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Big News in Mirrorless

During the past 30 days or so, both of the big camera companies, Nikon and Canon have announced their entry into the full frame, mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MIL) market.  I wondered it this was ever going to happen!  Without getting into the “white hat vs. black hat,” “Ford vs. Chevy” discussion, suffice it to say that there are a number of other players in the market, all of whom make some very estimable camera gear.  But it is difficult to argue that, over the past 30-40 years, Canon and Nikon have been the market leaders.  Consequently, when they do something, it usually get noticed.

I intuitively knew that the industry would eventually move away from the popular and ubiquitous DSLR, to the smaller MIL

I got “married” to Nikon in 1980, and we had a happy relationship until sometime in 2013.  I think by then, that I intuitively knew that the industry would eventually move away from the popular and ubiquitous Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR), to the smaller MIL.  In 2013, after hanging around and watching Nikon, it became apparent that they had no intention of making a serious entry into the MIL marketplace.  Their eventual contestant, the Nikon 1,  offered no compatibility with the existing Nikkor lens line, and a sensor significantly smaller than the competitors and only slighly larger than the typical “point & shoot” (P&S) equipped sensor.  Disappointing for Nikon loyalists.

The NEX series by Sony, first introduced in 2010, signaled a commitment on their part to the MIL camera market.  The earliest DSLR consumer and “prosumer” cameras were equipped with a sensor smaller than the 35mm film cross-section which was the benchmark of Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras that were the most popular film cameras in use at the time, popularly known as “APS” sensors (eventually, technology allowed for affordable and useable sensors equivalent to the 35mm film cross-section.  These became know as “full frame.”  Cost and technology were factors.  The NEX line was one of only a couple mirrorless cameras that offered the APS sensor.  It was still a bit of an unknown at the time and what attracted me to Sony was the sensor that was the same as the one in my Nikon APS backup camera, along with Sony’s partnership with Zeiss lenses.

The “mirrorless” camera, of course, is not a new phenomena.  Rangefinder cameras were widely used by film shooters, even in the light of the popularity the SLR (single lens reflex) camera gained when it later hit the scene.  I was an SLR user.  Like the many other users, I liked the “what you see is what you get” view through the viewfinder (even though in most cases, it wasn’t 100 percent of what the lens actually captured).  But what really made/makes the new digital “rangefinder” cameras stand out, is the new electronic viewfinder (EVF).  Early copies were just not very good.  Today, I actually prefer the EVF.  One of the things I like is its ability to mimic the look through the lens as you stop down or open up, making your view brighter or dimmer (my Sony can override that if you find it disconcerting, but I have grown to really like it).

I know there are a lot of challenges to adding a new technology to very successful existing lines.  Lens mounts, lenses, and focusing technology are among them.  But given the inexorable growth of this camera platform, I have been surprised at the apparently sluggish progress both of the big guys have taken to this.  The recently announced entries by both of them come nearly 10 years later than the first popularly used MIL cameras!  I have thoroughly enjoyed the past 8 years of carrying much smaller, lighter gear in the meantime.

For those who waited patiently for Nikon or Canon, there may be a reward

For those who waited patiently for Nikon or Canon, there may be a reward.  Both of these bodies spec out pretty impressively.  For Nikon, this is only the second physically “new” mount they have designed for any of their interchangeable lenses (the only other one being the Nikon 1 mount).  By that, I mean that even though there have been changes over the years, every Nikkor lens is capable of being physically mounted on every Nikon interchangeable lens body (except for the Nikon 1).  Nikon has already also announce several new lenses (three of which, I believe, will be available yet in 2019) for its Entry, the Nikon Z series (currently, 6 and 7).

I am not sure what offerings Canon has – or will have for their new EOS R.  But both companies have adapters for their “legacy” SLR/DSLR lenses.  Again, in the case of Nikon, that should mean virtually any Nikon mount lens should mount on the Z series with this adaptor.  Of course, there is certain to be limits on functionality, depending on the age of the lens.  Not being familiar with Canon, I am not certain, but I am guessing there will be more limitations on which lenses will mount and which won’t.  But you should be able to use your professional glass on either of these models.

It remains to be seen whether this will be a workable thing.  I could see having one or more of the new lenses for a “travel” outfit, but still being able to use the pro glass for situations where you would be carrying the bigger equipment anyway.  For me, its too late.  I am perfectly happy in my new relationship with Sony.  For now.  🙂

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Book Review: “Outdoor Flash Photography,” by John Gerlach and Barbara Eddy

Suggested

What this book is in great need of, in my opinion, is experienced, professional, objective, editing

Catching Up …..

Wow.  My last post was at the beginning of May, 2 full months ago. I guess I have fallen into one of those “lulls.” Nothing new and notable on the shooting front, and nothing much unique to say.

Over the winter, I played around with B&W and “painting.” I read several books on those subjects, and reviewed a couple of them. More recently, something got me realizing that I needed to renew my acquaintance with supplemental and artificial light; and particularly, flash – the stroboscopic variety.

New Gear and Flash …..

Several years ago, I made a monumental (for me, anyway) change in my “gear.” Having been “married” to Nikon for nearly 40 years, I made a complete changeover to Sony mirrorless cameras. The primary reason for my changeover was not creative or technical. It was convenience; and in particular, size and weight. Along the way, I discovered some creative and technical advantages. These are not really attributable to brand, but to “new” and to features. Every manufacturer seems to have certain areas they do better than anyone else. If only I could build my own ala carte camera.

One thing Nikon did better than anyone else (in my view) and Sony seems to do worse than anyone else (again, in my view) is flash. I got spoiled with Nikon’s creative flash system. You see, flash involves math, and there is very little about math that is either appealing or comes naturally to me :-). Nikon took the math out of it and let me not have to “think” about it. Maybe that wasn’t such a good thing.

A detractor for many of us is cost. Brand-dedicated flash units are ungodly expensive. As much as a good lens. And sometimes you want to use multiple units – as much, or more than the camera!  And, flash units are complex, and befuddling: right?

