22 August 2010

Tabletop cameras for travel

The first time I went abroad with my dSLR camera, I brough a tiny tabletop tripod to Asia with me. It was a Manfrotto tripod (model 709B) with extension column. Tripods are the bane of photography. They are heavy and big. I didn't want to lug around a regular tripod, hence I brought the tabletop tripod.

It was actually much more useful that you would have thought. The photo below was taken with that tripod. I put the camera and tripod on the railing of the bridge.

Now I would like to emphasize that tabletop tripods are not a magic solution. They won't beat a regular tripod. Certainly, they are much less stable.  To use a tabletop tripod, you have to have elevated surfaces to put it on. You can get lucky and find spots like that in urban places, but I'm not sure if you will be so lucky in less developed areas. Also, if you are shooting outside on the mountain etc, you will need something that can stand on an uneven surface. Some people recommend the Gorrilapod.

In any case, bringing a tabletop tripod is a bit of a gamble. Some experienced photographers use the tabletop tripod as a "chest" pod. They put the tripod on their chest to stabilize the camera. I've never tried it but one of the guys at B&H likes doing it.

21 August 2010

Comments on picking a camera bag

Picking a camera bag is a bit like picking a purse. There is one for every occasion and you probably need more than one. The main categories of camera bags are backpack, sling bag, toploading.

I prefer camera backpacks (ex: I have Lowepro Fastpack 250 and Kata Sensitivity V) because it's easy to access the camera and I don't kill my back by using a shoulder strap. But it's extra luggage if you are traveling. I like camera backpacks with a lower camera compartment and an upper compartment where I can put other stuff. I also like the backpack to have a laptop compartment. Not that I would want to carry a laptop while I'm shooting, but it's handy if I travel on an airplane or if I want to put a folder with paper in it (the other compartments are too small for an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper). I'm not a fan of the one huge compartment that you fill with camera equipment and lenses. But lots of pros use this type of bag.

Sling bags
Sling bags (ex: Lowepro Slingshot) are smaller than backpacks. They are called "sling" because they give you the option of quick access to your camera. Some backpacks may claim to give you quick access to your camera, but sling bags are much better for this feature. However, they only have a single shoulder strap, unlike a backpack which evenly distributes weight.

Toploading bags
Toploading bags are similar to sling bags (easy access to camera and one shoulder strap)... except toploading bags are only meant to carry the camera with one lens attached. There's no room for an extra lens. If you're traveling and can't carry an extra backpack, you could put your camera in a toploading bag and put that inside of a large backpack.

Combo bags
Kata has a new bag out called the Sling Backpack which supposedly can be used as both a backpack and a sling bag.

Other types of bags
Shoulder bags are kind of like really bulky messenger bags. I don't see why anyone would buy these. They aren't great for quick access to your camera. Also, there's the temptation to put too much in a shoulder bag and you will end up destroying your back. Beltpacks are for carrying your camera on your belt. It's an interesting idea, but I've never tried a beltpack. One worry I have is that the beltpack will get in your way or whack into people.

I should mention a few considerations in choosing a camera bag. One issue people often bring up is that if your bag looks too much like a camera bag, it is more likely to be stolen. My Kata Sensitivity V bag looks nothing like a camera bag and in that sense it's great. It also looks very stylish and I get compliments. I napped in a Starbucks once with my Kata bag at my feet and it wasn't stolen. Crumpler bags are also known for being very stylish and not looking like camera bags.

Another issue is whether the bag will fit under your airline seat. Never put a dSLR in the overhead compartment (my camera lens was damaged and it cost $200 to repair).

Also, I found that if my camera bag was too bulky, I was constantly knocking into people with it. A camera bag with a slim profile will help avoid this problem.

The three big camera bag companies are Lowepro, Tamrac, and Kata. Lowepro and Kata include a rain cover with some of their products, which is nice. However, you can always buy your own rain cover. Kata makes the most stylish and innovative products. You can't go wrong with any of these companies.

20 August 2010

Essential accessories for a digital SLR camera

  • Camera bag/backpack -This is the toughest item to shop for. Professional photographers have many bags for different situations. A discussion of camera bags deserves its own post.
  • Manual - Always bring your manual. You never know when you need to look up something. Keep your manual in a good ziplock bag, so it doesn't get wet.
  • UV filter - To protect your lens in rough environments
  • Lens cleaning kit - A kit typically includes a blower brush, lens tissues, and a bottle of lens cleaning fluid. I also like getting packs of lens wipes for convenience. A lens wipe is a lens tissue already coated with lens cleaning fluid and sealed inside a packet. Zeiss makes some nice lens wipes.
  • Waterproof pack cover - So the camera inside your pack doesn't get wet. For example, the Sea-to-Summit pack covers.
  • Extra battery - Never go without a backup battery. This is also useful for cold weather situations. You can keep the backup battery near your warm body and swap it with the battery inside your camera. Keep swapping back and forth whenever the battery in the camera gets too cold to operate.
  • Extra memory cards - I recommend 4 GB for 10-12 megapixel cameras and 8 GB for higher megapixel cameras. The speed of the cards should match the transfer speed of your camera. Cameras with higher frame rate will need faster cards. The idea is that you spread out the risk. Instead of getting one huge memory card (say 16 or 32 GB), you get 3 medium sized (say 4 or 8 GB) memory cards. If you lose one or it gets corrupted, you're still OK. You only lost the images on that one card.

