Monthly Archives: October 2009

Pixel-Peeper

This looks like it could be a useful site:

Pixel-Peeper

Basically it has a search form on it where you can choose a lens, choose a camera, choose some other specifications like focal length range or aperture range, and it’ll search its database of photos for ones that match those criteria. So, for instance, I picked the Nikon 16-85mm VR, and the Nikon D40….and received zero matches. :) However, each menu also has an “any” option, so when replacing the D40 with “any,” I got many more results. Then you can look at the specs for each photo match or click on a link to view a full resolution version and “pixel peep.”

The problem is that most of these pics appear to be hosted on Flickr. Many, many Flickr users have their original size photos hidden, so when you click on that link it just says “oops, private page.” All you are allowed to see, in many cases, is the 500 pixel wide “medium” version. That seems like a pretty major flaw. You can’t tell very much about lens quality by looking at a 500 pixel image. Even the quality of the bokeh will look different when the resolution is reduced that much.

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Recommended Reading

This is an excellent article, posted today on The Online Photographer:

Advice for Aspiring Photographers

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Blowing out the sky…or not

[This was originally going to be a quick response to a question posed in a Flickr discussion thread (“Over exposed skies on D60“), but I found myself typing more and more, so I figured it would make a good blog post.]

The meters on the entry level Nikon DSLRs (and the D80, if I understand correctly) are tuned to ensure that darker areas aren’t underexposed, but this often leads to a problem: The sky, or other bright area, ends up “blown out.” There are various ways to alleviate this, none of them ideal.

Ideally, one could simply use a graduated neutral density filter, but such a filter has a built-in, natural limitation, namely that it works best when you can ensure that the sky is in the top half and the landscape is in the bottom. If the division between the two is uneven, as it is in many photos, then it’s not going to be as helpful. There is also a problem when the front element of the lens rotates, as it does on Nikon’s 18-55mm kit lenses.

Luckily, there are other methods:

1) Using matrix metering with the exposure compensation feature. Take a shot, check the histogram or highlight display to see how badly the sky is blown out, adjust exposure compensation accordingly, then try another shot. Be sure to center the frame in the same spot as the first time, so the meter receives the same input both times. In extreme cases, I’ve had to adjust exposure compensation multiple times to get it “right.” A single value is not going to work for every situation. I’ve used compensations varying from -0.3 to -2.7, although -0.7 to -1.7 seem to be the most common. The greater the compensation, the more contrast there’ll be in the final picture. At an extreme value like -2.7, the result is going to be questionable at best. With experience you can take a guess at your compensation value on that first shot, and save yourself some time.

2) Another thing to try is putting the lens on manual focus and setting “exposure lock” to “ON”. (Ironically, it’s possible this method never would have occurred to me if autofocus hadn’t been broken on my kit lens.) Expose an area right on the edge of the sky, hold the shutter button half down to lock the exposure, recompose, and shoot. With the lens on manual focus, you can focus at whatever point in that sequence is most convenient. Then check your exposure just like in (1). Thanks to metering the edge of the sky, the chances are much greater that your exposure will be correct on the first shot, but even if it’s not, you’ll need much less adjustment.

This exposure lock method is easier with autofocus off. With autofocus on, you’ll soon find yourself in a situation where your focus point, your metering point, and the center of your composition are three different spots, and it gets pretty hairy trying to handle all of that (especially if you prefer the left eye like I do, meaning the AE/AF-lock button is mashed right up against your face!). In fact, wanting to avoid this situation was the main reason I decided to learn the next method:

3) Just use manual exposure mode. If you want autofocus on, this will often work better than (2). Adjust the shutter speed and aperture explicitly, then check your results as in the other two methods. I find that manual exposure works best in the winter. In the summer, the presence of green vegetation increases the possible variability of the lighting, and adding a polarizer adds yet another variable, so eventually it gets to be too much to keep track of. That’s why I’ve never entirely given up on methods (1) or (2). However, in situations where the lighting is pretty consistent, this is actually the easiest method.

Wondering what values to start with? That’s not really all that hard. There’s an old heuristic called the “Sunny f/16 Rule” and it goes like this: On a sunny day, you can set your aperture to f/16, your shutter speed to the reciprocal of your ISO value, and the chances are good that this exposure will be right. Whether it turns out exactly right depends on various things, but it’s always a good starting point. You probably don’t want to use f/16, so when you move the aperture down, count how many steps you go, then count that many steps faster on your shutter speed. On a Nikon D40 at base ISO 200, then, the starting point would be f/16 at 1/200 second. But I’d rather shoot at f/8, which is two stops down (or six clicks on the wheel), so then I’d bump up the shutter speed two stops (six clicks) to 1/400 second. Easy! :)

4) I’ve tried abandoning matrix metering in favor of center-weighted, but gave that up after a couple of weeks because I found it was leading to even more tedious adjustment and fiddling than matrix metering. Instead of just needing negative exposure compensations, I now found many of them ending up on the positive side, making the whole process into a complete bother. How I managed to survive for years shooting film with a center-weighted camera is beyond me. :)

5) There’s always HDR, which I haven’t tried, mainly because it’s a computer intensive method (the less time I can spend in front of the computer, the better!). I will hazard a guess that this is the most complicated method of all. Or perhaps the method requiring the most art. :) I’ve seen plenty of cheesy, tasteless HDR compositions. A few of them look really superb, though (whether done with a realist aesthetic or not), and in extreme situations, I am sure that this is the only way to really get the shot.

