Thoughts on Hawaii Pics and Equipment

I’ve had a chance to go through some of my Hawaii pictures (you can see the whole set to date here). Below find my thoughts on the various pieces of equipment that LensRentals provided.

Before I begin, I should say that equipment is great, but it doesn’t make a photographer or a great photograph. Cameras and lenses are but tools limited by the skills of the person who wields them, and to a lesser extent the technology used to forge them. In some cases, it was clear that the limitations of my skill set hurt the photos, and not the equipment. I’ll make note of those instances.

Nikon D810

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I was delighted that LensRentals included the D810 as I was looking at it as a potential replacement or second body to augment my Df.I was doubtful, though, having shot with its predecessor, the D800 before.

Photography is not my primary business, but I get paid more and more frequently, and expect to gross five figures this year from the effort. My Df is getting battle worn after nine months of the 365 Full Frame Project. Getting the right body matters.

The Pacific Ocean at Night

The coming D5 is interesting, but way out of my price range given the relatively low amount of income photography garners for me. I like the Nikon D810 a little better than the D750, as I take a ton of landscapes and architectural shots as well as periodic portraits. Plus I already own a D7100 so I am not overly impressed with the 24 Mp sensor. So in my mind, it was a second Df body or a D810.

I found the D810 to be a fantastic camera. The refinements over its predecessor, the D800, were significant enough that I enjoyed using the camera. It was fast with processing speed kicking the daylights out of the Df. The camera worked extremely well in low light situations, including night shots.

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When I focused well, the resolution was fantastic. The 36 mp allowed me to capture shots from afar and crop them significantly.

All of these are improvements over the Df. My one real knock on the D800 is that the sensor lacks some of the ability to pick up some light colors, particularly reds, magentas and purples. This was particularly true during the golden and early blue hours, when these colors tend to be subtle.

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Don’t get me wrong, I was able to pull some of this color out in Lightroom and when something was obviously red (see snail pic) it came out well. But in comparison to the Df sensor (which is the same as the D4), the colors just did not render as well. This was clear to me as soon as I got home and started taking pics with the Df again, too. Of course, that’s what the D4S (and eventually the D5) offer — the best of both worlds, plus some additional speed and capability.

In the end, I decided to buy the D810 for professional situations. I’ll use the Df still for sunset and sunrise pics as well as for macro pics of flowers. Poor me, two great cameras to rock pics with.

Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 ED

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This is a fantastic lens that empowered me to get some great pics. Just really flexible and adaptive to situations, and the pics were rendered in a superior fashion. I have rented the 14mm Nikon and the 15mm Zeiss Distagon before, but I really enjoyed the ability to zoom with this lens.

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I decided to buy this as wide angle shots are a forte, and I am not so happy with my 20 mm 2.8 AF-D lens from Nikon. My current lens creates symmetrical imperfections in tight situations, which is bad for architecture shots.

Zeiss ZF.2 50mm f/1.4

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I can’t rave enough about this lens. I loved it. It was just a beast, great for both portraits and landscapes in some select situations, as you can see from both of these shots. The only issue was my lack of experience focusing manually which produced some blurred lemons (none of which will see the light of Internet day). I soon overcame this as you can see.

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I currently use the Nikon 50 mm 1.8, and it does a decent job, but I expect to upgrade at some point, and when I do it will be the Zeiss lens. A big huge thumbs up.

Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S

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Another fantastic lens that yielded a great result. I was thoroughly happy with this lens. I do own the 1.8G version, and found that while a little faster this rental lens did not offer enough of an improvement to warrant an upgrade. I think anyone with the 1.8G will be as happy with that lens as they would with the 1.4G. They’re both great pieces of glass.

Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED

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I requested this lens for some very specific purposes. I wanted a long telescopic lens to shoot volcanoes from a helicopter and to go whale watching.

In practice, I found the lens to be so big that it was hard to wield without a tripod. And it is a slower lens, so that didn’t help me in the mobile situations produce more shake.

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For example this whale was 300-400 yards off the bow of my boat. Focus/sharpness here is my issue, in large part because I was unused to handling the 80-400 mm lens. This is the type of lens real pros use for sports photography and to take pictures of wildlife. Frankly, using it well requires practice, and in my opinion stabilization in the form of tripods.

I already have a 28-300 mm lens, which is much smaller. Given how little I shoot in these scenarios, I feel like my existing lens is sufficient for telescopic use.

What’s Next for My Photography

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A big heartfelt thank you to LensRentals for letting me try out this equipment. I really appreciated it.

