are the 1Ds Mark III and the 5D Mark II which have full frame (35mm wide) sensors. Interestingly the other pro body from Canon (1D Mark III) which has an APS-C (22.7mm wide) sensor, has only 10.1 MP’s.

I think it is easy to conclude that more MP’s is not necessarily better. I am convinced the camera companies are building what you are willing to buy. As long as people think that more MP’s are better, they will continue to build and design entry level and advanced amateur cameras with more MP’s.

A good example is the compact camera world. Look at the size of the sensor in most of these cameras. It is like 5.3mm wide which is less than a ¼ inch.

Learning what you have, it is easy to conclude that 8MP on a DSLR (APS-C sensor) is much better than 8MP on a compact camera sensor.

I have had two compact cameras. My first was 2.1MP and the latest is 7MP. I have taken far better images with the old 2.1MP by far.

The two images above were taken with my Sony 2.1 MP camera. In a small compact camera I personally think less MP's are better. A 2.1MP image will make a good 4x6 print. Much bigger than that and quality drops.

The Canon 300D I took to Africa in 2007 was a 6.1 MP camera. It is my opinion that in most cases you do not need much more than 8 MP's unless you do a lot of cropping.

Please remember, a DSLR sensor is nearly 4.5 x's larger than a compact camera sensor. Even though a compact camera may have 8 MP's, the potential for top image quality is just not there.

Here is a little tool to help associate MP's with print size.

The point of this blog is to help you become informed and to encourage you to do a little more research as you seek to purchase what may be your first DSLR. Do your research before you buy. There are several great review sites.

Fred Miranda

The Digital Picture

SLR Gear

Digital Photography Review

Cross reference the reviews. Don't rely on one review to make your decision. You are investing a fair amount of money and you want to be confident in your purchase.

Even as I plan on upgrading, I will choose the Canon 40D over the Canon 50D. I am not looking for MP’s, I am looking for top quality.