My favorite vantage point for photography

I was invited by the folks at Light, who are working on some pretty interesting camera technology, to write about my favorite vantage point. I explained to them, as I’m explaining to you now, that I don’t have one. I get bored with shooting the same locations and I’m always on the lookout for new things to shoot.

Then I realized that over the past few years, I’ve been working in the exact same location, putting in lots of time and effort, being happy with the challenges offered by that very same spot and enjoying the beautiful results. But you didn’t know about those photos, because I haven’t published them on my website, and it didn’t occur to me earlier that it was a vantage point. I’m talking about my studio work for my wife’s printed books, in other words, about my food photography.

My favorite vantage point over the past few years has been the whitebox (the official name for it is a seamless tabletop background sweep cyclorama). Here’s what it looks like:

whitebox.jpg

That’s where I’ve been spending my time. Lots of my time. Here’s one example of my work:

RPOP-2015-05-1335.jpg

This is one of my wife’s raw desserts. It’s a raw vegan whipped cream, mint and strawberry cake. You can find the recipe for it in her Raw Desserts book.

And here’s another photo from the same book. I apologize if it leaves you drooling. It’s a raw vegan brownie with a raw chocolate glaze.

RPOP-2015-05-0139.jpg

Here’s how I work. I don’t have a set position for the camera or for the speedlites. I work handheld and I vary my camera position, angle and lens until I find what I think is a good frame for the photo. Then I’ll shoot a few photos to see how the lights fall on the subject and whether I need to vary their positions as well, in order to bring out the colors and sculpt the dimensionality of the photo with lights and shadows.

I use three independent speedlites triggered by the on-camera flash, which I sometimes choose to also fire or to only have it act as a remote for the other speedlites. For this photograph, I worked with my Canon gear: one of my three Canon cameras, an EOS 60D and three Canon speedlites. I love my EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM lens and I tend to use that a lot for my studio work. I also use ambient light from within the room itself (I turn on wall and ceiling lights) and I use a mix of warm and cold lights. I know most people say you should use the same temperature lights, but I prefer to mix them in order to get a warmer ambient light. The speedlites overwhelm the subject with their cold light, but there’s a hint of warmer light all around the photo, which I like, and this comes out when I edit the photo as well. I suppose I started doing this when I began to shoot video. People leave a lot of work for post-production, but I do like it when I capture the mood light of the video live, as I shoot it, so I fiddle less with it in post.

I’d like to say I’m the set designer as well, but for my food photography, I leave that to my wife. She’s the award-winning raw chef with seven published books and I’m the photographer. Sometimes we’re inspired and we love the results, and sometimes we’re not happy with what we get. So we re-do the photo shoot at another time. There have also been instances where we’ve re-shot certain recipes for later editions of her books, because we weren’t happy with the photographs and as our skills improved, we knew we could do better.

I wish I could be more helpful than this but for me, every studio photo is a new challenge and I vary my angles and lighting in order to get what I think are the best photos of my subjects. My wife and I then cull through them and pick the ones that’ll go into her books. I then edit each one carefully, add it to the collection designated for that book in my Lightroom catalog and carry on doing this until we’re ready to turn things over to the publishing house.

Camera preview: Canon EOS M

As I announced back in June of 2010, Canon has been at work on a mirrorless DSLR and they’ve finally launched it. It’s called the EOS M. It uses a new EF-M lens mount and its specs are pretty much what we expect mirrorless DSLRs to have these days. It ships in four colors: black (see above), white (see below), red and dark silver. Suggested MSRP is $799.

I’m going to be blunt, because the late arrival of this camera is frustrating. The only innovative feature I can see on it is its Hybrid CMOS AF System, which is located right on the sensor. Other than that, this is another mirrorless DSLR in an already mature market, albeit a highly anticipated model from a large manufacturer.

Canon took their time to take the plunge. My guess is they wanted the other manufacturers to “work out the bugs” in terms of the feature set and pricing, then they matched what the market wanted to see. They didn’t stick their neck out there to try something new. They let others do the hard work while they kept fiddling with the EOS Rebel line and tested the waters (partially) with the PowerShot G1 X and its large sensor.