  • Backup camera - If something goes wrong with your main dSLR camera, you need a backup. In fact, this is what separates a pro photographer from someone who just shoots as a hobby. A pro photographer has to have backup equipment because they can't tell their client that they took zero photos due to equipment problems. The backup camera doesn't have to be another dSLR. You can use a point-and-shoot camera. A good thing about point-and-shoot cameras is that they are great for macro because of their inherently short focal lengths. It's difficult to shoot macro on a dSLR without a specialized macro lens.
  • (optional but important) Tripod/monopod - If you want to do any macro or long-exposure work, you will need a tripod. You can get by without a tripod if you focus on event shooting, but eventually you will want a tripod. Monopods are useful when tripods aren't allowed or if you need some freedom for movement.
  • (optional but important) Flash - Important for shooting inside dark rooms like at a party. You want a flash that can be tilted at angles. This is useful for bouncing the flash off walls and ceilngs. You can use the built-in flash on your camera, but it's not very good. A small flash is fine. Examples are the Nikon SB-400 Speedlight and the Canon Speedlite 270EX. If you have the money and don't mind the weight, you could get a big, pro-level flash.
  • (optional but important) Better camera strap - I didn't like the strap that came with my camera so I got the Op-tech Pro strap. It was much more comfortable for carrying heavy lenses around my neck.

19 August 2010

Online resources for learning about digital SLR photography

I'm no expert on all the resources you can find on the internet, but here are some of my personal favorites.
  • dpreview - Trustworthy and extremely thorough reviews of digital SLR cameras and lenses. The articles can be quite technical.
  • B&H Event Space videos - B&H (arguably America's best camera store) holds dozens of seminars each month about photography. They are great to attend in person, if you can manage to get to New York. For the rest of us, fortunately, some of the seminars have been taped and posted online. If you watched 20 B&H seminars, you would learn so much.
  • Digital Photography School - Lots of nice articles about almost any topic in photography. Most articles are aimed at beginning and intermediate photographers.
If you are a beginning photographer, I would avoid Ken Rockwell. He is a very opinionated guy and I don't agree with everything he says. Novices won't be able to tell between facts and Rockwell's opinions.

18 August 2010

How to get a feel for the controls on a camera

The most important aspect of a camera is whether you are comfortable holding it and changing its settings. When buying a camera with manual controls (whether it is film or digital, point-and-shoot or SLR), you should go to a store and try it out.

At store, this is what you should try:
  1. Go into aperture mode and try changing the aperture.
  2. Try changing the ISO.
  3. Try changing the autofocus mode.
  4. Try changing the white balance mode.
  5. Try changing the exposure compensation (+/-).
  6. Go into manual mode and try changing aperture and shutter speed.
Do you have a good grip on the camera when you are shooting and when you are changing the settings? These are all important considerations because if you're not physically comfortable with the camera, you shouldn't buy it.

15 August 2010

Examples of exposure metering fooled

Here are some photos to illustrate how the camera metering system can be fooled by extremely light or dark scenes.  The camera assumes that the scene is a medium gray (the meter works in grayscale not color) and tries to exposure the scene so that the medium gray is properly exposed.  In these photos, I determined proper exposure by using the camera's evaluative (or matrix) metering setting.  One stop underexposed is equivalent to -1 in exposure compensation.  One stop overexposed is equivalent to +1 in exposure compensation. You can click on the photo to enlarge it.

A brick wall is a medium dark color, so the camera meter gets the right exposure.  As we can see below, the "properly exposed" shot looks best.

One stop underexposed

Properly exposed

One stop overexposed

A white scene (for example, snow or ice) will cause the camera to underexpose the scene.  The camera thinks the white is too bright and tries to reduce exposure.  If you encounter a very light scene, you should set your exposure compensation to be positive.  As we can see below, the "overexposed" shot looks best.  (In this case, the camera metering didn't quite do what I expected.  The best exposure might be in between the "properly exposed" and "overexposed" shots.)

One stop underexposed

Properly exposed

One stop overexposed

A very dark scene will cause the camera to overexpose the scene.  The camera thinks that the scene is too dark and tries to increase exposure.  If you encounter a very dark scene, you should set your exposure compensation to be negative.  As we can see below, the "underexposed" shot looks best.

One stop underexposed

Properly exposed

One stop overexposed

14 August 2010

The effect of aperture on depth-of-field

The larger the aperture (smaller f-stop), the smaller the depth-of-field.

Here's a series of bike photos (click on the photo to see larger size):

f/2.8 @ 1/2000 sec

f/22 @ 1/40 sec

Another example with a fence:

f/2.8 @ 1/1600 sec

f/8 @ 1/200 sec

f/16 @ 1/40 sec

13 August 2010

Entry level vs semi-professional digital SLR cameras

Entry level dSLR cameras are less sophisticated and have no weather sealing, so they have a smaller form factor. The semi-pro cameras will be larger and bulkier. If you have large hands, you may find it hard to grip an entry level camera. If you have very small hands, you may find it hard to grip a semi-pro camera.

Most functions on an entry level camera have to be changed on the LCD screen, which means that you have to take your eye off the viewfinder. You have to hold the camera way from you and scroll through menus to adjust settings. This may cause you to miss some shots. With semi-pro cameras, you can change almost all the important settings without taking your eye off the viewfinder. Most of the important settings have a dedicated button (ISO, white balance, AF, etc). Dedicated buttons and the ability to change settings quickly is very important to event photographers and journalists.

Autofocus and frame rate
The autofocus systems are better and the frame rates are higher on semi-pro dSLR cameras compared to entry-level ones. You get what you pay for. If you shoot sports or wildlife, you are better off with a semi-pro camera.

Weather sealing
Semi-pro dSLR cameras have some weather-sealing. Some even have professional grade weather sealing. The Canon 7D supposedly survived a trip to Antarctica. Entry level dSLR cameras don't have weather sealing. If you are using an entry level camera in rough conditions, I would recommend bringing a weather cover for the camera and lens.

Entry level cameras are lighter than semi-pro cameras because they are made of plastic. Semi-pro cameras have a metal frame which is more durable.