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As I post this now, it's 8:30 am in Beijing. Tonight the Opening Ceremonies begin, and I suppose that everything is going to change around here.

I captured this image of the Bird's Nest Stadium last night while walking in Beijing. It was one of those magical moments in the city when we were all out strolling along the perimeter of Olympic Village. People were waving little flags, taking pictures, and enjoying being out en masse with their friends and family.

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We were about the only Americans I saw on this walk, which made it even more enjoyable. I felt like I was immersed in what it feels like the moment before the world comes to your doorstep. More to report soon.

Photos by Derrick Story, captured with a Canon 5D and 16-35mm L II lens. ISO 1600.

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I've been depending almost exclusively on the Sigma 50mm F1.4 EX DG HSM Lens during my first few days in Beijing. In part, as I anticipated, it's because I'm working indoors as we prepare for the launch of the Olympics. My standard procedure everywhere I go is to carry the Canon 5D over my shoulder with the Sigma 50mm mounted. It's relatively compact, very fast at f/1.4, and has transformed even the most mundane shots into something pretty to look at.

Other photographers have been curious about it too. They've admired its handsome looks and have had fun testing it to see how it performs. Speaking of which, I'm very happy with the autofocus speed in real life shooting. As with my Canon lenses, I just don't think about it much. I compose the shot and the Sigma takes care of its business by the time I'm ready to shoot. It's also very quiet as it focuses never drawing attention to me as I try to grab the shot.

The images are quite beautiful. The color balance is accurate along with the sharpness of where I focus. The thing to keep in mind with a wide aperture lens, is that the focus falloff is fairly steep wide open. So if you're not used to shooting with this kind of glass, it can catch you off guard at first. But in the end, I love the look. It feels very artistic to me.

Everyday that I shoot with the Sigma 50mm, I like it more. And for the moment, it's my go-to lens. Of course that will change when I get out to the events...

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Nikon Center

If you're an official photographer at the Olympics, you have to show the correct credentials, and you'll need your Kodak photography vest. Each vest has an ID number on the front and on the back. So at any time on location, photographers can be identified from a distance.

In general, the shooters aren't crazy about this system. Many of them would prefer not to wear a vest at all. But like many things at the Olympics, there is a system in place to help keep things running smoothly.

Shown here is the Nikon booth within the Kodak Image Center. Since the events haven't really started yet, the shooters are coming in to get last-minute equipment adjustments and to get organized for the busy period ahead. Canon has a similar set up at the other end of the room.

As for me, well it's fairly quiet today at the workstations. We have more than 50 Macs set up with Aperture, Photoshop, Transmit, and Photo Mechanic. During my shifts in the Center, I try to help photographers get their work done. I'll enjoy the casual pace now, because after Friday, everything will change.

Photo of the Nikon booth by Derrick Story.

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Have you wondered if the new DNG Profile Editor might be a useful tool for your photography? It would be easier to figure that out if you knew more about what it really did and the thinking behind its inception.

Fortunately for all of us, John Nack just published an interview with Eric Chan, a computer scientist on the Adobe Camera Raw team. He sheds considerable light on the DNG Profile Editor. Eric is also a photographer, so he knows how to talk to us. It's a good read.

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For the next two weeks while I'm in Beijing, it's monopod time. When preparing for a big trip, I often wrestle with this issue. Should I bring a tripod? If yes, which one? Can I get by with just a monopod? Will I regret this decision no matter what I choose?

This time around, I'm opting for the monopod - to be specific, a Giottos 9780 5-Section Monopod. It's light (1.4 lb / 640 grams), tall (70.8" / 180 cm), and compact (20.8" / 53 cm). I don't have to carry it over my shoulder when it's hot; I can use it as a walking stick. It is the perfect support for my Canon Tripod Mount Ring, it looks cool, packs easily in my suitcase, and I take good pictures with it.

The monopod has been winning out more lately as my ability to shoot at high ISO increases. At ISO 1600, shooting in the aperture range of f/1.4 to f/4, I feel like I can conquer just about any lighting condition with the Giottos. And if you're shopping, a pro-caliber monopod costs far less than an equivalent tripod. My Giottos stick only runs about $48, and it is a quality piece of equipment.

So, will I regret this decision to leave the 3-legged monster at home? I doubt it. But if I do, I promise to let you know in a couple weeks.


