The Garage

I’m working on a new art project.

My in-laws own an industrial-size garage on the outskirts of Kitchener-Waterloo.

Tomorrow there’s a gathering the garage and I’m going so I can photograph the garage and capture memories.

I don’t do many art projects so to maintain the artist bent to the day I’m taking the Olympus Pen cameras and lenses (along with a big tripod).

What I am seeing in my mind’s eye are shots that feature the garage which has been the meeting place in the small community for several generations.

When I’m finished I hope to have one image of the building suitable for printing and framing. And then, if I’m lucky, I hope to have enough images of the garage to either create a gallery display or perhaps print a book. Likely I’ll convert everything to black and white or sepia tone the prints.

We’ll see what happens but you can see I already have a vision of what I want to accomplish.

This is so different from special-event photography where we shoot our brains out and see later what we’ve got.


So What’s With ISO?

I was talking to a friend yesterday when she asked what’s with ISO?

ISO relates to the sensitivity of the sensor in digital cameras.

It replaces the old ASA settings we used when we were shooting film.

Back in the film days photographers shot film with the lowest ASA possible for the shot.

The original Kodachrome had an ASA of 10! Film with an ASA of 10 was capable of producing a nearly grainless image.

In comparison today’s digital cameras have sensors which can produce the same nearly grainless image (with some help from photo editing software) with ISOs of 1,600 and higher.

ISO and ASA numbers are directly comparable.

When it came to film you were stuck shooting at the same ASA setting for every frame on the roll. With digital sensors we can change the ISO for every individual image. But the same recommendation to use the lowest ISO possible for the shot still applies if you are looking for grainless images. Digital cameras are so good at shooting virtually perfect images that there is software you can buy which will introduce a grainy look.

That’s what’s with ISO!

Black Friday Sales

American Thanksgiving gives way to Black Friday and now the annual shopping day blitz has hit Canada.

So if you’re interested in purchasing a new lens or flash or maybe a camera bag tomorrow might be a great day to checkout online or retail stores.

Vistek I see has a Black Friday sale that starts online at midnight. Henry’s Cameras isn’t showing anything but they often have very good pricing.

It works like this: Most cameras you might get 5 or 10 per cent off if you deal really hard. But that’s peanuts compared to accessories where the markup is much greater.

If you’re negotiating a new camera you can get a couple of memory cards thrown into the deal (get big fast ones) and as much as ย 50 per cent off a decent bag.

Canon Cameras is famous for bundling mid- to high-end printers if you buy a Canon DSLR and some of these deals are terrific.

You can also buy from American online retailers like Adorama but if you have issues the equipment likely won’t be serviced in Canada.

Remember this: your next camera is an investment in lenses! Bodies come and go. Improvements get added and costs do come down over time and there is never really is a deal when it comes to camera equipment.

You buy one or two bodies today and sell them in five years to buy something better. But the lenses never go out of date.

Always buy the best camera you can afford and it will continue to be a joy for many many years. The pain of the price will fade ๐Ÿ™‚


Let’s Talk Software

If you shoot JPGs the images that come out of your camera don’t need much if any photo editing. The camera has baked into the image all of the parameters around brightness, contrast, colour and more.

Oh sure you might want to crop the image or brighten or darken it a little to taste but that’s about it. For this type of simple photo editing just about any photo editor will do the trick. Even the photo editors for smartphones will do all of the above and more. Much of this software is freely available for downloading to your phone, tablet or computer.

All of this software will allow you to print your photos at home using standard colour inkjet printers and glossy photo paper. You can do a better job editing and printing your own photos than printing at a big box store. (However if you want to print hundreds of images then the big box store prices can’t be beat.)

But what if you want to set up a digital darkroom? (Okay it’s not the same as the darkroom when we developed film but you get the idea.)

A great deal of the less expensive (or even free) software will run easily on most laptops and home computers. This is especially true on MACs which come bundled with IPhoto which is pretty simple and pretty effective. Photoshop Elements (which sells for $99) can open raw files and works on both PCs and MACs. There are a ton of other editing programs out there but these two are really excellent.

Some pros and advanced amateur photographers really like Lightroom 4.

It’s way more complex than IPhoto or Elements but it does so much more as well. LR4 is a bunch of programs that work together. First it’s a file management program. This is really important if you’re shooting every week and you’re creating hundreds of folders containing tens of thousands of images. LR4 automatically catalogues and saves your images for easy future reference.

LR4 also contains the same raw editor as Photoshop which uses Camera Raw as its primary editor. Camera Raw is a very very robust and effective raw editor.

