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Digital SLR Guide News, May 2007 - Blockbusters and Photography
May 25, 2007

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DSLR News - May 2007

I finally got around to seeing Spiderman 3 the other day.

As I stepped out of the theater into the cool night air, something dawned on me: there are a lot of similarities between the elements of a great motion picture and a great photograph.

Before I talk about what works, let's focus for a moment on what doesn't.

I was really struck while watching the film about just how OBVIOUS the special effects had become. Rather than acting as transparent support to the story, they had taken on a life of their own. Something that I already knew popped back into my head: a lot of effects do not translate into a compelling film.

The same thing applies to a digital SLR camera - don't think that a camera with a lot of special features is going to make every photo perfect.

Many people feel that when they take a bad photo it's somehow the camera's fault. They justify a brand new camera that costs a lot more than their old one because it has many more gee-whiz features.

A $6,000 camera with every feature imaginable will STILL take awful pictures in the hands of someone who doesn't know how to use it. Conversely, a $10 disposable camera can produce amazing images, so long as the person using has developed his or her photographic "eye" and can leverage what the camera has to offer rather than relying on the camera's technology.

My point? Don't buy a camera that touts low noise at high ISO, super-fast continuous frame rates or built-in image stabilization unless you're really aware how special features like these can improve the photos you take.

The second major flaw in the film is one that is quite common in Hollywood sequels: bloat.

In an effort to keep the viewer engaged through yet a third installment of a series, the creators of the film packed it full of characters, events, drama and emotion. It makes sense: the more you have going on, the more interested the audience will be. Unfortunately this approach is not always successful - instead of an elaborate story you just wind up with a big mess.

This is directly related to one of the most common photographic mistakes: trying to get too much into your picture.

While it's very easy to crowd your photo with a lot of different subjects, your viewer won't know what they're supposed to be looking at. All that they'll see is a jumbled mess. Instead, try to SIMPLIFY your photos down to the bare essentials. Zero in on the one concept or emotion that compelled you to take the photo in the first place.

This is not easy to do.

I've highlighted this last sentence to help you realize that capturing simplicity in your photos is MUCH harder than creating clutter. It takes a lot of time and a lot of practice to get it right.

But when you do, your images will have a significant impact on your viewers. Rather than trying to muddle through all the elements of your photo looking for meaning, they'll be captivated by the simplicity of your image.

In This Issue
  • Blockbusters and Photography
  • Is Live View a Gimmick?
  • ISO and Image Noise
  • dg28.com
  • How to Capture Sunsets
  • The Pentax K100D
  • SanDisk Memory Cards
  • Digital SLR Buyer Guide
  • Photo Links

Latest SLR Guides
Nikon D80 Canon Rebel xTi Nikon D40 Sony ALPHA A100

Digital SLR Terms
Megapixels Anti-Shake ISO / Image Noise Sensor Dust Crop Factor RAW vs. JPG Continuous Photos Autofocus Points Aspect Ratio

Lens Terms
Focal Length Prime vs. Zoom Maximum Aperture First vs. Third Party SLR Lens Features Canon Lens Glossary Nikon Lens Glossary

Digital SLR Lessons

  • Learn digital SLR camera jargon
  • Take manual control of your camera
  • Improve the quality of the photos you take
Master the controls of your SLR camera so that you never miss an important photo opportunity again. Register today

Digital SLR Q & A

Question:

Is the live view LCD included on the upcoming Olympus E-410 and E-510 actually useful or just another marketing gimmick?

Answer

A live view LCD is extremely useful if you're just making the jump from a compact digital to a digital SLR.

Many SLRs don't have live view LCDs - this is the feature on virtually every compact camera that allows you to use the LCD (rather than the viewfinder) to compose your photos. The reason that it's available on so many compact cameras is that many compact viewfinders are pretty much useless: they really doesn't show you what the lens sees.

But since a digital SLR viewfinder shows you EXACTLY what the lens sees, having an additional display on the LCD is not quite as important. This explains why there are only 4 live view digital SLR cameras: the Olympus E-330, E-410, E-510 and the Panasonic DMC-L1.

While a live view LCD will allow you to take photos with your SLR just like you do with your compact camera, there is a second reason that it's a nice feature to have: it helps you take photos from high and low angles.

Taking photos of my son is tricky - in order to take them from his eye level (a good practice when taking child portraits), I have to crouch down.

Many times I find it much easier to just hold my SLR down at his level and snap away. Without a live LCD I have to compose the photos "blind" which means that a lot of them don't turn out.

I do think that live view LCDs are convenient, but would not recommend that you go out of your way to get a camera with this feature unless there are other aspects of the camera that you find appealing.

Digital SLR Technique

Last month I talked about how ISO can act as a low-light booster, making your camera's sensor more receptive to light. This month, I'll talk about the effect that high ISO settings have on your images.

