Throw her Away?

In my dim and now distant past youth I had an album or two by a group known as "Sparks". Formed in Los Angeles by Ron and Russel Mael, they were strange and decidedly quirky guys who wrote and performed some equally odd songs.  Right up there at say quirk factor number 8 or so was a little ditty titled “Throw Her Away” (and get a new one).

The concept being of course that your girlfriend will soon lose the gloss and appeal, she will become your old girlfriend and the best thing you can do is trade up before the decline sets in.  If she’s not perfect, she goes!  And there is always a better girl out there!

Some people, actually quite a few, see their cameras in the same way.

No camera is perfect, not even at the start of the relationship, all have a few warts, perhaps an idiosyncrasy or two, maybe they look all hot on the outside but get bad tempered under certain conditions.  Guess what you and I are not are not perfect photographers either.

We have all heard the saying, a bad tradesman blames his tools. I reckon there is a fair degree of truth in that, I can remember as a teenager I marvelled as I watched my dad, (a carpenter) do magic with a simple bench plane.   Me?  All I could do was make divots in an otherwise pristine piece of fine timber....must of been the plane!.

Somehow Dad had a feel for the action of that plane, he knew how to set it just so, when to adjust those little brass levers and the big knob and how to gently coax that fine old blade to a razor edge.  He could feel the plane protest at the grain before it even happened and accommodate it in his stroke.  Could he have bought a new and better plane, maybe, but in reality he had an affinity with that plane, as he did with a great many of his tools.

I reckon once you buy a new camera you should stop reading camera reviews, they will make it harder for you to accept and bond with your new camera. Consider the parallel of finding a new girlfriend, commencing dating, but still haunting the dating sites.  You just know it's not going to end well!

And lets call a spade a spade here, not all camera reviews can be fully trusted anyway, advertising can revenue can and does purchase certain favors and of those that can be trusted, the minutiae of what gets criticized is of little import in the scheme of actually taking photographs. 

Sometimes biases exist, sometimes reviewers are seeing things through a different prism to consumers.

It happens in all market areas, in OZ for example a certain brand of car, ("Ve vill mention no names, I know nuzing"), has won a wide array of awards from all sorts of magazines.  Now don't get me wrong, these cars drive like a dream of the showroom floor, they have it all, which is probably why many reviewers love them.  Except.......these cars are notoriously unreliable across the range of models they build and any mechanic can tell you tales of expensive horror and woe.   Does this seem to have any effect upon the gushing of motoring writers with regard to ze brand? 

Reviewers don't actually have to pay for the vehicle and all its future faults or live with it for 5 years, so no, the reliability issues don't count, Not a bit.  I also suspect the many advertorial dollars in play has some impact, you know the old saying, "he who pays the piper plays the tune."

So back to cameras.... sometimes the media can take a set against a camera or brand or range, you've no doubt read the following.

Oh this new Canikon Son D6-800 A7s takes 5 milliseconds longer to lock focus and the start up time is .01 seconds longer than its nearest rival.  And horror of horrors we had 5 frames not properly focused out of the 500 test shot we took!  5 Frames!  Imagine the front these manufacturers releasing such a piece of half cooked junk.  And then there is menu problem, it's terrible, the compression setting is on the third tab instead of where we all know it should be, on tab 2!

Heres some real advice for you, don’t throw her away and get a new one, adapt!

If the focus is slightly slow, learn to pre-empt better or even more importantly adjust the focus menu items if possible to make it faster.  If the fastest shutter speed is a mere 1/4000 and you need to use the f1.4 lens wide open buy an ND filter, its cheaper than a new camera.

So the camera consistently underexposes by half a stop!  Well try this, adjust your exposure compensation up half as stop as your default position.

Whats that you say, don’t like the colour rendition out of the camera.  Well roll your own, go find the parameter settings or even better try fine tuning your white balance.

So you get the occasional blurry shot from camera movement, learn to press the shutter more smoothly or hold the camera better, raise the ISO, use a faster lens, open the aperture a bit and watch where you focus a bit more carefully.

The interesting thing about adapting to your camera is all those annoying little quirks become irrelevant, and in the end that will equate to you being free to shoot more fluidly and perhaps more creatively.

No camera is perfect, but almost any camera can give better results if you really know how to use it and take the time get to know one another, build a relationship so to speak and work around its deficiencies, small as they usually are. 

And how long will that take.....oh I find about 10,000 frames.  

Whats that you say, you trade up a 5000 frames or the next model, whichever comes first!

Oh you really are a marketers dream!

I understand the temptation, really I do, lately I have been tempted by miss A7r and that sweet little firecracker RX1 looks sooo nice and lets not mention the smooth new A6000 Nex impostor.  But I find the best way to kill the temptation is go and take a few pics with the old gals.  Works every time

Hard fact, most people I come across in classes saying they need a new camera, actually need to read the instructions manual for their old one first, take a few shots and adapt.


The Thursday Pic - No 4

Southport Central

Taken back in mid 2009, this was one of the first photos I took with my then new Sony A900, the lens was a humble 35-70 f4 and this image was shot at 45mm which is pretty much the optimum setting for "mini beercan" as it is known.  Aperture was f 9 and shutter 1/125, just in case you wondered.

It was actually a pivotal image, why?  Close examination of the file and others taken at the same time  revealed the A900 had a very noisy red channel.  No big deal you think, so do a lot of cameras.

