Just So Much….

Damn if things haven’t been exciting lately. Well…. photography wise they have been exciting. Around the house has been much less so, what with the death of the compressor for the HVAC system. Say goodbye to USD3,224!

Shit.

Oh well…. at least it didn’t die during the depths of winter or middle of summer, right?! Bright side…. gotta look on the bright side.

(sigh)

But what about photography, eh? “Exciting stuff?” you say. Hell yeah! I barely have enough time to get through any of it, but here we go….

Just enjoyed the fifth of ten online & free photography classes via http://www.creativelive.com. In hindsight I will confess that the first four classes really felt more like ones oriented towards helping someone trying to decide what dSLR camera to purchase (four-thirds, APS, full-frame, etc.). They were informative, but really didn’t cover the things for which I was hoping. That isn’t to say I didn’t learn things. Nope. I clearly did. Those first courses helped reiterate things I knew and had right; further explained things I knew, but didn’t understand fully; and introduced me to information I hadn’t yet seen or read elsewhere. But in the end I believe (and hope) that it is the upcoming courses that will really provide me with more information, which I hope to use in the field. (Update: After reviewing this post-uploading I realized I didn’t say things quite the way I meant. The first four classes were very informative about modern digital SLRs and how to use them (and lenses). I think it felt more like review for me because most of what was covered was already known to me. I still say the classes would be very, very helpful to anyone looking to get into modern dSLR photography, but I’m afraid I made it sound like the courses weren’t as useful as they could have been. Truth is they were useful, but I’m not quite a newbie and these courses were intended for such. This latest course on Exposure was much more informative and handy and as such I anticipate future courses to also be such and less review-like.)

For some time I have coveted a strobist lighting setup so that I could branch out into lighting. I preferred the strobist route if only because you can go strobist both indoors and outdoors, and I had plans for some outdoor portrait/model type work. Alas, that route was simply too expensive for me on my own or for my benefactor. So what does one do when they money isn’t there? Well, you go cheap and take what you can get!

Lights!

My benefactor was able to spring for a basic studio flash kit (USD500) to help me get started and while this kills off the versatility of shooting outdoors it DOES give me the opportunity to: (1) learn about lighting, (2) do some nice model/portraiture work, and (3) do a better job lighting-wise than I have been able to do thus far. The nice thing about this particular kit is that not only does it come with lights, umbellas, etc., but a bonus set of soft boxes and mounting brackets. Now I have four soft boxes…… which means I need to figure out what to do with them all! And that’s a good thing….. I like learning new stuff.

Next up to bat is a quick mention regarding some auto racing shots I took two weekends ago. Actually…. they weren’t really racing as it was one of those test and tune events, which is really neither here nor there. Cars. On the track. Going round quickly. But I’m going to save my thoughts and reactions to this event for another distinct post so you will just have to wait for a bit.

Now a quick change of gears to the Apple iPhone. One of which I own. Lovely device. And one of the bigger markets of apps is the photography arena. Many apps in the App Store are geared towards editing and/or processing your shots. But of late I’ve discovered that there are a number of utility-type apps, which are meant to help photographers with the process of creating shots. One area that concerns me in particular is depth of field.

I shoot almost exclusively in Aperture Priority mode. For me controlling the depth of field is a more important aspect of the way I prefer to shoot and how I like my images to come out. It’s what I like, so it’s what I do. However, depth of field is kind-of a hit or miss issue in photography. For any given aperture setting, millimeter focal setting and distance to subject one can change the depth of field in an image, but knowing what will and won’t be in focus is often a guess.

Sure, there is the depth of field preview button on our cameras, but I always found them to be relatively useless. And one can, of course, review the taken image via the LCD screen to see what is and isn’t in focus, but why guess and check afterwards when you can know in advance? Why indeed!

