Category Archives: Equipment

It Has Never Been the Camera

The deeper I become involved in photography, the more I realize that equipment does not matter at all. Case in point, I have more fun photos captured with my iPhone than any of my other cameras combined.

Well actually gear does matter but not like most “photographers” would make you believe. The most important thing about equipment is that it should never get in the way of your creative vision. Also consider the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect tool. There will always be something that would tick you off and knowing the limitations is the first step in making the equipment work for you.

I would like to discuss a particular photograph wherein both the equipment and the photographer (me) were severely limited. The photograph I would like to talk about is this:

A bit of background on this shot: This photo was taken about a month after I started in photography, around May of 2009. My camera back then was a “heavy” Nikon D60 with a 18-55mm kit lens. I wish I brought that camera with me when I took this photo but instead I had my “pocket” Canon G10. Now the G10 is known for very poor low light performance because some moron in Canon engineering thought they could get away with cramming 14 megapixels into such a tiny sensor. At ISO 400 the output is so noisy that you are better off not taking the shot at all. But I did. Because I didn’t know any better. I looked at the EXIF data and it said I shot in auto mode, ISO 400, f2.8 at 1/8s. I am now very familiar with the G10 and I would say that, at that time, the camera was pushing real hard to capture the image as best as it could. It’s at its widest aperture of f2.8 and just enough shutter speed (1/8s) for the real focal length of about 6mm (28mm full frame equiv). If I remember correctly, I didn’t have a tripod. If I did then there’s no reason why I would not have used ISO 100 and get away with half a second exposure. I was a n00b but not completely dumb you know :-p

I don’t remember how I processed the photograph but there must have been some, if not too much, noise reduction applied. I probably didn’t bother correcting the white balance. After all, winter in Canberra is characterized by strong magenta tint in the sky during sunset and I have always wanted to capture that.

I would like to critic my composition as well. I used a combination of strong lead-in lines, rule of thirds in the vertical while using symmetry in the horizontal to capture the reflection. I think I framed it a bit too much to the left thus making the bridge feel like it wants to leave the view. That building visible on the left is nicely framed by the bridge and the shadows on the water. A bit underexposed for my taste but just enough so as not to blow up the highlights coming from the bridge lights that emphasize the lines leading towards the parliament house (that pointed structure at the end of the bridge). I really would like to brighten up the bridge and the building by just a few notches and tone down the bluish color cast. A touch of fill light should also improve the overall exposure without destroying the mood.

After all of that, the question remains: Why discuss this particular rookie shot? Because this rookie shot sold for $852!

So again, it’s never the gear. My expensive DLSRs have not made any significant sales yet but two of my point-and-shoot cameras have already paid up for themselves. Amazing! Granting that photo sales are subject to a huge amount of luck, people or corporations are willing to pay if they think that the photograph is worth it.

They say that the best camera is the one that’s with you. I say, the best camera is the one you can never afford. So make do with what you already have and resist the temptation to buy more gear. A lot of amateurs are getting crazy over the latest and greatest equipment and spend more time in rumours than actual photography. Stop that already.

My Most Expensive Photograph: a Reflection

It is when you least expect them that surprises present themselves and that makes them more, for the lack of a better word, surprising.

Around September last year (2010), somebody actually purchased a license to use my photograph. It was not much. Just slightly lower than Gursky’s shot that sold for $4.3 million USD. Because of that photo I have managed to pay in full the house I bought in the CBD and I now have enough money in the bank to allow me to live comfortably without having to work. Surprise!!! No, I did not. Although I did sell a photo for a measly $64 AUD.

The amount it sold for is less important than the lesson I learned from that photograph and I would like to dedicate this post into reflecting upon that reflection. That statement would probably make more sense if I’ve shown you the actual photo so here it is:

Now you know why it didn’t quite reach the level of Gursky’s shot (but I bet one of my kidneys his won’t make it to Flickr Explore LOL!!!).