Well yes they do, but my frustration with the reds and the desire to do better led me down a path of experimentation and study, eventually leading me to developing my True Light Capture System, which I use to this day.

One day soon I will blog about the system but for now I must say I do like the composition and the final 24 by 30 inches looks really great, even after a few years have passed.

The location was the then new "Southport Central Complex" which is located on the Aussie Gold Coast.  This is the rear entrance, but the colours you see here are used all around the exterior of the complex. 


An image probably as confusing as the questions in this post.

20 Photography Questions to Ponder

By all means post me some answers, I would love to know what you think.

What camera would Ansel have used if He was born in 1980?

How many megapixels really Is enough?

Do “gear forum” lurkers actually find the time to take photos?

How come most male photographers think they need a 400mm f4 super tele lens?

How many pictures does the average camera take before it is replaced?

As cameras have got smarter have photographers got dumber?

When will the “Bride and Groom in the wine glass” montage shot come back into fashion?

How come all selfies have the same look?

Would Cartier Bresson have embraced the iPhone?

If Canon and Nikon are the worlds biggest camera makers how come Apple sell more cameras?

Was film photography invented by hipsters?

Is it now compulsory to have a pet cat in lens tests posted on camera forums?

How come those people who think editing is cheating don’t shoot with all their camera parameters set to zero?

If women like soft portraits why are 85mm lenses are so dammed sharp?

If world famous “fine art landscape photographers” are all creative geniuses how come their photos so often look the same?

Why is so much fine art photography so thoroughly impenetrable to 99.99% of people?

Do you actually have to be a Lunatic to buy a Hassleblad Lunar?

How many lenses does one man need before he can call himself a photographer?

What really is better, Nikon or Canon?

If a photo is taken, but nobody sees it was it actually taken?

I will post my answers soon.....


Getting Real About Comparing ISO Settings

800 ISO f4 @ 1/50 sec with 18mm with OSS,  NEX 5n,
a very useable combination, why would I need to push the ISO higher?

Heres a newsflash for you, raising the ISO on your cameras always trades off image quality....always...no exceptions.  When you raise the ISO you underexpose the image at the sensor level and maximum image quality is always optimal when the exposure is at its maximum....right before the highlights actually clip.
And why dear friend do we then raise the ISO?

To access faster shutter speeds to either minimise camera or subject movement.

To access a more adequate level of depth of field without going too slow on the exposure. 

Or to shoot hand held under very low light.

With me so far, good, now answer me this, why do I get all uptight when testers start bagging say 1" or M4/3 sensors when they look mushy at 3200 ISO and above? Simple, we are not comparing apples to apples!!!!

Accepted wisdom is that FF cameras are heaps better at high ISOs, well they dammed well better be, because you are much more likely to need “them there high ISOs’. You see folks it’s never just about the shutter speed or the aperture you need, it's about the interaction between the two of them and the mechanics of the camera in question.

Let me run some numbers for you, I love numbers they can be so edifying, and so confusing as well when mis-used, anyhow lets get some edification happening.  Say you are shooting a group of people in a restaurant at night, you know the sort of thing, a bunch of friends sitting at a table, and you want everyone sharp, so no-ones nose gets out of joint or focus.  So there you stand 1.5 m from the nearest person and the furthermost bod is 4.5 meters away. Flash won't help, the inverse square law will see that,  Mr 1.5m is rendered a ghost and Miss 4.5m a woman of the dark shadows.

Nope you need to run with available darkness. Now lets say you have a lovely 24 mp FF DSLR fitted with a 35mm lens which is just wide enough to fit everyone in without producing any Humpty Dumpty egg shaped head distortion or empty foreground syndrome. And lets face it, no one wants a head like Humpty Dumpty!

So here we go, according to the DOF scales on my iPhone, you would need to focus at about 2.2 metres with an aperture of f10 to cover your needs.  But wait what if we instead use APSC, now the lens will be set at 23.5 mm for the same angle of view and using the same focus point we can run with f6.4 for basically the same result. In udder wordz we get to use a whole F stop and a bit wider or an ISO step and a bit lower or perhaps helpfully a shutter speed faster.

Ah but what if we have a lovely little 16mp M4/3 pocket rocket, the focal length will now be 17.5 mm and the required aperture according to the DOF Master, just f3.2, if I move the focus a little further out to 2.4 m  Ah yes that's right f3.2, now that is near enough a whole 3 f stops or 3 ISO steps lower than the full frame...like we can use 1600 iso instead of 12800 ISO! Now seriously do you really think that 12800 iso on a FF camera is cleaner than 1600 on a state of the art M4/3 camera. It might just be with say the new Nikon DF but generally I would say no.

Ah but lets dig a little deeper, lets dig right down to a 1" sensor like the one in the sony RX 100. Our crop factor is now 2.7x, so 35mm equals 13mm.  Guess what aperture you will need, allowing for the slight backwards shift of focus....f 2.  Basically we don't have that option on the Sony devices but we sure could in the future and Nikon has a lens that will comply with f2, but heck, f2....that's 4.3 stops wider than the FF DSLR or 4.3 ISO steps less. In other words about 640 iso instead of 12800 iso. And trust me, that award winning rx100 performs pretty well at that ISO level.  That’s a big deal fellow photographers and it provides a whole bunch of other options when the light packs up an leaves.  You of course have the option to also shoot much faster shutter speeds and go up a bit on the ISO for example.