I have another three months left in the 365 Full Frame project with spring ahead. I’m looking forward to making the most of it. After that, I have signed up for a Santa Fe Photographic Workshop on lighting and portraiture. There is much to learn, and this is the area where I am least happy with my skills. Onward.

P.S. LensRentals provided the equipment to me at no charge. I was not paid by the company, and my reviews are direct and forthright. I have used LensRentals and some of its competitors before. I found the LensRentals experience to be excellent, and intend to use them for my future rental experiences.

A Photographic Adventure

We’re en route to the Big Island in Hawaii. It’s our tenth anniversary trip, truly a remarkable achievement. We made it.

When we were dating, I told Caitlin, “I’ll take you to Hawaii, babe.” Finally, that foolish boy’s promise has become a reality. I’m very excited for her to enjoy Hawaii, a place I have visited twice with great delight. And Soleil is with us, too, as she is only four and too young for a two-week visit with the grandparents.

Like all families we have our own interests. Caitlin wants to snorkel. I want to photograph the volcanoes and the Milky Way from atop Mauna Loa. Soleil wants to go whale watching, which I understand you can do from the beach (we’re not putting her on a boat).

How can I use this trip to create exceptional photos, some of my best yet? Let’s make it a photographic adventure instead of the usual Joe Tourist holiday and Facebook album. So how does one do that?

Gear

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First of all, I don’t own ideal equipment. Some of the lenses and my Nikon Df are very good, but there are some weaknesses. The good news is I have some help. My friend Philip Robertson connected me with the folks at LensRentals, who sported me a rig for the trip (I have not been paid, just given free equipment). Here is what they sent me:

  • Nikon D810
  • Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 ED
  • Zeiss ZF.2 50mm f/1.4
  • Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S
  • Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED

The two telescopic lenses and the Zeiss 50 mm lens are superior to anything I own. They will produce exceptional images (provided I frame them and use the camera correctly). In addition, I needed the telescopic lens for my helicopter excursion over the volcanoes.

The 85 mm lens is more of a test for me. I own the less expensive 1.8f Nikon lens, and have always wanted to see what the difference was. I hope to put this to test in some low light situations, and see how the lens performs.

The D810 camera is a 36 megapixel beast. I have rented its predecessor, the Nikon D800, and opted to buy the Df instead. I liked the sensor a little more on the retro camera.

But as time progressed and my craft evolved, I came to appreciate the need for a faster, more versatile camera. Having a quicker shutter speed, better low light focusing, and sharper images would help in a wide variety of scenarios.

Many pros who shoot with Nikon equipment have told me the D810 is the best bang for the buck. I am considering the D810 as a potential next camera. Now I get to test it in a real scenario. Thank you, LensRentals.com for the opportunity to check all of this fine equipment out.

Commitment to Quality

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The other trick is to commit to quality. It would be really easy to walk around all day and shoot, and load a ton of images to Facebook. I don’t think that’s ideal, for you or for me.

What I’d rather do is post one great photo a day, the best of the best. That means 1) editing one photo a day, which can take 15-45 minutes based on my current workflow. The rest can wait until I get back.

And 2) I’d rather be intentional, setting aside certain times for photography, and spending the rest with my family. I know the gold and blue hours (one hour before and after the sunrise and sunset, respectively) are the best times to shoot. I intend to make the most of them.

Last, or 3) when I do shoot during the day it will likely be with the 50 mm or the 85 mm unless I am in the volcano shooting or whale-watching. I plan on daytripping with a lighter entourage. Then when I take a photo it will be to record a remarkable scene, not just because I happen upon a macadamia farm or there is a turtle on the beach. Unless of course that turtle is remarkable.

Most importantly, while I intend to take great pics, I’m most focused on having fun. After all, it is a vacation, and a special one at that.

You can see the pic a day on the 365FullFrame website, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or on Google+. I also intend to start a Pinterest board. If I do happen to post more than one photo a day, it will only be on Flickr.

Let’s see where this goes! Mahalo.

Smartphones Will Not Replace Cameras Altogether

My friend Richard Binhammer forwarded me an article that theorizes that the new iPhone 6 is the harbinger of the end of the camera. I couldn’t help but think that this is true for point and click cameras, but not for higher end photographic equipment.

The theory has merit. MP3 players were replaced by smartphones. Before that pagers were replaced by phones. So it makes sense that phones would also replace cameras. After all, point and click just a basic function. You can see the result of basic point and click throughout Instagram.

The article theorizes that the new iPhone 6+ is the closest to replacing the standalone camera. It says “NETWORK+SOCIAL+APPS=CAMERA.” Meaning digital photography on phones embellished with apps is good enough to post now on social, effectively rendering the camera useless.