Anyway, let’s satisfy the measurebators first so they can skip the rest of this post. I used a Canon Powershot A590 IS in full auto mode without a tripod. Of course the flash fired and that’s evident on the lower right portion of the frame. So, nope, nothing interesting in here for you guys. You can see the rest of the EXIF info here:

Back then, I was in stage 2 in the evolutionary ladder of an amateur photographer. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, please read my older post on this very important topic of evolution (you didn’t read it?!!!). To those of you who read that post (a thank you is in order) you should have realized by now that I wasn’t kidding at all 😉

This is quite a long story so please bear with me. If I remember correctly it was my second time driving all the way from Brisbane to Sydney. That’s approximately 1000 kilometers that took me 13 hours including lunch, dinner and wee breaks and about 1.5 tanks of fuel for the rented 2.5 liter Toyota Camry. We decided to visit Luna Park in North Sydney after the rain stopped. We wanted to take the fun rides but there was an important event, which I could not remember, so it was closed for mere mortals. We decided to just roam around and enjoy the night. It was our first time to visit the location anyway. This part of North Sydney is a very good vantage point to take photos of the Harbour Bridge (this I learned much later). I saw several photographers with huge cameras and tripods with dangling “cables” (shutter release). I remember this particular bloke who was standing on the same spot for several minutes. With all that expensive-looking gear I thought he must be a pro. I didn’t know jack about photography back then so everyone with a DSLR was a pro to me. Anyway as I was strolling, the reflection on the puddle of rain caught my eyes. I immediately took my camera and aimed at it. I framed it in such a way that the face of that entrance gate would seem to be staring at me from under the concrete. I was unknowingly teaching myself how to compose a shot! I must have done something right because that bloke who was just staying on one spot with all that expensive gear started doing exactly the same thing. Well actually it kinda annoyed me because he started setting up his tripod and was blocking my view. The copycat was preventing me from taking more shots! Anyway, he was the pro so I quietly walked away. He must have been very happy that this foreigner (me) finally left. Well I hope he got a nice shot of the puddle. Not! We went back to the hotel and, if I’m not mistaken, had dinner at my favorite Thai restaurant (that restaurant closed down after about a year later).

I did not immediately look at the photo. Typical of most n00bs, it stayed in the camera for quite some time. I stored it in my hard drive but never touched it until much later when I was already playing with that thing called Photoshop that my good friend sold to me for $100 (he switched to a Mac and the software was for Windows — lucky me). I’ve always thought that photos should be kept as pristine as possible. Photoshop = evil. SOOC = good. I don’t remember exactly why I started retouching my shots. You probably noticed that I bumped the saturation a bit too much in that photo. I must have thought that the shot didn’t quite turn out the way I saw the reflection or most likely because n00bs tend to push the sliders all the way to 11. In retrospect, I’m blaming auto white balance here.

Fast forward a year later. I went back to the same spot and behold: a rain puddle of almost the same shape was there again. Whoever was assigned to fix that concrete obviously wasn’t doing his job. Lucky me 🙂 Here’s the “enlightened” shot:

A bit conservative in terms of processing. The composition is much tighter with less distraction. I used a Canon G10 here, a much improved point-and-shoot camera. ISO 400, 1/8s at f3.2. I must have zoomed in thus forcing the lens to change the aperture from f2.8 to that weird f number. Flash did not fire this time 🙂 Of course I used a (wobbly) tripod.

I would like to think that I have grown as a photographer over that period when I took the old photo and the new one. If I go back to that spot again, assuming that they still haven’t fixed that concrete, I would be very interested to know if there is anything different I would find in there. I probably won’t. Which is kinda sad knowing that I have spent so much time learning how to shoot and not just writing about photography. With the more expensive toys I have right now, I expect my photos to be so much better. On the other hand, it feels good that even as a n00b I was able to capture a photo that’s good enough to attract a buyer. It’s quite amusing that the photo is now worth more than the camera that took it (digital rot guarantees that your old digital camera is next to worthless after just a few years). That old photograph won’t win me any awards but I humbly think that even pros will have a not-so-easy time improving it considerably. I am no pro but certainly no longer a beginner. If the second shot is any indication, I doubt if I can make the first one miles better.

Just to wrap it up, I would like to point out a few very important lessons. Firstly, it’s not the camera that makes a photograph. Equipment hardly matters at all. Secondly, photography is something that you can only learn by doing. Spend less time measurebating and lurking in forums. (Promise you will go out and shoot after reading this post). Thirdly, take some time to reflect on your self. Evaluate your weaknesses and try to improve on the areas that you feel most uncomfortable with. Be honest and take praises as a challenge to do better instead of resting on your laurels.