DoF Master (iPhone App)

Meet the DoFMaster app for the iPhone. It is one of about eight I reviewed in the App Store and selected it based upon favourable reviews and it’s simple nature. I confess to better liking the UI of another app, but I’ll try this one for a while and see how it works. If I’m disappointed I’m only out the price of a candy bar, so what the hell. I’ll report back later on my experiences with this app.

And finally, my dear readers, I had an unusual experience a few months back when my Canon 40D was displaying an icon I had never seen before in the LCD panel atop the camera. Confused and without my user’s guide I consulted the Internet via my cell phone and found a PDF version of the user’s guide, which I bookmarked and browsed in an attempt to solve the mystery of the icon. Jump forward to yesterday when I again had need of the user’s guide, but couldn’t find such here at the house. (Why it wasn’t where it should have been is a bit of a mystery as I’m usually very good ’bout these things)

“No prob,” think I as I still have the PDF site bookmarked in my cell phone and to the iPhone I go. Pull up the site, which even on the Wi-Fi takes a few seconds and then begin scrolling through the document. Scrolling ever so slowly. Painfully slowly. Especially slowly seeing how the page I need is nearer the end of the manual.

Damn irritating to be frank, which is sort-of funny considering how amazing this whole experience really is when you think about it.

Anyway…. I quickly realize that the secret to getting through this PDF document is to have it stored on my iPhone as a PDF and view it in a PDF viewing app. A few minutes later I have found and downloaded the free GoodReader Lite by Good.iWare. While free it is limited to five PDF documents, but who am I kidding? That’s just fine by me! Say hello to the reader…

GoodReader (Lite)

I follow the directions within the app to pull the relevant PDF file from the Internet and attach it to the app. Now I’m cooking….. The app provides all the sorts of benefits of a PDF reader that simply didn’t exist when viewing the PDF in Safari. I can turn pages one by one. I can rapidly scroll through the document. I can view in portrait or landscape mode. It really is quite amazing. And for free!

Seeing how I always have my cell phone with me I now always have my camera’s user’s guide with me. Sure, I don’t need it often, but I’m not out anything to have it on-hand 24/7/365. Amazing…. really amazing. If you own a camera AND a phone which can save & view PDFs then this is a brilliant way to have important information at your fingertips at a moments notice.

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Ohhh iPhone…How I Love Thee

Anyone who has read my various postings already knows I’m not right in the head. I’m “special” as my colleagues across the pond might say. I have a variety of hang-ups about photography, my abilities as related to photography, and in particular of the creative process that can be explored via software.

So why is it I love my iPhone and its camera?

Let’s be honest: as a camera it is mediocre at best. Granted, the 3GS model does bring larger sized images than did the 3G model, but I’m not certain there was any appreciable increase in the quality of the images. I could list all the flaws in the camera built in to this device, but what would be the point? Describing it as “mediocre” probably sums it up well enough.

Yet I find it completely irrelevant. I love using it. I love snapping pictures anytime and anywhere. This does not come as a surprise as I have often noted how much more I love being actually behind the camera as opposed to in front of the computer monitor, labouring with the process of editing, etc. And so I snap, and snap and snap every single day. Some I simply share via e-mail with family and/or friends, while other images are simply for my enjoyment.

But I have also found a strong and pleasant feeling that comes with playing around with my images via the numerous photo editing apps I have downloaded and installed on my iPhone. At this moment in time I have five different apps, each of which is solely dedicated to editing the images I take with my iPhone. I actually have a few other image-related apps, but they aren’t related to actually editing images.

Anyway….

I enjoy messing around with these apps in ways I have yet to be excited by the likes of Photoshop Elements. And I find this weird. Elements is such a powerful piece of software with the capabilities and abilities to do so many things, yet I have not embraced them. No doubt this is due, in no small part, to my lack of creativity. When I see my images I do not ‘see’ what I might do with them other than to correct exposure, add some contrast, etc.