But there's more, well there usually is...DSLRs have mirrors and going low on the shutter speeds often incurs a sharpness penalty. Trust me, I am a pretty steady shooter but there is no way on earth I can hand hold my Sony A900 with say an 100 mm lens anywhere near as slow as I can go on my Nex 5n with the Electronic first Curtain shutter enabled and a 55-210 OSS lens set at say the equivalent 65mm or so. I calculate I need about an extra 2 shutter speeds higher on the A900 to get the same results clarity wise due to camera movement. That folks gives the NEX 5n about a 3 stop advantage for real world low light work....or I can use lets say 400 iso instead of 3200. Don’t bother arguing with me I actually shoot paid jobs this way and I know from painful experience what works and what is just wishful full frame thinking.

And still more! On most cameras, noise reduction or to put it more accurately detail reduction starts to kick in around 800 to 1600 iso, even with RAW files in many cases. Any camera that lets you stay under say 1000 ISO is going to have some obvious advantages, regardless of format.

And on it goes, for a great proportion of photos the ISO you will need will be closely related to the efficiency of the cameras image stabilisation and it is here that many DSLRs start to drop back because the stabilisation is normally in the lens....or not at all. Non-stabilised glass will ultimately force you to a tripod 2 to 3 stops earlier, or cause you raise the ISO by an equivalent number of steps.

Currently the Olympus OM is probably is the king of the hill where practical shooting under low light is concerned, its 5 axis image stabilisation offers 4 to 5 stops of compensation with pretty much any lens, but maybe a bit less with some. On top of that remember that m4/3 is 3 stops ahead on DOF to start with. So up front the advantage compared to a regular DSLR with non- IS lenses in marginal light could be a massive 7 stops where the subject itself is still! Or lets put this another way, you could use 200 iso instead of about 25000iso. Ah but I hear the DSLR fanboys yelling, "yeah but man, we got da fast glass and the super clean high ISOs, and I respond..so?

Just read back a few lines, I said “practical shooting” not DXO lab test king...practical.....like actually holding the camera in your hands, you know, without a tripod.  The OM gives you access to some equally fast native glass of top quality and it can use all your fast glass via adapters with full IS too.

Hell man you could even use a Metabones speed booster for another f stop boost plus fast glass and IBIS on the Olympus!

Now you can argue all you like, and I know those Big Boy Canon and Nikon users will, but using say a 85 mm 1.4 lens wide open under low light for anything even mildly close to the camera is never going to give you a reliable real world usable DOF for anything other than low res web images, to hell with the current shallow DOF fashion I say, it is just not practical.  

Like an example, lets say we take a shot at 5m, 85mm, f1.4, and what pray tell is your total DOF....oh about 17 cm or half a head! Your focus better be totally spot on 100% of the time otherwise its a crap shoot. Whats the chance of you reliably nailing a singer in a nightclub actually singing and moving around against those DOF odds?

Now.....just hold on a bit now as I have to go into the bedroom and pop my Ultra Flameproof suit on.........dum de dum dumm dum....Ok here I am all back.

I often run low light night photography workshops and one little aspect that became really obvious early on was that 400 ISO on one camera is not necessarily 400 ISO on another. Many Canon DSLRs in particular seem to be, ah how can I put this...ah ....using ISO ratings that are fantasy compared to say Nikon or Sony. I am talking about people shooting on full manual at fixed ISO with identical apertures and shutter speeds and the good old Canons ending up around 2/3 to 1 stops under exposed compared to their peers. No its not all Canons, the 6D for example seems to be fairly honest but frankly theres more than a fair share of porkies been told.

Don't bother arguing with me, I am not going to be convinced, remember this is when taking groups of people under real world conditions with various camera models and brands and looking at the resulting images side by side, it's not isolated, it has happened in every single workshop, I don’t make this stuff up.

Moving beyond the settings and brands, camera style and ergonomics has an enormous role to play in what you can get away with. Currently Sony has the A7r and the RX1 in their catalogue, one has a smooth as silk leaf shutter and no IS, the other a rattle gun shutter ( sorry, I mean a slightly loud and little bit clunky) ....oh forget it....the shutter is crap. Anyhow the RX1 can be shot at very low speeds despite the lack of IS, the A7r is by all accounts a bit hit and miss dependent upon the shutter speed and lens fitted so is far more likely to actually need those marvellously clean high ISOs.

Granted there are some very specific circumstances where a FF DSLRs better high ISO performance will translate into better, or at least lower noise images. Mainly these are situations where DOF really doesn't matter, like astronomy or shooting really distant landscapes under very dim light, or perhaps arty super shallow DOF stuff, of if you shoot using a tripod.

Lets say you shoot a moonlit landscape at F2 using a 50mm lens, so long as the nearest element you want in focus is at least 20 metres away you're good to go....or not.  There is a fly in that ointment, we are assuming you have a lens that is able to actually perform well at that aperture under low level but high contrast light, don't assume that can done at any sane price point for a FF format lens.

On the other hand, your puny little m4/3 camera can probably access a reasonably priced 24mm f1.4 lens that really will deliver at f2 (maybe even f1.4)....its just easier to achieve this with smaller image circles, period.  Realistically with full frame you will at least need to stop down to f2.8 to clear up the residual deficiencies in most 50mm FF lenses, barring of course the new $4000.00 Zeiss Otus or perhaps that new super duper Sigma on the horizon.

