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: 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. ]

What I did in 2007

I made a concerted effort to write consistently and with substance in 2007. Product reviews are one of the foundational pieces of my site. I enjoy doing them, and people seem to enjoy reading them. I thought I’d highlight the most important ones from 2007 below.

Camera reviews (in chronological order)

The thing to keep in mind about my camera reviews is that for all but one of the reviews marked “full”, I used those cameras as my primary cameras for at least a month. That means they went with me wherever I went, so my understanding of how they work in real-world conditions is more than can be gotten from a lab review.

Lens reviews (in chronological order)

I also started reviewing lenses in 2007. Since I had to rent them in order to do this, I couldn’t very well keep them for a whole month, like I did with my cameras, but I did my best to make sure I put them through most conditions you’d encounter outdoors.

Hardware reviews (in chronological order)

I started doing hardware reviews as well, motivated by the problems I kept having with the products I had purchased. I wanted to tell people what to watch out for, and it looks like they appreciate hearing about it.

These were just a few of the articles I wrote during 2007. To browse through all of the posts from that year, use the Archives. Don’t forget to subscribe to my feed so you can find out about all of my new posts in 2008.

Thanks!

Camera preview: Canon EOS Rebel XSi DSLR

This past Thursday, Canon announced their newest DSLR, the Canon EOS Rebel XSi. This camera ups the ante for every entry-level DSLR out there and introduces a host of important new features.

Canon EOS Rebel XSi (front 3q)

In a nutshell, Canon has integrated features from its more expensive DSLRs, like the DIGIC III processing engine and better AF, it has replaced the cheap-looking grip material with soft rubber, and it has increased the resolution from 10 to 12.2 megapixels. There are a number of other significant differences between the XSi and the XTi (which I reviewed a few months ago), and I’m going to talk about them below.

Analysis

  • XSi now uses SD cards instead of CF cards. This was a bit of a shock to me, but there it is. I suppose with such a small camera body, it made more sense, but I prefer CF cards, they’re sturdier.
  • Higher resolution: 12.2 megapixels vs 10 megapixels for XTi
  • Soft rubber grip: no more of that cheap-looking plastic material used on the XTi
  • 3″ LCD at 230,000 pixels
  • Sensor equipped with microlenses over each pixel, to reduce noise and enhance sensitivity
  • 14-bit A/D processor means the XSI can record up to 16,384 colors per channel
  • DIGIC III image processor: previously only available on the 40D and 1D series cameras.
  • Live View now includes AF: on the XTi and 40D, you have to press a button in order to focus the camera in Live View
  • Better AF sensor: higher subject detection capabilities and more precise focusing with fast lenses (f/2.8 or better)
  • Faster frame rate: 3.5 fps vs 3 fps for XTi
  • Thinner, wider, taller than XTi: 5.1 x 3.8 x 2.4 in vs. 4.98 x 3.71 x 2.56 in
  • Different battery: LP-E5 vs. NB-2LH. Press release states 50% more shots per charge than previous battery, but specs state same approximate life. Hmm…
  • Highlight Tone Priority, High ISO Noise Reduction and Auto Lighting Optimizer are three features brought down from Canon’s more expensive cameras to improve image quality.
  • Backup battery now built in, not replaceable. The backup battery is the one that keeps camera time. It used to be a CR2016 Lithium battery, now it’s listed as a built-in battery. Perhaps this is a specs typo, someone correct me if they have more accurate information.
  • Offered with two kit lenses: the EF-S18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS and the EF-S55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS

Canon EOS Rebel XSi (back)

By offering the camera with two image-stabilized kit lenses whose 35mm effective combined range goes from 28.8-400mm, and by upping the resolution from 10 to 12.2 megapixels, Canon is clearly going after its competitors. It wants to continue to dominate the DSLR market, and with such an impressive entry-level DSLR, it will likely do so.

The resolution itself is another mind-boggling upgrade. I didn’t think 12 megapixels would be offered in the Rebel or another entry-level DSLR so soon, particularly when the 40D only has 10 megapixels and the 5D (my current camera) is the reigning king at 12.8 megapixels, but here’s the XSi, and there’s no arguing with that figure. If nothing else, this means the new 5D “Mark II”, which is expected to be announced in April, will have at least 16 megapixels resolution, possibly even 18 megapixels. It’s only natural, given that the new 1Ds Mark III stands at 22 megapixels.

