G.G.A.S.*: Canon 100-400 mkII

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*Galloping Gear Acquisition Syndrome

I am generally happy to remain ignorant of the latest bells and whistles that the camera manufacturers have added in order to sell another piece of gear that no-one really needs. However, of late my head has bean turned by lots of new doodads. The latest in this parade of head turners is the updated version of Canon’s 100-400mm lens. I had the original ‘dust pump’ version of this lens which I eventually retired because it never saw much action and following it’s use I ended up spending a while cleaning the sensor on the body that it was used on. Having said that, there was a certain novelty factor to the way that the lens extended to change focal length. For the weight and number of times I used the lens I decided to leave it on my desk at home and make do with my very much lighter 70-200mm lens.

There are times however when the extra reach can allow you to make the photograph that you have in mind. The image above is a case in point. I’d tried with my 70-200, it really wasn’t working, click on the image below to see what I mean. Nixon_150115_6450

While getting closer was certainly an option I had an opportunity to use the new 100-400 lens and made the image below using the same settings as I had with my 70-200mm. Nixon_150115_6462

Immediately noticeable on the LCD screen on the camera was that the image made using the 100-400 was sharper than that made with the 70-200 even though all the camera settings and lens settings were the same. This in inevitably led me to wonder what if I dumped the 70-200 and replaced it with the 100-400 lens. That way I’d have a nice sharp lens capable of the extra reach when I need it. My only concern is the weight – a chunky albs. We’ll see how I get on!

Trouble with Tripods – Finale: So Long Old Friend

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We’ve been having an odd winter here in New England – lots of snow over a very short period of time. We’ve had about 80 inches (or ~ 2 m) of snow in the last 20 days with more coming down as I write this. During the last storm I made the misguided decision to head out to photograph in the nearby woods. Misguided because the visibility was poor and the snow plows were not managing to keep up with the snow which made driving interesting. Once at the woods the snow was quite deep even on the normally well trodden paths which made for slow going.

Increasingly I will explore ideas with my iPhone before pursuing them further with my DSLR. A couple of the images from my iPhone are above, I was at least thigh deep in the snow in this part of the woods. As I maneuvered my tripod around in the deep snow I heard a funny creaking noise. At first I thought that was the wind blowing the trees, but there wasn’t any wind. Then I thought it must be someone else out and about, but I could see anyone. Very weird. I picked my tripod up out of the snow to get it into a better position and and two of the tree legs came up, the third stayed in the snow. It had come detached where it joined the metal frame. That was pretty much the end of my photography for the day.

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I’m not sure if you can tell from the images above but the carbon fiber leg where it joined the frame had delaminated and was soft. It was also crinkled which explained why the tripod leg did not fully close – there was always just a tiny fraction of leg extended. The metal also looks like it is badly corroded. While I may send this old tripod back to Gitzo I’m not holding my breath that they would be able to help me out.

I do have a new tripod that I’ve been using as a travel tripod – a Really Right Stuff 24L. I may now supplement this with the 34L, a beefier version of the 24L. The 24L to me seems a bit weedy, the lower sections of the legs are particularly thin and make me wonder how solid the tripod can really be. I guess time will tell.

I’m Going to Need Some Bigger Memory Cards

The world of Canon photographers was all of a twitter last week when the new Canon 5DS and 5DS R cameras were announced. Why the buzz? These cameras, that boast 50.5 MP sensors are Canon’s attempt to get back into the pole position of high mega pixel DSLR cameras, a position that they held for a long time until they were surpassed by Nikon, with the D800 and now D810, and then Sony, with the AIIR. I’m sure that these are not the cameras that everyone was looking for, but seems as though they will be interesting to play with once they become available in June.

While the world of Canon is waiting it will be worthwhile for those of us thinking of making the leap to learn from the Nikon folks who stepped up from 12 MP to 36 MP. Not only will we need larger memory cards, each full size raw file will be ~ 60 MB, but also we’ll need to make sure that our lenses are of sufficient quality to handle this resolution – this will be a great way to find out which of your lenses are slightly soft, and work on our technique to ensure that we’re getting the sharpest photographs that the camera will allow.

The video above is Canon’s introduction to these new cameras, there’s a lot more that we want to see a know but this was a good introduction. Also check out the interview below with Chuck Westfall the Canon USA spokesman. I’m looking forward to finding out more!

Print Your Work!

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I’ve been involved in a couple of conversations recently about the value of printing your work. With most of us now using digital in one form or another there’s an overwhelming temptation to let your photographs sit on the computer, or on the web in one place or another and not be printed.

There are a number of reasons that we could debate for printing – prints have historically been the archival record – when the house is burning down you’re not going to run in and save your server, network attached storage or desktop computer in the way that you might have saved the family photo album. I’m sure everyone has their work backed up both in the cloud and physical drives at a secure distant location so this is less of a concern.