Design-wise, the EOS M is pleasing. It’s thin, it’s got a nice profile, it’s not cluttered and it’s simple to use.

Back to the features:

  • Full HD movie mode with Movie Servo AF: this means accurate and noiseless focus tracking of subjects when using the EF-M lenses with the new STM (Stepping Motor) technology.
  • 18 megapixels: this was predictable given that all of Canon’s lower-priced DSLRs are also at the same resolution.
  • DIGIC 5 image processor
  • ISO 100-6400 in movie mode and 100-12800 in photo mode; they’re both expandable to 12800 and 25600, respectively.
  • Hybrid CMOS AF: innovative, but let’s wait and see how it performs in real world conditions; Canon DSLRs have had plenty of focus issues lately, this being just one example.
  • Compatible with full line of EF and EF-S lenses via adapter which preserves all AF and IS functions.
  • 1,040,000 dot, 3-inch LCD with touch AF
  • Scene Intelligent Auto, Creative Filters, Multi Shot Noise Reduction
  • Stereo microphone, manual audio adjustment, wind noise filter
  • Total recording time per scene goes up to 22 minutes

Watch out for the following:

  • A notable MIA among the accessories is a viewfinder, like on the Olympus OM-D EM-5 or their PEN line of mirrorless DSLRs, like the E-P3. That means using the EOS M in glaring sunlight is going to be somewhat frustrating.
  • Stills frame rate is 4.3 fps.
  • Video frame rate at 1080p goes up to 30 fps. I want to see a Canon camera go up to 1080p/60 fps.
  • Computer connectivity is still USB 2.0. This is one area where Canon could have pulled ahead of the pack and gone with USB 3.0.
  • Battery life is average for a mirrorless (about 230 shots or 1.5 hours of video). Given my experience with Canon HDSLRs, I’d say real world battery life when shooting video is more like 30-45 minutes.

Let’s have a look at the accessories. The camera ships with an EF-M 22m pancake lens.

You can also get an EF-M 18-55mm lens for it.

Here’s the mount adapter I mentioned earlier.

And here’s a diminutive speedlite designed for it, the 90EX.

Here’s how the camera looks with the speedlite mounted in the hotshoe.

So, should you get this camera? If you’re already heavily invested in Canon gear and want a small, easy-to-carry camera, the decision is simple. If you aren’t, then there are many models on the market with various differences in design, feature sets and price that may make them more appealing to you than this particular camera. The decision is yours after you look at all of them, and I do encourage you to look at all of them.

If you do end up getting the camera or some of its accessories, I’d appreciate it if you’d use one of the links below:

Images of EOS M courtesy of Canon. 

It’s time to demand reliability from DSLR manufacturers

When DSLRs (and now HDSLRs) cost thousands of dollars, and the manufacturer makes a promise that the shutter in said DSLR is rated for 100,000 shots or 150,000 shots, I think it should no longer be a promise, but a guarantee, and the manufacturer ought to be responsible for the repair to a DSLR whose shutter failed before its rated number of shots.

Look at cars. Some cars cost little more than a top of the line DSLR, but cars have serious warranties. These days, some cars have 10-year warranties on everything. Historically speaking, even if most cars haven’t had good warranties on everything, they’ve had good warranties on the power train — on the basic stuff that makes them go.

On a DSLR, the shutter is part of the camera’s “powertrain”. Without it, the camera can’t take photographs, and a full-frame DSLR that can’t take photographs is a very expensive paperweight.

It’s high time we demanded that DSLR manufacturers come up with warranties for the more expensive DSLRs, where they’ll guarantee that the shutter and the motherboard (pretty much every part that takes photos and writes those photos to a card) will work for a certain amount of time.

If we don’t, we’ll likely run into the situation I’m in right now, where my Canon EOS 5D’s shutter started to fail at under 50,000 shots. Initially, photos taken at 1/6000 sec or higher (1/8000 sec) would come out black or almost black. Now, months later and at around 52,500 shots, even photos taken at 1/1000 sec are severely underexposed.

Have a look at three photos taken with the 5D. The first two were taken at 1/8000 sec shutter speed a couple of months ago, and the third was taken at 1/1000 sec shutter speed a few days ago.