Buy the Canon EOS Rebel XSi

Canon EOS Rebel XSi (front 3q with grip)

Get more information

Camera review: Kodak EasyShare v610 Dual Lens

I have owned the Kodak EasyShare v610 Dual Lens digital camera for the past year and a half, and I’ve meant to write about it for some time. This will be a nostalgic review, since the camera is no longer being made.

Last weekend, I put together an 8-minute video review, and also took some photographs of the camera. I’ll accompany those two offerings with my insights, gathered after a LOT of use in just about any weather and light conditions. At the end of the review, I’ll also post selected photos taken with the camera.

There’s what the camera looks like at first glance. I purchased a matching leather case for it, and I’m not sorry I did it. It protected the LCD screen from scratches, and it helped protect the camera itself when I threw it about from bag to bag. Back when I was in college, in the mid 90s, my parents gave me a first generation Canon Elph. It used APS film, and it was a small, beautiful and elegantly designed little camera for its time. I’m talking about this because I got a leather case for that camera as well, and it helped keep that camera running in good condition for several years. My advice to you if you get a small camera is to get a good case for it as well. Make it sturdy, so it can withstand abuse, and make it stylish, so you won’t be ashamed to be seen with it in public. Leather fits that bill quite nicely, doesn’t it?

Video review

The video I recorded is enclosed below. You can also view it here, or download it if you like. If you’ve seen some of my other video reviews, you’ll have to excuse the lower overall quality of this one. I shot it this past Sunday, informally, during a very hectic weekend. I had a limited amount of time at my disposal, I was rushed, and it shows. But I managed to get my points across, and I’m happy about that, so it is worth watching.

Kodak EasyShare v610 from Raoul Pop on Vimeo and on YouTube

Dual lenses

One of the striking features of the camera is its dual lens setup. Back when it came out, a 10x zoom on a camera this compact was virtually unheard of. It’s still fairly uncommon. The only way this could be accomplished, while still keeping things looking great and with no external zoom extending outwards from the camera body, was with two lenses, one for closer distances, and one for what could be called tele. The first lens — the bottom one — is for 1-5x, and the second lens — the top, larger one — is for 5-10x, as you can see below.

Kodak v610 dual lens setup

The two lenses together have an astounding range of 38-380 equivalent focal millimeters. The first lens goes from 38-114mm, and the second goes from 130-380mm. I have good things to say about the quality of the optics. The images were sharp when in focus, and there was little fringing and chromatic aberration. There were two drawbacks to the lenses.

  • One, they were fairly slow. What I mean by that is that they didn’t open up quite enough, and that tended to make the camera pretty hard to use in low light situations without a tripod. The smaller lens (1-5x) is rated from f/3.9 to f/4.4, and the large lens (5-10x) is rated to f/4.8.
  • Two, there was a pause when zooming out past the 5x mark. The camera’s zoom would stop when it reached the end of the focusing range of the first lens, and I would have to press the tele button again to pick up the next lens and focus further than that. Over long periods of use, that tended to be pretty annoying.

But I didn’t let these things bother me too much. After all, I got 10x zoom in a very compact package.

Kodak v610 mode and on/off buttons

Controls and ease of use

What I liked most about the camera was its ease of use for basic photo taking. That proved to be both good and bad. Anything more advanced (such as long exposures, a change in ISO, or White Balance) required some menu surfing, and any custom settings were erased when the camera was turned off. Even something as simple as delayed exposures (2 or 10 seconds, for example) needed to be set for every single photo where they were needed. One couldn’t just turn on that setting and keep it on. It would reset after every exposure.

Even though I didn’t like this, I can understand the rationale for it very well. After all, this camera is a compact point and shoot meant for people who just want to pull it out and take photos, not for more serious tasks. And let me tell you, if someone that doesn’t know much about cameras picks up a Kodak v610, messes with the settings, and doesn’t know how to get it back to normal, they’ll be VERY much relieved when they find out all they have to do is turn it off, then back on.

The controls on the camera are wonderfully designed. The buttons are either metal or very hard plastic, and I am not about to scratch them to find out what they’re made of. At any rate, they’re the right shape and texture, and it’s fun to press them.