For those of you just joining the newsletter, here's what we've been talking about in past issues:

  • APERTURE: the width of the opening in your lens (SMALLER number = WIDER aperture)
  • SHUTTER SPEED: the amount of time the shutter stays open when you take a photo (LARGER number = FASTER speed)
  • ISO: how receptive the sensor is to light (LARGER number = MORE sensitive)

These three camera features are always working together to ensure that your photos are properly exposed and your subject isn't blurry.

When the sensor inside your camera absorbs just the right amount of light, your photo will be correctly exposed. If it absorbs too little then your photo will be under-exposed (too dark) and if it absorbs too much then your photo will be over-exposed (too bright).

Every time you take a photo with your digital SLR, it's trying to figure out the right settings to use so that the sensor absorbs the right amount of light.

With three variables to work with, there are a lot of different ways the camera can achieve a correct exposure:

  • Open the aperture wide for a short period of time
  • Use a narrow aperture for a long period of time
  • Use a medium aperture for a moderate period of time
  • Use a narrow aperture for a short period of time, but increase the sensitivity

At the same time that it's trying to get the exposure right, the camera is also trying to prevent blur. There are two types of blur: one is due to camera shake, and the other is because of subject motion.

In the first case, your ENTIRE photo will turn out blurry because the entire camera is moving around. In the second case, your background will be nice and clear, but your subject won't be 100% sharp because the shutter speed was not fast enough to "freeze" the motion.

Key point: the faster the shutter speed, the less chance you'll get a blurry photo.

When you're using a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second, your photos will be perfectly sharp and clear (provided the focus is correct). At 1/30th of a second, most fast-moving subjects will turn out blurry, and you'll start to see some blur due to camera shake.

When there isn't a lot of available light, the camera must leave the shutter open for longer periods of time to get a correct exposure. You can offset this (and increase the shutter speed) by increasing the ISO and allowing the sensor to absorb more light.

The ISO number scale is pretty simple (and there aren't as many numbers to keep track of as there are for aperture and shutter speed).
10020040080016003200

The only drawback to high ISO settings is that they make your images look speckled. This pattern of pixels is also called "digital noise".

The noise becomes more pronounced as you increase ISO, and it's different from camera to camera. Some manufacturers have figured out how to reduce the noise so that it's almost invisible, even with an ISO setting as high as 800. Noise is most visible in the portions of your photo where there are shadows.

You can see the noise in the image below most clearly in the blue sky. This is a crop of an image taken at ISO 1600.

With each release of a modern digital SLR camera there's always a lot of debate about how well it handles noise at high ISO.

For example, the new Sony ALPHA A100 got dinged by many critics because of "excessive" noise starting at ISO 400. But let's be clear: many of these people were seeing the noise because they had blown up the image to 100% on a 19-inch monitor.

Digital noise becomes a lot more obvious under these conditions, but virtually disappears when you reduce the size of the image or make a print of it.

For professionals who want to use their photos for billboard advertizing, keeping noise to a minimum is essential. Unless it's your intention to make massive prints from your digital images, or inspect each one at full size on your monitor, I encourage you to take the complaints about ISO noise with a large grain of salt.

Decide on other features first, and if it comes down to a direct competition between two cameras THEN make the level of high ISO noise the tie-breaker.

Learning Resource

This month's learning resource is all about flash.

Neil Turner's dg28.com web site is devoted to explaining how you can light subjects creatively with a minimal amount of lighting gear.

His page on techniques has well over 50 different tutorials that will walk you through a variety of different scenarios. For each tutorial Neil provides both a sample image and a detailed description of how to re-create the look.

You'll get more out of this site if you already have a pretty good grasp of the fundamentals of photography (aperture, shutter speed, manual exposure) but it's certainly not a requirement.

How and When

This month's topic is How to Capture Sunsets.

Fire in the Sky

While I realize that the sun-going-down-on-a-sandy-beach has been over-done, capturing the ideal sunset photo can sometimes be a little bit tricky.

First, let's talk about the ideal conditions: sunset photos really come alive when there are some clouds involved. Not just ANY clouds, mind you, they have to be the high wispy variety.

Too many clouds will obscure the sun as it makes its final descent, and too few don't give the sunlight a reflective surface. It's the high dispersed clouds that make a sunset look like the entire skyline is catching fire, and create some unique photo opportunities.

Once you've got the optimal light, you're going to have to play around with your camera settings to get things just right.

First, change your color setting (if your camera has one) from "Normal" to "Vivid". This will increase the saturation of the colors captured by the camera's sensor and will create reds and blues that are deep and dark.

Another option is to manually change your white balance. The white balance setting is typically used to adjust for light that is different color (the light from a regular bulb is very orange, while fluorescent light is a sickly green).

But you can use this setting to creatively "enhance" the color of a sunset.

I have found that the "shade" and "cloudy" settings produce some of the best results, but give them all a try and check the results on your camera's LCD. You may find that this creates colors that look very un-natural, and that it's best to leave the white balance in AUTO mode.