(A quick review of why we might want to shoot raw images: JPG images toss away a lot of data while raw images retain all the data that was recorded. This means the software can change the exposure settings of raw images for four or five stops (a stop is the combination of aperture and shutter speed which results in a properly exposed image) while a JPG might allow for 1/2 a stop of changing the brightness). Raw images can be edited in other software programs (called external editors) such as black and white convertors (NIK’s Silver Efex Pro) or high-dynamic range programs (NIK’s HDR Pro) and many many more. JPGs not so much. )

LR4 also can create slideshows and online galleries easily. Best of all LR4 does all of its edits using what’s called non-destructive editing. What this means is you can always go back to your original raw image without any loss of quality. Every time open, edit and close a JPG is looses some quality. (Just opening and closing JPGs is fine.) This is a very cool feature and worth the price of admission ($200). LR4 also can handle thousands of images at a time. This is very important to photographers who shoot say sports for newspapers or magazines and especially for wedding photographers who can shoot three or four thousand images per wedding.

The other big photo editing software package is, of course, Photoshop CS 6 which at $800 is a lot of money but worth every penny if you’re a commercial photographer or you shoot weddings or portraits. Photoshop is what’s called a pixel editor. Unlike LR4 which works on the overall image (I’m generalizing here.) Photoshop works on the individual pixels. This makes Photoshop immensely powerful as you can change anything (Switch heads on people you don’t like. Change eye colour. Enhance body parts. Etc.) but these changes can be destructive. In other words Photoshop actually changes the original image. (The way around having an image destroyed by Photoshop is to make a copy of the original and work on the copy keeping the original in storage. This makes for a lot of work if you’re working on thousands of images which is why wedding photographers prefer LR4.)

Both LR4 and Photoshop CS6 are available for both the MAC and PC platform.

Regardless of which program you choose you will really really want at least 8-gigs of memory in your computer (16-gigs would be heaven) and an external fast terabyte hard drive or two.

(NIKON OWNERS NOTE: Many Nikon DSLR cameras came bundled with a photo editor called Capture NX 2 which works on both raw and JPG images.

NX 2 is an amazing photo editor and can do things that even Photoshop can’t do on raw files. I would be perfectly happy to stay with NX 2 and use it instead of LR4 or CS6 and would have been way ahead of the game financially if I had ๐Ÿ™‚

While it does not have the management chops of LR4 or the pixel editing capabilities of CS6 it does do non-destructive editing (very cool) using NIK’s (who manufactured NX2 exclusively for Nikon) amazing U-Point technology. U-Point allows you to drag your cursor onto the image right on your screen where a drop-down menu appears and depending on what you want to do (lighten, darken, increase contrast, change colours among a bunch of other stuff) does it in real time right on the image. Photoshop has to make a new layer (which adds immensely to the overall size of the finished image) and LR4 needs to import an external editorย NIK’s Viveza 2 is one of a number of editors that plug into LR.)

Whichever software package you use, it will take some practice but none are as tough to learn as they look. There are tons of online video “how-tos” and I give classes in all of the above aimed at the beginner level. Another great resource is which has video workshops you can watch for free or buy the downloads (I’ve bought four myself.).

If you decide to do your own raw editing consider the purchase of a Wacom digital tablet. Their Bamboo series can be had for as little as $99 and makes editing a whole lot simpler. The larger Intous series is great if you can afford the $$.

The West Coast 60s Scene

Do you remember the Caffe Mediterraneum?

How about Country Joe and The Fish?

If so, maybe you were part of the West Coast 60s scene in the San Francisco Bay Area and you’ll appreciate this black and white travel back in time courtesy of The Leica Camera blog.

In the mid-60s Nacio Brown, who was part of the underground scene, was photographing street life and protest movement and over time was widely published in many publications and books. (That’s just one of his excellent images on the right.)

According to the blog, in 1969 Brown was engaged in a four-year-one-block street photography projected that resulted in a book, Rag Theatre. Called brilliant and compelling a much expanded version is available online here: Rag Theatre.

Brown is still active and even has a Facebook page.

Compelling reading and photography Brown ended up shooting with Leica M4 bodies and a bunch of fast Leica lenses. The M4 was the camera of choice for street photographers as it was smaller, silent and because of its rangefinder focusing method allowed photographers to capture sharp well framed images in low light situations.

Leica still sells digital cameras with rangefinder focusing at an astonishing $9,000. Having said that the M4 was well over $1,000 when I bought mine in the mid-70s and DSLRs could be had for a couple of hundred bucks.

Nacio Brown’s images sure bring the 60s to life. This is street photography at its best.


Your Second Lens

If you’ve got (or Santa is bringing you a camera) a camera that takes interchangeable lenses what should your second lens be?

As so much in photography, it depends. However I recommend a fast lens over a long lens.

So let’s define some terms.

The lens you got with your DSLR is called a kit lens. It’s called a kit lens because it is the lens that most often gets bundled with the camera body and sold as a kit.

The kit lens tends to be a slow lens (not a bad lens just a slow lens) with a fairly short zoom range. This is not a bad thing.

Back in the old days (1960s) zoom lenses were not popular because they tended to be very slow and very soft.

Okay let’s start with the word soft. Soft in the old days meant the picture quality deteriorated at the edges of the image to the point you can see a very noticeable softness or out of focus look on every image. Pros didn’t use zoom lenses.

