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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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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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There's a fun post on Strobist titled, Canon G9: The New Polaroid?. In the piece, he talks about film shooters who are carrying around G9s and using them the way we once used Polaroid backs -- to review lighting, color, and composition. Plus, even though they are often shooting medium format, they will have working digital proofs for review while the film is being processed. Kinda cool.

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New Panasonic LX3 Looks Great

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I'm not even interested in the silver model. I want the sexy black Panasonic DMC-LX3 compact camera. For starters, this model has 24mm-60mm f-2.0 (at 24mm) Leica Vario-Summicron zoom lens. Then add features such as Raw capture, larger 1/1.63 inch CCD, three aspect ratios (4:3, 3:2, 16:9), image stabilization, spot metering, 10.1 megapixels, 3:2 aspect ratio 3" LCD, and high definition movie capture up to 1280 x 720 at 30 fps - all in a handsome package that will fit easily in your jacket pocket.

I had the previous model, the LX2, on loan for about 6 months. And I have to say I really enjoyed using the camera. I liked the true 16:9 aspect ratio, especially combined with the excellent movie mode. I also liked being able to capture in Raw, even with my compact camera.

This latest model represents a trend at Panasonic. They are really trying to overcome the narrow field of view we usually have to tolerate with compact cameras. Often the widest focal length is around 36mms, which isn't really very wide at all. So to have a full 24mm wide angle lens, and at f-2.0 at that, is a real treat. This is a camera that you can shoot in tight quarters with. I do see Face Detection on the spec list. And that makes perfect sense given this camera has "event shooting" written all over it. And speaking of event shooting, the LX3 does have a hot shoe to support external flashes.

All in all, it looks like Panasonic has a real winner on its hands. I'm anxious to see images to determine if the bigger sensor and updated processing engine helps the LX3 control image noise better than its predecessors. The camera should be available in August, and it probably will retail for around $500 US.

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Yesterday, I wrote about the Olympus E-520 digital SLR. I shot with long lenses during the tennis event, but afterward, I wandered the Stanford campus with some of the other glass Olympus makes. A real eye-popper was the Zuiko Digital ED 8mm F3.5 Fisheye. It sells for about $790 US.

It has a 180-degree angle of view, and is the equivalent to a 16mm lens on a 35mm SLR. What's wild about the lens, other than the shots you can take, is that you can use a doubler on it without vignetting. Crazy.

This image was captured with the 8mm mounted on the E-520. I was standing at the top of the swim center. The lens recorded everything in view, from the overhead structure for shade, to the stands, to the pool itself. I'd love to get my hands on this lens again and take it to Beijing next month.

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The weather was perfect for hardcourt tennis at Stanford University. One of my favorite matches of the day pitted Shahar Peer from Israel against the defending champion Anna Chakvetadze from Russia. I was there to test the new Olympus E-520 digital SLR. This 10 MP body includes excellent sensor-based image stabilization, with modes for both horizontal and vertical panning. It also supports Autofocus Live View on its 2.7" HyperCrystal LCD, Face Detection, intelligent spot metering modes, Shadow Adjustment Technology, and more. The kit with a 12-40mm lens sells for less than $700.

So there I was in the photographer's area with press pass dangling from my neck going up against the giant Nikons and Canons. I asked the Olympus folks if I could borrow a couple of their pro lenses, and was able to attach a Zuiko ED 150mm f-2.0 (which is the 35mm equivalent to 300mm) both with and without a 2X doubler. I also tested the Zuiko ED 50-200mm f-2.8-3.5. Both lenses include tripod collars, so I felt a little more comfortable on the court with a monopod and some hefty glass. I did however, shoot with the kit lens and the 70-300mm f-4.0-5.6, and both yielded excellent results. I just couldn't stroll into the pro shooters area with only stock glass.

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As for the E-520 itself, I was impressed. The Olympus reps suggested that I shoot in Jpeg mode, but the contrasty lighting really demanded Raw. So that's where I set the E-520, and it provided ample frame bursts in Raw (8 shots) to keep up with the action. During the entire day, I only filled up the buffer a couple times. At 3.5 fps, I was able to capture some good sequences without too much spacing between the shots. I set the ISO to 400 for maximum shutter speed, even in the bright sun, and thought the image noise was generally well-controlled and unobtrusive. The shutter sound itself is excellent.

Olympus is a sponsor of the US Open Series. And what a great event it is. The Tournament at Stanford (Bank of the West Classic) featured many stars including Serena Williams. I enjoyed both the event and the Olympus E-520. I'll continue to shoot with the camera and post updates along the way.

Photos of Shahar Peer by Derrick Story. Olympus E-520 with Zuiko ED 50-200mm f-2.8-3.5, ISO 400 in Raw capture mode.

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An interesting story broke last week when the Iranian propaganda machine managed to slip a doctored missile shot by the U.S. media. A couple things to note here. First, yes, we need to be diligent about examining images that we pass along as news. This side of the story is covered well by Daryl Lang in his PDN article, Newspapers Plan Corrections Over Iran Missile Photo. Be sure to click on the More Pictures link in the article that shows you how the image was doctored.

Photo and caption of doctored missile photos were provided by news agencies and put together by PDN Online

But in addition to that, what disturbs me is that there are still three real missiles in the shot. Yes, the doctored image is more ominous, I guess. But seeing a trio of rocket-propelled weapons arching upward is quite frightening all on its own.

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I've been testing photography applications from the new iTunes App Store and want to tell Flickr users about Exposure from Connected Flow. With this program on your iPhone or iPod Touch, you can get quick access to your Flickr photos, those of your contacts, featured images, and my favorite feature, "Near Me."

"Near Me" uses the location capability of your iPhone to find images posted to Flickr that are in close promixity to where you are at that moment. You can see the list of images, with the distance from you noted in meters. (For Americans) If you keep in mind that one mile equals 1,609.270 meters, then when you start seeing images in Exposure only 400 meters away, it dawns on you that these pictures are happening in your neighborhood. Most of the time, this is a good thought, but not always.

iPhone users can download Exposure for free with ads, or pay $9.99 US for the ad-free version. It makes your mobile device just a little more interesting.

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With the release of a second generation FireWire 800 model, Drobo has repositioned itself from a convenient backup system to an everyday workhorse that also archives your data.

'The second generation Drobo incorporates all of the features and functionality that consumers have grown to know and love in its predecessor: unparalleled ease of use, redundant data protection, and instant expandability that allows storage capacity to grow with users over time. New enhancements include an upgraded core processor, two FireWire 800 ports, dramatically increased USB 2.0 performance, and newly optimized firmware. This release addresses the needs of any user seeking a reliable method of managing vast amounts of data without sacrificing performance; from video editors, to heavy down-loaders, to photographers who shoot raw images,' reports data robotics in their press release.

So now you can use the device for realtime photography production, video editing, and other demanding tasks. Drobo's peace of mind comes at a price, as you would expect. Using the Drobolator to calculate available free space, you'll see that if you fill the Drobo up with four terabyte drives, your available data space is 2.7 TBs. 931 GBs is used for protection, and 3.8 GBs is reserved for overhead. But this is still more efficient than one-to-one backup. And that backup data has to go somewhere.

I have a first generation Drobo for managing my photo archive. I originally had it on an AirPort Extreme network, but I've since moved it to a workstation so I could connect the USB 2.0 cord directly to a computer. Since I've made that adjustment, I've been more satisfied with its performance as a backup machine, especially when searching for photos with Expression Media. But I'd love to try the new FireWire version. If anyone has any hands-on reports, please post a comment and let us know a little bit about your set up too.

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