They’re intuitive, they fit well within the camera’s interface, and there aren’t too many of them, which is the right decision for a compact camera such as this.

Kodak v610 zoom and selection controls

I loved the easy way to switch between normal, macro and tele mode. See the big, square button above? Turn the camera on, and you’re in normal mode, where the camera can focus from 2 feet to infinity. Take photos as would normally do. Press the bottom part of the button once, and you’re in macro mode, where the camera can focus from 2 inches to 2.3 feet. Press it again, and you’re in tele mode, where you can take photos of things very far away and not have to worry about focus. The camera focuses to infinity automatically and picks a higher aperture, which means you’ll get a larger depth of field.

The build quality of the camera was evident everywhere. The tripod mount is a great example of this. It was pre-planned and integrated into the silver metal border that lines the camera’s sides. Not only that, but the mount itself is metal, not plastic. Given the camera’s light weight and compact size, one wouldn’t think it’d need a metal tripod mount, but there it is, and I love it!

One point of contention with the camera is the USB connector, which is a custom one. I would have loved to see Kodak put a standard USB mini connector on the camera, but they didn’t. That’s probably because they wanted it to integrate with their camera stands and plug right into their photo printers, but come on, there are volumes to be said about standardization… It’s really important when it comes to good design.

Capabilities

The camera includes a movie mode which records Quicktime movies using MPEG-4 compression at 30fps. I found the quality of the movies (640×480 pixels) to be plenty for my on-the-go needs, and often used it as my primary video camera. I have a confession to make: it was also my only video camera. 🙂 Remember my video review of the Canon Rebel XTi? It was done with the Kodak v610 mounted to a tripod. Came out great, didn’t it?

With a 2GB SD card in the camera, it could record over 1,100 photos or 1 hour of video, which is more than plenty for such a compact camera. The only problem was, the camera’s battery would only last for about 125 photos. I’m not sure how many minutes of video the camera could do on a fully charged battery, so I can’t speak for that. But I did find myself frustrated by the low battery life when taking photos, and ended up purchasing a second battery. With judicious use of the zoom and LCD screen, I found I could extend the battery life to 135-150 photos, but that was still not quite enough for me, and it was pretty frustrating to be out in the city, taking photos, only to have the camera die on me.

Again, I think this is a design issue, and I wouldn’t necessarily call it a flaw. This is a small, stylish camera meant for the person who would pull it out every once in a while and take a few photos, not for someone who wants to take lots of photos. That person should opt for a bigger camera with more battery life.

One other point I wanted to mention was the sensor’s light sensitivity. It was capable of 64-800 ISO on paper. In real life, I found 400 ISO to be barely acceptable, and 800 ISO unusable. 64, 100 and 200 worked out great. If I left it on Auto ISO, it varied it between 64-200 automatically to get the optimal exposure. The camera changed the ISO settings in increments of 10 between 70-200 ISO, and I’d always get a chuckle out of seeing all sorts of ISO speeds show up in my photos’ meta-data.

Overall, I was pretty happy with the camera. I say “was” because I recently gave it to my parents. They had a more complicated digital camera, and they often couldn’t understand the settings and were frustrated because they couldn’t get the photos they wanted. The Kodak v610 will work out much better for them since it’s more compact, it’s fully automatic, and it resets its settings with every “reboot”.

The camera also has a blurry photo indicator that can be turned on. If a photo is good, a little green hand will appear. If the photo is marginally acceptable, the little hand will turn orange. And if the photo’s not good at all, the little hand will turn red. That’s easy enough for anyone to understand. I told them to re-take any photos where the little hand will turn red, and if they can’t get anything orange or green to seek more light or give up. I think they’ll finally be able to get more decent photos now.

Let me show you a few photos I took with the camera to illustrate what it could do. I can’t emphasize enough how useful that 10x zoom proved to be, and you’ll see what I mean as you look at the photos.

Sample photos

This first photo is quite appropriate for this time of the year, as it represents a group of merry carolers on a sled.

This is another macro shot, this time of colorful beads in a public market.

The wide focal range allowed me to get photos of entire valleys from mountain tops. This is a photo of a portion of the Shenandoah Valley, as seen from Skyline Drive. Here you can see the typical bluish tinge caused by UV haze. This gets exacerbated by the CCD sensors of smaller cameras. I’ve seen it on many small cameras. For example, the iPhone’s built-in camera suffers from this defect to what I consider an unacceptable degree.

