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Sigma 55-200mm Lens

One of the best deals in the world of lenses is the Canon 18-55mm lens that's available in a kit with the Digital Rebel XT (350D). It's weighs only 6 ounces (190 grams) and takes sharp, saturated photos. Sigma has designed what I consider to be the perfect complement to this lens. Their 55-200mm DC Zoom weights only 11 ounces (310 grams) and extends the zooming range of the Rebel all the way to 200mm. When you consider that on the Rebel this 200mm focal length is actually 320mm because of the 1.6X magnification factor, you gain a lot of reach without adding much weight to your camera bag.

I've been toting the Rebel with the two lenses for a couple months testing to see if I could get by with just these two options for the variety of assignments I encounter. I have to say, this tandem works great and weighs almost nothing. Unfortunately, the filter ring size is different for each optic -- the Canon takes 58mm filters and the Sigma uses 55mm. I could go with a 55-58mm step-up ring and carry only one diameter of filter, but I've opted for packing both a 55mm and 58mm polarizer -- just seems more convenient in the long run.

The performance of the Sigma 55-200 is outstanding. The images are crisp and saturated. The lens doesn't have the silky smooth autofocusing that you get with Canon lenses, but the action is precise and not too loud. One thing that long-time Canon shooters will notice is that the zooming ring turns the opposite direction that Canon lenses rotate. This does take some getting used to, and is really the only drawback I encountered with this tandem.

You can buy the Sigma 55-200mm on Amazon for $125, and that includes a lens hood. The only other lens that I would include in my "basic on-the-go DSLR kit" would be the Canon 50mm f-1.8 optic. This gives you a lightweight (4.6 ounces / 130 grams) low-light capable lens without much additional bulk.

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Signs Can Be Beautiful Too...

Open Sign

I've long advocated taking pictures of signs instead of taking notes. If you're visiting a historical site, for example, snap a photo of the placard that lists all of the important events that happened there. Don't you dare reach for a pen and start writing.

Signs can be beautiful too. I keep an eye out for compositions that are aesthetic as well as informative. I took this photo in New Mexico outside a store in a small village. I wish I had thought at the time to see if there was an equally attractive "Closed" on the other side...

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Frame Your Composition

Jack London Wolf House

You can add depth to your compositions by "framing" them with natural elements in the landscape. This technique can transform your images for two-dimensional pleasing to three-dimensional stunning. Trees are often the most available options for this technique.

Take into account the exposure difference between your main subject and the frame. You may want to try an exposure that's in-between the two. Why? If you can retain some shadow detail in the frame, it makes for a more interesting image than if it goes totally black. If you have Photoshop CS2, try using the "Shadow/Highlight..." command (Image.. Adjustments.. Shadow/Highlight...)

I once knew a photographer who would create his own frames by carrying a small tree branch around with him. Crazy? Yes. Effective? He got some nice shots...

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Rim Lighting for Better Portraits

Rim Lighting Portrait
A little natural light adds definition to subject's hair...

One of the things I'm always on the lookout for is a chance to position my models so I can use fill-flash for their faces, and natural "rim lighting" for their hair and shoulders. The best locations are often at the edge of the "shade line" from a tree.

The technique is simple. Turn on your flash by using the "flash on" command. Position your subjects so their faces are in the shade, but the sun is illuminating their hair. Make sure you're within flash range -- usually about 8 to 10 feet. Then try a test exposure.

Once you get a shot you like, don't forget to share it on the LCD monitor. It will give your models confidence that the session is going well.

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Favorite Card Reader: Belkin 15-in-1

Belkin 15-in-1 Reader
This Belkin Hi-Speed device is the only card reader you'll need...

Since I recently discussed memory card management, I wanted to follow up with my favorite card reader. The Belkin Hi-Speed USB 2.0 15-in-1 Media Reader & Writer uses USB 2.0 connectivity to upload pictures directly from memory cards, usually faster than most cameras can manage tethered to the computer. Plus, it doesn't drain your batteries in the process.

You can also write data from the computer to memory cards using the 15-in-1. My testing confirms that it does work as advertised. The reader is slim and easy to stash in your laptop case or camera bag. It's also one of the chosen devices that work with Apple's Camera Connector, enabling you to transfer images from your memory card to a full size iPod with color screen -- again, without draining your camera's batteries. No computers required!

Downsides to the Belkin card reader? I'm not crazy about its thick cord I have to lug around. But was happy to discover that my thiner Canon Rebel XT USB cord also works with the Belkin. So I carry it and leave the thicker Belkin cord at home. Also, the $49 price tag is steep. But if you transfer lots of high resolution images, you'll probably judge the device worth the money.

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If you need a good camera while on the go, I'd recommend that you start by comparing compact models. They're easier on the wallet and fit into a pocket or purse. Compact cameras typically range from 2 to 7 megapixels of resolution. Their picture quality can be outstanding, but they usually don't offer the array of features and controls that larger models do. The zoom lens tend to be 3X, which translates into 35-105mm for most models.

After you listen to this week's podcast, use this handy checklist to help you, or a friend, find the right digital camera. I recommend that you print it out, then mark the features that are important to you. Then bring it with you to the store.

Compact Camera Features Checklist

Megapixels

  • ( ) 3-5 megapixels -- great snapshots, quality enlargements possible up to 8" x 10"
  • ( ) 5-8 megapixels -- quality prints possible up to 11" x 14", ability to crop and still have enough resolution for decent sized enlargements

Memory Card (Spare Recommended)

  • ( ) Are the read and write speed specifications of your spare memory card matched to camera for maximum performance? This is particularly important for cameras that have robust burst modes and high quality video capture. Generally speaking, you'll need a spare 256MB card for 3-4 MP cameras, 512MB for 5-7MP cameras, and a 1GB card if you plan on shooting any video.

