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:

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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.

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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: Nikon CoolPix S570

The Nikon CoolPix S570 digital camera is small — just about the same size as the Canon PowerShot SD780 IS camera — so it invites a comparative look. I looked at it side-by-side with the SD780 recently, and here’s what I think.

The design is good, but not as good as that of the SD780. I like the beveled lines and the metal accents, including the protruding camera strap anchor, but I think the CoolPix logo is badly placed, and ruins the clean look of the camera. Think about it, would you want your brand logo to be smaller than the line logo? It makes no sense, yet that’s what Nikon’s done. They’ve emphasized CoolPix over the trustworthy Nikon name. Canon hasn’t made this mistake. Have a look at the SD780 IS and you’ll see they know how to do this right. Another thing that bugs me is the annoying font chosen for CoolPix. Nikon, please, if you’re going to keep using CoolPix as a line name, then please use a decent font or at least make the writing smaller.

When it comes to features, there are more of them overall than on the Canon SD780 IS, but right off the bat, one can see the S570 lacks HD video capabilities. That may or may not be an important criteria for you, depending on your needs. The S70 certainly offers other wonderful selling points, such as a 5x Zoom and a very nice maximum aperture of f/2.7, not to mention that the price is about $50-75 less than that of the Canon SD780 IS.

  • 12.0 megapixels resolution
  • Ultra Thin and Compact
  • 5x Nikkor Zoom Lens
  • Bright, 2.7″ LCD
  • Scene Auto Selector
  • Smart Portrait System with Advanced Face-Priority Technology, Smile Timer, Blink Proof function, Blink Warning, Active D-lighting and the new Skin Softening function
  • 4-way Image Stabilization with Vibration Reduction, Motion Detection, High ISO (up to 3200) and Best Shot Selector
  • Quick Retouch
  • Standard Definition video recording (640 x 480 @ 30 fps)

Other differences between this camera and the Canon SD780 IS include:

  • The new Skin Softening functionality, which offers three levels of in-camera smoothing, allowing you to diminish age lines or imperfections from your subjects’ faces right in the camera
  • Lack of optical image stabilization, which is compensated by the presence of electronic Vibration Reduction and Best Shot Selector (the SD780 includes the equivalent of Motion Detection and also goes to 3200 ISO)
  • Wider field of view (28 mm equivalent vs. 33 mm equivalent on the SD780 IS)

The Nikon CoolPix S570 digital camera can be purchased from Amazon or B&H Photo.

Photos used courtesy of Nikon.

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.

Windows

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

Tempered enthusiasm

After getting all excited about my new 24-105mm zoom, I found a strand of thread sticking resolutely to the interior of the front lens. It was definitely inside, and I couldn’t get it to go away. Even if it came loose, it would still be inside, and would probably stick to one of the other interior lenses. It was a factory defect.

I called B&H Photo, who graciously shipped out another lens to me, free of charge, and also paid for the return shipment of my defective lens. While I may be disappointed in Canon’s quality control process, I have only good things to say about B&H. Incidentally, I waited patiently for them to re-open after the Jewish High Holidays (they were closed for over a week) so I could order the lens. It was worth the wait. Things I order from them get here the very next day, because they ship out of New Jersey and I live in Maryland. I pay for Ground and get what is essentially Overnight shipping. It’s an added advantage to their great prices and customer service.

My 580EX II speedlite is another disappointment. It’s been acting strangely since March of this year. Sometimes it refuses to work with the 100mm f/2.8 macro lens. The aperture and shutter settings get completely messed up and the shutter won’t fire. Until now, I had to take it off the camera, take the batteries out, let it rest for a bit, then put it back together and on my 5D, and sometimes it still wouldn’t work.

Yesterday, I finally decided I’d had enough and shipped it to Canon for repairs. I hope they’ll choose to treat it as still under warranty, because I filed the original repair request back when it still had a couple of months of warranty left. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, I got my replacement lens from B&H today, and I have reason to be disappointed with Canon once again. Their QC should be better, especially for L series lenses. This new lens has two tiny specks on the inside of the rear lens. You could almost say they’re not there, except that they are, and it’s really bothering me. Maybe I’m overreacting to this, having been sensitized by the previous defect. I don’t think it’s going to affect the quality of the photos (I hope for that at any rate), but for a lens that costs over $1,000, I expect better build quality.

