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Canon PowerShot S2 IS
The Canon PowerShot S2 IS is the current favorite choice among those who ask me for camera advice.

As you can imagine, I get lots of inquires this time of year concerning the best camera to buy. For those who are looking for an all-in-one prosumer model, the Canon PowerShot S2 IS has been the model most often selected among the options I present. Why do people like this camera? The 12X optical zoom combined with image stabilizer is appealing in a package that is light to carry around. 5 megapixels is enough resolution for most folks, especially considering that they won't have to do much cropping thanks to the optical zoom range. And the street price of $450 is within reach of most camera-buying budgets.

I do think the S2 is a terrific camera. That's why it's on my short list of consumer recommendations. But the news here is how popular it's been with people who actually plunk down their hard earned dollars.

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Shooting Through Hotel Glass

NYC Times Square

You travel photos aren't limited to locations where the tour bus stops. One of the first things I do, after dropping my suitcase on the bed, is look out the hotel window for a photo opportunity. Bright, colorful lights from a high vantage point often translate into beautiful nighttime images.

If your hotel window doesn't open, and they usually don't, just apply the standard "shooting through glass" technique. I like to first put a rubber lens hood on the camera to protect the front of the lens, but it isn't necessary if you're careful. Dim the room lights, or turn them off all together (so you don't get reflections in the window), then position the front of the lens barrel as close to the glass as possible. Make sure you turn your flash off. Then hold the camera very steady and shoot a couple frames. If you get camera shake because of the low light, then increase the ISO to 400 or 800 and try again. You can use a tripod if one is handy.

These types of images are particular good for "establishing shots" at the beginning of slideshows. And they often capture the interest of your viewers from the get-go.

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Getting to Know Aperture


I've just spent my first full day with Apple's new pro photo application, Aperture. Unlike most users, I'll be using this program strictly on a 17" PowerBook. (If you're curious about how it performs on a laptop, read my Mac DevCenter post, Aperture on a PowerBook, Pt. 1.) Since I've just splashed my feet wet, I have a suggestion to help you get off to a good start with this new tool.

After you install the application, but before you import any photos, insert the Introducing Aperture DVD and watch the "Acquiring Images" segment. Then import a batch of pictures. Next, watch the "Aperture Interface" and "Browsing & Organizing" segments, then apply what you've learned to your images. Work back and forth between the instructional segments and your own library of photos until you've finished the training. Then read the help section about how to set up a "Vault" so you can back up your work on an external hard drive.

You'll be ready for a good night's sleep after this. But you will have made tremendous headway toward learning the application. I'll post more tips soon.

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Nikon D200

In a recent poll of The Digital Story podcast listeners, the Nikon D200 topped the list of "most desired" DSLRs. Listeners to Podcast #8 were asked to post the DSLR they most wanted to buy in Show Notes section of that show. The top 5 cameras were as follows:

  1. Nikon D200
  2. Canon 5D
  3. Canon Rebel XT (350D)
  4. Nikon D50
  5. Nikon D70

Even though it was a small sampling (39 votes) the audience consists of avid photographers who are interested the latest cameras.

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Fast Shutter Speed to Freeze Action

Soccer Action

Outdoor action photography requires two elements -- optical magnification and fast shutter speed. This shot was captured with a 300mm telephoto lens on a Canon 5D at 1/500th of a second. In order to get the shutter speed I needed to freeze the action, I increased the ISO setting to 800. As extra insurance, I shot in Raw mode so I would have more options in post production.

If you like action photography, look for a camera/lens combination that provides lots of optical reach and can provide good image results at ISO 400 or higher.

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Low Horizon Line for Dramatic Skies

Low Horizon Line
By placing your horizon line low in the frame, you can emphasize a dramatic sky...

One habit that I see many photographers fall into is placing the horizon line in the center of the composition. Sometimes this is appropriate, but often it creates a static image that doesn't "move" the viewer.