How about my “audience”? Do you have a story to tell? I’d be interested in reading them. Please do share.

Until then, keep shooting.

Hyperfocus: How a Cheap Lens Changed the Way I Shoot

For me, photography is all about having fun. I do not want it to be another job. I’m not saying I do not want to be a pro. In fact, I would like to get paid just traveling and taking photos. I may have taken this “fun” thing into a different level because I have grown a dislike for heavy (i.e. expensive) equipment. Yes, a 70-200/2.8 VR2 is nice to have but I seriously can’t shoot with it for 15 minutes straight without having to shake my arms to relieve myself of that tingling sensation behind my wrist. Yes, I’m cheap and that cheapness had me lose a fair amount of money because I am forced to discard my cheap equipment for something a bit less cheaper. And that brings us to the subject of this post: my cheap Sigma 17-70mm lens.

Like I said, I have grown a dislike for heavy equipment and that includes my stupid Nikon D700. So before I went for a holiday in the Philippines, I decided to get a lighter camera. It has to be small and light but it should not sacrifice image quality and most importantly, it should not get in the way of photography. So I bought a Pentax K5 which was not so cheap back then. And because I’m a cheapskate I was forced to buy the cheapest lens with the best possible zoom range because there is no way I’m gonna get another lens. One camera, one lens. That’s it and nothing more. The Sigma 17-70mm fit the bill. Very good zoom range for just about anything. It goes from 2.8 at the widest end and closes down to 4.5 at full zoom. At $339 AUD it was perfect. Not!!!

It wasn’t until the following day after that errant purchase that I noticed that this lens is terribly soft especially at the corners. At 17mm the corners are so blurry unless I stop down to f11 and even at that aperture it is never sharp. Worse, this lens can never get the focus right. I have updated the camera firmware because the K5 is known to have focus issues in the older firmware versions but that did not fix the problem. I have returned 3 copies of the lens but all of them had the same back-focusing issue. I have grown in love with my camera so I can’t return it but on the other hand, I have this lens that I can’t replace because I’m a cheapskate.

What does a cheapskate got to do? I taught myself how to hyperfocus!

First things first, let’s tackle depth of field, aka, how much of our photo is in sharp focus. We all know (I assume we all know) that we can control our depth of field by changing the lens aperture. The smaller the aperture (f11) the deeper the depth of field. If we want our subject to appear to pop out of the frame, we use a bigger aperture (f2.8) to make the background go out of focus in a creamy blur we call bokeh. Every amateur photographer should understand this. It doesn’t stop there. Another factor in depth of field control is the focal length. Longer focal length means shallower depth of field. Lastly, there is distance to subject. The closer the subject in focus is, the more blurry the background becomes. So again, depth of field is controlled by 3 variables: 1) lens aperture, 2) lens focal length, 3) distance to subject. We need a firm grasp of these 3 basic concepts otherwise the subsequent discussion would be tricky to comprehend. Actually there’s another factor which is the sensor size (or crop factor) but let’s not deal with that because we can cheat as I will show you later.

In landscape photography, we usually would want to capture the grand vista and make everything from the foreground to the background in sharp focus. A very common mistake made by beginners is to allow the camera autofocus mechanism to pick a focal point. Depending on how the camera is aimed, it may focus on the horizon and result on a blurry foreground or focus on the nearest rock and make the background go out of focus. Night time photography would be a lot more difficult because your lens would just hunt and fail to focus properly. Sometimes we get lucky and have everything in sharp focus but we want to control this instead of just relying on luck.

This depth of field control is called hyperfocusing. I’ll go slowly this time and try to explain without using any diagrams (coz I can’t).

If the camera is focused on the far horizon (infinity focus), everything from that horizon up to a certain distance between you and the horizon will be in sharp focus. So if you are standing on point A and the horizon is point C, there is a point B between A and C where everything between B and C is in sharp focus. Keep repeating that sentence until you undertand the concept. Move to the next paragraph when you think you’re ready for the next concept.

That point B, is your hyperfocal point. What that means is, if you focus at point B, there is a point X approximately half-way between point A and B where everything between X and C are in sharp focus. Still with me? So we have something that looks like this:


Point B is the hyperfocal point and everything between X and C are in sharp focus. Take your time to digest those concepts before continuing to the next few paragraphs.