I leave you with a series of short videos that demonstrate how Canon make their lenses. They’re narrated in Japanese. I saw the English version (in a single video) a while back, but I can’t find it now. For those of you that won’t see the embedded video below (like the feed subscribers), here are the links to each video clip: part 1, part 2, part 3. With all of that emphasis on checking the lenses after they get made, you wouldn’t expect to find strands of thread or specks inside the lenses like I did.

Finally got the EF 24-105mm f/4L zoom

It was introduced by Canon on 8/22/2005. I reviewed it back on 4/19/2007. I compared it with the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens back on 10/5/2007 and deemed it superior. I complained that I didn’t have it on 9/14/2008, after coming back from our trip to Austria. Now I finally bought it, and I am not sorry. At long last, I have a versatile zoom I can use just about anywhere. I am giddy with joy.

Just give me a good zoom lens, thanks

Greetings from Osttirol! My wife and I have been vacationing in Austria for the past week. It’s a gorgeous place to visit and, needless to say, I took tons of photos here. I’ve been carrying my Canon 5D and my lenses with me everywhere, and let me tell you, I’ve been sorely in need of a good zoom lens.

The lens inventory in my camera bag is woefully short at the moment. I started out with three primes: EF 24mm f/1.4L, EF 50mm f/1.4, and EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro. I sold the 24mm prime with the intention of buying the EF 24-105mm f/4L Zoom, but other circumstances intervened, and now I’ve only got the 50mm and 100mm lenses.

There are some who say it’s better to have prime lenses. I disagree. I’d like to see them carry five or six prime lenses in a backpack up and down a mountain in order to get the range that one or two good zoom lenses would give, and then tell me if they still feel the same way. And by the way, try changing lenses in swift mountain breezes, with insects buzzing around you and just dying to get inside the sensor chamber and leave smudge marks (which happened to me). Oh, and don’t forget to throw in a few other accessories such as polarizers and UV filters of various sizes for the different diameters of each lens, plus one or two water bottles and a fleece jacket plus an umbrella in case the weather goes bad, and then we’ll talk…

In a way, I was glad to only have to carry two lenses; I’d have really felt the weight of a third one. But I felt so limited in the photos I could take, because I could only use the 50mm or the 100mm lens to frame my photos. In some instances, I could walk back and forth to get a better view or angle, but in others, there was no way to get a better photo without also being able to fly — which incidentally, would be very nice, but I haven’t figured out how to do it yet. And no, I don’t believe in cropping. I only do it when I absolutely have to. I didn’t pay $2,800 for a full-frame sensor that can take 12.8 megapixel photos so I could crop them and get the same resolution I can get from a $500 camera.

To this day, I slap my head when I think that I could have had the 24-105mm zoom lens as a kit lens with my 5D for a little over half its usual price. I was such a fool not to get it! It’s a light and sharp zoom with more range than the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L, and you can easily walk around with it for hours without getting too tired.

So far on this trip (which ends very soon, unfortunately) I took 1904 photos with the 50mm prime, and 471 photos with the 100mm prime. If I had had (don’t you just love the English language) the 24-105mm zoom on my trip, it’d have stayed on my camera 95% of the time, because that’s the range I use the most, particularly on the wider end of that focal spectrum, which was not available to me, each and every day, how stupid could I be, ugh…

Look, I’m not knocking the 50mm prime, which is a great prime, and very cost effective given its low light capabilities and sharpness. And I’m definitely not knocking the 100mm prime, which is versatile and a fantastic macro lens with gorgeous bokeh. But I really didn’t need f/1.4 or macro capabilities for landscape photography, which is what I did on this trip. I needed a zoom lens!