The camera’s CCD sensor was fairly adept at capturing color.

These very red and vibrant fall foliage was captured last year at our local Audubon Naturalist Society in Bethesda, MD.

During one weekend morning, I decided to set up the camera on a tripod and play around with water drops on petals. I got some really nice photos out of that session. This is one of them.

Waterdrops on petals

There’s a WWI memorial in downtown DC, and the crowning piece is this golden statue.

Liberty points the way

I love great sunrises, and I captured many of them with the Kodak v610. This is one of those photos.

Passionate sunrise

The inside courtyard of the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC is shown below. The camera always managed to expose photos decently when confronted with situations like this: a wall in shade and the bright sky above. A LOT of cameras have problem with this kind of a setup, including my 5D, which tends to overexpose the sky.

Watergate

Taken during a fierce snowstorm (we get one of those every year around here). It’s too bad the snow melts away so quickly afterwards.

During the snowfall

The next day, snow began to melt, as expected. I rushed to get a few photos before it would all be gone. This photo was post-processed to emphasize the frozen atmosphere — wishful thinking on my part, since the temperature was above 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

Frozen

We were walking along the C&O Canal this past spring, and spotted a fox walking around in the forest. It stopped to check us out as well. This is where the camera’s 10x zoom was very useful. We were able to get up close even though we were separated by a body of water.

Fox in spring

The camera’s compact size made it a breeze to use when an opportune moment was spotted, like with this lone tulip outlined against a green wall.

Tulip

The zoom once again proved useful for getting closer to this lovely country house. In reality it was quite far from the road.

Lovely country house

Although there’s some lens flare in this photo, which could have been avoided with a lens hood (but the camera isn’t equipped with one) I love it. This is a portion of the C&O Canal where the water has pooled and is now stationary. Since the canal is no longer maintained, this portion has turned into a swamp. While I wouldn’t wade around in it, it makes for an interesting wildlife habitat, and the afternoon light is superb.

C&O Canal, now stationary

Guess where this photo was taken? It was at the top of the Tyson’s Corner Mall parking lot, looking toward DC. Summer was in full swing, and that’s the reason for the rich, deep green foliage of the trees.

Virginia forest from above

This was taken more recently, right in my community. Those beautiful golden hues can be seen every fall, but I won’t tell you where. I’ll keep it a secret for now. 🙂

Golden fall foliage

I leave you with another beautiful sunrise.

Golden sunrise

Summary

If you’re interested in a capable little point and shoot with a very powerful zoom for its size, try finding the Kodak v610. I checked and it’s out of stock even at Kodak’s own online store. It seems only Amazon still has a few units left. Though it’s no longer being made, if you can pick up a used one at a reasonable price and provided you understand its limitations, I think you’ll enjoy using it.

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The Olympus E-3 Launch Party

Back on August 15, I wrote about the “new E-1”, the Pro DSLR from Olympus that would replace the existing E-1. I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the launch party for that new DSLR, officially called the E-3, on October 16. The party was held at the Museum of Natural History in NYC, and it started at 5:30 PM EST.

This post is rather long, so I thought I’d summarize it for your benefit:

  • First part: my thoughts on the event and the E-3, with photos of the camera
  • Second part: video from the event
  • Third part: my photos from the event

Olympus E-3 DSLR (front view with battery grip)

I was impressed with the quality of the event. Olympus rented an entire wing at the Museum of Natural History, and set up stations where we could talk with specially-chosen pro photographers about the E-3 and try out beta units of the camera. (The firmware isn’t yet finalized, so actual review units weren’t available.) There were food and drink bars (the cheese was fantastic) and all sorts of other goodies were spread all around (like a timeline display of all of the representative Olympus digital cameras, starting with their first model, and ending with the E-3). The event went nicely according to plan, and there was even a drawing where a lucky winner got an E-3 Pro Package (camera, speedlite, lenses, etc.) plus an all-expenses paid trip to India with one of the Olympus pros. I didn’t win it, unfortunately.