I have absolutely no doubt that the authors of this book are consummate, professional photographers and workshop leaders, and that they really, really know their craft – in particular – the ins and outs of everything “flash.”

During my 40+ years of shooting, I have shot 98% natural light. I have, for sure, used flash (I even remember those big, blue, “lightbulbs” that bayoneted into a reflector on my Asahiflex, popped once and ejected – hot!). But I think it is time for me to start expanding my shooting, to include supplemental lighting.

So, I started reading. Always my go-to. And I learned that there are less expensive, after-market units out there (some good/some not so good).  Sure, they have compromises. My friend, Kerry Leibowitz, once said to me in an e-mail exchange, “everything about photography is a compromise. .. Everything.” So I am good with that. For 1/4 the cost (or less), I was able to find a Sony-compatible flash to play with.  Maybe I will review it at some point (after I understand more about it 🙂 ).

There is a lot out there to read. I am a book person. Hence, the review. But before I do, let me recommend the website, strobist. There is a huge amount of information, free for the reader, here. I have just begun to dig into it, but some would say it is all you need.  Me? I am still a book guy. I like to read and highlight and flag, and go back from time to time. I already had Bryan Peterson’s “Understanding Flash Photography,” so I started there (I highly recommend two other Peterson books: “Understanding Exposure” and “Learning to See Creatively“).

There is some really good material.  But you you really have to work for it.  And to me, that is off-putting, particularly in an “instructional book.” With some work, this book could be made into a pithy, useful, field guide that someone like me just might carry around with him. But not in its current version

So, The Book …..

Wanting to dig deeper, I started researching on Amazon. I have long known of John Gerlach, and his workshops, and the bulk of the reviews liked his book “Outdoor Flash Photography.” I had read some of his other books over the years, and was familiar with him, as he originally lived in my “backyard;” the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. As many readers know, I have spent some time up there and my “Photographing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” is a guide to many of the wonderful shooting opportunities there. So I bought the book.

“Suggested” …..

This book is in my “suggested” category (meaning, I don’t necessarily believe every shooter should have or read this, but I have it, or have owned it, and found some useful material there). But what makes this a “suggested” book rather than a “recommended” book is largely editorial style, unfortunately. There is some really good material in there.  But you you really have to work for it.  And to me, that is off-putting, particularly in an “instructional book.” With some work, this book could be made into a pithy, useful, field guide that someone like me just might carry around with him. But not in its current version.

As I looked at the different offerings, and the editorial reviews, I was struck at how often the description said something like, “demystifies” flash, or “contains unique material, not found anywhere else.” This book suggests that there is something unique about “outdoor flash photography,” and that there is no other resource out there that covers these topics.  But my research and experience demonstrates otherwise. To be sure, many, if not most of the resources out there have a heavy concentration on portraiture and even sometimes studio lighting techniques. But my conclusion is that there are some basic lighting principles that really apply to photography in general, and they are not that unique from genre to genre.

I would have no hesitancy to sign up for, and attend one of their workshops

Need For Objective Professional Editing

Readers here know I am good at digression.  But I want to say something here, to put my “critical” (“Critical: expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a work ….“) comments in context.  I have absolutely no doubt that the authors of this book are consummate, professional photographers and workshop leaders, and that they really, really know their craft – in particular – the ins and outs of everything “flash.”  And you only need to go to their website to see that their imagery is first class, and their workshops well-attended and widely praised.  I had the fortune of bumping into one of their workshops a couple years ago, while shooting fall colors and researching locations for my own Photographing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and introduced myself to John.  He is a very nice man, with an undoubted bank of technical and locational knowledge.  One thing that really impressed me:  neither he nor Barbara had cameras in-hand.  It was their workshop and they were there to be a resource to the attendees.  I would have no hesitancy to sign up for, and attend one of their workshops!  I also studied nearly everything their own “mentors” (the late, Larry West, and John Shaw – both former Michigan residents themselves ) wrote and know the authors’ pedigree is estimable. Knowing this, I was mildly disappointed in this product.

What I was looking for was more of a hands-on, practical, experience-based text. How is “outdoor flash photography” different from “flash photography?” This book partially hits that mark, but it is a difficult path to get there! What the book is in great need of, in my opinion, is experienced, professional, objective editing. The term I would use to describe the current text is: “rambling.”

I would describe the author’s (while both John and Barbara are listed as authors, it is clearly primarily written in John’s voice) style as conversational.  Too conversational. It feels like maybe a day in the field, or in the lecture facility with John speaking. This style probably works well in person (he is said to be engaging and entertaining).  It doesn’t work in written form. As anyone reading here knows, I am all for an informal written presentation. But in written communication (especially instruction), there needs to be a certain level of formality, structure and organization. This book lacks that structure – in a way that makes it difficult to stay with it. Here are some specifics:

Style – The “conversational” style, as noted above, is off-putting. Sentences throughout the book are replete with misplaced modifiers, which I suspect is a matter of conversational usage, but is jarring when repeatedly read. This doesn’t affect the technical presentation of information, but it certainly makes it less effective. The frequent attempts at humor fall flat. Again, they probably work well as one-liners in an oral presentation, but they come across as borderline lame in a more formal, written text.

And words and phrases……..  I have always been a firm believer that good, strong writing and clear communication means simple, direct writing. It is good to vary word choice from time to time to make the writing less repetitive and more interesting (I use a Thesaurus frequently, when I feel that I have been repeating a single word too much). But the use of “big” words, or flowery phrases does not automatically make writing better or more interesting. Sometimes it is just best to say the word that applies in common usage – direct and simple. I have to believe that an objective, professional editor would eliminate the majority of these issues, and create a more straightforward, informative and readable text.