Batteries (Spare Recommended)

  • ( ) Rechargeable Lithium -- most common these days. Designed specifically for the camera by the manufacturer
  • ( ) Rechargeable NiMH AAs -- Are more bulky, but you can always use regular AA alkalines in an emergency
  • ( ) Charger included in camera kit?
  • ( ) Charger compact and easy to pack?

LCD Monitor

  • ( ) Fixed back -- Mounted to the back of the camera
  • ( ) Vari-angle -- can swivel screen, and sometimes rotate. Versatile viewing options for shooting low angle compositions or for holding the camera about your head.
  • ( ) Screen size -- 1.5" to 2.5" Bigger is better if you like to show others your pictures on the camera's LCD monitor
  • ( ) Image quality -- sharp, smooth motion, rich colors
  • ( ) Magnification -- allows to "zoom in" on recorded images to study detail. Very useful function, but some cameras implement this better than others
  • ( ) Data viewing -- enables to review settings such as white balance, ISO, and flash

Flash

  • ( ) Settings for built-in flash easily accessible

Shooting and Exposure Modes

  • ( ) Continuous or Burst mode -- How many frames can be recorded without pause to write to memory card
  • ( ) Subject shooting modes -- predefined settings for action photography, as well as portraits, nature, low light, and close-up
  • ( ) Self-Timer -- Some models have 2 sec and 10 sec settings
  • ( ) Remote Control -- Is a remote control included in the kit or available as an accessory?
  • ( ) Macro -- How close can you focus?

White Balance

  • ( ) Are settings easily accessible?
  • ( ) Is there a good variety or white balance presets?
  • ( ) Is there a manual white balance setting for tricky lighting situations?

Exposure Compensation

  • ( ) Is the exposure compensation setting easy to get to, or buried deep within the menu?

Special Features

  • ( ) Movie mode -- records QuickTime video at 10, 15, or 30 frames per second and/or at 160x120, 320x240, or 640x480 pixel dimensions
  • ( ) Panorama mode -- provides visual guides in the LCD viewfinder for aligning overlaping frames for panorama images
  • ( ) Special effects -- usually includes Black & White mode, sepia, and vivid colors
  • ( ) Audio annotations -- enables to add short voice recording to images
  • ( ) Weather resistant -- provides for photography in rain or sometimes even shallow immersion. Is there an underwater housing available for your model?

Software

  • ( ) Bundled software -- How good is the included software for special camera functions such as creating panoramas?
  • ( ) Will your new camera work with your existing photo software?

Listen to the Podcast

Hope you enjoy today's audio show titled, "Compact Camera Buying Tips" You can download the podcast here (46 minutes).

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Polarizers Help Saturate Colors

Fall Grapes
Using a polarizer helps saturate colorful scenes...

The white balance function on our digital cameras has allowed us to leave many of our filters at home. Instead of toting a warming filter, for example, we can now switch to the "cloudy" white balance setting. One filter, however, still needs to accompany us for our landscape photography: the polarizer.

The polarizing filter helps reduce glare and saturate colors. It deepens the blue in skies and helps add punch to the clouds. The trick to reaping the most from this essential accessory is to have the sun coming from an angle, preferable over your right or left shoulder. Then look through the lens and rotate the filter until you have the desired effect.

This shot of fall grapes was captured with a Canon Digital Rebel XT in Raw mode. I set the 18-55mm lens to 48mm. I made the exposure at 1/90 @ f-6.7.

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Overexpose for Foggy Scenes

Foggy Landscape
Remember to change exposure compensation to +1 for foggy scenes...

One of the exciting aspects of taking pictures in the morning costal fog is that, in a matter of minutes, you can have a variety of shots without ever moving your feet. One thing to keep in mind however, is that your light meter can be fooled by the brightness of the fog, much in the same way it can by snow or a bright, sandy beach. Generally speaking, you can compensate for this by setting your "exposure compensation" dial to +1. That will force your camera to overexpose the image by 1 f-stop, which should be enough to compensate for the fog.

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Isolating Backgrounds

Blue Heron
Blue Heron portrait jumps out because of the isolating background.

One of the situations I look for when shooting portraits, whether in the wilds or the local park, is an isolating background. I was very lucky here. I had been shooting gulls bathing in a fresh water pond where a creek flowed into the ocean. I noticed in the corner of my eye this Heron in the distance. The overcast light was illuminating him beautifully, but the background was dark from a concrete bridge. What a treat!

I switched to spot metering mode so I could base my exposure on the heron and not the background, then began shooting. I would capture about 10 frames, move closer a few feet, then shoot another series -- always being respectful of his space. Once I had the shot I wanted, I backed off and let him enjoy the rest of his afternoon.

Keep an eye out for this type of lighting situation. And if you can, get your shot without disturbing the subject. (Canon Digital Rebel XT, ISO 800, 75-300mm IS lens, 1/350 @ f-5.6)

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High ISOs in the Wild

Elk in Twilight Meadow
Elk captured at dusk in meadow with Canon 5D set to ISO 1600.

Sometimes nature presents you with a great shot... but in less than ideal lighting. This was the case with this Tule Elk I discovered in a meadow at twilight. His beautiful antlers (14 points!) were easily discernible with my eyes, but even at ISO 1600, my Canon 5D needed a slowish 1/15 of a second at f-5.6. Without the ability to use a high ISO, I never could have captured this shot.

In a future podcast I'm going to discuss image sensor size and its relationship to usable images at high ISOs.

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