The atmosphere wasn’t one of hard sell. I could chat at ease with photographers and relax while looking at slideshows of photos taken by the pros or snacking on food. Ligia and I enjoyed ourselves. The weather was gorgeous. It had been sunny all day, and as evening descended on the city, the sky stayed clear, and a cooler breeze made it feel like a proper autumn night.

The E-3 surprised me in several ways:

  • It didn’t differ much from the concept photos I’d seen earlier, which was interesting. It means Olympus had been working on it for a long time, pretty much had the form factor down, and were simply perfecting it.
  • It was bigger and heavier than I expected. Having worked with the E-500, E-510 and E-410, I expected the body to be lighter and smaller. It wasn’t. The weight of the E-3 is exactly the same as the weight of my Canon 5D: 810 grams. It’s also as big as my 5D – actually, a little taller.
  • It felt very solid. When I gripped it, there was no mistaking it: I held a Pro DSLR in my hand.
  • The ISO sensitivity went all the way to 3200. What’s more, the camera’s Auto ISO function also varied the ISO from 100 to 3200. That’s a rarity. There’s usually an upper limit (something like 800) to Auto ISO on other cameras.
  • The camera uses an 11-point AF system. I complained about the 3-point AF on the E-510, and it looks like that’s not a problem on the E-3. It could focus very fast in lower light conditions, even at f/4.
  • The CMOS resolution is 10.1 megapixels. I honestly expected it to be 12 megapixels, just because everyone is pushing the envelope on resolution these days. I have a feeling this may be a limitation of the sensor’s surface area. The more megapixels one crams onto a sensor, the more chance there is for noise in lower light. It’ll be very interesting to watch and see how Olympus deals with the need for increased resolution in their Four-Thirds system.
  • The LCD screen swivels out, just like on the E-330.

Here are some more photos of the E-3, from various angles. The E-3 was launched with a brand new lens, the 12-60mm f/2.8-4. The effective focal range of this lens is 24-120mm, because of the 2x crop factor of the Four-Thirds system sensors.

I didn’t get a chance to play too much with the controls on the camera. One thing to say here is that Olympus built in a lot of buttons to allow for one-touch access to the camera’s most-used functions. I did find it a bit awkward to change the mode and ISO settings. To change the mode, I had to press the Mode button on the camera’s top left side, then rotate the back dial. To change the ISO, I had to press the ISO button on the top right of the camera, then rotate the front dial (located underneath the ISO button). Both movements felt odd, and I wondered how this would work out in the field.

To be fair, I don’t know if that was the right or only way to change those settings, and I can’t really judge the placement and ergonomics behind the controls after only a few minutes of trying out the E-3. I did like the idea of having two dials, one for the thumb and one for the index finger. I look forward to trying out a review unit for my usual 30 days, and then deciding if the controls work well or not.

I took a few photos at high ISO (1600 and 3200) and was pleasantly surprised by the low noise visible on the camera’s LCD screen, even at f/4. Since I used my own CF card to take the photos, I really looked forward to examining those photos closer when I got home. Unfortunately, one of the Olympus representatives present at the event saw me do it and erased my card. His reasoning was that the camera’s firmware is not yet final, and he didn’t want me to get the wrong impression about the E-3’s capabilities. Sounds logical, and he apologized profusely, but I still couldn’t help feeling it was a pretty stinky thing to do to me, right after I’d talked with an Olympus engineer from Japan who had no problem whatsoever with the photos I’d taken, and who actually encouraged me to go home and have a look at them on my computer. I have to say I was pretty disappointed about that, but I didn’t let it ruin my evening.

Olympus launched three new lenses with the camera. Two were new (12-60mm f/2.8-4 SWD and 14-35mm f/2.0 SWD), and one was re-engineered (50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD). They also launched a re-engineered FL-50 speedlite. I realized once more the big advantage of the Four-Thirds system when I looked at their lens line-up, which was on display at the event. They have a 150mm f/2.0 lens, and a 300mm f/2.8 lens. You may not think that’s much until you realize their crop factor is 2x. That means that they’ve really got a 300mm f/2.0 lens and a 600mm f/2.8 lens. Let that sink in for a bit. That’s pretty spectacular. No one has lenses with that focal reach and at that large aperture on the market. To think that you can get f/2.8 at 600mm effective focal length is mind-boggling to me. Wow.