Relevance – Too often, the author wanders “off the reservation,” getting into totally irrelevant commentary which, while perhaps anecdotally interesting, takes us away from the subject matter of the book – flash photography. While some of it may have nominal relevance, a quick reference to it and “move on,” would be, in my view, much more effective. There is too much “Cannon vs. Nikon” philosophy, for example (I appreciate that these authors each use one of these systems, as do perhaps the majority of their audience, and surely there is some relevance to how these makers handle flash issues – but again, “just the facts ma’am” and then move on would be a good thing here). 🙂

Organization – The book is divided into 14 chapters. Respectfully, I do not believe there are 14 separate chapters of material here. I am not sure about publishing requirements and standards, never having personally done more than my own eBooks (which may not be models of clarity either). I have written enough to know that organization is not always an easy path, and there are always choices about how, where and when to present materials. But I truly believe this book could be condensed down to no more than 5 chapters. What we instead find here is a lot of needless (and I think, confusing) repetition.  In an effort to distinguish terminology and techniques, the author ends up repeating the same materials under different topics. The implication is that there is something different, and yet, there really isn’t (a great example is the segue from “fill flash,” “main flash” and “balanced flash.” After 3 long, repetitive chapters, it really boils down (and is implied, in my reading, by the book) that they are not really different categories. They are just applications of the flash fundamental that every flash exposure is composed of two exposures, one being the ambient light exposure and the other being the flash exposure. The rest is just understanding the relationships of the light sources, and how the technology in the units and cameras handle it.

There are many Positives …..

Having been critical, I have to say there are many positives to take away from this book. It is why I “suggest” it. I believe it is worth the work to slog through it and try to distill the very good information that is in there. I will go back and re-read, and take personal notes on this information and hopefully add it to my own kind of “field guide.” Here are some items I think are worthwhile information/tips from my first reading of the book:

  • The author gives one of the better explanations of how the strobe flash works, including flash duration, that I have read.
  • There are a couple comments regarding the use of flash when shooting waterfalls that I had not previously considered – particularly the ability to “freeze” water droplets while maintaining the “silky” look of the main waterfall in the image.  You can be sure I am going to experiment with that.
  • While most experienced users are aware of this, his explanation of how TTL in the flash unit relates to automatic and manual control of the camera was helpful.  He re-inforces why those of us who rely on “automatic” modes, because we don’t know better (or in my case, because we have become lazy), don’t get the results we expect.
  • There are some helpful tips on the placement of flash (particularly in close subjects) to maximize color and texture.

I could see it being transformed from an “eh” book, to one I would put on my “must own” list

The Takeaway …..

The paperback cost just under $27.00.  Today, that is a rather modest cost for a full, published, hard copy book. So I certainly didn’t feel put off or cheated by the purchase. And there was enough in it for me to keep it rather then send it back. But it would not go on my list of “must own under any circumstances” books.

What I think might be a dynamite re-work of this book would be to have some heavy editing, drilling down to the relevant, useful information in the book, perhaps adding some more practical and experiential information, into a shorter and perhaps smaller format (think “field guide”). I could see it being transformed from an “eh” book, to one I would put on my “must own” list.

Suggested

Your Perfect Camera

An old photographer friend and I used to discuss how we would build our dream camera body. He is a Canon user (and a Democrat; but I have long forgiven him for both) and I am a Nikon user. We could never agree, though, on whether it should be named a Nicanon, or a Canikon.

Though our discussions date back to the days of Kodachrome and Velvia, the “gear” part of the discussion would probably still be relevant today. One of the really cool things about buying a desktop computer from the manufacturer today it the degree to which you can customize your computer for your own needs. Our thinking was that a camera body could be offered much the same way Gateway or Dell offered their computers back in those days. A base “motherboard” today would translate into the sensor/processor combination. The base computer would translate into the maximum shutter speed and ISO ranges. Pretty much the rest, would be ala carte.

It’s fun to think about. I know what my ideal camera body would have. I would spend the $ on the (physically) largest sensor (not necessarily the most megapixels) I could get with a Nikon mount to fit all my current lenses (even if the sensor was larger than the proverbial 35mm I would give up the length factor—but unfortunately, it would probably cause vignetting problems, so the probably the current, D800 sensor would be the best I could hope for in today’s technology. I would have it housed in a D700/D800 style body, with a 100% viewfinder, and, if possible 100-8000 ISO range.

The rest would be my ala carte picks:

  • Mechanical, front access remote socket wired to accept the trusty, reliable and ubiquitous MC-35 remote release
  • DOF Preview Button on the bottom right of the lens mount (where it is on the D700)
  • Manual, AF-Priority, and S-Priority settings (no others; especially no “canned” shooting modes. Ugh!)
  • Raw and HIGH (only) Jpeg Setting, with a way to turn off the Jpeg setting so it cannot be accidentally accessed (no other “fine” or other size jpeg settings)
  • Mirror Up function
  • AF back button
  • Extra “Function” buttons (at least 2 would be nice)
  • User 1 and User 2 settings on the main dial (ala the D7000)
  • AF mode settings dial (ala the D7000)
  • Front and Rear Function Dials

I have no need for many of the other “bells and whistles” on the current body offerings. I don’t shoot video. I think it’s incredible that they have made such strides forward in video (I know some videographers who think it rivals dedicated video cameras). But it should be an ala carte item. I don’t use it; don’t want to use it, and most importantly, I certainly don’t want to pay for it. Nikon’s announcement of the new D600 is a great example. It was rumored that it was going to be in the $1500 retail range. I was set to pre-order. The actual, $2000 price tag gives me pause. I cannot help but wonder if they offered it without the HD video capability, which is prominently listed in the specifications, would it then have been able to hit the $1500 (or even less) price range?

Likewise, I have yet to see the utility of “live view” at least in terms of justifying the cost and of having it “clog” the controls and complicate the menu system. I appreciate that some are using it to their advantage. That’s why I like the ala carte idea.

I have always marveled at the fact that, in a so-called, pro-level body, the manufacturers would clog up the works with all of the “dumbed-down” features of P&S and consumer-level DSLR bodies, like “scene modes,” “action modes,” and the like. And automatic exposure modes seem to me to totally defeat the purpose of a higher-end tool like the “prosumer” and professional grade models offered by the manufacturers. I would specify only manual, aperture and shutter priority modes.

