Tuesday, October 24, 2017

What Camera Should I Buy?

This is the question I both dread and look forward to the most, because it's never a question of which camera is best, or even what's best for the money. It's all about what camera is right for you, what kind of pictures you want to take, what fits your style, what you're willing to carry. We're talking about ourselves as much as our cameras, and I love talking about both.

Now instead of thinking about which camera, let's talk about which lens. It's the lens that gathers the light, it's the lens that projects the image. If you project a good, sharp image on any modern sensor and you're good. Choose the camera around the lens, and only then think about other features. You get a good lens, you'll take good pictures.

Okay, so we're thinking about lenses. Aren't there a lot of different kinds? Yes, but there is a list of standard-ish focal lengths to narrow things down. These are all 35mm equivalent in terms of field-of-view. The field of view, how much of the scene is in your frame, depends on the ratio between focal length and sensor size, so smaller sensor cameras will get a similar looking picture from a proportionally shorter lens, and even if we're talking about smaller sensors, when you read about focal length and zoom range the manufacturers talk in 35mm equivalence, what size lens would produce the same image framing, field of view, on a 35mm sensor. Got it?

Wait. Back up.

In the beginning, there was 35mm film, and camera lenses were designed to project on that exact size rectangle. That means the first digital cameras would need sensors of that same size so photographers could use their existing lenses (pros spend way more on glass than they do on cameras). As technology advanced and digital cameras got better, it became obvious the sensors didn't need to be nearly so big to produce great pictures, and that's how we got our smaller formats, crop-frame DSLRs, micro 4/3", and (totally good enough for anyone) 1"  and 1/2.3" compacts.

But we still talk about 35mm equivalent, the lens that would produce the same image framing for whatever size sensor you have (the first picture in this list, for example, is 10.9mm on a micro-4/3"). So that's the frame of reference for these "standard" focal lengths and the kinds of pictures they take.

Why these numbers in particular? Because in the old days, zoom lenses sucked. Non-zoom, prime lenses were sharper and better in low light and fast action situations, so manufacturers, working with photographers to optimize around different uses, settled on this set of lens designs and that's what made the pictures that everyone got used to.

All that said, here is a list of the standard focal lengths and what they do, starting at wide angle and zooming in.

Landscape pictures, think wide open spaces.

Street photography, imagine scenes of life in 1970s New York City by Garry Winogrand.

Vacation photos, family pictures, and generally people in fun places having a good time. If I only had one focal length this would be it.

The "standard lens," classic mid 20th century photos and Humans of New York.


Super portrait.

Anything above this range is super-telephoto. Anything below is ultra wide-angle, my favorite, although (or perhaps because) it is the most challenging to frame. Like if you're at a street festival you can frame the entire street.

Ultra-wide angle.


Of course nowadays zooms are so good you don't choose a single focal length, you get a whole range that includes several of these in a single lens. You may be tempted to get a very large range zoom that covers everything, like an 18-400mm. Don't! There's always a tradeoff and a large zoom range will be less sharp, heavier, and often both. My favorite lens is a 17-40mm but someday I'll "trade up" to a 16-35mm -- only a 2x zoom! The most popular general purpose zoom is 24-70mm (3x) or the almost-as-good 24-100mm (4x).

You can still buy prime (non-zoom) lenses in those focal lengths (and people often do). Even with zooms we keep going back to the old standard focal lengths of tradition. I still prefer 35mm over 40mm and if, with a slight twist of zoom, I take a picture at 36mm, it bugs me for some reason.

But it's up to you how you like it.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Follow Your Sunbeam: A Cat's Guide to Success in Business, Relationships, and Naps

Marble, resident cat and guest blogger

Sometimes I look at my reflection in the window and think, how did I achieve such success in life?

I look out into the world and I realize there's two kinds of cats. Those who are in sunbeams and those who aren't. We all want to be the cat in the sunbeam but I've learned that sometimes we are, sometimes we aren't. And we can't just sit around waiting for the sunbeam to come to our window. We have to seek it out, and find a spot to lie down wherever it is. Even then, it's important to keep a lookout, because the sunbeam will move.