So we have arrived at an end, I think those with open minds have perhaps got my drift but just to be sure, what is my take away point?  

ISO ratings and high ISO performance by themselves are quite meaningless, unless of course you're in an argument in the Pub and the next shout is at stake, then tell whatever porkies are required. 


What matters is how the system as a whole works because that is what will determine what you or I can actually get away with.  In other words unless you can tell me about, shutter action smoothness and shutter type, DOF requirements, real ISO rating, lens choice, camera ergonomics, IS or no IS, all your doing is sprouting useless DXO numbers that may or may not translate into improved real world shooting results.

So the next time you hear some knowledgeable camera tester berating an m4/3 or 1 inch sensor cam for not having stellar 6400iso performance, think carefully before you start nodding in agreement at their infinite but flawed wisdom.


Mastering Your Kit Lens - Part 8

Using your kit lens pre-focused and fixed to one focal lenght means your ready for the unexpected, lift and shoot.

Today we have come to end of the kit lens series and I will sum up a few points as well as show a few more kit lens created pics for your inspiration.  All these shots like everything else in this series was taken with a Sony 18-55mm OSS E mount on a Sony NE 5n.

Parameter Settings Count

You will often read of how the Zeiss lenses have high contrast and punchy colour, or old Minolta glass has a warm tint and so forth, which is all true by the way,  but to a great degree for JPEGs you can punch up or tame any lens by adjusting the parameter settings on your camera. In other words you can go some way towards getting the look of some more expensive glass.

Vertical Stitching and close focus means shallow depth of field

The three main controls are saturation, contrast and sharpness and all three of these are useful to modify the rendering of your lens.

Of the three, sharpness will likely be the most useful for tailoring your lens rendering, followed by contrast and then saturation. 

Adjusting the sharpness up will increase the local contrast giving a punchier look, if you keep an eye on your exposure to ensure you don't clip your highlights it might be just the ticket.

Contrast will increase the overall punch of an image but going too hot on it will likely lead to clipping, probably of more use is to lower the contrast setting, which in combination with low sharpness and saturation but brighter exposure can give a kind of dreamy look.

Saturation will increase the colour intensity, as an example you can get a reasonable analogue for classic Minolta glass by increasing the saturation, lowering the contrast one notch and shifting your white balance just a tad to the warmer end of the spectrum.

Your kit lens will not be a Zeiss or Minolta clone, but you can certainly get it a little more "Zeiss like" via careful adjustment of the parameters, and conversely you can dial things back for a far more muted rendition such as was seen with old uncoated lenses.

All good creative fun!

Low light levels are hardly a challenge for kit lenses these days

Sure your kit lens does not have the widest apertures available but wide open it still gives enough separation for most needs.

This shot is a cropped frame from a 55mm shot taken with the Sony 18-55 OSS, it is equal to about 80mm, still looks plenty sharp right out to the edges and corners. You could of course crop far more if needed.

Why Get Another Lens

Ultimately a higher quality replacement for you kit lens will give you a higher grade tool with some benefits for specific purposes, for example shallow DOF portraits or closer macro ability, perhaps it will just feel nicer to use,  but it is highly unlikely to make you a radically better photographer.  You know this, we all know this, but somehow marketing places us in a state of suspended disbelief where all we need to do is click "buy" and offer up our credit card for some instant photographic gratification.

With a new lens you are not looking at massive improvements, rather an incremental change that might help in some select situations like shooting in marginal light, working with manual focus or extending your focal length range, so long as you accept that then go ahead get that lens.

With expressive shots like this, what gain would there be with a fast expensive lens, pretty much none!

But..........being honest.

If you want really good bang for your buck then perhaps sticking with your kit lens and learning how to use it better and experimenting via actual picture taking experience might be the superior approach.

There is of course nothing wrong with rewarding yourself a lovely new lens but good technique and creativity will easily win out in the end and others will judge you by your images not your lens. 

Yes you can shoot macro at the wide angle end with a macro filter...works a treat!

and finally.....

The Ultimate Kitty Lens Kit

So you want to travel light, you want to be a free creative dynamo, unencumbered by too much gear and too many decisions. There is a great truth in that old adage, “keep it simple”.

Well with no further ado here is my idea of the KISP kit. “Keep it simple photography kit”

Your camera and the kit Lens

1 Spare Battery and charger

A car charger

Collapsible rubber lens hood

Variable ND filter for shooting video

Circular polarizing filter

1 or 2 diopter close up filter

DIY’d softar made from a uv filter

Short auto extension tube

Good camera grip

Half a dozen memory cards so you don’t have to worry about running out of memory or deleting stuff

And of course a little case to put it all in.

The filters will stack together and the hood can remain on the camera, the memory cards can slip into a small holder.

I suspect that if you use the contents outlined in my kit lens series you might just end up taking some of your most creative shots yet for very little outlay and realistically you will be able to cover pretty much whatever comes your way.
Oh and by the way I will have some future posts on DIY filters and grips as well as hood mods so stay tuned.


The Thursday Pic - No 3

Fog Squadron

I took this shot about 12 months ago, in fact it is 3 shots composited.

Goulburn is often blanketed in early morning fog throughout Autumn and for years I have been a sucker for fog, I usually take quite a few pics along the river banks and in town during the season.