My thought would be for a stripped down, simple menu system with fewer controls that control only what we want and need as photographers.

Do-able? I don’t know. We would have to ask engineering. They would probably say no (which doesn’t necessarily mean it cannot be done, LOL). I don’t expect we will ever see it. I have no idea what it would do to manufacturing and marketing costs. And it would be difficult to accomplish through current distribution chains in which the vast majority of cameras sell through third party retailers and not direct from the manufacturer. But it’s fun to think about. What would be your ideal “modular” camera?

Size Matters!

Certainly, a hackneyed, old phrase, but in matters of digital photography, it is a fact. The size I am referring to is the digital sensor, but not megapixels; physical size. There are a fair number of parallels to the film-based systems we used before the so-called, “digital revolution.” But with digital sensors, there is a significant difference; technology. Very much like the computer industry, by the time the latest and greatest sensor hits the market, it is already “old technology” (there were major technological advances in film, too, over time, but they happened in a matter of years, rather than months).  This is a very technical subject that many others out on the net explain in technical and engineering details that I cannot begin to match.  This is a layman’s perspective.

The consumer camera began to drive new technology advances

The first digital cameras were adaptations of 35mm Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera bodies that were used to build digital imaging tools (today referred to as a Digital SLR; or DSLR). They had very small imaging sensors (significantly, smaller than the rectangular cross-section of a single 35mm film frame), and were capable of producing only around 1.2 megapixel (MP) images. They cost $20,000 to $25,000; not within the budget of most photo-enthusiasts.

Digital image-making brought a new phenomenon to the camera manufacturing industry. Suddenly, the consumer camera (we often refer to them as “point and shoot” or “P&S”), began to drive new technology advances which often first appeared in the consumer P&S cameras, only to be put into the higher-end “pro” cameras later.

Sensor Sizes Compared

How does this all relate to sensor size? The P&S cameras have a much smaller image sensor in them than the DSLR cameras and the newer Medium Format digital cameras that are now available on the market. I currently routinely carry and use 3 different cameras: a Canon G12 P&S, a Nikon D7000 “DX” sensor camera, and a Nikon D700 “FX” sensor camera.  As the illustration shows, there is a pretty remarkable difference in sensor sizes (if you would like to do your own comparison, I used this really cool tool to make this illustration). Especially when we can upload and view all three of these at relatively the same viewing size on our computer monitors, and—within reason—make similar-sized print images from all three. But there is a notable difference in the quality of these images.

Why did the original cameras not have a sensor identical to the 35mm film cross-section that those bodies were designed for? The answer is simple; technology and cost. The technology that continues to “knock our socks off” today was the most limiting factor back in the late 1980’s. The cost to manufacture even a 1.2 megapixel small physical sensor was prohibitive. A 35mm size sensor cost as much as 20 times the cost to manufacture the smaller sensors. And while over time manufacturers rapidly designed and manufactured sensors holding many more photo-sites (hence, more megapixel capture capability), the cost to manufacture larger physical sensors remained expensive. This explains why the cost of the so-called “full-frame” DSLR is still substantially higher that a higher megapixel DSLR with the smaller sensor.

Why weren’t the original sensors identical to the 35mm frame size?

Megapixel Wars.  For the first 10 to 12 years after the introduction of the consumer-affordable DSLRs, there was a huge emphasis—and indeed a “race”—for more and more megapixels. Megapixels translated in many people’s minds into higher quality. There is some truth to this, but it is only part of the story.   When I talk about “size” here, I really mean the physical size of the sensor, more than the number of megapixels.  As Thom Hogan recently noted in his D800 review, the megapixel increases are linear, not geometric.  In other words, the 36 megapixel sensor in the D800 does not create images 3 times larger than the D700’s 12 megapixel sensor (in fact, Hogan estimates that the increase from the D700 to the D800’s image sizes are about 70%).  The arguably more important part of the story is the quality of those megapixels.

My first DSLR was the Nikon D100; a 6 megapixel camera. My “upgrade” to the D200 was 10 megapixels. My current “pro” model D700 is a 12 megapixel camera; while my “backup” D7000 is a 16 megapixel camera. Logically, it would seem that the progression from D100 to D7000 kept getting me to the best sensor. But that is not the case.  The older, 12 Megapixel D700 sensor still yields a much higher “quality” image than the 16 Megapixel D7000 sensor.

You might think that the progression from D100 to D7000 kept getting me to the best sensor. But that is not the case

At the time I bought the D100, there were point and shoot cameras available with higher than 6 megapixel counts. But I could still produce a cleaner, better quality image with the D100 that could be printed larger (I have 13 x 19 prints of images made on the D100 that are indistinguishable at that size from prints made from D700 12 megapixel images). Nikon’s newest “entry-model” consumer DSLR is the D3200, which is a whopping 24 megapixels (only the pro D800 beats it with 36 megapixels – the largest megapixel DLSR available at this writing). One would think it should make “better” images than the only 12 megapixel D700. But it cannot even come close!

The primary reason for this is size. You can readily see the difference in the image sensor sizes of my 3 current cameras. And the number of photo-sites that are packed onto the sensor and the size of the photo-sites make a huge difference in the quality of the image produced. This is most obvious in the low frequency (shadows and low light) side of the digital photographic equation.

Cruise Dock; Port Everglades, FL
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

Noise.    When a sensor captures light it is converting light to electrical signals and certain “stray” signals can produce a grain-like pattern or effect in an image that is referred to as noise. This noise is largely created by low frequency signals (often the product of low-light conditions), but also by heat and other anomalies in the electronic processor. A small sensor, with many photo-sites packed onto it can create more degrading noise than a larger sensor. It can generate and accumulate more heat because it has less area to dissipate the heat energy. At the same time, the larger photo-sites are capable of capturing more and better detail, yielding a better quality digital image. These higher quality “raw” images, in turn, yield much better files to work with in the post processing stages. The image here, taken at the Princess Cruise Terminal in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, in the early morning hours, demonstrates this. The noise is simply un-manageable. The same shot, taken with the D700 would have been salvageable.