6) I have found that a circular polarizer can sometimes help. When it does, it’s because the polarizer is actually darkening the sky, thus reducing the overall contrast. But that means it works less well when that darkening effect is minimized, such as in the late afternoon or early morning, or when the air is hazy. Unfortunately, these are precisely the times when the contrast problem is likely to be greater.

7) Whichever of the above methods you use, be sure you are shooting RAW. It has better dynamic range, and overexposed areas can often be “recovered” in post processing. That doesn’t work with JPG images.

So that’s basically it, there’s no “easy” way out, strictly speaking, unless you want to get a camera body that has some type of in-camera dynamic range expansion. I’ve seen some samples of this from the Pentax K-7, and they look somewhat fakey to me, not as good as a high-quality, manually done HDR image can. (Perhaps this is a matter of setting parameters in the camera, though.)

One final thing—sometimes you actually want to blow out the sky:

Evening Glow

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New equipment day

No, not new equipment for me, new equipment for Nikon. This was expected, at least for anyone “in the know”, or anyone like me who checks the Nikon Rumors site on a daily basis to see what’s up. :)

The new D3s camera body is a nice announcement, but not really relevant to me, as I doubt I’ll ever need a pro body like that. Of more interest is the announcement of a new 85mm macro lens. It’s a DX lens, f/3.5 and will supposedly cost $529 once it’s available.

I’ve been wondering what to do about the macro problem for a while now. Strictly speaking, I don’t need a macro lens, which is generally considered to be a lens capable of 1:1 magnification of the subject on the sensor. But I do find myself wanting something that’s good for photos of flowers and the occasional insect.

My original solution was to use the D40 kit lens at 55mm. This worked better before I lost autofocus capability on that lens (and is the main reason I am even bothering to think about getting it fixed at all). While I’ve been doing some recent experimenting with manual focus mode on that lens, I find that it’s generally pretty hard to focus it closely at 55mm, where the tolerance is so fine that slight waverings of my body as I stand can easily throw the subject out of focus.

The other alternative I currently have is to use my 18-200mm zoom at 200mm. It doesn’t magnify as much as the kit lens, but it’s adequate in some situations. Image quality is not as good as the kit lens, though.

All of this leads me to think that maybe a dedicated macro lens would work better, even if I don’t entirely need the 1:1 magnification. The problem is that the main offerings available for my camera were not exactly what I would have wanted. Nikon’s 60mm AF-S micro is a bit shorter than I would prefer (yes, it’s actually longer than my 55mm option, but doing macro work at those short shooting distances is not optimal—I’d prefer more distance). Nikon offers a 105mm AF-S micro which by all accounts is a pretty nice lens…except it costs $900, which is out of my price range for such a specialized application. The remaining micro lenses, prior to today, were not AF-S lenses, which would mean manual focus only. Sometimes autofocus really does help, such as one occasion recently when I was laying flat on my belly photographing a caterpillar. Caterpillars move surprisingly fast, when viewed from the perspective of keeping a macro shot in focus. :)

In any case, there is now a new AF-S DX Micro NIKKOR 85mm f/3.5G ED VR lens to consider. If the price manages to drop below $500, it’ll end up being a very appealing choice. It won’t be at the top of my “want” list, but it’ll be there, probably right below the 10-24mm zoom and above the 10.5mm fisheye. :)

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An Exceptional Day

I saw a group of four Whooping Cranes yesterday. What a surprise! I could hardly believe my luck.

I was on a photo excursion/hike at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, had been outside for the better part of an hour already, and was nearing the end of the trail. I was a little tired (I am so out of shape it’s ridiculous) and I came really close to walking right by them without even realizing what they were! Horicon Marsh is heavily populated by Great Egrets, which are very beautiful, large, white birds, but they are so common that I’ve gotten kind of blasé about them sometimes. So when I saw four large white birds over a ways along the trail, that’s what I initially assumed they were, and went about my business shooting wide angle landscape shots (I actually have a couple of shots with small, white specks, i.e. Whooping Cranes, in the background, heheheh). I didn’t even have the right lens on my camera to look at them—for the day, I had decided to use the D40 kit lens, complete with broken autofocus. However, I was near the end of the hike, and was feeling like my kit lens project had been a success, so I decided I would take a break from deep landscape shots and grab a shot of those four big white birds over there, even though I knew they were too far away to make a good photo.