The question is, how do you find point B? Others would tell you to focus one-third of the way to your subject. It’s probably a good approximation but that does not work for me. What I do is memorize a few combinations of numbers. What numbers? You probably guessed it already: the numbers that pertain to the 3 factors that control depth of field.

Here’s an example: My lens goes from 17-70mm. I’m shooting landscape so I want to go as wide as possible so I choose 17mm as my focal length. I know that my camera is soft in the corners unless I stop down to f11 so I use that as my aperture. What’s left is the distance to subject and this is where I cheat 😀 Open another tab in you web browser and point to this URL: Remember that other factor that controls depth of field? Yep, the sensor size. From there choose your camera model. Yours might not be in there just like my K5 so I chose the Pentax K7 instead. And that’s cheat number one. Now enter the values of your chosen aperture and focal length in the remaining fields. In my case that would be 17 for focal length and f11 for aperture. Never mind the distance to subject field. Just click calculate and the frame on the right would automatically give you the hyperfocal distance and that is cheat number two. In my case this number is 4.25 feet. It means that if I focus on something that is 4.25 feet away from me then everything from 2.13 feet (that’s half-way) up to infinity will be in sharp focus. Don’t worry if the subject seems to be out of focus when viewed through the viewfinder. This is normal because your camera does open aperture metering (as opposed to stop down metering of old film cameras) so you are viewing the scene at full aperture, f2.8 which isn’t your real aperture when you click the shutter. Trust that math will save the day.

What I do is memorize the hyperfocal distance that correspond to the my most used focal lengths, say, from 17mm to 24mm. If I’m not quite sure of my numbers, I would compensate by closing down a stop further. For example, my lens has distance markings on the barrel. There’s one for 3 feet and the next one is 7 feet and then 10 feet and then infinity (that drunk number 8 lying on the floor). Supposing that my chosen composition requires me to zoom in to around 24mm to avoid clutter. I’m not quite sure what my hyperfocal distance is for that focal length. What I do is I set my lens focus distance to that 7 feet marker and stop down to f16. Had I remained at f11, subjects near the horizon will not be in sharp focus. By stopping down to f16, my hyperfocal distance changes such that I could get everything between 3.5 feet and infinity in focus. Neat!

So what’s the moral of the story? Do not let crappy equipment hinder your photography. Instead, try to find ways to work around the minor issues. In my case, I learned how to hyperfocus (and I hope you learned as well from reading this post). Everytime I shoot landscape, I never use autofocus. Hyperfocusing is way superior.

Until then, have fun shooting!

Evolution of an Amateur Photographer

Stages in the Evolution of an Amateur Photographer:

1. The Point-and-Shoot stage:
Buys a point-and-shoot camera on impulse for a holiday trip so he can take snaps to post on facebook. Gets tricked by the sales guy into buying the obsolete camera sitting in the corner because it’s got lots of megapixels. Tags his officemates in every photo to show how much fun he is having while they had to cover the half-finished project he left behind.

2. The Point-and-Shoot Upgrade stage:
Decides that 10Mp is not big enough and tricks his clueless brother to buy his point-and-shoot camera so he could upgrade to a whooping 12Mp … well… point-and-shoot camera. Forced to buy a new storage card because that previous camera only accepted 😄 card.

3. The Megazoom stage:
Suddenly, 5x zoom is too short for anything so he goes out to buy a 24x zoom. Learns how to RTFM and thinks he got a bargain because the effing manual mentioned a 100x (digital) zoom. Of course this new camera has a lot more megapixels…14Mp this time. His girlfriend quickly learns how to inhale very deeply every time he takes a photo of her at full wide angle or else the terrible lens distortion will make her look like a rhino.

4. Rule of Thirds stage:
Learns about basics of composition. His subjects are now positioned quite nicely where those stupid lines meet. Thinks that any photograph that’s got the subject or the horizon at the center of the frame are horrible amateurish shots. Makes fun of Gursky’s photo that sold for more than $4 million USD. His camera fires the flash every time he takes a photo of that iconic bridge at night.