G12                                         D7000                                         D700

Angle of View.    Another controversial area over the years has been the concept often referred to as “crop factor,” or “magnification factor.” When manufacturers began making digital interchangeable-lens camera bodies, they simply adapted the current, 35mm SLR body. While one might wonder why they didn’t just design and build a new “digital” body, the most obvious answer is probably again based on economics. It was probably much less costly to adapt the 35mm SLR body. And, it meant not having to create a completely new lens mount and require all of us to buy a whole new series of lenses. They had a ready-made consumer, just waiting to purchase the DSLR and use their existing lenses.  The composite above is shots from the same tripod position, taken a 140 mm on all three cameras, at their maximum aperture.  The G12 is obviously with its built-in lens.  The Nikon is with a 70-200mm f2.8 zoom.

The “crop factor” / “magnification” debate doesn’t really matter

The first sensors were significantly smaller in cross section than the 35mm film frame. The SLR lenses were designed for the larger 35mm cross-section. So, the sensors only used some of the inner part of the lens circle, effectively “cropping” the outer part. The effect of this was to create a narrower angle of view. The appearance is a “telephoto effect.” The practical effect was that you lost your wider angle and “gained” a longer view on all of your lenses, by a factor of 1.3 or 1.5. Because these sensors were similar to the size of the (largely failed) Nikon Pronea APS film camera, they came to be known as “APS” size sensors (Nikon has since denominated their “APS” sized sensor as a “DX” sensor).

There is no such thing as a “full frame” camera

There has been a considerable amount of debate and even “flame wars” on the internet over this concept. It really doesn’t matter. The debate is, for practical shooting, silly. The reality is that if you have a wide angle lens, on an APS sensor, it just won’t view or capture as wide. Conversely, if you have a longer lens, you get a longer angle of view on the entire sensor, effectively increasing the “telephoto” effect of the lens. Depending on your intended use, this can be a good thing or a bad thing (I actually made my recent backup decision to buy an APS size sensor partly on the premise that it would give me slightly more length for certain wildlife shooting).

Likewise, the controversy over whether a camera is or is not “full frame” is non-productive. But I’ll weigh in anyway :-). There is simply no such thing as a “full-frame” camera. I know that might draw some debate, but it is just a reference point. To a lifelong 35mm shooter, “full frame” means 35 mm (24mm x 36mm). But to a Medium Format or View Camera user, that’ hardly “full.” Indeed a View Camera 8 x 12 sheet of film makes a so-called “full frame” 35mm look like what it really is: a Postage Stamp! Again, it’s a reference point. To my way of thinking, the larger the better.

But there are practical considerations. When I bought my 6 megapixel APS frame D100, I carried a couple 2G flash cards around. With my 12 megapixel “full frame” (Nikon refers to their 35mm size frame as “FX”) D700, I use 8G cards. With the new D800 36 megapixel FX sensor, I don’t even know how large the cards would have to be. And with each of these increases in file size, an equal increase in hard drive storage and computer processing power (memory) is needed. At some point, it may become overkill. When Nikon announced their Flagship D4, at “only” 16 megapixels (same as the D7000 consumer body), many of us thought it might signal the end of the megapixel wars). But they have since released the D800 FX 36 megapixel body. Interestingly, the D800 is the “entry-level pro” camera and the D4 is the flagship pro body at a significantly higher price point (suggesting that a lot of working pro’s don’t consider the megapixel issue significant anymore at 16 megapixels). I cannot personally see a need for more than double the capacity of my D700 which creates some splendid digital images, in low light conditions.

It is difficult or impossible to get those pleasing out of focus effects on a point and shoot camera

Canon G12; 140mm; f4.5

Depth of Field.    Interestingly, sensor size also affects depth of field. This is analogous to the film reference above (as was the comment about “full frame, Medium and Large Format). It relates to the field of view and image size geometry. I am not capable of explaining the science, here and will leave it to more capable persons. But as a general rule, the smaller the sensor, the greater the depth of field for a given lens focal length. This explains why it is difficult or impossible to get those pleasing out of focus effects on a point and shoot camera.  As you an see, the G12 image, which is shot at its longest focal length and its widest aperture, still captures the background in reasonably sharp focus.  On the D700, everything is blurred except the main subject (of course a big part of that is the wider aperture).

Nikon D700; 140mm; f2.8

In the end, it is still first and foremost, about quality! When the consumer affordable DSLRs first came on the market, there was an immediate hue and cry for a “full frame” (i.e., 35mm size) sensor. The main reason, I believe, was because those of us used to using 35mm didn’t like the change required when thinking about and using our existing lens arsenals. I bought an 18mm lens and it solved my concern. Over time, the camera lens manufacturers have answered the call by designing lenses specifically for the APS sensor size. This has created some of its own issues, as we now have 35mm size sensors available. A “DX” lens on my “FX” D700 will have a big black vignette circle in the viewfinder, but will simply crop the image to the DX format. It just means we have to plan and think about what and how we are shooting.

My primary criteria for purchasing a camera will always be its sensor quality

When the D700 came out, I immediately decided to buy it. The sensor size really had absolutely nothing to do with it. I had “moved on” to the smaller sensor / lens combinations and had a bag of lenses that worked well for me. Buying the D700 made me have to re-think that and it was, frankly, in the short run, a nuisance to do so. Eventually I have sorted that all out. But my primary criteria for purchasing the D700 – and it will probably always be my primary consideration in purchasing any camera, was sensor image quality. And there is just no question on my mind that the camera I have in the bag that yields the highest quality image, is the one with the biggest sensor.

For lots more than you ever wanted to know about sensors, sensor size, and electronics, see Wikipedia and this DPreview page.

Book Review: Magic Lantern Guide to Canon G12

I am adding Book Reviews to the “Equipment” category. I have often referenced my considerable library of photo books and frequently reference and recommend particular books. Like all my equipment reviews, book reviews will by my opinion and obviously, subjective. I hope readers can use the information here to make better decisions about a book. All of the books reviewed here can be seen and purchased at my Amazon Store which is in the lower left marginal column on the blog. I get credit as an Amazon Associate if you “click through” my store when you order. I certainly appreciate any help I can get in that regard. As always, thanks for reading and following here!