It hadn’t occured to me that Great Egrets tend to be pretty solitary, so what were four of them doing together? And weren’t they a little bit too large to be Great Egrets? And where was all the cool neck flexion and posture stuff you usually see with an egret? And what was the deal with the black on the wings? That didn’t seem right. And yet, the truth of what I was seeing still didn’t dawn on me, until I had switched lenses, zoomed in on them and realized they couldn’t possibly be egrets. My next thought was White Pelicans, but that only flashed through my mind for a moment—they were not bulky enough, and didn’t have the gigantic beak apparatus that pelicans have, so that idea was obviously wrong. I also saw a quite distinctive dark facial marking. This is actually reddish, but from that distance, on a cloudy day and through my small viewfinder, it just looked an indistinct “dark” color, compared to the surrounding white. Still, though, it was a clear indicator of what I was looking at, as was the way they walked, very much like a Sandhill Crane.

You have to understand, when one doesn’t expect to ever see a Whooping Crane ever, having not just one but four of them right there in plain sight is a little difficult to accept. So as I snapped excitedly away, knowing full well that the pictures would be mediocre at best (and not caring one bit!), my mind still hadn’t quite opened up to the idea that me, a basic birding nobody, had any business seeing such rare birds. Who the hell did I think I was, anyway? However, when they began to dance…well at that point there was no denying it, and I just about started to do a little dance myself! ;)

Regrettably, by the time they started dancing, they had moved behind some reeds, so I couldn’t see that part very well. I took a few shots of it anyway, just for documentation purposes. They didn’t turn out very well. The main body of shots was quite usable, if somewhat mediocre as I expected. I was too far away, with a lens renowned for mediocrity at its mere 200mm maximum length, and with only a six megapixel camera. But given these limitations, the photos turned out ok. I may even crop one of them to use as a banner photo for this blog! I haven’t decided yet. ;)

All in all, it was an exceptionally thrilling sighting! I just hope it doesn’t turn out to be the only time in my life I ever see these birds. They really are exceptionally beautiful. Here’s one sample shot, which honestly doesn’t do them justice:

Whooping Cranes

I have actually gone a bit nuts by posting a set of sixteen shots on my Flickr stream. They are the ones that I felt were at least moderately acceptable. Normally I’d want to focus more on quality of the photo, but with birds this rare, I figure who cares. So here is the whole freakin’ set. Enjoy! :)

I’ll almost certainly be back there next weekend, to see if I can spy them again. :)

Update: I just realized that I can post a link to a full-blown slideshow of the whole set. Why bother with all the tedious clicking around when you can just view the entire set, in large size? ;)

Finally, I have to add that I went back to that same spot on October 10th and saw the same four birds again! Like the first time, it was pretty surprising, and very nice to see. This time, the weather was sunny, and the sunlight on their pure, white feathers was really amazing. The only thing, though, is that this time they were even farther away than the first time, so the photos from that afternoon were only useful for identification and documentation purposes.

[post updated October 28, 2009]

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Yen are too expensive

Prices on Nikon lenses and camera equipment took a big jump earlier this year, much to the dismay of myself and other Nikon customers. The change was due to a long-term increase in the value of the Japanese Yen compared to other currencies. Rumor has it that more changes are coming, due to even more appreciation of the Yen. This is bad news.

So, I got curious and did a little looking at the exchange rate between the Japanese Yen and the American dollar at various times.

Today, October 1, 2009, the rate is 89.74 Yen for 1 US dollar.

A year ago the rate was 106.05 Yen per dollar, and two years ago, the rate was 115.92 Yen per dollar. Looking farther back, October 1 each year going back to 1998, the rate was always between 105 and 135 Yen per dollar. So the current exchange rate is clearly out of the ordinary compared to what we’ve been accustomed to.

I’ve also heard that Nikon is aware of this problem and is considering ways to alleviate it. This might mean moving more of their manufacturing and/or assembly to other countries. That might be a good thing from a price standpoint, but would they be able to maintain the level of quality on their higher-end items? Who knows. (On the other hand, none of the Nikon equipment that I own was made in Japan anyway, so would it even matter for me? I guess a more relevant question is how it would affect prices and quality on equipment that I want to buy, not on what I already have.)

Of course, another solution would be for the value of the dollar to increase. It wouldn’t have to go up all that much, either. About 20 Yen is all it would take, and that’s not all that much. The catch is that it would have to stay there for a while, giving no hint of going back down to its current level. The other problem with this idea is that it doesn’t seem likely that the US government would want it to happen, because I’m guessing they are wanting to stimulate exports, and for that, a weak dollar is advantageous.

(All exchange rates were obtained from free services on xe.com.)

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