Yes, the smartphone marks the end of the point and click camera. Why bother spending $200-$500 on a camera that is marginally better than the small brick that’s already in your pocket?

A real photographer will want more. The fickle nature of serious photography demands more functionality than what basic point and click cameras offer. A real camera offers more.

Just start with RAW files that allow you to examine rich data assets about your photo. The way a camera interprets the light is often wrong. That’s why images don’t look exactly like you remembered them. A pro photographer or an amateur enthusiast uses more advanced equipment to capture how light refracts, and uses editing software to improve or interpret a photo.

The Photographer’s Mindset

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The camera itself is but a tool. And all tools are not created equal. A Swiss Army knife is not a Shun blade. Nor is a Smartphone a full-frame camera, a high-end Micro 4/3 camera, or even a high end crop camera like a Nikon D7200.

High end cameras and their sensors are not things that you can bolt onto a phone. I am not sure why you would you want to do that. The same goes for the prime and telephoto lenses that you can use with a DSLR or micro 4/3 camera.

Frankly, a smartphone’s form factor makes it difficult to grip and shoot like a camera body. What is good for is a compact computational device to communicate with and play with various media. Much like a Swiss Army knife is handy to do

I agree that the iPhone OS is superior to the Nikon OS. But that’s about where the theory ends for me.

See, I have an iPhone 6+, and I can tell you there is no way any bolt-on sensor or lens modification will compare to my Nikon Df. The iPhone is incapable of giving me the clarity, light sensitivity, depth of field, or scenery data I need to edit a photo and make it beautiful.

Strapping on Lenses and Sensors on to an iPhone

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The article cites, “for $200 you can add a telephoto and a wide angle lens from Moment.” Then it encourages you to look at the Moment Instagram feed. These are very, very good iPhone pics. In fact, they are as good as most point and click camera shots I see, and it’s clear they are taken by a real photographer.

But I know I can do better on my camera.

Once you mess around with a really good lens like a Zeiss Distagon or the Nikon 14 mm lens, you understand that all glass is not created equally. Great glass paired with a decent sensor interprets light in ways no iPhone in the next five to ten years will ever come close, too. Even the Nikon 1.8 50 mm lens is superior to anything the iPhone/Moment combo can offer (at least based on their Instagram feed).

The idea that you would want to post a photo right after taking it is also the mindset of a true novice. Once you learn Lightroom you never go back. I can’t imagine not futzing with a Raw file to see how I might interpret the scene. The above dawn scene is a direct result of opening the RAW file and processing the image. The camera’s interpretation of the shot (e.g. point and click) sucked, in my opinion.

This is why photography enthusiasts are going to demand more than what a smartphone offers. You simply cannot paint a portrait or a scene the same way with a jack-of-all-trades smartphone that offers basic point-and-click functionality.

Launching the 365 Full Frame Project #365FF

A couple of weeks ago I asked folks to consider the 365 Full Frame project. Today the project offically launches as a photo blog.

The project began publishing on Friday to help populate the site for today’s launch. The featured image for this post is today’s photo, a shot of McWay Falls in Big Sur. For the remaining 361 days starting tomorrow, the project will publish one high resolution full frame photo a day at 4:00 p.m.

Generally, these photos will be posted on the 365 blog, Pinterest, Google+, Twitter and a cropped version on Instagram. Facebook friends will only see some, but not all posts.

You can see the site has a minimalist blog design. It pretty much is all about the photos, and works well on mobile. That’s what made the most sense to me. Frankly, it’s nice to post because the images are worth sharing and for no other reason, a refreshing return to the old days of social media.

More on #365FF

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In all, 12 supporters came together to raise $2700 to fund the purchase of a a Nikon Df sans the lenses. Each of them has select licensing rights.

Anyone can share the images. Folks that purchase licenses for the photos will help buy more equipment. Rather than become a true professional photographer, I’d rather trade photo rights for more gear. Seems like a fair trade to me, and it helps fuel my hobby.

Thank you to everyone who helped get me here, from supporters to good pals like Richard Binhammer (who may guest photoblog on 365) and others who encouraged me along the way. It’s cool to have an outlet for my photography.

Again, thank you for encouraging me!

Use Your Smartphone to Train Your Eye

If you want to think more visually, you may want to consider photography. Perhaps you aren’t sure where to start and don’t want to invest quite yet. Good news! You can begin with your smartphone. The exercise is simple: Take a picture every day with your phone for 90 days.

You will automatically train your mind to think about the world from a visual perspective. After 90 days, you will understand what makes a good subject as informed by your interests and tastes.