I would argue that printing does make you a better photographer though, whether your intended output is for the web or not. Prints are less forgiving than web and so you have to get it right, sharp where sharp is needed and appropriate and a file that is large enough to support the print size which forces you to ‘get it right in camera’

Even though the cost of ink jet printers has dropped substantially and the resources for obtaining a good print increased in equal fashion, making it quite possible to make good prints yourself at home, there are a number of companies that will make the prints for you. I was experimenting with the print service from Artifact Uprising while I was in Japan recently.

As I mentioned previously I’ve been using my iPhone camera as a tool to help me break out of the rut that I’ve felt that I’m in. I thought that If I could take 250 images that I like over the course of the year it ought to be possible to cull those to make a 50 image book as a record of the year. I’d heard good things about Artifact Uprising and wanted to try them out before I got to the book stage.

One morning while I was in Japan recently I had a few moments to kill and so I uploaded 5 or so images that I’d posted to instagram to the artifact uprising site using their mobile app and ordered a pack of prints. The whole operation took less than five minutes. When I got home from Japan I had a stack of amazing prints (5×5) on really heavy paper stock that I could handout to friends and family and to have as a record of the trip.

Not big prints for sure but a fun way to get my images off my phone and for me to start to look at them and really think about how they work as images. Give it a go, you won’t be disappointed.

Filters – Trials and Tribulations

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There’s nothing that frustrates me more than being prevented from making the photographs that I have in my head than gear that doesn’t perform as expected or fails in one way or another.

While I’ve been in Japan I’ve been using my normal collection of ND filters but also experimenting with the Big Stopper. My usual approach to photography is to make exposures that I can then use to recreate the feeling that I had when I was there. Although much of my post-processing work has previously consisted of a few trivial moves in Lightroom, it is increasingly becoming a more substantial amount of work in photoshop.

For shooting moving water at the coast specifically I try to have the shutter speed be around 2 or 3 seconds, which is generally long enough to blur the water substantially while still retaining a sense of movement. At sunrise or sunset getting the right shutter speed is a matter of playing with ISO and f-stop, as it gets lighter and I can no longer decrease the ISO I will generally add a 3 stop neutral density filter. On this trip I’ve also been adding the Big Stopper into the mix to get even longer exposures such as the one above which was a 2 min exposure.

To make an exposure that is well exposed for the sky and the ground (or water in this case) I may use a graduated ND filter or take a bracketed set of exposures or both. I’m essentially collecting the raw materials to make the image later and not being stuck on getting ‘it right in camera’.

I have been using the 4 x 6 in filters from Singh-Ray, specifically the 3 stop ND filter and the Galen Rowell 3 stop soft ND gradient filter in a Lee filter holder. The filter holder attaches to the lens by means of a screw in adaptor ring.

Here’s where the fun began – I have UV filters on all of my lenses to protect them from the salt spray that I inevitably get covered in when I’m at the beach. We could argue about the value of those filters some other time and I will provide an argument below why I shouldn’t be using them. What I managed to do was to get the filter holder adaptor stuck on the UV filter of one of my lenses making it very cumbersome to use the filter system on any other lenses – not impossible just cumbersome. And annoying…

I tried all kinds of things to get the two separated, wearing rubber gloves so that I could get a better grip, putting a rubber band around the UV filter to help me get a better grip, heating with a hairdryer, all to no avail. At the suggestion of one of my new best buddies to warm up the UV filter by holding it and by doing so expand the UV filter slightly I did the following:

  • cooled the UV Filter/Filter adaptor pair by putting it in a cold draft, essentially on an outdoor window sill
  • sat the UV Filter on something warm, in this case my bare arm, taking care not to touch the upper adaptor ring, until it didn’t feel cold any more
  • put a rubber band around the UV filter
  • put on my rubber gloves and twisted

The whole thing then came apart with a little bit of effort. I was stunned given that I’d been trying for a couple of days to separate them. File this away in case you ever find yourself in the same predicament.

On a wide angle lens I will usually see substantial vignetting that results from the filter adaptor being stacked on the UV filter. In the past I’ve gotten away from this problem by hand holding the filter and not using the holder. Inevitable this means that I scratch the resin filters and move during the longer exposures or screw the shot up in some other way which is why I’ve started using the filter holder routinely. After a bit of experimentation while I was here I realized that if I take the UV filter off the lens then the vignetting goes away. The lens of course is still protected by the ND filter and all is right in the world. When I’m done with the filter holder I’ve been putting the UV filter back on the lens but can imagine that I will soon ditch the UV filters completely.

Future Thinking – It’s Black Magic!