5. The DSLR (aka fourth upgrade) stage:
Gets amazed at how some photos seem to have their subjects pop-out of the frame. Learns from his friend that he needs a DSLR for that. Tricks his clueless brother for the second time in buying his P&S camera so he can buy a DSLR. Learns the meaning of P&S and DSLR and completely ignores the compact interchangable lens cameras because they are not DSLRs. Lurks in photography forums and asks for advise which one is THE BEST DSLR. Gets a dozen different answers so he decides to head for the shop anyway and gets tricked by the same sales guy into buying the obsolete model sitting on the corner. Goes home smiling ear-to-ear with a twin lens kit.

6. DSLR Frustration stage:
The mode dial is still set to the green square like the day it was bought. Shoots his DSLR with outstretched arms looking at the 3″ LCD screen as if he is holding a baby’s soiled diaper. Wonders why he’s not getting those photos that pop out of the frame. Occassionally gets his subjects to pop out when the camera struggles to shoot and opens up the aperture in low light conditions but the photos are blurry. That darn flash still pops up every time he takes a photo of that iconic bridge at night.

7. Bokeh Honeymoon stage:
Finally managed to Google about aperture and shallow depth of field. All his shots now have that 3D effect. Photos of his girlfriend now have only her nose in focus but he doesn’t care. Shallow DoF FTW!!! Sorry, I meant Bokeh FTW!!!

8. Fast Lens Envy stage:
His twin lens kit that goes from f4-5.6 are no longer enough. Anything less than the holy trinity isn’t good enough. If only he has those lenses then his photos would be a hundred times better. Experiences frequent wet dreams of his dream lenses.

9. The 50mm stage:
Getting the holy trinity is out of his league but he quickly finds out that the nifty-fifty is the cheapest way to get more bokeh. Every photographer has to have THE standard lens so he buys one … after spending countless hours in forums arguing whether he should get the 1.8 or 1.4. Ends up getting the 1.4 because it is way faster. Shoots wide open at f1.4 all the time and wonders why he could not get anything in focus. Not so frequent wet dreams of the 50/1.2.

10. HDR stage:
Almost crapped in his pants when he saw Trey’s HDR photos. This is the next evolution in photography!!! Downloads a pirated copy of Photomatix. Pushes all the sliders to 11. Halos and bleeding bluish shadows abound. Perfect!!! Posts his “photos” in every group in Flickr. His Flickr photostream is full of blinking comments and invites from other HDR fanatics.

11. Flickr Explore stage:
Discovers this magic thingy called Flickr Explore. Dedicates all his time into getting at least one of his photos into the top 500. Comments and likes every photo he sees. Uses Flickr Scout to keep track of his images in case they make it. Almost fell on the floor when the Scout showed all of his photos are in Explore and posts his excitement in the forums only to find out that everyone in that forum have all their photos in Explore because it is April 1st.

12. Full Frame stage:
High ISO, noise free, more shallow DoF…full frame is the most obvious next step into becoming a pro. Buys a full frame camera on impulse and wonders why all his shots have a weird black ring. Dumps all his crop sensor lenses except the nifty-fifty which happens to be his only usable lens. Evangelizes about the 50mm being THE best lens ever and opens his own group in Flickr dedicated to 50mm shots.

13. Full Manual Macho stage:
Real photographers shoot in full manual mode ONLY. Mode dial is now glued on M mode. Struggles at first in lining up the exposure slider. All his photos on Flickr are now proudly described and tagged with “exposure: manual”. Creates a new thread in forums asking everyone which mode they shoot in. Grows a hatred of anything by Ken Rockwell.

14. Sunny 16 stage:
Learns about correct exposure and sunny 16 rule. Still lines up the sliders in M mode but a lot quicker now. That thumb dial is almost worn out. Makes fun of others who shoot in full auto mode. Keeper shots have improved. Grows a hatred of anything unrealistic like those horrible HDRs.

15. Strobist stage:
Learns about this blog called strobist and buys several flashes and brollies and light stands. Does not have a clue about his flash’es GN and thus the complete reliance on TTL. Does some portraiture here and there and sometimes gets lucky enough to be hired as a backup wedding photographer…for free.

16. Holy Trinity stage:
By now he’s saved some money to acquire the ultimate photographer’s arsenal: the Holy Trinity of lenses. Lots of sleepless nights shooting test charts. Sharpness is everything. Advises the n00bs to buy the best lenses or else. Very adept at interpreting MTF charts. Posts comparison test images in forums. Keeper shots have improved in ratio because total shots have dropped considerably.