Yet, I look quite forward to massaging my iPhone images through any of the various apps I have installed, preferring Photogene and Best Camera the most thus far. Why? Maybe it’s because I can do this…

I have been pondering this question for the past few weeks after I noticed how much I enjoyed working with my images on my phone. About the only reason I can offer is that these apps are really pretty basic and don’t actually require me to be creative, but instead to simply be satisfied with the results.

Most of the apps installed offer preset effects which are applied to your image. Best Camera ups the ante by allowing the user to layer more than one effect, which I’ve made use of one more than one occasion. Perhaps it is this simplicity, this “Don’t worry your head about it Forkie….we’ll suss it all for ya,” that I like, prefer and need?

Whatever is the reasoning, the opening splash screen for the Best Camera app states “The Best Camera Is the One That’s With You,” and they are spot on. I may love my 40D and Rebel XTi (400D), and I may lust for the Canon 7D, but I’ll be damned if my iPhone really isn’t the best camera sometimes…because it’s always with me in ways the others cannot.

On having purchased the Canon EOS 40D

My first real WP blog posting, which you can read here (and you should because if you haven’t you’re likely to contract malaria), went into no small detail about the process through which I went that led me to the rather unexpected purchase of the Canon EOS 40D digital Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera.  It occurred to me today that I hadn’t really said much about the camera since that original posting.  Clearly most of my blogs have been about the actual process of taking pictuers, processing pictures, and most importantly how Mother Nature is bound and determined to piss me off to no end by thwarting so many of my photographic opportunities.  As such I thought this a good moment, some six months into ownership, to write something valuable and prosaic about my lovely, lovely camera.

It’s great!

Okay.  That’s not particularly helpful, but what can I say?  Do I still lust after the Nikon D300?  Yes.  But in all honesty that pagan lust has given way to idle worship.  I’m certain it’s a great camera, but am I disappointed with my 40D?  Not in the slightest.  So what have I learned about my lovely, lovely 40D?

IMG_0045

First, it fits my hand perfectly.  And I mean perfectly.  It fills my palm.  The grip fits snugly inside my cupped fingers.  It’s large enough that all my fingers, including my pinky, actually utilize the grip.  (as an aside this is one place that the D300 did not shine for me – I found some of the controls on the back of the camera were in the way of where my thumb naturally wants to fall)  And with the addition of the battery grip (which also helps with vertical shooting) the camera becomes even more comfortable to use, especially when shooting vertically.  However, I will concede that the 40D (like the D300) are larger cameras and that having a larger hand is….well….handy.  At 6’4″ I have large hands and I find ALL of the smaller entry-level dSLRs (Canon Rebel/400 series, Nikon D-series, etc.) to be too small.  None of the controls fall readily to a finger and my hand simply overwhelms the camera body.  Naturally this isn’t the case for most Americans as they aren’t 6’4″ and I have had more than one salesperson tell me that these smaller entry-level dSLRs are really geared more towards women (think soccer moms) so they need to be smaller for their typically smaller hands.

Second, the battery life has been exceptional.  Far better than I had imagined it would be.  I shoot in both RAW and JPEG and have the camera set to activate the dust removal system upon both start-up and shut-down.  I admit that I do not use the built in flash so I cannot speak to how it may effect battery life, but I have nothing but praise for battery life with this camera.

Third, this may be an odd item to which to offer praise, but I really like the owner’s manual.  It’s clear and concise, which isn’t always the case with owner’s manuals for complicated consumer electronics.  I also appreciate the fact the owner’s manual comes on a CD-ROM and that I can download it as a PDF from the Canon USA web site.  It also comes with a fair bit of Canon software including such so that you can control your new Canon EOS 40D from your computer.  Nikon makes you pay extra for this software so kudos to Canon.

Fourth, like any good camera should, all the really important settings can be changed without resorting to utilizing the menu system.  Instead these settings (white balance, ISO, metering, etc.) can be changed via the selection of one of a handful of buttons on top of the camera and then the movement of one of two dials.  I’m not saying that only my Canon 40D offers up this immediate flexibility, but it’s good to have right there at one’s finger tips as all the buttons and dials can be reached by either a finger or thumb.