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I’ve been interested in film making for a very long time, almost as long as I’ve been interested in photography. I never really engaged in film making in a meaningful way but it’s something that always has stayed in the background as something that I pay attention to.

I have yet to figure out how to integrate film making and photography. While the skills of making a still image and framing a film shot may be complementary (see Greg Crewdson’s work as an example) if you’re taking video your not taking photographs and vice versa. Of course increasingly the DSLRs that we have a very capable video cameras making this back and forth much easier. I’ve seen some photographers talk recently about the ‘long still’, videos that were taken with the same set up that had been used to take a still. Easily done once you’ve got the image you were interested in, just a button push away. Something to think about and experiment with if you haven’t already.

I’m more interested in documentary film making, particularly telling the story of people making things – explorations of artists and their process is a particularly appealing topic to me. Of course I could use DSLRs to do this but my imagination was captured by the possibilities with the iPhone and in particular the app FilmicPro.

To see what people have been able to achieve using the FilmicPro app check here.

There also some third party add-ons that help when using the iPhone as a video camera. Susan Roderick from CreativeLive reviews some of the better ones here.

As I was packing my gear into the car after photographing at a beach in California a few weeks ago a couple arrived and unpacked their camera gear. They had what looked like an iPhone on a video tripod I of course asked what the camera was – it turned out to be a black magic pocket. I’d seen ads for the Black Magic cameras but wasn’t familiar with the pocket model.

The pocket camera body is essentially the size of an iPhone but capable of hi-res video and very flexible in terms of third party add ons. The pocket camera has four thirds lens mount but using available adapters you could use your existing lenses on the camera. This then starts to sound very interesting indeed – high quality digitial cinema cameras without any need to buy new lenses. The pocket black magic camera isn’t much bigger than an iPhone and could easily fit into my camera bag.

You have to jump up to the ‘regular size’ Black Magic cameras are capable of recording 4K video, the resolution where it starts to be possible pull a single frame and use that as a large print. Check out this link for more about that. Hopefully this will soon make it’s way into the pocket model too.

I’m surprised that I haven’t heard more about this idea of pulling stills from video, perhaps I’ve just had my head in the sand and ignored this as an option but I anticipate hearing more about this as the technology improves and the price continues to drop. It certainly seems worth exploring and solves the problem of how you could integrate film making with photography.

Beavertail Lighthouse Scouting Trip

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What’s the weather like where you are? Here on the New England coast it’s been bitterly cold this last week – a polar vortex the weather guys seem to call it. I was in Jamestown recently to photograph around Beavertail lighthouse with the temperature cold and feeling colder because of the wind chill.

This was the first time that I’d actually gone to Jamestown with the intention of photographing around the lighthouse and, although I had prepared as well as I could, I wasn’t prepared for the difficulties that the cold would present. I was playing with the 24 mm tilt-shift lens again but what I quickly found was that I was too clumsy with gloved hands to operate the buttons and knobs that you need to work to adjust the lens. I struggled along the best that I could but was very frustrated by the time I was done.

I did however get a couple of images that I liked and managed to find a couple of fun spots that I plan to return to in the coming weeks.

A New Tilt on an Old Theme

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I thought that I’d share my first in the field experiment with a tilt shift lens. My first attempt with a tilt shift was this which of course taught me that in addition to manual focusing I needed to also be manual exposure. Probably not too much of a surprise for anyone whose used these lenses but it’s all new to me. I also was ready for the back end freak out where photoshop isn’t able to stitch my images together for me but that comes later.

So how did I get here? I’ve been worrying unnecessarily about depth of field. While you, like me, are setting the F stop to 22 (or some other high number) focusing a third into the scene and then firing away with the knowledge that you’re going to have good front to back focus. While this has served me well I realize that the only thing in your image that actual is in focus in the thing that you’ve focused upon and everything else in the same plane as that point of focus. Everything else is acceptably out of focus.

The medium and large focus photographers that have access to tilt and shift are able to angle the plane of focus and by doing so get more (all?) of the image in focus. Scheimpflug principle anyone? With a DSLR one way to achieve the same large depth of field is by taking multiple images with different points of focus and then blend them to extend the depth of field. Helicon focus is a well respected piece of software that can help if this is something that you’re interested in, beyond what you can achieve in photoshop. This approach is somewhat problematic when things in your image are in motion, such as my favorite subject – water. This is where a tilt shift lens comes in. It should give you access to the same tilt and shift functions that you would have with a medium or large format camera.

My playing so far has been restricted to the shift function which is how the image above was made. A vertical panorama stitched together and then cropped. See the images that I used below.

Top:

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Middle:

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Bottom

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Which when stitched together give:

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Which I then cropped to this:

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I think that this is working. The next experiment will be to see what I can do with the tilt functionality. That should be fun.