RECOMMENDED

Magic Lantern Guide to G12 by Peter Burian

In February, I have the good fortune of taking a week-long Caribbean Cruise. For the first time in many years, I plan to carry only a point and shoot camera. I am not going to have any of my DSLR gear with me. I have worried that I will feel naked and inadequate with the big gear, but I am going to face my fears. 🙂 Anticipating that, I purchased a Canon Powershot G12, knowing I needed (wanted) some “pro” features even in a “casual” point and shoot (see, “My Review of Canon’s G12“). Thinking that since it is all I am going to have with me, I decided I needed to learn some of the details of the camera. Like so many electronics manuals, Canon’s G12 manual leaves a bit to be desired. So I headed to my local bookstore to find a third party guide. I settled on The Magic Lantern Guides series book on the G12.

We each “learn” in our own way. Some of us learn better by reading, some by listening, and others by a “hands-on” approach. My own tendency over the years has been to do my own reading and research, occasionally augmented by listening at seminars, watching video, and sometime-hands on learning. So, not surprisingly, my bookcase contains several feet of books on photography.

Similarly, teachers teach differently. In my experience, this means that it is rare that you will find one written resource that will have all the answers on a particular topic. No place is this more true than the so-called “manual” that comes with photographic gear. Because of this, writers and publishers have maintained a niche, producing third-party “manuals.” These tend to be a little more in-depth, and written in a more conversational style.

The book does exactly what I expect a Magic Lantern Guide to do

Over the past 20 years, I have found the “Magic Lantern Guides” series to be uniformly well-written and informative. So, when I purchase a new item (or sometimes when I am contemplating purchasing) of photographic equipment, I naturally look for the corresponding Magic Lantern Guide.

Canadian pro, Peter Burian has been an “internet friend” for many years. Peter is a working pro, teacher and writer for several photography magazines (including the Canadian publication, PhotoLife, where he is a regular contributor) and for the BetterPhoto.com online photography school. He has written the National Geographic Photography Field Guide, several Magic Lantern Guides. Peter has given me valuable advice on more than one occasion, both personally and in his numerous writings. So I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that Peter authored the Magic Lantern Guide for the G12.

The book does exactly what I expect a Magic Lantern Guide to do. It clarifies and elucidates what is not very well done in the pdf manual that ships with the G12. Peter first gives us a comprehensive overview of the camera features. He then gives us his version of the “quickstart” section of the manual. So for those “hands-on” folks who want to fire up the camera and start shooting, he has that well covered.

One point that could be made more clearly is that many of the “cool” features and menu choices of the camera do not work when shooting in the raw mode

The balance of the books goes progressively into greater detail, covering the camera’s numerous shooting modes first, then the functions and how they are activated for each mode (the function button on the back of the camera allows you to set essential functions in each mode right on the back screen without switching to the more detailed menu system), and finally, covering the detailed menu system for camera settings. The book finishes by covering the camera’s flash capabilities, accessories, and bundled image editing software. Peter’s style is clear, conversational, and easy to read and understand.

One point that could be made more clearly is that many of the features and menu choices of the camera do not work when shooting in the raw mode. Granted, this is a “point and shoot” camera. But it is not an “everyman’s” P&S; it is in many ways, a pro-style camera, with pro-style features. I suspect that that means that many of us who are serious DSLR users and carry the G12 as a backup/casual/convenience camera will be shooting with the raw setting. Many of the “cool” features of the camera are limited to shooting jpeg files. The book doesn’t always make this clear, when discussing settings.

That these features do not work when shooting raw makes sense if you understand the nature of raw vs. jpeg. Raw files are essentially the electronic information captured by the camera’s sensor in its “raw”state. Raw files must be “interpreted” by software after they are transferred from camera to computer. Jpegs are rendered in the camera from the raw file data, using the camera’s onboard processor. For many reasons, some of us would rather use our more powerful and versatile computer software than rely on the arguably limited software in the camera over which we have only rudimentary and pre-conceived control (see, “Why You Should Shoot Raw“). So, things like changing the aspect ratio (which is essentially telling the camera to make an in-camera crop of the raw image—delivered at the sensor’s native size—and render it as a jpeg) just don’t work. I suppose it’s a fair argument to say that when you get to that level as a photographer, you really don’t need to use, or know about the “gimmicks” in the camera. Still, I would make that more clear.

I recommend this book as a good addition and perhaps carrying companion for any G12 owner

The book is nicely illustrated throughout, with images taken primarily by Peter, with the G12. His thorough familiarity with the Canon camera systems shows through the book. And perhaps best of all, the price is very reasonable! I recommend this book as a good addition and perhaps carrying companion for any G12 owner.

RECOMMENDED

My Review of Canon’s G12

I took this image coming out the end of the car wash. It shows the G12’s ability to capture detail. Handheld, no filtration

In the late 1990’s, consumer digital cameras suddenly became a reality. A dedicated SLR user, I was interested to watch the development at the same time, of the SLR digital cameras, beginning with the Kodak DSLR bodies which were huge, low megapixel and ultra-expensive. My first foray into digital was in the “point and shoot” arena, due primarily to affordability. My Nikon Coolpix 5000 was just a “toe-dip” into digital waters. While I could see a lot of potential in digital capture, I really disliked the shutter lag, lack of ability to see through the lens, and lack of versatility in “lens choice.” When the D100 came along in 2000, I happily shipped the point and shoot in trade for a DSLR.

Over the years, I have always carried a small, point and shoot camera for those occasions when the DSLR is inconvenient. While I have owned a handful of point and shoot cameras, I have never found one I could be “satisfied” with. The ability to shoot raw images is a big factor in my choice (see my Blog, “Why You Should Shoot Raw“). But, P&S raw processing time has been unacceptably slow.  I have also remained frustrated with the signature “shutter lag” that seems to have accompanied all P&S cameras.