My pursuit of sunbeams may seem intense, but when you enjoy warm sunlight as much as I do, it doesn't feel like work. Eternal vigilance is just the price of warm naps.

Floors, windows, it doesn't matter. Where the sun goes, I go.

Do sunbeams sometimes hide under chairs? Yes they do. 

It takes a lot of work to achieve this kind of bliss. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Curmudgeon Tourist

You know what the Grand Canyon is? It's a hole in the ground with a gift shop.

It's hot, it's dusty, the sun is too bright, and there are signs everywhere telling you that you will die.

Why anyone would want to visit a place like that is beyond me. My only guess is that everyone who ever went there was talked into it by someone else.

Visiting National Parks

Before we get into what national parks are like to visit, let me say something about these pictures, because when visiting national parks, it's important to carry a camera so you can blend in with the other tourists. The camera I carry has this "effects" button, like an Instagram filter or something. For example, there's this one black and white mode that makes it look like I take all my pictures in the 1930s.
This is useful if you want to see what The Grand Canyon would look like a hundred years ago if it were crawling with time traveling tourists from the future.

Invent some time travel anecdotes in case your camera gets stuck in this mode.

This is a person looking at a map. Looking at maps is a popular activity at national parks. People travel from all over the world to look at maps here.

Looking at maps is such a popular activity, the park just went ahead and installed a large map next to the gift shop. People come from all over the world to see it.

Sometimes they put a map at the top of a mountain. It might take all morning to get there, but when you see the map I think you'll agree it's worth it.

Another popular activity is sitting in cars. Pictured here is a typical vacation spent going to and from Yosemite National Park.

If you think that's bad, look at these poor suckers behind me. It's okay to laugh at them. They should have left earlier.

The thing about traffic is it gives everyone something to complain about, and plenty of time of time to complain about it. It also gives you time to figure out how to take your camera out of its 1930s mode.

National Parks in Other Countries

If you're willing to forego driving and take an airplane instead, you might learn that other countries have national parks also. Iceland, for example, has an excellent set of maps along what they call "The Ring Road," probably because it's ringed with maps.

This is Skaftafell National Park where we stopped to look at some maps. While using the restroom I overheard an old man tell his friend, "I don't need to climb up another hill just to see another waterfall." Now there's someone who knows what he doesn't want. I have to admire that.

So what did we do? We left the park, drove down this long, rough, 4x4 road, just so we could climb another hill and see another waterfall.
Some people never learn.

Taking Pictures

Hey look. It's Ansel Freaking Adams! Hauled that big tripod all the way up here, did you? Let me get a picture of that with my phone for you. There you go. Done.

Asking people to take your picture is a popular social activity. You know how in Hawaii, "Aloha" means both hello and goodbye, among other expressions of friendship? "Will you take our picture?" is kind of the same thing for national parks.

Everyone with a camera thinks they know the rule of thirds but most of them don't, not really. Not really really. If you want a good picture, hand your phone to whomever has the biggest camera on the observation deck and ask them to frame you in a Fibonacci spiral. If they say, "What?" yank your phone out of their hands and give it to the person with the second biggest camera. Repeat until you're satisfied with the results.

If you're lucky, you might get a good picture of you visiting the park sometime in the 1930s.

But probably not.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Between Two Humans: A Cat's Memoir

The sun rises on the treat platform and sets over the dining room bed. In between is nap time. My name is Marble. I'm a cat and I share my home with two humans.

The two humans sleep in a large human bed, but only at night. It makes a nice warm spot between them, perfect for napping, cuddling, and tunneling under the blankets, but then in the morning they get up and leave, and every morning I ask why they would ever leave the best place in the house for naps and cuddling. And despite my best arguments, they get out of bed. As a compromise, they put treats on the top of my treat platform, in the corner by the sunbeam. Sometimes they hum You're So Vain by Carly Simon, sometimes they make up words for me.