Now to be fair and accurate, not everything is sunshine and bunnies with the Canon 40D.  Of course I’m certain no camera is perfect, but it is the constant pursuit of perfection that yields (hopefully) better cameras each year.  To that end I wish my Canon did these things better.

First, the viewfinder should be both larger (offering 100% viewing – just what the camera sensor sees) and brighter.  The Nikon D300 clearly beat the 40D in my opinion when I was switching back and forth between these two excellent cameras.  If I had to pick which was more important to me I’d prefer the brighter viewfinder as I can live with the 95% viewing area that is the current situation for the 40D.  The Nikon’s viewfinder was wonderful.  I felt like I wasn’t really looking through a viewfinder at all.  Canon can and should be doing better here.

Second, and this is going to sound strange, maybe even petty, but why couldn’t the folks at Canon have included a built-in digital version of the viewfinder grid lines?  First, why do I want this?  Simple.  Sometimes one doesn’t notice that they do not have their camera level before the press the shutter release button.  But with grid lines it is so easy to make a quick check of how level is the camera before shooting.  The D300 has this feature, but the camera does cost about $500 more than the 40D.  However, my $250 Canon A630 digital compact camera has the grid line feature for the LCD display.  How can a $250 Canon have this feature, but not the $1,600 (with 17-85 kit lens) Canon dSLR?  I really cannot imagine that it would have cost much of anything to add this feature.  Maybe it’s something that will come along as a firmware upgrade?  I don’t know.  I DO know that it’s a feature I want and have used and expected in this camera.  My only other option (short of returning to the A630 or purchasing a D300) is to purchase the little screens that you can swap in the viewfinder.  A pain and expense that should not be visited upon a modern dSLR owner.  Period.  Are you listening Canon?

Third, while the camera has the requisite buttons for changing the most important settings, they are, in my opinion, too small and too identical to one another.  They lay in a line along the top of the camera, above the LCD status display window.  The Nikon D300 makes these buttons larger, but does nothing else to differentiate them from one another, but at least being larger is a step in the right direction.  I confess that I’m not certain what would be the best way to change the buttons to make them more distinct from one another, but certainly something could be done to rectify this minor ergonomic mistake.

Fourth and finally, I think it would have been nice if more control could have been given to the focus points.  With the 40D you have 13 focus points.  You can select each one individually or select them all and let the camera decide which it thinks are the most relevant focus points to use.  While this is fine under many circumstances it isn’t best for all situations.  I would really like to see the 40D offer the ability to select a specific group of focus points (like the three on the far right) so that one can focus on a general area and not on a specific spot within that general area.  Again, the D300 offers this ability, but it does come with a cost:  more cash.

So what is the bottom line here?  It would be grossly unfair of me to compare and contrast my 40D to any other dSLR in any meaningful way as I haven’t owned or operated any other dSLR.  While I spent an awful lot of time researching and playing around with them it isn’t the same thing as living with one day after day for six months as I have done with my 40D.

So the real question is:  Am I happy with my Canon EOS 40D dSLR?  And the answer is yes.  It is doing everything I want and need and does it with a minimum of fuss.  It can do far more than I have yet asked of it, but I know that with time I will explore the other abilities of the camera and make use of those that I find to my liking and needs.  Of course it’s very likely that I would have been quite happy with a Nikon D300 (but a little lighter in the wallet), but I made my decision and all those original feelings of buyers remorse have disappeared and been replaced by the excitement that comes from taking pictures with a great camera.