The donor images were captured on my iPhone 4S, which I carry with me at all times, in this case however I was running a little workshop for some disabilities students on using your iPhone for photography and I noticed how the ducks kept coming in to land in small groups, then flying off again.

I figured if I could get a few shots and stack them I could get a better effect that expressed the concept more fully and happily that is how it worked out.

The image is one I will print to canvas in the near future, I have just the spot for it.

Mastering Your Kit Lens - Part 7

The Tube Option

Look, straight up I can tell you nothing beats a real macro lens when you want to go really close, heck I have three of them, but you can get awfully close in overall look if not in clarity by using an extension tube or two on your kit lens. 

Using a macro tube and kit lens is useless for true flat field macro work, like slide/neg duplication but for most macro dabblers that is something they will never do. Sure the edges and corners will not be critically sharp with a kitty plus extension tube, but sharp all over its not really that useful for most macro work.

You can get pretty close, in fact right down to 1:1 with the right combo of tube and focal length. One little oddity is that kit lenses designed for mirrorless cameras typically need far less extension tube length to get really close, hence most tube kits for mirrorless rigs only include two shorter rings instead of the standard three.

Just in case your wondering “would a fast standard lens work better on the tubes” the answer is maybe, but probably not.   Fast lenses are really designed to distance work, when was the last time you heard of a f 1.4 macro lens? Generally when mounted to a tube setup, fast glass suffers from all sort of field curvature issues so your kitty could easily outperform the fast fixed focal length lens because at least it is designed to go reasonably close to start with.

Forget about those really cheap manual tube sets on eBay, they have no way of controlling the aperture, everything ends up being shot wide open. Likewise the cheapies won’t work with your cameras metering or auto focus options. You can pick a full auto set up for between $80-150.00, (these will allow auto focusing) the dearer ones are aluminium and the cheaper ones plastic. For occasional kit lens use plastic is fine and will save a little weight in the bag and ultimately if you get all “macro excited” you will progress to a full bore macro lens anyway.

This branch of kit lens tom-foolery will require a solid tripod, unless you want your shots to look like you took them after downing a couple of bottles of red. You will also need to think about supplementary lighting, the on-camera flash will be worse than useless. I use natural light and small reflectors, but you can use artificial light sources as well, anyhow its all about the light when the going gets tight!

Close Focus Filters

Oh I love these innocent looking little mites, they can open a world of creative options for next to no cost, little weight penalty and an ease of use that can’t be beat.

Though you can purchase filters ranging from 1 to 10 dioptre you'll find a one or two dioptre filter will see you through most of your practical requirements, handily extending the close focusing range of your kit lens. Generally the higher the dioptre rating the poorer the clarity, and frankly most 10s I have tried are next to useless.

Using a number one dioptre macro filter in combination with the wide angle end your lens can produces some rather interesting macro affects that I refer to this as “contextual macro”. With this approach you see the surrounding environment combined with a close-up view of the subject, the image at the top of the page is a good example and the following two continue the theme.

Here is an example of a contextual macro shot taken at 18 mm on my Sony 18-55 OSS kit lens, the trick is using the macro filter to allow closer focus but still get the wide angle view and I find the look to be very satisfying.
And another contextual macro for good measure.

The close-up filter can also sometimes have an effect on the bokeh in a nice way, giving smoother out of focus areas.

When used in conjunction with the telephoto end of your lens you can slightly increase the apparent focal length, say making your 55mm look like 65mm. This increase can give a more natural perspective for close-up portraits, note however you won't be able focus anything beyond just a metre and a bit, but for these portraits that’s perfect.

Here I go breaking my own rules and showing my dog pics,
but Holly the Collie just looks so sweet when shot with the  18-55 OSS and a no 1 close up filter,
roughly equals a 65mm lens at f5.6.

Adding a close up filter can also provide a vehicle for shooting creative “Out of Focus” shots, which can be great fun.

Close up filters don't provide perfect clarity across the entire frame into the comers but the centre and out towards the edges of the image will be more than adequately sharp which for most macro work is fine, but even better when you actually want stuff out of focus like the example below.

Not just out of focus, now we have "painterly out of focus", again it is the macro filter that makes this possible.

Small Apertures
Somewhere along the way you have probably heard that you should not stop your aperture down too much otherwise your pics get soft due to diffraction. True enough!  But don’t let that deter you, if you need more depth of field you can always go small on the hole and big on the sharpening, either “in camera” or in post capture editing.
I have found from experience with thousands of images shot at small apertures, they can easily be sharpened up if needed, but the opposite of adding sharpness when it wasn’t even recorded due to too wide an aperture is near impossible.
Of course there are benefits also to using small apertures other than just getting more DOF. You can use slower shutter speeds and tripod to increase motion effects, you can kill stone dead “moire” (weird colour and false detail ) on patterned objects, get around many of the common lens aberrations and probably even control high contrast scenes a bit better.
Anyways, learn to sharpen files properly and you can happily work away with those small apertures, like f16, 18 or even 22, but just to be on the safe side probably best to leave f28 and smaller alone, they are just a “hole to far” for even the best sharpening tools.

Original Raw File Shot at f22 on Sony 18-55 OSS set at 18mm,  note the distortion, chromatic aberration, vignetting and overall softness of the image.

Same image, this is the OCC version (out of camera jpeg), it has less distortion and chromatic aberration and vignetting but still looks a bit soft as a result of diffraction from using such a small aperture.