Try instead, to consciously lower the horizon line, especially when you have a dramatic sky to work with. At first this may feel awkward. But when you review those shots later at home, I think many of them will be among your favorites. And don't forget to use a polarizer if you have blue skies with billowy clouds.

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Flash Tip
Try using a slower shutter speed for your holiday flash shots to capture more ambiance...

When shooting flash shots indoors, most cameras default to 1/60th of a second for the shutter speed. This is a reasonable setting in most situations. The problem is, your background -- outside of flash range -- often goes dark providing stark contrast to the flash-illuminated subjects.

By slowing down the shutter speed to 1/30th or a second, or even 1/15th, you can capture more of the background information, providing some "atmosphere" for your shots. The easiest way to do this (if your camera has a "Manual" mode) is to set the shutter to 1/30th of a second and the aperture to f-5.6. The flash will automatically emit the correct amount of light for your main subjects (usually within range of 8 feet or less). If it doesn't fire, change the flash mode to "Flash On."

Compact camera shooters can try the "Nighttime Flash," "Party," or "Slow Synchro" modes. These work great if you have a decent amount of ambient light, such as in my example shot here. If the room light is too dark, however, the shutter speed will slow down too much causing motion blur.

But don't be afraid to experiment. Try a few shots using one of these settings, then go back to your normal automatic mode. Afterward, evaluate your shots and experiment some more at your next holiday event.

You might also want to review the Show Notes for Podcast #1 that cover flash photography.

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Rocket Air
The Giottos Rocket Air Blaster does not use potentially harmful propellents to blow dust off camera components...

Dust control is just as important in digital photography as it is with film. You still have to carefully clean the fronts and backs of lenses, and more importantly for Digital SLR owners, keep the inside of the camera particle-free too. The Giottos Rocket Air Blaster has become my gizmo of choice for blowing away unwanted dust.

Unlike with canned air, you don't have to worry about harmful propellents accidently spraying out onto the lens surface with the Air Blaster -- or worse yet, on to your image sensor (with disastrous results!). The Giottos emits a steady stream of pure air and nothing else. Its extra long red tip nozzle enables you to clean tight areas. And it even has feet so you can stand it on the camera shelf where it serves as a conversation piece when not in use.

The Giottos Rocket Air Blaster is available in a couple different sizes. They all work great. And if you're looking for an affordable gift for your favorite photographer, they cost only about $11 each.

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Tamrac 5574 Bag
The new Expedition 4 adds outer "wing" pockets for quick access...

I've been using the Tamrac Expedition 3 bag ($49.99 from Porters) for about a year now, and I'm hooked on it. The reason it continues to be my favorite is that it's very nimble (2 pounds, easy to throw over the shoulder or grab by the handle), yet holds my Digital Rebel XT, two lenses, Casio EX P505 digicam, two iPods, cords, filters, extra batteries, Palm LifeDrive, reading glasses, and a few other odds and ends. It's small enough to take in a restaurant and slide between my feet or throw over my shoulders when going for a quick bike ride.

Tamrac recently announced the Expedition 4 ($89.94 from Amazon; Porters doesn't carry it at the moment) that sports a redesigned exterior and more room inside. Are the new features worth the extra $40? Yes and no.

As you study the bag on the Tamrac site, you'll see that they improved the harness system to provide more stability during extreme activities. I think this is worthwhile if you're an extreme shooter. But for me, it means extra cross strap getting in my way when I'm bouncing around town. So this isn't a plus for this non-extreme photographer.

I do like, however, the new front "wing accessory" pockets that enable you to quickly access memory cards, batteries, phone, iPod, etc. without having to open the bag itself. The interior of the bag seems to be the same design as the Expedition 3, which is fine with me. It is however, bigger than the Expedition 3 (and you should note the overall bag weighs more too).

My buying advice is to score the Expedition 3 from Porters for $49.99, that is, if you can live without the extra storage space inside and the really cool wing accessory pockets on the outside -- but for $40 more and more weight to carry.

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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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