It’s not right that the shutter has started to fail at half its projected life span of 100,000 shots. And what’s even more improper is Canon USA Support’s reply to me. They told me the shutter’s rated life is not a warranty, not even a promise, but an expectancy (an anticipation if you will).

What that means is they can advertise long shutter lives all they want, but they’re not accountable for actual, real-world results from its customers. It’s irresponsible, and it shouldn’t be allowed. When we pay thousands of dollars for a fancy DSLR, we as customers pay that money with certain expectations in mind. Those expectations entail (among others) a need for durability and reliability.

I propose that a set of benchmarks be set for the entire photography industry, where shutter life is one of the differentiating criteria. Processor and camera motherboard life should be another. Manufacturers would then have to offer warranties on these benchmark criteria. I propose 4 or 5-year warranties on the circuits, and on shutter life, the warranty should go as far as its stated life span. If it’s 100,000 shots, then by Noah, it should be 100,000 shots, end of story.

Is Canon at work on a mirrorless “DSLR”?

Given the popularity of, and interest in mirrorless “DSLRs” like the Sony NEX-5 or NEX-3, Olympus E-P2 or E-PL1, Panasonic GF1 or G2, and the Samsung NX-10, I believe Canon is at work on their version of the “micro-DSLR”, and has been for at least a few months. (Why do I use quotes when I call them DSLRs? See this.)

Another hint of the upcoming launch is the restlessness in the Rebel line of cameras. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’ve never seen so many new models launched in such a short span of time. It’s probable that Canon wanted to see what features consumers really want in an entry-level DSLR now that video and small size are the new must-haves, what cameras their competitors come up with, then take their time designing an entirely new body for the camera. Keep in mind they’re very entrenched in the classic SLR design, as their EOS line shows. A mirrorless DSLR without a viewfinder, or with a significantly different viewfinder, and a much smaller body, can be a serious challenge for any company.

Here’s what I think (and hope) will be in the new Canon EOS “Elph” (I made the name up, I don’t know what it’ll be called):

A 14 or 16-megapixel APS-C sensor — they’re going to choose less noise at high ISO, and that will mean less resolution, but that’s okay by me. I’m not too happy with the noise levels in the 7D. They might even downgrade the resolution to 12 megapixels, who knows…

High ISO capabilities — up to 12,800 natively, and possibly even up to 102,400 via ISO expansion. They’ll need to do this, because the Sony NEX line has raised the bar.

Fast frame rate — 5 fps, possibly even 7 fps. Again, this is because the NEX cameras have raised the bar. They can go up to 7 fps in burst mode. The mirrorless cameras can do about 3 fps.

14-bit image bit depth — pretty much all DSLRs are either there or going there.

Full HD Video Recording, with AF — it’s going to have to be full 1080p video, because Sony has raised the bar for all cameras in this category. I do hope though that Canon will make it 1080p, not 1080i, at selectable frame rates. AF is going to be tricky but will need to be implemented. Canon will have a choice of using the current USM AF built into its lenses, which can be slow, or build a new line of lenses, like Sony did for its NEX line, with fast, quiet AF that can’t be picked up by the microphone. I do hope we won’t have to invest in new lenses.

New lenses? This is possible, in which case they’ll be smaller and lighter, but my guess is Canon will either modify the mount or put out an adapter that will allow us to fully use existing EF or EF-S lenses.

Same 19-point AF system as in the 7D — I honestly hope it’s not the same old 9-point AF system used in the Rebel line and in my 1st gen 5D and the 5D Mark II, because it seems to be troublesome in cameras with higher resolutions.

In-camera panorama stitching — Canon, please put this in! I was blown away by Sony’s Sweep Panorama feature.

In-camera HDR — yes, HDR is overrated and I can’t stand most HDR photographs, but when used judiciously and for the right scenes, HDR can help you can get a properly exposed photograph without blown areas.

Optical viewfinder — I know I just said a mirrorless DSLR won’t have an optical viewfinder, but think how cool it would be if Canon could somehow fit a great pentaprism inside a mirrorless body!