And now for something better, in this case we have a the raw file version that has had all the corrections applied for CA, vignetting and distortion, but in this case it has been properly sharpened in post to address the loss of clarity from the small aperture used at capture.  Net result, an image that is technically very good and has enormous depth of field.


Mastering Your Kit Lens - Part 6

A Vertical Panorama, probably equal to around 14mm on APSC.

Your kit lens normally offers 18mm at the wide end but about when you want super wide angle shots with your kit lens ?  

The answer is go the stitch.

Most kit lenses have one focal length that is just better than all the others, chances are its somewhere in the 24-30mm range for APSC cameras. If you can work out what this length is via testing and determine the optimum aperture you can press your kitty into service for panoramas...even really big ones, or not so big ones.

It is true that most panorama applications these days can correct distortion automatically, however it all works better if the files are as distortion free as possible.

Many cameras are now offering some sort of panorama option, either helping you to line things up in the camera or even stitching the images in camera as with most Sonys. You can pan horizontally or vertically or if using post capture assembling even shoot in a matrix, regardless of which method you apply the end result for non-moving subjects will probably significantly exceed what you would have obtained by shooting a single frame on a much wider lens.

But there is much more to this option, it opens a whole new world of kit lens based possibilities, lets explore.

The four core advantages with the stitched approach over using a really wide lens are:

Much higher real resolution

Less distortion on the edges

Greater flexibility for cropping

Vastly less money tied up in a lens that has limited usage for most photographers.

All of the above factors are quite practical but the stitch also opens up a wealth of creative alternatives that are otherwise difficult or impossible to achieve.

A Matrix Image, combined from 12 frames, the fine detail resolution is quite amazing, shot with Sony 18-55 OSS at 55mm, distance to subject was about 3 metres.

Really Big Photos

With the right technique and enough computer processing you can stitch an enormous number of frames together for massive prints or super high res smaller prints (though still big). In theory and practice the more frames you stitch the less important the ultimate resolution of your lens becomes as you’re simply never going to enlarge the resulting stitch enough to see the defects in the donor frames.

Proper stitching needs careful set-up so most people work with panorama heads or tools that streamline the process of capturing the frames, however these days the stitching software is so good that you can almost be sloppy with hand held captures and still get great results.

Anyway, fact is your kit lens is perfectly capable of producing great files for stitching and especially so if you take the time to find the optimum focal length and aperture for your particular lens. Should that focal length be at the longer end of the zoom range it doesn’t matter, you just shoot more pics to cover the required area, if it is towards the wider end you can shoot less frames for the same overall coverage.

Three Frame Stitch, taken in a lane-way where the 18mm setting was not 
wide enough to capture the scene due to the narrow width of the lane.
A sony 18-55mm OSS E mount was used at 27mm for the donor frames.

Three Frame Stitch 

This is rather neat, lets say you need a wide angle shot but your lens is not so great at the widest setting. Many aren't and often they produce odd distortions towards the edges of the frame.

Well try this, set your zoom to an more moderate wide angle setting , 26-28mm being a good choice for APSC users. Turn your camera sideways for portrait mode capture and shoot three frames to cover the area you need. It’s important you keep the camera level and rotate it as much as possible around the centre of the lens barrel (roughly the nodal point), rather than you spinning on the spot and you need about 20% overlap for each frame.

Once you open the files and run them through the panorama app on your computer you should end up with an image with about twice the resolution (min) of a single frame and a bit more coverage than the widest setting on your lens with little distortion. If it the final result is distorted you probably chose the wrong stitching option or shot your photo very crooked, practice and experience will make perfect.  

You can use transform tools in your editing program to push and prod the perspective of the resulting image and a fascinating aspect of stitching is you can get perspective renderings that are not possible with a single frame capture. Normally you have enormous control over the "projection" via the panorama rendering options you choose to apply.

Another advantage, 3 - 4 frame stitches normally result in files in the 30-40 megapixel range which gives you a much better array of options for creative editing. Fact is no matter what anyone wants to tell you, more pixels always gives more flexibility in terms of pushing pixels around in post, and that includes: colour, tone, sharpening, contrast and of course distorting things.

Believe it or not this was taken with a the Sony 18-55mm OSS E Mount set at 18mm, the DOF is very shallow and pleasing. The secret, it is a five frame portrait orientation stitch taken from very close up to the sign at f3. 5

Stitch to Simulate Shallow Depth of Field

Well actually this is not a simulation, you really can get shallow DOF.

Let me try to explain this. Normally if you used say 35mm focal length on an APSC camera you have to stand back a bit to get all the content in the frame. Now DOF is dependent upon several things, aperture, focal length, the comparative distances between the near and far objects in the scene and overall magnification.

Its not the format that matters by the way, there is nothing magic about 35mm Full Frame or Medium format, rather its that when you use a larger format the focal length and magnification factors etc have to change to fit things into the picture. That means that if you actually stitch smaller frames to make a big frame you can probably get a similar look DOF wise to shooting in a larger format.

Think of it like this, you’re using 35mm lens but instead of standing back to fit the whole scene in the frame you now move in closer to fit only part of it. This increases the magnification factor and the comparative distances between near and far objects in your frame. Hence your DOF becomes much more shallow, even if you used the same aperture.

Now of course your going to take a number of frames to cover the whole scene and it quite likely that the resulting image area of the final frame could be as larger or larger than a FF camera.