17. Leica Lust stage:
He is willing to sell his kidneys for an M9. Buys a Fuji instead to satisfy his lust for a rangefinder. Defends his Fuji from all the forum bashers. Sells his Fuji after discovering that his cellphone is so much quicker at taking photos. Lusts for the Fuji successor.

18. The Realization stage:
Very quick to judge others in forums with the immortal words: “It’s the photographer, not the camera”. Starts to hate his heavy equipment and decides to invest in compact interchangable lens cameras. Does a lot of Googling about the advantages of MILCs to justify his new purchase. More time spent in forums than actual shooting. Gets involved in conspiracy theories such as why only Canon shooters ever win in contests sponsored by Canon.

19. Boredom stage:
Gets bored and creates his own photography blog.

Nikon D700 vs Pentax K5

That’s not a typo. I’m not referring to Nikon’s crop sensor camera the D7000 but it’s professional full frame D700. Yes, I’m comparing a very good, very capable camera from Nikon vs Pentax’s crop sensor K5.

First things first. Both cameras are very good. If you decide to buy either of them, you can be assured of professional image quality output. If your photos are still junk then there’s no one else to blame but yourself.

I bought the D700 because it was on sale at an outrageous 40% off brand new from a legit (not grey) shop. Who could possibly resist that?! And besides, I have already invested in Nikon film cameras so it makes perfect sense to get a digital full frame that can share my existing lenses. Shifting from Canon to Nikon was a necessary evil I had to do but it wasn’t that bad since I haven’t invested in Canon lenses. All I had was the 17-85mm kit lens glued to my 40D. To be honest, I miss that camera. It was very capable, easy to use and infinitely customizable. Which brings us to my major gripes about this Nikon D700:

No memory for custom settings!!! What other modern DSLR camera can’t store your favorite settings aside from Nikon? You expect a camera as expensive as the D700 to be capable of storing user settings in dedicated memory banks. I shoot mostly landscape but I carry only very basic equipment: one camera, one lens and tripod. I never used filters (until recently) except for the default UV to protect my lens from salt spray and dust. If the scene is too contrasty, I bracket and use HDR technique. If you shoot at the proper lighting conditions, you don’t need filters because you could always do that in post. Which means, I expect my camera to do (reasonably) everything I ask it to do. Like bracketing 3 different exposures at 4EV wide, shooting at high speed using the built in timer to avoid camera shake. Unfortunately, the D700 can’t do that!!! To bracket at 4EV wide you need to shoot 5 frames, not 3. If you want high speed shooting, you can’t use the timer. How stupid is that?! And careful if you enabled bracketing mode because to shoot normally you will have to wrestle the darn camera like this: press that small button near the lens mount, turn the thumb wheel twice to cancel the bracket. If you want to bracket again, repeat the same procedure. Now if you are dead serious with HDR, you want at least 8EV wide brackets. That means 9 frames on the D700. As if Nikon RAW files are small. As if your shutter lives forever. Did you just shoot that cat at ISO 1600 in broad daylight? Ooops!!! It would be nice if you could easily reset your camera to your favorite settings to avoid the bloopers, yeah? And please don’t mind the exposure scale because going left is positive and going right is negative (yes, Nikon failed high school algebra). But there is a setting to invert that hidden somewhere deep in the stupid menu. You can read the very thick manual if you are unsure. But careful because that only changes the exposure scale. Everything else will still be in reverse. Seriously, WTF?!

Here comes Pentax K5. Fully weathersealed, built like a tank, in-body stabilization (which means all lenses including manual focus from the 80’s are image stabilized), lighter and way cheaper. And dig this: FIVE, as in five, custom settings memory banks!!! You can couple bracketing with timer. You can bracket 8EV wide with just 5 frames. There’s more: automatic mirror lockup in timer mode! How cool is that! The camera does not get in the way of shooting. It does what I want it to do. It’s the landscape photographer’s dream camera! Enough said. Anything I add here would only make the D700 look like it was crafted by amateurs.

Having said those harsh words against the D700, it still has a special spot in my photography. In controlled environments (e.g. portraiture) it’s still my camera of choice. And the fact that I have invested in quite a few Nikon mount lenses, it makes sense to keep it until it dies.

And that’s why my D700 is gathering dust while my K5 goes wherever I go.