Better dust reductionsome people seem to be having trouble with the dust reduction system in the 5D Mark II. Perhaps this warrants a closer look from Canon. I’m sure there are ways to improve things, especially in a camera that will have no mirror, and where the sensor will be exposed to the open air during every lens change.

SDHC, not CF cards — I would have loved to see Canon adopt SDHC cards for the 7D. SDHC cards are smaller and less expensive than CF cards, so why keep using CF cards?

Tiltable LCD — the Sony NEX line has them, the Canon G11 has it, so why shouldn’t this new camera have it as well?

External microphone input — this is a must, as the in-camera microphone is never enough for quality video sound.

Those are my thoughts. What do you think? Don’t ask me how it’ll look though. I don’t know, and I’d like to be pleasantly surprised when I see it. I’d like it to be flatter and smaller than a Rebel, but with a good grip, and a good selection of physical controls. It doesn’t have to be too light, but it should be light enough and sturdy enough so that it’s easily carried anywhere.

Camera preview: Canon PowerShot SD780 IS

I had the chance to look at the Canon PowerShot SD780 IS Digital Elph camera recently, and was impressed by the beauty of its design, its diminutive size, and its features. This camera is truly small. Being used to holding DSLRs, holding this camera in my hand was an unusual experience for me. It’s so small, I thought I might drop it or break its buttons when I pressed them. But that’s just an initial illusion. It works fine, it’s sturdy, and its matte, non-slip finish means you won’t easily drop, unless you’re Mr. Butterfingers.

I’ve always liked Canon’s Elph line. I owned their 1st gen Elph camera, which recorded images to APS film, and I still have it, though I don’t use it any more. What I like about this camera is how the Elph legacy, combined with modern technology and design cues, all comes together to create a truly wonderful little camera. This camera is a stunner. The logo, the lettering, the buttons, the lens and all of its other building blocks form a beautiful whole where everything falls into place.

And how could I not be impressed by its features as well?

  • 12.1 Megapixel Resolution
  • 3x Optical Zoom Lens
  • Optical Image Stabilizer Technology
  • DIGIC 4 Processor with iSAPS scene-recognition technology
  • Face Detection Technology
  • Face Self-Timer
  • Advanced Red-eye Correction
  • Intelligent Contrast Correction
  • High ISO Sensitivity (up to 3200 ISO)
  • HD Video Recording (1280 x 720 @ 30 fps) with HD output through mini-HDMI connector
  • 20 Shooting Modes and My Colors Photo Effects
  • Smart Auto Mode
  • High-Resolution 2.5″ PureColor II LCD

The only things that bothered me somewhat were the 3x Zoom and the maximum f/3.3 aperture. While the 3x zoom has been standard on the Elph cameras from the start, I’d like to see a 5x zoom already. It would be a helpful feature for many situations. The aperture could also be f/2.8 or who knows, maybe even f/2.2 or f/2.0. I realize the physics of it might get tricky given the camera’s diminutive size, but I’d like to challenge the Canon engineers to do it. It would help greatly in low light conditions, and would add extra bokeh to portraits and macro photographs.

I’d have loved to test out the camera’s HD video feature, as I’ve been looking for a small HD camera, but I didn’t get the chance. At any rate, I was very impressed to see a camera of that size offer HD video. That in itself is an achievement, given that it’s already got a ton of other circuitry crammed in that very limited space. Ideally, one hopes the quality of the HD video is good, without banding or compression artifacts, like that of the HD video from other digital cameras. If anyone’s used this feature on the SD780, please do let me know how good it is.

The SD780 IS comes with all the accessories you see above. You can get a good idea of how small this camera really is by having a look at the charger for its battery, which is a good deal longer and thicker than the camera itself.

The Canon PowerShot SD780 IS is available for purchase from B&H Photo and Amazon. (Amazon is currently selling it for $199, which is a pretty good deal.)

Photos used courtesy of Canon.