So what do we get, we basically we get a very similar look to using a much larger format with very high resolution and the shallow DOF we crave for potentially at no extra expense, (other than software if we don’t already have it)

It’s probably worth saying, most people never shoot pans this way, rather they use panoramas to cover wider than normal distant scenes that cannot be done with a single frame. In such cases because everything is relatively distant the DOF will look pretty much the same as it always does for the format you are using.

I have noticed a rather nice benefit with this approach over regular shallow DOF shots. We often read long winded discussions on web forums about the quality of the Bokeh (blur effect) from various high speed lenses. Very fast lenses often have blur characteristics that are rough and edgy and it is very much dependent on the aperture, anyway my experience is stitched shallow DOF pans have a much more pleasing bokeh that tends to be smooth and natural rather than forced looking. Bear in mind your kit lens mileage may vary but basically it should be similar as your apertures will be similar to mine and there is a lot more consistency between kit lens construction than there is with fast lens construction.

Anyhow my attached picture will tell the bokeh story better and next time we will explore the macro options a little more deeply.

Again another stitch, this time four frames taken in portrait orientation at 18mm f3.5.
There was quite a bit of geometric transformation applied to the image to square things up. 
But the finished result works a treat and is very sharp where it is intended to be sharp.


Mastering Your Kit Lens - Part 5

Normally you would not shoot macro images at the widest focal length but sometimes it works just fine.

Now that you know more about your kit lens time has come to look at the creative use of the wee beasty and we start with macro first.

Macro Considerations

Perhaps surprisingly a good number of kit lenses are able to focus really closely, no they won't replace your Macro lens, they are not that capable but nonetheless you can get more than passable results.  In fact if you're prepared to crop a bit, which with modern day levels of resolution is hardly a challenge we can get very good results.  

First a little tip, shooting a bit wider and cropping will probably help you get more consistent results with regard to focus and depth of field as the closer we go the harder it gets to get adequate DOF.  You wouldn’t believe the number of people I have in classes with macro lens focusing dramas!   Step back from the insect.....and crop!

Beyond just using the kit lens we can always use a cheap macro filter  ( plus 2 diopter normally works well ) to extend the macro reach or perhaps even a thin auto extension tube to go even closer.  The edges will never compete with your macro lens for clarity but who really needs flower shots with tack sharp corners and the cost and weight savings are huge.  Just as an example you can probably pick up a set of three macro filters for less than $30.00 on ebay or a cheap set of Auto extension tubes for $75.00.

A Macro lens on the other hand will run to about $400.00 as a starting point!

One big advantage of Macro filters is they don't reduce the light reaching the sensor like extension tubes do so normally you can get away with a faster shutter speed.  Anyway I have both tubes and filters and use them often.

This little fella was captured with a short auto extension tube and a Sony 18-55mm OSS E mount lens, no problems going close them and plenty of detail.

It might not be obvious, but this "Aqualegia" seed pod is very small, probably about a third of the size it appears on this page, again a short extension tube and Sony 18-55 OSS nails it with ease. 

Fixed Focal Length

Yes thats right you could use your kit zoom as a fixed focal length lens and in fact I mostly do exactly that.  Consider this, all zoom lenses actually have a focal length sweet spot, a point where the balance of all aberrations are best corrected, it is probably somewhere around the middle of the focal length range on your kit  zoom but you will need to test to find out.

Generally it is in the 24-28mm range and at the setting you are likely working with a maximum aperture of f4, which in the scheme of things is quite practical provided the lens is nice and sharp at that setting.

For example my Sony 18-55 OSS e mounts' perfect spot is 27mm, at this setting CA is almost non-existent, there is very minimal distortion and the vignetting is not noticeable at all unless you are shooting blue skies.

In my case I have marked the lens up to easily find that 27mm setting and I use a big wide rubber band to hold it there, I just treat it as a fixed lens, even manually focusing most of the time.  I have no qualms about shooting wide open if needed as the lens is plenty sharp at that setting.

Ignore what you see in lens tests on-line, typically they only test the lenses at max wide and tele settings and maybe the 35mm setting so they almost never uncover the true jewell within in kitty unless by accident, (like 35mm happens to be the optimal setting).

This image is an example of using both pre-focus manual and fixed focal length on the zoom, in fact I shoot around 60 -70% of all my images with the Sony 18-55 OSS fixed at 27mm.  In this case we were walking quickly through an alley in Hanoi, the fixed focus makes for reliable faster street shooting.

Pre Focus Manual

In ancient pre -digital times photographers regularly used a concept called “Zone Focusing” to quickly capture scenes with minimal fuss using direct vision cameras.  Its not complex and can be an amazing tool to improve your street photography or even family snaps.

Basically you pre-focus at a fixed distance and adjust the aperture to enable the Depth of Field to cover your needs. As an example you might fix your kit lens to 28mm and focus at 2.5 metres.  Referring to a set of Depth of Field scales on my iPhone   (I use DOF Master) I can see that with an APSC camera I can get from about 1.6m to 5.4 metres in acceptable focus using F5.6.  Which is just peachy for shoot from the hip street photography.

All I need to do is place my Kitty in Manual focus, focus on something at that distance  (2.5 metres in this case) place my camera in aperture priority  (Av mode on most cameras) set my aperture to f 5.6 and my ISO to auto and I am hot to trot.