Previous Installments of Assignment Olympics

Pulling the Pieces Together
What's in the Bag for Beijing


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olympic_rings.jpg

In my last installment, I mentioned that I'm traveling light on my way to Beijing. So how does that impact the equipment I'll need to do my job - computer, camera, audio recording? I've spent some time perfecting my system so that everything I need will fit in one bag that fits over my shoulder.

I'll start with the bag itself. I rummaged through my "bag closet" and found an old Bessler carryall that I scored off the bargin table years ago. I've never used it on a job, but it's perfect for this trip. It will hold a 13" laptop and enough camera gear to get me through the assignment. This is exactly why I'm a bag hound.

For my laptop, I'm packing a current model MacBook with Intel processor and 4 GBs RAM. It's light, WiFi adept, and can run all of my photo applications. I'm including a 120 GB FireLite Smartdisk external drive for backups. A power brick with plug adapter for China and that's about it except for a few cables and a FireWire card reader.

My main camera is the Canon 5D with three lenses: 70-200mm f/4 L, 16-35mm f/2.8 L II, and a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 prime lens. I'm augmenting the 70-200 zoom with a Canon 1.4X tele extender and the custom tripod ring that mounts beautifully on my monopod. With this rig, I have reach (up to 280mm), breadth (16mm on the wide end), and speed (f/1.4 on the Sigma). I'm adding a handful of 4 GB cards, four batteries, charger, ExpoDisc, and microfiber cloth. I always pack Ziplocs... just in case.

I'll also bring the Canon G9 with a couple 4 GB cards and two batteries. It's a great backup camera and is less conspicuous if I'm in a situation where I need to keep the 5D in the bag.

Finally, I'm packing the M-Audio Microtrack 24/96 with a stereo omnidirectional mic and a narrow pattern mono mic. That way I can capture big event sounds (great for slideshows) and record interviews for podcasts.

I'll have two phones with me. For international travel, I always take my unlocked Sony Ericsson W810i. Hopefully, I'll be able to buy a SIM card at the Beijing airport so I'll have local connectivity. I'm also taking the iPhone, making sure that I turn off "Data Roaming" in the Network Settings so I don't rack up huge service charges while abroad.

I have added a couple 3rd party apps to the iPhone, since it will also be my portable computer. "Audio Recorder" enables me to capture quick tidbits of audio and save them as standard QuickTime files. The recording quality is actually quite good. I also added "Converter" that makes it easy to convert just about any type of unit for Temperature, weight, etc. The Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook is a must have. Not only does it provide text translations for common phrases, it *speaks* them. Talk about an ace in the hole. And it's free in Apple's App Store. My last new addition to the iPhone is "Stanza," which is a free eBook reader that doubles as a PDF manager. So I can have a few books with me without carrying the weight of paper.

All of this fits nicely in my bargain table shoulder bag. It's not the lightest kit in the world, but it's portable enough so I can have it with me at all times, and hopefully, contains everything I will need for this assignment.

Of course, I'll be reporting on how successful this rig works out. If you're not following me on Twitter, you can find me as Derrick_Story.


Now Available! The Digital Photography Companion. The official guide for The Digital Story Virtual Camera Club.

  • 25 handy and informative tables for quick reference.
  • Metadata listings for every photo in the book
  • Dedicated chapter on making printing easy.
  • Photo management software guide.
  • Many, many inside tips gleaned from years of experience.
  • Comprehensive (214 pages), yet fits easily in camera bag.

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FotoMagico 2.5 Now Available

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Boinx Software has just announced the latest version of FotoMagico, and it has some great new features.

Just on the heels of the new Lightroom 2 announcement, FotoMagico 2.5 provides support for Adobe Lightroom libraries, this is in addition to its existing support for media from iPhoto, Aperture, and GarageBand. It also includes a teleprompter that shows notes for every slide on a presenter´s display and a new export option for uploading slideshow videos directly to YouTube.

The update to FotoMagico 2.5 is free of charge to current FotoMagico 2.x license owners at their current license levels. FotoMagico 2.5 Express is available for $49 and FotoMagico 2.5 Pro is available for $129 via Kagi. For all purchase options see http://boinx.com/fotomagico/buy. Commercial multi-user license discounts are available upon request.

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olympic_rings.jpg

This is the first in a series of posts detailing my assignment in Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

SANTA ROSA, CA - As I prepare for my August 4th departure to Beijing, I'm faced with the challenge of gathering together everything I need, but in a package I can have with me at all times. I'm not talking about socks and underwear, those are replaceable most anywhere. The bag that is the center of my universe includes my travel documentation, camera gear, audio recording equipment, and computer.