After you've adjusted your color and/or white balance settings, it's time to take some photos.

I prefer to take sunset photos in manual mode for one simple reason: the bright sun is going to fool your camera's light meter and you'll wind up with a photo that isn't correctly exposed if you just leave the camera in AUTO exposure mode.

Instead, switch the camera to manual mode and pick an aperture setting between f/5.6 and f/8.

Leaving the aperture set, make adjustments to the shutter speed until you get an image on the LCD that looks balanced. Unfortunately, I can't tell you exactly what shutter speed will work - a lot depends on the amount of ambient light that is left as the sun goes down.

You'll also have to gradually slow down the shutter speed to keep the exposure correct as the sun gets lower and lower (and the light starts to fade).

2007-01-16-008

If you're taking a portrait of a friend with the sun setting behind them, you're going to have to use the camera's flash. Here's another time where the camera's AUTO mode gets confused. The light meter thinks that there's plenty of light (after all, the SUN is in the shot) so there's no need to activate the flash.

But there's a problem: if you set up your camera to capture the glorious colors of the sunset, the same settings will render your friend as a dark silhouette against the sky.

The trick is to add just a little bit of light to the foreground, and that's what the flash is for. First, set up your camera in manual mode so that the sunset sky is correctly exposed. Then, manually pop up the flash (or use an external flash unit) and have your friend get into the picture.

The light from the flash will light up your friend, but the sky in the background will still look rich and saturated - a perfectly balanced photo!

Cameras and Accessories

Latest Digital SLR

There have been no recent announcements of new cameras, but I'm expecting that there will be soon.

Since we're fast approaching the end of the second quarter, I imagine that pretty soon the camera companies will be announcing their new releases for the third and fourth quarter of 2007.

Digital SLR Camera of the Month

This month's digital SLR camera is currently my inexpensive digital SLR of choice: the Pentax K100D.

You can buy a brand new K100D with a lens for less than $500 (a real bargain in the world of digital SLR cameras) and for this low price you get a 6 megapixel SLR with built-in image stabilization that's compatible with a huge variety of Pentax lenses (including the one-of-a-kind pancake lenses).

For those of you wondering why it would be worthwhile to get a 6 megapixel camera with so many 10 megapixel models now available, please remember this: more megapixels DOES NOT improve the image quality.

It allows you to make larger prints and crop your photos, but that's about it. And here's the thing: a 6 megapixel digital SLR will let you make beautiful 11x14 inch prints, which is significantly larger than your average 4x6. You can read more about megapixels if you're still not 100% sure how many you need.

Put simply: if you don't need to make huge prints and want the benefits of built-in image stabilization for a very low price, then the Pentax K100D might just be the right camera for you.

Find the best price for the K100D

Accessories

Unlike many compact cameras, digital SLRs do not ship with a memory card in the box.

This has a lot to do with the high megapixel count of most SLRs, and the manufacturers leaving it up to consumers to decide just how much memory they really need.

Well, if you're on the verge of a digital SLR purchase, or have the feeling that you might need some extra memory (for that long vacation you've been planning) NOW is definitely the time to get it.

Adorama is offering some fantastic rebates on the highly regarded SanDisk Extreme III memory cards (both Compact Flash as well as SD Memory). I only use SanDisk memory cards myself, since I've never had any problem with them and have been using them extensively for years now. I have considered getting other types of cards in the past, but the online reviews of cards other than SanDisk have been less than favorable.

Right now you can pick up a 2GigaByte Compact Flash card or SD Memory card for a mere $28.00 (after shipping) once you've applied the $15.00 rebate.

And the rebates just get even better the higher the capacity of the card (you can save $130 if you decide to go large with a 16GigaByte Compact Flash card). These rebates are a great deal, and certainly worth it if you're making the jump from a 3 megapixel point-and-shoot to a 10 megapixel digital SLR, and need a memory card with a higher capacity.

Act soon, because the rebates are only are available until the end of this month.

Links

The following collection of links will help to keep you posted about what's new at the Guide and in the world of digital SLR cameras.

Recent Updates to the Digital SLR Guide

The first update to the guide is worth calling out a bit - it's the Digital SLR Buyer's Guide. This is a comprehensive introduction to all of the latest digital SLR camera models and technology. It's a good high-level summary if you've been working your way through the pages of the Digital SLR Guide, and also a great page to e-mail to friends who are considering a new digital SLR purchase but are pressed for time.

Other Great Photography Sites

  • Photojojo - a great site with tons of photography do-it-yourself (DIY) projects
  • Flickr - THE social media site for photographers
  • Strobist - everything you ever wanted to know about lighting with external flash
  • Photo.net - lots of learning resources and plenty of examples of exceptional photography

In Conclusion

That's it for May!

I'm going to have a BIG ANNOUNCEMENT in next month's newsletter, but you're going to have to wait until then to find out what it is.

Until then, happy picture-taking!

--Chris Roberts, Your Digital SLR Guide

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