There isn’t any doubt that inexorable development of the point and shoot camera industry has greatly benefitted the “higher-end” markets

But there isn’t any doubt that inexorable development of the point and shoot camera industry has greatly benefitted the “higher-end” markets. This includes constant improvement in sensor technology, noise reduction and image stabilization technology.

The new 4/3 “mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras” are also intriguing. But the combination of price point and the need to purchase new lenses meant that it was not enough different (nor more convenient) than my current, very adequate DSLR system. Nor are they—in my view—as versatile.

When I bought my D100 in 2000, my sister bought a Canon G5. I looked rather carefully at the G series specs and have continued to follow them over the years. The G series was probably the first so-called “bridge camera,” (i.e., the “bridge” between the point and shoot market and the DSLR market). Numerous pro shooters and high-end enthusiasts have embraced this model for serious imagery.

I have been a “Nikon guy” for 30 years. But I am not a “my dad can beat up your dad kind of guy”

I have been a “Nikon guy” for 30 years. But I am not a “my dad can beat up your dad kind of guy” (see my blog, “Should You be Shooting Nikon?”). I like to think of myself as a pragmatist. Over the years I have observed and admired some of the things other companies—notably Canon—have come up with. I believe the G series has led the way and others have generally followed. I tried to find (and like) the Nikon “equivalent” to the current G cameras. I really did.

Looking at my particular shooting specs, it became clear to me that one of the G series cameras was really the best fit. Ultimately, it came down to either the G11 or the G12. Ultimately, I settled on the G12. There were a number of reasons:

Mechanics

The controls on the G12 are well laid out, logical and easy to understand—probably the best that I have owned. One draw of the G12 for me was the retro-style controls. You needn’t spend a lot of time in and out of menus and for a long time shooter that is just, well, comfortable. Most of the settings can be made with one of the two control “dials” on top of the camera body. There are both front and back dials which make it feel very familiar to a DSLR user. The G12 is not a “superzoom” by any means. Rather, its 28-140 (35mm equivalent) zoom range is near ideal for the “landscape” shooting I prefer. At the same time, it is also well suited for a walking around camera and one for family and vacation photos.

Sensor

The G series continues the “APS” sensor size commonly used in point and shoot cameras. Interestingly, the G11/12 actually reduced the pixel count from the prior G10. This may mirror a current trend to recognize that there may be a ceiling on pixel counts on the smaller, “APS” sensors. At the same time, they seem to be concentrating on some of the very important issues like noise reduction at lower light levels and higher ISO (which admittedly have a relationship to sensor size/pixel count). For my own experience, 10 megapixels will be plenty for the intended use. My D100 was 6 megapixel and I have no hesitation making 13 x 19 inch prints from it. The G11/12 uses a CCD sensor array.

Importantly, for me, the G series maintains the ability to capture and save in raw format. In my limited use so far, the “processing time” seems minimal and very acceptable – a quantum improvement in my prior raw-capable point and shoot cameras.

Equally important; shutter lag seems to be minimal to non-existent; certainly very acceptable.

Cool Stuff

Front Control Dial – The G12 appears to be only a minor improvement/refresh of the G11. But I was attracted enough to the one or two features to go for a new G12 rather than trying to find a “deal” on a G11. One of the improvements was the addition (actually, a re-introduction of a feature that I understand was on the G9 and prior bodies) of a front control dial. My Nikon DSLR has both front and back dials (as, I am sure, the Canon DSLR’s do), so I like that. It feels comfortable – and is versatile.

HDR – Another new item is a built-in HDR feature. While I am not usually an “auto-anything” fan, this struck (strikes) me as a neat and perhaps useful feature. I have suggested in prior writings (see my Blog, “Managing Dynamic Range Digitally“) that we are not a long way away from HDR in-camera sensors that will capture a true HDR image, much like the pre-tone-mapped image that comes out of HDR software). Don’t be fooled. The G12 “HDR feature” is simply an automated 3 shot bracket, combined with in-camera HDR software.   It is also a bit of a compromise for my taste.  When reading the specs, it didn’t occur to me that in order to achieve all this wizardry in the camera, it would be necessary to use the jpg format.  So if you use this HDR feature, you will give up all the versatility of raw capture.  It is doubtful that the in-camera software will have the versatility or fine adjustment of a program like Photomatix, starting with raw files. But in a situation where you don’t have the time or inclination to set up for a full-blown HDR merge, a cool addition. Hand-holders beware. This is a tripod-required feature!

Electronic Level – The G12 incorporates a “digital spirit level” in the LCD viewer. It is a really cool little feature which I could see possibly being used on DSLR cameras in the future. My Nikon D200 has a digital level feature, but it must be invoked and it occupies the screen all by itself. As such, it is kind of clunky and doesn’t appear to be a neatly done as the one which is just an “on/off” choice which adds to other on-screen information on the LCD screen.

“Hybrid” Image Stabilization – In 2009, Canon introduced “hybrid image stabilization technology” (http://www.dpreview.com/news/0907/09072207canonhybridis.asp) in its DSLR lenses. The G12 incorporates the technology, which is new from the G11. Canon says the technology compensates for motion in two different ways—linear and rotational. Canon appears to me to have been the clear leader in IS technology over the years, so I am willing to say this is probably going to be an improvement over prior technology.

Tracking Auto Focus Mode – Again, a new feature for the G series, I have had some kind of AF tracking on my last two DSLRs. I don’t do a lot of action shooting, so I may not be the most appreciative of this feature. But to the extent that it might be useful, I like the fact that it can be activated and used.

Articulating LCD Screen– This is hardly a unique feature, as prior models had it, as well as many other manufacturers (my Nikon Coolpix cameras had it). But it is a cool feature, giving more flexibility and versatility to the use of the screen.

Real Time Histogram Display – Again, this is not unique to this camera, but it is a nice feature when composing an image using the LCD screen.