An Easy Way to Add a Second Display

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I am continue to tinker with my post-processing workflow, not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with what I’m currently doing, just that I feel it could be better.

In looking what graphic designers and others who edit images for a living gravitate towards many seem to be using two displays and a tablet based editing system such as the Wacom Cintiq.

I’ve experimented with Wacom tablets in the past but they always seem to be more trouble thatn they’re worth. Perhaps if I made myself use the tablet for everything for a week it would start to seem as natural as reaching for the mouse does.

Wondering whether I would struggle to fully embrace a second monitor I was intrigued when I came across the air display app that allows you to use the iPad as a second display.

Having a second monitor means of course the ability to move the pallets section in photoshop to a second monitor, or to have a full screen image on one display and a zoomed in image that you’re working on on the other, or perhaps to use the iPad and an appropriate stylus as a budget Cintiq.

Seems like there are lots of reasons to try this option out and the cost of the app is much lower than that of an additional monitor. Have you tried using the iPad as a second display? I’d be delighted to hear your experiences if you have.

Tripods – Care and Maintenance of the Three Legged Beasties

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I was working on my project “Everyday Objects’ this weekend and shot the image above of what I believe is a wasp’s nest with my newly renovated tripod.

In reading about how to care for and maintain your tripod I actually went and read some of the manuals that are supplied with Gitzo, Really Right Stuff etc. style tripods. Not something that I would normally do being the type of person who shuns manuals in favor of a more intuitive exploration of the functions of a new piece of gear. You should have seen me trying to start the rental car in Iceland – but that’s a topic for another day.

Really Right Stuff tell you that ‘Sand and saltwater are your tripod’s worst environmental enemies.’ About half, if not more, of my tripod use is at the beach so it’s hardly any wonder then that my tripod finally started to complain recently after many years of good service.

Carbon fiber tripods such as my old Gitzo 1325 are generally simple to look after and should last for an exceptionally long time. I’d hoped that I’d only have to buy one tripod which now seems like wishful thinking but a few simple precautions should keep your tripod in good shape.

General Cleaning

Wipe down the tripod legs with a damp cloth to remove mud, sand and salt water. Dry the legs off before collapsing.

Check all metal fittings for signs of corrosion and replace as necessary. Spare parts should be available from the manufacturer. Here’s a pdf of the parts for my 1325 tripod to see how it breaks down. The Gitzo Service Center can be found here. For old tripods spare parts can be a pain to find. It pays to anticipate future needs!

Disassembly

Disassembly and a more thorough cleaning is recommended after immersing one or more of the leg joints in water and getting water up inside the tripod legs.

This is a case of do as I say rather than do as I do. Although I’m sure if I followed my own advice I would have had less problems over the years.

Water, mud, sand or saltwater inside the legs causes a number of problems, including :

  • initiation of corrosion on some of the internal parts that is difficult to diagnose until too late
  • causes the bushings to swell making it difficult to open the tripod legs

Taking the tripod apart is remarkably easy even though I was convinced that I would break the whole thing if I attempted it. While the process described here is for the Gitzo 1325 from digging around it looks as though most of the equivalent tripods from other manufacturers come to disassemble in a very similar way.

Things to have on hand during disassembly:

  • Spare bushings if you’ve been having problems
  • Shop rags or paper towels for clean up and drying the legs.
  • WD-40, used sparingly this can cut through the muck on even the most sadly neglected of tripods.
  • An old tooth brush is handy to clean grit and grime from the tripod collars and threads.
  • A good lubricant for the nicely cleaned threads. I used Lanocote because I had a tub handy.

Here’s the lower section of one the legs:

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Diassembly is simply a matter of unscrewing the leg collar all the way until it releases as shown here:

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Hopefully you can then just pull on the leg and it will smoothly come free (- or not if you read my previous post on my disassembly efforts):

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The carbon fiber bushing appears to sit under the join of the two legs and is compressed as you screw the collar tight, holding the leg where you’ve set it. You can see where it normally is in the picture above.

The plastic guides keep the leg centered as it slides inside the fatter leg above. The plastic bushings were particularly salty but cleaned up nicely as shown below.

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If you look carefully you can see that the salt build up has caused some wear of these guides. I also found that it could be tricky to get these guides to sit in groove in the tripod leg properly after removing them for cleaning. This was easily fixed by compressing them as shown below.

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This compression was sufficient to close the gap that you can see in the upper guide which meant that the guide seated more closely into the groove on the tripod leg making it easier to reassemble the leg.

Getting everything back together is simply a matter of reversing the process. It’s relatively easy to do, although it might take you the best part of an evening to clean up the entire tripod or longer if you have to deal with stuck leg joints as I did!

Good luck and let me know if you have any suggestions.