It is super quick because there is no hunting for focus, or mis-focus on too distant or too close objects.

Trust me I shoot stuff like this all the time, it works a treat and is often more reliable, not to mention far quicker and less obtrusive for candid work, most people just don't have time to react or don't imagine you could be shooting that quickly.

Many of the greats of Street Photography worked just like this, so you too can be your own Cartier Bresson.

Just Crop It

Should the 55mm end be insufficient for your needs you can always crop say the middle 70% out of the frame to get some extra reach with good even clarity from edge to edge because you of course cut off those pesky corners.  Perhaps even better, a good number cameras will digitally zoom at moderate levels to render out a cropped but upsized JPEG straight out of the camera,  all Sony cameras for example do this, and they do it really well,  they normally go out to 2 times magnification which makes your 55mm end equal to 110mm.

Now before you start throwing any hissy fits and howling at the moon in protest to “going the crop”, lets run some numbers. Say you have a 24 megapixel APSC DSLR and you cropped half the frame away, you'd still have 12 megapixels and most of the micro 4/3 cameras were that until very recently.  In fact if you cropped without resampling your 24mp frame to M4/3 dimensions you get around 14mp and a Full Frame equivalent of 110mm out of your std kit lens!   A 16 meg sensor will be less impressive coming back to about 9-10 megapixels but still thats enough for a good sized print, like A3!

If you have a focal length that is a bit soft on the edges, sometimes you can actually get a sharper shot by shooting slightly wider then cropping to match.  For example my 18-55 Sony is a bit rubbish in the corners at 35mm but terrific at 30mm, cropping the 30mm frame to match the 35mm angle of view actually gives a better looking image in terms of having even "cross frame clarity". 

And try this one on for size..... Often you just need a wider aperture to cope with low light levels.   Well now your kit lens is usually f3.5 at the wide end and gets down to 5.6 at the tele end.  Perhaps shooting at 18mm f3.5 and cropping the frame down by say 30% to 40% might just give you the aperture boost you need when the going gets really tough.  
Oh and guess what, those in camera digital zoom functions work at shorter focal lengths too!

But there is more, lets say you have to take a group shot in a low light situation, and you need say 30mm to cover the group and f8 to get enough DOF.  Unfortunately for you, the shutter speed will now be too slow, ah but grasshopper try this.  Go wider than you need and you can then get the DOF you need without having to go too small on the aperture and bingo you can shoot at a faster shutter speed....just add the crop later.

All I had was the Sony18-55 OSS and of course the action was a bit far away, crop away I say, still looks fine doesn't it.

The Creative Crop Chop

Cropping to gain a magnification or f stop boost is fine and dandy but what about cropping for compositional improvement and how might that relate to kit lenses anyway.

Assuming your camera is an APSC model the frame format is 2 to 3 which has been around since Oskar shoved a roll of 35mm movie film in a little metal box with a nice lens attached and yelled Leica.  But photos can look great at all sorts of other formats, like 4 to 3,  4 to 5, 16 to 9 and that holy of holies of medium format, the square.

Now what do you think happens when we crop to any of these formats from 2 to 3?  Easy, we lose those pesky messy corners that our kit lenses don’t like to resolve.  It would have to be an utterly useless kit lens if when you cropped a square out of the full frame you didn’t end up with good to great corner to corner resolution.

The only fly in your ointment might be that if you shoot without actually looking through the viewfinder maybe you end up cropping not from the middle but into the corners to get the final image....but that will be your fault not the lenses.

I often advise my student to shoot a little wide these days to allow for creative post cropping that way you can get any final format you want, But don’t take that advise as an excuse for sloppy workmanship on your part!

There is nothing sacred about a 2 to 3 ratio, crop to be creative and as a bonus that cropping might give you a better level of overall clarity as well as you have normally chopped off the less well resolved areas

What about You?

Whilst we're on the subject of reach, I could place a fair bet that a lot of the time you could get a bit more reach by just moving closer to the subject, you can use photography's greatest accessory to help, they’re called legs and amazingly most humanoids come pre-fitted with a pair.  And moving closer will give your kit lens a really great boost in the shallow DOF department as well!  Just ask yourself this, how often do you have to crop shots because you left too much around the edges of your pic when you could have, should have, moved closer with ease?

Be Prepared to Edit

Moving beyond the shooting, you really need to accept that most of the great images you see on the web are not just “out of the camera” jpegs.  They have been massaged and manipulated, tweaked, tinkered and stroked in a myriad of ways.  The editing is at least as important as the lens, so those great shots you saw created with a Zeiss 35mm on a Nikon D800, were they really OOC or were they edited?  

Fact is, you need to accept that editing and shooting go hand in hand, no company has yet come out with a DSLR lens that applies creative corrections and effects in camera without you lifting a finger.

Another fact to chew on, most folk who can justify spending say 2Gs on a fancy lens have long ago worked out how to edit well.  A new lens is unlikely to be a magic bullet, but by golly gosh a new editing application and some real editing skills could prove to be close.

And here's a final insight for the day, any photographer prepared to do a little saving can buy a new or better lens so ultimately you won’t end up with anything advantageous in your possession by taking that path.  Good technical skills, creativity and solid editing skills are not something you can purchase off the shelf but far more likely to yield great photographic results that stand you apart from the crowd.

Ok so next post we continue on our theme of creative use of the kit lens.