Add Ons and Accessories

All “higher-end” point and shoot cameras have the ability to add accessories of some description. The G12 has a bayonet type mount on the front of the body which allow the addition of add-on lenses and accessories. One accessory that I find almost indispensible in my photography is my circular polarizer filters. A polarizer can be a “savior” when you are photographing during the “bad light” time of day, which is, more often than not, when I will be likely to be carrying this camera, as a walking around camera. On all of my point and shoot camera’s I have missed the polarizer in certain image situations. I have purchased a “hood” type arrangement that bayonets onto the G12 and is threaded for 72 mm (which is great, as my main DSLR lens is also 72mm) to accept filters. One thing that my brief experiences have demonstrated is that it is difficult to use it effectively without being able to see its effect through the optical viewfinder. I can see it on the LCD screen, but only with some difficulty.  The barn shot below was taken using this apparatus, and in addition to the above, I note (perhaps because of the mathmatics of the smaller sensor/lens combination) a much greater tendency toward uneven polarization in the sky than what I generally see on my D700.  There is clearly vignetting at the widest angle setting on the lens, too.

I also purchased a remote shutter release. I see that Really Right Stuff makes an L-bracket for the G12 and I am likely, before all is said and done, to purchase that (see, “The L-Bracket, Don’t Leave Home without it”). As I have previously blogged, the L-bracket is one of the most useful tools in my own bag. Of course, all this “stuff” starts to defeat the articulated purpose, which is to have something small and portable. So it will be interesting to see where the compromise ultimately lies.

For those of you who find flash indispensible to your photography, the G series has a hot shoe for Canon dedicated flash units. There are various tele-converter accessories that are also available. My own experience has been that these things are of limited utility for those of us who already have DSLR gear and the experience is more one of frustration than satisfaction. For someone who will be using the G12 as their sole camera, there are some options out there, though. I would suggest considering a tripod purchase if that is the case.

The Proof is in the Imagery

Of course. Obviously. Both Canon and the G-series are noted for their clean images and good color. As each new sensor comes out, sporting new technological advances, there is no reason to believe that it won’t just keep getting better and better. Dpreviewnotes that the reduction from almost 15 down to 10 megapixels was a bit of a compromise, giving up low light detail for cleaner, more noise free detail at higher ISO settings. I hope not too much. I take a fair amount of low light images—though I expect not as much with this camera when I have the D700 with its so-called full-frame sensor to use for that. And, because I see me using the G12 handheld much more often, I think the all-around “compromise” is a good one, allowing higher ISO and thus, faster shutter speeds.

Copyright 2011 Andy Richards

Haven’t had a great deal of time to use this camera. The shots here, while admittedly mostly boring shots around my backyard, are posted mainly to illustrate image quality under certain conditions.  As the barn photo also illustrates,there is a little too much noise apparent in images where you might expect it to show up, for my taste. When shooting handheld, I have the dynamic IS always on. I hope to illustrate future blogs with examples from this camera.

This is a shot captured as raw on a bright overcast day. My normal PS adjustments were made.

Same shot using the G12 built in HDR. Note the additional details in the sky, as well as the in camera white balance determination

Thanks for reading

Should You Be Using Nikon?

No, this is not going to be one of those “black hat” versus “white hat” discussions.  The discussions that still pop up from time to time on photo forums about why my Canon’s father can beat your Nikon’s father up are always amusing.  I wonder if all that wasted energy, angst and enthusiasm could be marshaled into a really great photograph somewhere?

But I do use Nikon equipment.  Why?  Does it really matter?

My first 35mm SLR was a Pentax precursor–an AsahiFlex (marketed in the United States by Sears under the Tower brand).  It didn’t have a pentaprism or an in-camera light meter!  I “upgraded” to a Canon TX in 1979, and then in 1981, I had the opportunity to purchase a Nikkormat body (and more importantly, 3 lenses).  My prior cameras had less “bells and whistles” and only a so-called “normal” (50mm) lens.  I was able to “horse trade” in a way that economically worked for a starving college student, and thus, became a Nikon-shooter.  Over the (too numerous) years following, I had opportunities to “trade up” equipment.  The catch was that each item of equipment was “married” to a particular branded system.  A new lens needed to be a Nikon-mount.  If you wanted a new body, you were already “invested” in Nikon lenses, and the body needed to fit the lenses.  There has never been a time in my years of equipment ownership that a lens or body I bought wasn’t worth substantially less than what I paid for it (like every car I have ever owned), soon after I parted with my hard-earned money.

Each brand has items I would love to see on its equipment, along with items I don’t care about.  It doesn’t make it any easier, of course, that there is no such thing as a “universal purchaser.”  What I think is important, you may not care about in the least.

On one of the forums I frequented years ago, a friend and I joked about creating a “Nicanontaxpus” branded camera that took all the features we liked from the several major brands with a universal lens-mount system that could take any lens.  At that time, I was looking at the auto-focusing and image stabilizing technology in the Canon systems, which was “ahead” of Nikon at the time.  At the same time, the Nikon system had a world-beater electronic flash system which was undisputedly the industry leader.  A good friend and noted professional photographer gave me very wise counsel.  He noted that each “brand” had its own pros and cons, and that each was a very high quality manufacturer.  Sooner or later, one would catch up with the other in those areas it was “behind” in technology.  In the meantime, I would take a serious economic “hit” by selling my lenses at reduced prices and purchasing new lenses at new prices.  I would also possibly take a practical “hit” in having to learn and get comfortable with a new system.  Good advice.  I am not always known for this, but in this case, I heeded it.  Eventually, Nikon came out with its own image stabilizing system and–ironically–its flash system lost some of its “luster” when both companies shifted to digital and DSLR systems.

Since then, another company came up with an even better (IMO) idea and created an image-stabilizing body.  And so it goes.  Innovation is a wonderful thing, both for us users and for the sellers of innovative technology.

The point of this ramble is that I do not believe there is any merit in arguing about which system is best.  You use the system that works best for you to do the things you want or need it to do.  If you have the luxury of having money to spend and are purchasing a new system, the decision is different — and not necessarily an easy one.  For the rest of us, it may well be that patience is our most important virtue.