So, if you’re not sure what lenses to get, don’t do what I did, or you’ll be frustrated to no end as well. First get a good, lightweight zoom lens, one that won’t kill your wrist as you carry your camera around taking photos. Later, as you find that you need more specific capabilities, such as being able to take handheld photos at dusk or dawn, or more bokeh, or macro photos, then spring for those primes that have the features you need.

DSLRs and video to converge

On September 24, 2007, I published my review of the Olympus E-510 DSLR, one of the first prosumer cameras on the market to feature Live View (TTL video preview, directly off the same CMOS sensor used for photographs). Unless people were to jump to conclusions, I wanted to make it clear that it won’t let you record videos — but I knew that market forces were aligning to bring some sort of video capability to DSLRs.

I myself was opposed to that idea. I thought it would bastardize a DSLR to make it record video. After all, a DSLR takes great photos, and it should only do that. I also thought that video camera manufacturers would squeeze photo-taking capabilities into video cameras, which would result in crappy photos being taken by gadgets that should have stayed video cameras. Well, I was wrong. I forgot all about how the market delivers what the consumer wants, and has a way of sometimes exceeding expectations.

Behold the Nikon D90. It is the first DSLR that takes video, and it’s not some low-res video that you can get from a point-and-shoot digicam; it’s 720p HD video. What’s more, it lets you control depth of field by manually adjusting the focus while shooting. Best of all, you’re already using a sensor that takes great photographs, and the expensive glass you already paid for. You don’t need to spend yet more money on a dedicated video camera. You get the best of both worlds: the interchangeable lenses of a DSLR, and the quality of a decent video camera.

I am truly blown away by the D90’s specs. If I hadn’t already invested in the Canon 5D and Canon lenses, I would be sorely tempted to get the D90. I crave (badly) the ability to take quality photos and video with a single device, but unfortunately, up to this point, that was not possible unless I carried both a DSLR and a video camera.

As good as the D90 is though, it will soon be eclipsed. Why? Market forces. How long do you think it will be before we’ll have a DSLR that can record 1080p HD video? Or how about an even smaller and thinner DSLR than currently possible? How about a DSLR that looks and weighs about the same as a point-and-shoot, but gives you photo quality that’s equivalent to (or exceeds) today’s DSLRs? It’s all coming.

Let’s look at what’s currently available. First, we have the new Canon 50D. You may think it’s been eclipsed by the D90 or the D300, but you’d be wrong. You see, Canon took things further than I thought possible with it, by giving us 15 megapixels in a cropped (1.6x) sensor that also shoots (natively) up to 3200 ISO. I didn’t think that was possible on a cropped sensor. I thought 12 megapixels was the max at that sensor size. I was wrong.

You know where else I’ll be proven wrong? Back when I attended the Olympus E-3 launch party, I talked about the camera’s (somewhat) limited 10 megapixel resolution, and I thought they had reached the limitations of the Four Thirds 2x cropped sensor. I thought the sensor’s surface area was too small to get more resolution out of it. But now that Canon has proven you can get 16 megapixels out of a 1.6x cropped sensor, I don’t see why you can’t get 12 megapixels or more out of a 2x cropped sensor.

Here’s where I get to the last part, smaller and lighter DSLRs than currently thought possible. Currently, the smallest DSLR on the market is the Olympus E-420, pictured below. Do you know what the Four Thirds consortium has come up with? It’s the Micro Four Thirds standard, which allows for thinner, shorter lenses, and thinner, shorter camera bodies. A Micro Four Thirds camera will look and weigh just about the same as a point-and-shoot camera with a decent zoom lens.

Wait, it gets even better. The current aspect ratio of Four Thirds cameras is 4:3. The aspect ratio of Micro Four Thirds cameras will be 16:9. That’s the same aspect ratio used in movies. Where do you think that’s going? It means your photos and your videos will have the same aspect ratio, and the line between photography and videography will get even more blurred, and it’s quite possible that in the near future, we’ll have 1920x1080p HD video recorded by a tiny little DSLR with a tiny little lens on it.

That’s just what seems logical to me, and I’m a fairly conservative estimator. You wait and see what the market will do. We’ll have some very interesting DSLRs to play with in the next few years.

[Images used courtesy of Canon, Nikon and Olympus. ]