Lens comparison: EF 50mm f/1.4 Prime vs EF 50mm f/1.8 Prime

This is a short, side-by-side video comparison of the two affordable EF 50mm lenses from Canon: the 50mm f/1.4 and f/1.8 lenses. I had them both, set them on a table, and compared them to each other, looking at their weight, size, lenses, and handling. You might find this interesting if you’re into photography. My conclusion was that both are great, but if you haven’t got the money for the f/1.4 lens (and I’m not even going to mention the f/1.2 lens, because that’s out of my budget), then get the f/1.8 lens, it’s a great bargain for the price.

You can see the video on blip.tv or on YouTube. Believe it or not, I shot this review back in November of 2007 and only got around to posting it now. I’ve got quite a backlog in terms of processing and editing some of my media…

I used the 50mm f/1.4 lens extensively. I have almost 11,000 photos in my library taken with it. I used it to take landscapes while in the Austrian Alps, and even though I complained about it afterward, it’s still my go-to lens for lots of tasks such as portraits, still life, night shots and more. Here are just a few photos taken with it.

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These two 50mm lenses are available for purchase from Amazon or B&H Photo:

Camera preview: Canon EOS-1D Mark IV DSLR

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV - 1

The Canon EOS-1D Mark IV pro DSLR was officially announced by Canon today, October 20, 2009. The specs are really good and they show Canon’s been hard at work on a solid response to Nikon’s latest DSLRs.

Many photographers were disappointed with Canon because of their 2008-2009 DSLR product releases, which didn’t seem to keep up with the competition and fell short in many areas of common interest, such as auto-focus, high ISO performance and image quality. I’m glad to see Canon listened to their customers’ concerns and put out a camera that offers what people want to see.

Let’s have a look at what sets this camera apart. The EOS-1D Mark IV has:

  • A 16-megapixel Canon CMOS sensor
  • Dual DIGIC 4 Imaging Processors
  • 14-bit A/D data conversion
  • 10 frames-per-second (fps)
  • The widest ISO range Canon has produced to date (50 to 102,400)
  • 1080p Full High-Definition video capture at selectable frame rates
  • A new 45-point auto-focus system with 39 high-precision cross-type focusing points

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV - 4

New autofocus system

Given the auto-focus problems with the 5D Mark II and other high-end cameras like the 1D Mark III and 1D-s Mark III, I for one am very glad Canon put out a new AF system. The newly redesigned AF system…

  • Can track fast moving subjects, such as athletes or wildlife accurately, even when shooting at full 10 fps bursts
  • Can detect subjects much better than the previous AF system
  • Can focus accurately with the new AI Servo II AF predictive focusing algorithm
  • Has twice as many cross-type focusing points as the EOS-1D Mark III
  • New AF sensor construction that improves performance in low light and with low contrast subjects

Not having used the camera yet, I can’t vouch for the accuracy and speed of the new AF system, but it shouldn’t be long before those who’ve had the chance to use the camera in real-world scenarios chime in with the results.

New 16.1 M CMOS sensor

I like Canon’s new 16.1-Megapixel CMOS sensor. I’m glad to see they focused on image quality and low light performance, not megapixels. Don’t get me wrong, extra resolution is always good, but gratuitous resolution is useless unless the resulting images prove their quality when viewed 1:1.

The sensor has improved photodiode construction to enhance dynamic range, and gapless microlenses that are positioned closer to the photodiodes for improved light gathering efficiency. The transmissive quality of the color filter array has been enhanced to improve sensitivity. Canon has also upgraded the sensor circuitry to improve noise reduction before the image data is exported from the CMOS sensor to the rest of the image processing chain.

In order to process all the extra raw data from the sensor at up to 10 fps, Canon put two Dual DIGIC 4 Image Processors inside. The 1D Mark IV has approximately six times the processing power of DIGIC III, for full 14-bit A/D conversion at 10 fps.

Full HD video capture

I’m also glad to see that Canon has put 1080p HD video on this camera, which means that for them, HD video is here to stay on all their DSLRs. It really is a new era for HD video when it becomes a standard feature on professional DSLRs; wonderful things are in store for those interested in blending photography with videography.