Overall, the E-3 is truly the new flagship camera from Olympus. It represents the culmination of their efforts in many areas: the Four-Thirds system, AF, durability, ruggedness, optics and image processing. Now that it has arrived, I’m sure many people, including myself, can’t wait to try it out and see what it can do.

I put together a short video (about 4 minutes) of the party. It ends with the lens line-up and a cross-section of the E-3 with the 12-60mm lens mounted on. It’s pretty cool, and it gives you a unique look at the camera from the inside out. You can watch it below or here.

I’ve also got more photos from the event below. They were not taken with the E-3 (for the reason given a few paragraphs above). They were taken with my Canon 5D.

There were some really, really cool ice sculptures on display at the event. There was even a bar made out of ice, with the Olympus logo embedded in it.

Rhomboid

Mellow yellow

Ice sculpture

The guts of the E-3 were on display.

The components of the E-3 DSLR

Gene Hirschel of Internet News was there. I met him at the previous Olympus PR event, which announced the E-510 DSLR.

Gene Hirschel

John Isaac is one of the Olympus Pro photographers, and he’s currently specializing in wildlife. He worked at the UN for 30 years as an official photographer.

John Isaac

The man below is the sculptor of the many amazing crystal figures on display at the event. I have a photo of one of them below, and they’re also featured in the short video I made. I’m terrible with names and I didn’t catch his.

Crystal sculptor

One of the crystal sculptures

Guess who took this photo of us? It was Anne Day, and she used my 5D. I consider it a privilege, especially after I saw some of the other people whose photographs she’s taken. Have a look at her site and see what I mean.

Ligia and Raoul

Here’s Anne Day in person:

Anne Day

I took this as I rested on a table, watching slideshows of travel photography. The blue light of the LCD projected reflected in my glass of tonic water.

A glass of tonic water by candlelight

I caught Ligia thinking about something when I took this.

Ligia

If you thought Ligia’s photo was out of focus, you’re going to get a real surprise out of the next one. The thing is, I LOVE out of focus photographs. There’s a certain sweet spot that varies with lighting, distance and focal length, but if you get it just right, the colors really pop, and the shapes become very interesting. These are people at the launch party. I’m probably going to share more of my out of focus photographs in the near future. I’ve been accumulating a lot of them within the past several months.

People at the launch party

To demonstrate the E-3’s dust proofing, they buried two cameras in sand. They’re supposed to still work without any problems after this happens to them. I didn’t try them out, but it’s very likely that they worked just fine afterwards.

Olympus E-3 buried in sand

Olympus E-3 buried in sand

Gary Kralle (one of the other Olympus Pros), John Isaac and a friend were talking when I took this photo. Gary came up to me afterwards and we chatted a bit about cameras.

Gary Kralle, John Isaac and friend

I love abstract shots that emphasize bokeh. Here are a few that I took at that night.

Grow

Cactus

Four lights

When we left, there were swag bags ready for us. Here’s what was inside: a travel document holder, a pen, a paperweight, a coaster, and lots of details on the E-3. All were emblazoned with the Olympus logo. Pretty nice!

Swag from launch party

Michael Bourne, thank you very much for the invite! I look forward to reviewing the E-3 properly when it becomes available.

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Lens comparison: EF 24-70mm f/2.8L Zoom vs EF 24-105mm f/4L IS Zoom

Have you ever wondered how the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L and EF 24-105mm f/4L zoom lenses would do if compared side by side? Which one would come out as the winner in real-world use? Here’s my answer to that question.

First, some recommended reading:

Those two reviews of mine should give you a good idea of what each lens can do. Now let’s talk about how they do when they’re together. 🙂 Here’s a photo of the two lenses. As you can see right away, the 24-105mm is smaller in both height and girth — it’s shorter and a little narrower than the 24-70mm.

When we look at the rear lens elements, we can see some differences there as well. The 24-105mm lens is on the left. If you look carefully, you can see a baffle in place. The 24-70mm lens has no baffle.

It’s possible that the baffle is there in order to reduce possible flare effects, since the focal range is longer. It could also be there to baffle us — after all, it is a baffle. 🙂 It’s also possible that the optics aren’t as high quality as those in the 24-70mm lens — they’re both priced the same, but the 24-105mm has image stabilization and an extra 35mm of range. On the other hand, I’ve seen a very similar baffle on the EF 14mm f/2.8L prime lens, and no one can say that the 14mm lens is made with cheap glass. So the more likely explanation is that it’s there to reduce lens flare due to the increased focal range.