“Buying your first dSLR” or “Analysis Paralysis: A Retrospective”

Okay, first a bit of history. While growing up I was oddly attracted to two things: watches and cameras. I have no idea what was the attraction to either, but both remain quite strong and have been strong threads through the tapestry of my life. Didn’t that sound all artsy-fartsy?! Anyway, By the age of 12 I was rather informed about 35mm SLR film cameras simply by having collected brochures from the various manufacturers whenever I was at a store that carried camera equipment. Just from the brochures I had a basic understanding of f-stops, aperture, shutter speed, depth-of-field, film ASA/ISO numbers and how they interplayed with each other. Mind you, I didn’t have a camera. Hell, my parents didn’t have a 35mm SLR camera, but the usual point-and-shoot things from the likes of Kodak. My favorite camera line at that time was Minolta. I don’t recall why I liked them best, but there you are.

Years later (post moving out of my parents house) I purchased my first 35mm SLR camera; a Minolta. I took a lot of pictures back then, but had neither the money nor inclination to take up creative photography. Regardless I very much enjoyed taking pictures and regularly documented the life and times of myself and my friends. As a matter-of-fact I was typically the only one who ever had a camera handy and as such I’m the only one with a collection of pictures of my ‘crew’ from ‘back in the day’.

This particular camera served me well for many years, but wasn’t perfect. It had been purchased used and the flash unit I owned didn’t work properly with the camera. In 2003 I was asked to take pictures at my sister’s wedding as she and her fiance didn’t want to spend the dough on a professional and preferred to sink the money into a nicer wedding. Sounded reasonable to me and thus I found myself in the market for a new 35mm SLR camera. I ultimately settled upon a Nikon N65, Nikon flash and a Sigma 28-200mm telephoto lens. This was an excellent choice as it was reasonably priced and offered a plethora of standard features for a film-based 35mm SLR camera.

Now you may wonder why I didn’t purchase a digital camera right then and there. Well, if you recall 2003 properly you might find that digital photography was still in its infancy in many ways. It’s absolutely mind-blowing how much progress there has been in the realm of digital photography in just the past two-years, never mind five-years.

Since then I have purchased and still own two compact digital cameras: a Canon A95 and a Canon A630. Both were recommended purchases at ConsumerReports.org and I have been very, very pleased with both. Yes; they both suffer from some of the same problems that plague all compact and subcompact digital cameras. However, I have found each camera to be well built, very functional (i.e. loaded with manual options) and capable of producing very nice photographs for my everyday/around-the-house needs. But about two years ago I decided that both my needs and desires had developed such that I wanted to make the upgrade to the world of dSLR.

I started the process by doing lots of research about both dSLR cameras as well as printers, media cards and software. Each item is very important because each contributes to the overall success of any serious photographic work. After combing through magazines, web sites and anything else I could get my hands upon I decided the Nikon D80 was the choice for me. It was a clear step above the Canon Rebel and Nikon D40 lines, but didn’t quite touch the prosumer level with its subsequently higher starting prices. Unfortunately I was unable to afford the purchase at the time I came to the decision, which was around Christmas 2006. However, I hung in there and waited and by Christmas 2007 I was in a position to make the purchase. However, nothing in the consumer electronics arena stays the same for that long and over those 12-months many things came to pass.

Primarily what came to pass were the Nikon D300 and Nikon D80. I returned to my local camera shop and once again familiarized myself with the Nikon D80, but having read about the Nikon D300 I asked if I could ‘play’ with it. It was love at first touch. It is markedly larger than the Nikon D80, which is a good thing for me. At 6’4″ I’m no average Joe. The D80, while a nicely sized and proportioned camera, is small in my hand. The Nikon D300 was bigger and as such the controls fell more readily to finger. It was a camera I actually had to grip as opposed to the D80, which I overwhelmed. Of course, there were many other things about the Nikon D300 that were attractive: 51-focus points, an absolutely gorgeous 3″ LCD screen, Live View, etc. It represented the immediate future of dSLR cameras, while the D80 represented the past. I HAD to have this camera. However, there was a problem. More specifically there were one-thousand-seven-hundred-ninety-nine problems. As in dollars. The Nikon D80 with a complete package (case, two lenses, extended warranty, media card and some software) cost just over $2,000 including tax.