On the surface, my assignment is simple. Assist working photographers in the Olympic Media Center. My sponsors are Kodak and Apple. While I'm working in the center, I'll be interviewing, photographing, and publishing stories about the people covering the event. It's the classic "story within the story" scenario that I love so much. I'll help set up the media center days before the opening ceremonies, then work a shift that goes through August 14th.

One of the most common questions people ask is, "Will you get to shoot at the venues?" Good question. I have no idea. In fact, all I really know is that I have a flight reservation, a visa, and a media pass. I'll find out the rest in good time.

So you can understand my desire to pack light. If it can't hang on my shoulders, it's not going with me. In my next installment of Assignment Olympics, I'll detail the contents of my kit. I think I have it together, but if I'm forgetting something, I'm going to depend on you to let me know.

I've also just set up a Twitter account for posting "quickies" as they happen. If you like the realtime stuff, you might want to follow along.

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I tend to use the monopod mostly for telephoto shots. In the past, I tried mounting a ball head on the pod, but was never comfortable with the set up, especially for vertical shots. So, I've switched to using a tripod ring instead. And I have to tell you, I am so much happier.

I use the Canon Tripod Mount Ring A II (W) for my 70-200mm f/4L zoom (often with the 1.4X extender). First of all, the tripod ring is much lighter than an equivalent ball head. The camera is definitely more balanced on the monopod. And I don't have to buy an additional quick release because the ring serves that purpose. And the added bonus... no quick release plates to fool with.

The joy gets even better while shooting. I absolutely *hate* trying to shoot vertical shots with a ball head. The slot is never in the right place, and I feel like the camera is about as unbalanced as it could possibly be. But with the tripod ring, I just loosen the knob a half turn, rotate the balanced camera to any angle I want, and tighten slightly. It is wonderful.

Once you use a tripod mount ring for your telephoto, you will never go back.

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sigma_50mm.jpg

The Sigma 50mm F1.4 EX DG HSM Lens is a handsome, fast, artistic hunk of glass available in Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Pentax, and Sony mounts. It incorporates Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) technology for quiet, fast focusing, and a maximum aperture of f-1.4 for light gathering ability in the dimmest of environments. The Sigma 50mm incorporates molded glass aspherical lens elements to help control aberrations, and uses multi-coatings for maximum light transmission and contrast.

I'm interested in this lens for two reasons. First, I need a fast 50mm for my Canon 5D. And second, I want to be able to shoot existing light portraits at maximum aperture with focus falloff. The Canon offerings are either too creaky (50mm 1.8), not sharp enough wide open (50mm 1.4), or too expensive (50mm 1.2). I was hoping the Sigma 50mm would be the answer.

This is a handsome lens. It looks absolutely great on the Canon 5D. The big front objective glass is impressive (72mm filter ring), and the design is very modern. The focusing is the best I've had with a Sigma. It doesn't rank as high as my best Caonon USM lenses, but it is certainly better than the 50mm f-1.8 it replaces, and on par with any third-party lens I've tried. HSM motors are expensive, and you pay for it with this lens ($499 US), but I'm really glad it's part of this construction because I don't feel like I'm stepping down much from my USM lenses. It's also fairly quiet.

It's interesting to talk about performance with a lens like this. First, I was happy to see there was virtually no vignetting on the corners. Edge to edge exposure was good. Center sharpness was also good. But because of the way I shoot with this lens (wide open in existing light), I can't report on corner sharpness at smaller apertures. However, the focus falloff, which I am interested in, is beautiful. My test portraits had exactly the quality I was looking for.

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I borrowed a kitty because I think fur is a good texture for showing the falloff effect. I had read some preliminary reports in forums that users were having occasional focusing difficulty. I haven't encountered that yet. The Sigma has been focusing where I've directed it. But I will keep an eye on this and follow up if I notice anything unusual.

I did notice, however, some slight red chromatic aberration on linear subjects against a very bright white background. This isn't a normal composition for me with this lens, but I intentionally shot some frames for testing purposes. I'm going to keep an eye on this also. For now, I'm not too concerned because of the conditions I normally would use this glass will be low light. But, if chromatic aberration becomes an irritation, I will follow up here.

The lens is bundled with a very nice bayonet hood and leather case. It also comes with a $499 US price tag. So it's for photographers who may not be satisfied with the 50mm options offered by their camera manufacturers (me!), or who want a different look than they're currently getting. So far, I like the Sigma 50mm f-1.4. But I'll keep putting it through its paces and keep you posted on my findings.

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