Over time zooms got faster (we’re coming to that term next) and sharper. Now thanks to computer manufacturing techniques just about every lens is at least rated good to very good and some of the more expensive pro lenses are excellent and as good as prime lenses. (A prime lens is a lens that comes in one size only and doesn’t zoom. Prime lenses are supposed to be sharper and are certainly faster.)

Okay so what’s a slow lens?

A slow lens is one which doesn’t allow in as much light to hit the sensor at its widest aperture as a fast lens which allows more light to enter at its largest aperture . (Aperture refers to the blades inside a lens that open and close as you adjust the aperture control which varys the amount of light.)

So wouldn’t you want to buy just fast lenses? Fast lenses are bigger (they have a larger aperture) and heavier and way more expensive.

I’ve got a 17 to 55mm (wide zoom to modest portrait) with an aperture of f/2.8 which is considered fast and it costs well over $1,000. A kit lens that goes from 18 to 55mm (essentially the same range) but has a variable aperture is way cheaper.

(Manufacturers can make zoom lenses much more affordable when the vary the aperture as it moves through its zoom range. While this affects the exposure, the change is virtually unnoticeable and of no consequence to amateur photographers.)

Not only does the kit lens have a variable aperture but as I said the aperture doesn’t open up as much as a fast lens. Fast prime lenses can be as fast a f/1.2 (which is really fast and really expensive) or f/1.4 or a more reasonable f/1.8. The faster the lens the less light is needed to get a sharp image in dimly lit places (like churches). Remember exposure is the combination of shutter speed and aperture plus ISO (which is the speed of the sensor and we’ll talk about this later.) so if you’re letting in more light because you’re using a faster lens then you can shoot at a higher shutter speed and thus still get images that are sharp and not blurry due to the camera shake or movement in your hands even in low light situations.

(In general you need to be shooting at 1/60 of a second or higher when possible to avoid camera shake with a kit lens. The longer the lens, the higher the basic shutter speed so a 200mm telephoto lens requires a shutter speed of at least 1/200 of a second to avoid blur.)

You can get kit lenses that range from 18 to 55mm or 18 to 105mm or even 18 to 300mm. Each of these lenses gets progressively heavier and more expense but are equally slow when compared to a fast pro-level lens. What they have is more “reach” as a zoom lens.

A standard wedding photographer’s zoom lens for full-frame cameras is a 70-210mm (portrait to telephoto) f/2.8 and costs around $2,500!

(Sensors come in many sizes from fingernail tiny to full-frame 35mm. Most amateur DSLRs come in what’s called DX-format which is smaller than a full-frame sensor but way bigger than the sensor you’d find in a point and shoot or even one of the new mirror-less cameras that are so popular right now. And BTW work great. I’ve got a whole set of Olympus micro four-third bodies and lenses and for vacations and casual shooting they’re fabulous.)

The 70-210mm lens is essential for shooting in churches without using a flash (thanks to being a fast lens) and where the photographer needs to shoot at a variety of distances from the camera without changing lenses.

So what’s your next lens?

Well you’ve already got a slow zoom lens and while a longer lens may look attractive check what it is you’re shooting more often.

Are you shooting your kid’s outdoor sporting events? Then a 70 to 300mm f/4 – 5.6 zoom can be had for as little as $350 or so due to being a slow zoom. A 70-300mm lens with vibration reduction technology will cost more and is worth the price if you can afford it.

But if you’re like most people with a new camera you’re more likely to be shooting indoors at the Christmas dinner or at your child’s school play or while on vacation walking through museums. Here’s where a fast lens is invaluable. One of the fastest lenses is actually one of the least expensive especially if you’re shooting with a Canon or Nikon camera.

The 50mm f/1.8 lens sells for around $150 and while it’s a plastic lens it’s a very good sharp and inexpensive plastic lens. I own one. Most photographer do for the stated reasons.

A 50mm lens on a DX format camera has an effective focal length of around 75mm which is perfect for portraits and indoor shooting with or especially without flash. A wider 30mm f/1.4 (more expensive and the one I’m thinking of is made by third-party manufacturer Sigma and I wish I owned) or f/1.8 is available for around $300 and does the same thing as the 50 but is wider. I’ve also got an 85mm f/1.8 so I’ve got all three lengths with each having the same maximum aperture suitable for shooting indoors with or without flash indoors and out.

After the 50? Well there are macro lenses that allow for extreme closeup work and really wide zooms that take in the whole room at once and really really long telephotos that you can take on safari.

I’ve got more lenses than brains and I love them all ๐Ÿ™‚ ….especially the very fast prime lenses ๐Ÿ™‚

Oakville BIA Christmas Tree Lighting

What a great night at the Oakville Business Improvement Association’s Christmas Tree lighting.

Huge crowds. Lots of entertainment. Free hot chocolate and apple cider.

Photos are being uploaded to my gallery at Peter West Photo and are available to you for free download. (Just go to the gallery Oakville BIA Christmas Tree and view the images there. To download hover your mouse over the large image on the right side of the page to see the options on size. Download smaller sizes for email and web use like Facebook.