This was a problem. My lust and my checkbook were locked in mortal battle and I was afriad, yes afraid that lust would win. I worked hard to make the case for the purchase of the Nikon D300 over the D80. What wound up happening is that I suffered from analysis paralysis. If you are not familiar with this expression it basically means you have so much information related to a decision making process that you cannot make a decision. No clear winner comes from your analysis so you go back and re-analyze everything and once again come to no conclusion, and then re-analyze your data, etc., etc., etc. It is a vicious problem and one that I had never experienced before in my life. I have always been good about researching before making a decision, but I was always able to find a winner and run with it. Not this time. D80 or D300. D300 or D80. Less money or more camera. More camera or less money. What was I to do?

I wound up buying a Canon 40D.

I know what you’re thinking. WTF? And I don’t blame you. It was really a very all-of-a-sudden thing. There I was, back at the camera shop and making my salesperson’s life miserable, hemming and hawing over the D80 vs. D300 debacle. I was so despondent I took a step back and noticed the case with Canon cameras and asked the salesperson about the new Canon 40D (which came out at almost the exact same time as the Nikon D300). Why I hadn’t looked at Canon to begin with is a bit strange considering I already owned and had been quite satisfied with my Canon compact digital cameras. Well the answer is fairly simple: I wanted to own a Nikon. It was the manufacturer I had selected as being the better of the two and that was that.

The Canon 40D, surprisingly, felt even better in my hand than the D300. It is very similar in size and weight, but I found that my fingers fell onto the appropriate places even better with the 40D. Sure, it didn’t have the 51-focus points or the stunning LCD screen, but here is what it did have: a price tag of $1,499, including a kit 17-85mm lens. I returned home and began researching the Canon 40D and its system of lenses. While it wasn’t as advanced as the Nikon D300 there wasn’t anything missing from the Canon that the Nikon offered which I couldn’t live without. Or better put: the D300 offered nothing that would make me a better photographer over the Canon 40D.

I returned to the store on 20 December 2007 and purchased the Canon 40D with kit lens. I took it home and it sat on top of our fridge for a week before I would open it. I was suffering from buyers remorse. I WANTED the D300. It looked better in my opinion. It had two more megapixels. It had the beautiful 3″ LDC screen. It had this and that and that and this and it was the one I wanted. Period. Rational discussion was out the window as we were talking lust. I finally took the damn thing out of the box and started taking pictures. It was great. It did what I want. My fingers fell readily into place. It felt good in my hand and responsive to my inputs. While this did nothing to negate my D300 lust it did go a long way to convincing me that I had made the right decision.

The bottom line was dollars and cents. Think of it this way: the D300, the okay 18-200mm lens, decent flash and tax would have set me back over $3,000 and all I would have would be the camera, a single lens (and regardless of the praise some heap upon it, I think its levels of distortion are too high across the entire focal range) and the flash. On the other hand I now own the following: a Canon 40D dSLR, a Canon 580EX II flash unit, a Canon 50mm f/1.8 prime lens, a Canon 17-85mm USM IS lens, a Canon 70-200mm f/4 L USM IS lens, a nice Canon camera bag, a 2GB SanDisk Extreme III media card and a 4GB SanDisk Extreme III media card ALL for about the same price.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t still lust after the Nikon D300, but I’ve come to terms with my decision and believe that it is ultimately the best one I could have made. I have a camera that will serve me quite well (or so I hope) and with the money I saved I was able to buy other necessary equipment. Oh, and the Canon came with software that will allow me to connect the camera to a computer and run the camera from said computer. The Nikon would have required that I pay for that software (an $80 or so purchase).

This was an incredibly difficult decision for me. I suppose that my fiscal situation had a very strong impact upon my decision making process even though I didn’t want to make dollars and cents part of the equation. If better equipment costs more, then you buck up and pay the money for it. But in this case I don’t think the additional cost was going to provide me with that much more and certainly with nothing that will have made me a better photographer. I’m finally happy with my decision and even happier that my bout of analysis paralysis is finally over.