(By the way, the baffle can be seen even more clearly in this product advisory from Canon warning about unacceptable levels of lens flare in early builds (2005) of the 24-105mm lens.)

Here’s another look at the lenses side by side, this time with the lens controls visible. As you can see, the only thing that’s different on the 24-105mm lens is that it’s got the IS switch. The controls seemed a little thicker on the 24-70mm lens. As for their durability, I assume they’re both long-lasting since these are L series lenses.

Chances are you can already know that the 24-105mm lens is lighter than the 24-70mm lens. It’s no small difference, by the way. The 24-105mm lens is 670g, while the 24-70mm lens is 950g — that’s 280g of difference! While both lenses extend outward as you zoom, the 24-70mm lens is more top-heavy than the 24-105mm lens, and that makes a big difference in wrist fatigue — the 24-105mm lens is less punishing and can be held comfortably for longer periods of time.

The weight difference is remarkable to me because the 24-105mm lens has 18 elements, while the 24-70mm lens has 16 elements. Canon managed to keep the weight down even though they placed extra glass in there and added image stabilization.

There are some limitations to being lighter and smaller though. The 24-105mm lens’ closest focusing distance is 1.48ft or 0.45m, while the 24-70mm lens’ closest focusing distance is 1.25ft or 0.38m. It also looks like the general consensus is that images obtained with the 24-105mm lens are somewhat softer than those obtained with the 24-70mm lens.

Other than the difference in focal lengths, another obvious difference between them is the maximum aperture. The 24-70mm lens opens up to f/2.8, while the 24-105mm lens only opens up to f/4. That’s a full f-stop difference, or a 2x reduction in the amount of light that can enter the lens. This is where the baffle comes in again. Since the baffle itself limits the amount of light that can hit the sensor in order to reduce glare, it stands to reason that the aperture can’t open up any wider. Even if it did, we’d end up seeing the baffle contours in our photos.

What the 24-105mm lens has going for it is the built-in image stabilization, which, in my experience, more than compensates for the reduced maximum aperture. See the photo below. I took it completely handheld (I didn’t prop myself up against anything) at a shutter speed of 1/15th seconds.

I tried to get similar photos with the 24-70mm lens, and I couldn’t, not without leaning against something to stabilize the lens. The slowest shutter speed I could use was 1/30th seconds with that lens. As I concluded in my previous review of the 24-105mm lens, the image stabilization counts for a lot and makes the lens truly versatile and useful.

While I’m talking about versatility, let’s not forget that extra 35mm of focal range. At close distances (6-15 feet), you don’t notice how much it matters, but when you start focusing on things farther away (30-100 feet or more), you realize how valuable those extra millimeters really are!

Let’s not forget bokeh. Both lenses have gorgeous bokeh, but the 24-70mm produces a creamier bokeh. That’s because it opens up all the way to f/2.8, while the other only opens up to f/4. If you do a lot of close-range photography, in tighter spaces, and you really need that bokeh (portraits, etc.), the 24-70mm would probably be a better candidate. This next photo was taken with the 24-70mm lens.

If you’ve got a little wiggle room and can position your subjects further away from things (walls, trees, background), don’t discount the 24-105mm lens. Its bokeh is right up there with the best of them. Have a look below.

In the end, it really comes down to your own, precise needs. I’ve heard of some people who only carry two lenses in their bag: the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm (both of which I reviewed here). They’re both professional-grade, L series lenses. They’re heavy, but they deliver the goods, and they’re versatile.

For my needs, I’d go with the 24-105mm lens. It’s lighter, has extra range, and has built-in image stabilization. I really enjoyed using it, and I seemed to get better photos with it than with the 24-70mm zoom. While it may not be as sharp, I didn’t notice anything that would turn me away from using it. I thought it was a superb lens and couldn’t believe the quality of the optics when I looked at the photos I got with it.

At least one commenter here asked how these two lenses compare, and I hope that I’ve answered that question in as much detail as I could give. If you have any other questions, pose them in the comments on this post, and I’ll try to answer them.

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