The 1D Mark IV has full HD capture and full manual exposure control, plus selectable frame rates. Its new APS-H image sensor is similar in size to a Super 35mm motion picture film frame. The camera allows for three video recording resolutions…

  • 1080p Full HD, 16:9
  • 720p HD, 16:9
  • 640×480 SD, 4:3

… and multiple selectable frame rates…

  • Full HD at 1920 x 1080 in selectable frame rates of 24p (23.976), 25p, or 30p (29.97)
  • 720p HD or SD video recording at either 50p or 60p (59.94)

SD video can be recorded in either NTSC or PAL standards. Sound is recorded either through the internal monaural microphone or via optional external microphones connected to the stereo microphone input.

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV - 3

Other good features are:

  • Auto Lighting Optimizer (ALO) system. When enabled, Canon’s ALO automatically adjusts the image for optimal brightness and contrast on the fly during in-camera image processing, reducing clipped highlights while keeping shadowed areas as clear and detailed as they actually appear. Canon says that “demanding professional photographers who tested ALO clearly stated that this one feature will reduce their post-production image optimization process by more than 75 percent”. It’ll be interesting to see what others will say about this.
  • Highlight Tone Priority, which takes maximum advantage of the camera’s extensive dynamic range to preserve detail in highlight areas of the image.
  • Improved white balance algorithm making colors more accurate when shooting under low color temperature light sources such as household tungsten lamps.
  • Peripheral Illumination Correction function, which corrects darkening that can occur in the corners of images with most lenses when used at their largest apertures. When activated, it is automatically applied to JPEG images and video clips as they are shot. For RAW images, it can be applied in DPP software. Personally, I like the vignetting effect that occurs with some lenses, so I don’t really plan on using this very much.
  • A large, 3-inch Clear View II LCD screen with 920,000 dot/VGA resolution (finally) with a wide 160-degree viewing angle for enhanced clarity and more precise color when reviewing images and shooting video.
  • In-camera copyright information feature (hooray) helps professionals secure control over images by setting copyright data directly into the camera and appending that information to each image file in the Exif metadata.
  • A fluorine coating on the Low Pass Filter to further repel dust and enhance the EOS Integrated Cleaning System (less dust spots is always a good thing).

Finally, the 1D Mark IV’s body, chassis and lens mount are completely weather-resistant and 76 gaskets and seals surround all buttons and seams. The body covers and internal chassis, including the mirror box, are constructed with magnesium-alloy, and the lens mount is constructed with stainless steel. When used with Canon’s Speedlite 580EX II and/or most current L-series lenses, the entire camera system remains fully weather resistant.

Comparing this camera with the Nikon D3s, which has similar specs but retails for about $100 more, I have to ask, what makes the Nikon DSLR better? Other than niceties like better exposure compensation control (±5 EV vs. ±3 EV) and more physical buttons for manipulating the settings, this Canon matches or bests the Nikon on all major specs, like fps (10 vs. 9), ISO (same), resolution (16 vs. 12) and HD video (1080p vs. 720p).

The new WFT-E2 II A wireless file transmitter, available exclusively for the EOS-1D Mark IV Digital SLR camera, is quite interesting in its capabilities. It offers connectivity through IEEE802.11a/b/g and Ethernet. The new Camera Linking feature allows a single photographer to simultaneously fire up to 10 cameras remotely. The updated WFT Server mode lets you remotely use Live View, control settings, and fire the EOS-1D Mark IV over the internet from anywhere in the world using a standard Web browser or many Web-enabled smart phones. Additionally, geotagging is now possible via Bluetooth, using compatible GPS devices to append coordinate data to the images. Given that the previous wireless transmitter, WFT-E2A, costs $1,200, you can be sure this new one will cost a bundle, but for those who need it and can afford it, I’m pretty sure it’ll do a good job.

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV - 2

The Canon EOS-1D Mark IV Digital SLR camera is scheduled to be delivered to U.S. dealers in late December, and will be sold in a body-only configuration at an estimated retail price of $4,999. Final pricing and availability for the Canon WFT-E2 II A wireless file transmitter will be available later this year.

Full specs for the camera are available here. Demo videos produced by Canon specifically for this camera are available here. There’s a section on the camera, with more information, at the Canon Digital Learning Center.

You can buy the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV from Amazon or B&H Photo.

Images used courtesy of Canon.