I had a dream they were 
Treats on my platform
Treats on my platform

They think I don't know their songs, but I do. I listen intently to everything.

When they're away I read their books. It's important to know the humans. They live in my house and must be understood.  

After the humans leave for work, it's time for patrol. I have to check the house, see if any toys need to be played with. Sometimes toys hide under the TV, they're clever like that. But I check every nook and crevice. 

If a toy is out of place, I stalk it, track it down, wait for my moment to pounce.

After pouncing, it's time for a nap. 

Then it's back on patrol. I not only have to keep the toys in order, I also guard the windows in case that old tomcat Moses comes prowling around. 

It's important to patrol every part of the house.

After patrols it's time for another nap, and as the sun moves to the dining room bed, I follow.

Eventually the humans will come home. I keep watch until they do.

Humans go to work every day, except vacations and special holidays called humans work from home day. When the humans are home, life is good, because humans have laps.

A lap is a wonderful thing and it is made from a combination of humans and books.

Laps can also be made with a television.

Sometimes a dog stays with us and I have to watch the dog.

After books, television, and watching the dog, the humans finally - finally! - take my advice and go to bed, where I have already left toys for them to play with. When they're both in bed I jump between them, that's my spot. While they're asleep I'm out on night patrol.

Come morning, I'll be up on my treat platform ready to do it all over again.

My name is Marble. I'm a cat.

That Hobbiton Glow

"Orton Effect?" You know it, it's that dreamy Hobbit-in-a-forest look. That glowing nature dreamscape. If you've ever seen a landscape photo that seems to, well, glow, you've seen a picture inspired by the work of Michael Orton who, in the 1980s, took to overlaying two photos of the same scene, one normal and the other blurred and overexposed. The normal photo provides the detail, and the blurred overlay provides the glow. This can be done today with a single picture in photoshop by duplicating it, blurring it, and lightening it. There are a few tutorials online on using the technique.

Create Dreamy Landscape Photos with the Orton Effect

Is the Orton Effect Taking over Landscape Photography?

While the author of the second article worries it's being overused, and certainly a strong Orton effect is obvious, using a light touch can add a subtle quality to landscapes without making every picture look like Lord of the Rings.

To try it out, I took an old photo from a trip to Mendocino, taken with the small point-and-shoot Canon DSC-TX10, a camera released in 2011 - the picture was taken maybe a year later. This is working with just a JPEG so the same result can be achieved with any camera phone - indeed, modern phones will take pictures far superior to this.

I started with the photo as it came out of the camera. A not-bad-but-not-great shot of the classic Mendocino coastline.

I then applied some sharpening and contrast with Photoshop layers. Now it has more "pop" but maybe too much. Definitely too much. Let's soften that up a bit.

I copied the picture, applied a Gaussian blur, and lightened it. This will provide the "glow" around the details. 

The final product, with the blurred layer nearly transparent (around a 25-30% opacity), softens the harsh contrast of the developed picture. It still has contrast and detail, but a subtle glow softens the landscape.

I can use the same technique but mask it so the effect is applied to the landscape and not the person (me) in this photo.

So not bad for an old JPEG. Now what happens if we try it with a modern RAW digital negative out of a DSLR? To find out, we went to Rowena Crest Viewpoint in northern Oregon.

Straight out of the camera you get a typical DSLR image, nice, if a little washed out:

With sharpening, contrast, and color correction, I brought out the blue sky and the trees.

Sharp! A little too sharp. A lot of the Lightroom sliders that "clean up" a picture are based on edge-finding algorithms, so after sharpening, dehaze, contrast, etc., you could find sharp edges make things look cartoonish, like everything has a pencil outline.

Lightly adding a gaussian blur layer brings back some of that softness. You still get contrast in the detail, but it looks less like a drawing and more like a picture.

And, the same location masking the subject of photo...

The fun of a hobby is finding new new tricks, trying them out, learning and perfecting the technique. While I wouldn't do this to every photo, it's good to know the otherworldly look is available if I want to use it, and the more subtle version can be applied if I want it. Learn and grow is the name of the game.