Here are some suggestions to help get you started:

Rule of Thirds

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Frame your photos by using the rule of thirds (check out Digital Photography School’s primer, also the source for the above image). The rule of thirds creates a basic frame. Two vertical lines and two horizontal lines create a tic tac toe box.

Ideally, you want your subject to fit in the middle square. If it is a landscape, you’ll want the sky in the top third, the foreground in the bottom third.

Remember, rules are meant to be broken. You have to interpret scenes as you see fit.

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In this photo the subject is the couple cuddling by the river. But the river’s rapids dominate the scene, a wavey series of white rapids created by a time lapse. While the couple is cute, the real visual treat is the river. I decided to keep the rapids, and leave couple on the right rather than cropping them into the center.

Your framing of a photo is the means to tell a story. That’s true even if you are reaching with a selfie or a pic of your husband’s lousy chili. Use the rule of thirds to inform your thinking.

Post Your Photos on Instagram

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Before Instagram cropping…

You should post your photos on Flickr (here’s my profile) or Picasso so they are found. But you should also post on Instagram to get feedback on your photography — your visual thinking — from your friends.

If you don’t have an Instagram account, get one. Make sure to update your follow list to match your Faceboook and Twitter communities. You can find me at geoffliving on Instagram, and I will follow you back.

Instagram forces you to post a photo that eliminates approximately 1/3 the width of a standard 2×3 photo. In doing so, your subject matter is placed front and center, and the rest of your image context is left behind. That has it’s own issues, but for a budding visual thinker the square crop forces you to consider subjects deeply.


After Instagram.

See how your photos fair. You will come to understand what works for your stakeholders — your friends and colleagues — and then adjust naturally.

Edit and Filter Your Photos

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There is a social media movement towards no filter photos centering on authenticity and journalistic integrity. For the record, I don’t see any of the no filter crowd getting published by National Geographic or licensed by Getty Images.

In the old days, adjustments where made in the dark room to film. But they were made. Today, every professional photographer uses Lightroom or Aperture at a minimum to process their raw files and make small adjustments. Yes, even those National Geographic photographers edit their photos. I know, I’ve attended two National Geographic sessions, and photographers are asked to submit their Lightroom/Aperture adjustments with their photos.

The ones who get that pure capture are also using Nikon D4s or the equivelant, a $7000 camera body. Your smartphone can’t compete with that.

Why do all photographers edit?

Cameras are machines that attempt to capture light as it is animated on a subject area, and record it. They often have a) hidden information about that light that is only revealed through editing and b) misinterpret light scenes.

That’s why most photos don’t turn out like you remember seeing them. Your smartphone is a good pocket camera, but it is very limited compared to a DSLR. Most images come across as flat. Your camera misinterpets tungsten lit (light bulbs) scenes for shade. It can’t figure out which light it should focus on, the sunset or the light on the foreground, on and on. Even a DSLR or 4/3 camera has challenges interpreting light.

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This photo in its edited form is a classic example. It was a slow capture taken at twilight. The sky was not plain white as depicted in the original raw image. The sky and street were not royal blue as it appeared in the tungsten white balance version of the shot. The combination of sun and electric light fried my Nikon white balance sensors. A Lightroom edit restored more of the actual look and feel of Larimer Square during a cloudy dawn.

Use tools and apps to help restore your photo to memory. If you want to go beyond and get artistic with it, go for it. But realize when you do that, you are exceding the conservative journalistic approach to photography. I don’t pay too much attention to those rules, but you have to find your own comfort point.

There are several apps I recommend. The first is Lightroom Mobile. It is fantastic, and will introduce you to a very important concept: Interpreting light in your photos. Lightroom is a Photoshop app, but it is less intrusive than the traditional app.

A simpler app is Google’s Snapseed, which I still use for my smartphone takes. It’s quick and easy, and has nice auto sizing for cropping photos.

Conclusion

Once you finish the 90 day challenge, you will find yourself taking more artistic photos that tell better stories. In doing so, you will be able to better understand some of the visual media trends that are occuring. You may even be ready to use your photography on a select basis with your own communications.

Good luck, and please share your results. Do you have any tips for would-be smartphone photographers?

Going Back to Mirrors

Last weekend at #NatsFest, my Olympus PEN-3 died an honorable death. It served me well through two years of toddler-dom. The photos in this post are the last ones I took with it.

In its stead, I decided to go back to the traditional DSLR camera with mirrors. So my new Nikon D7100 arrives today in the mail at some point. I had owned one of its predecessors, the D90, through 2011.

As much as I liked the compact nature of the Olympus body, and the sharp micro 4/3 picture, it just wasn’t the same. I had a much harder time manipulating light with the manual settings. As a result, while the PEN-3 took sharp photos they just never felt completely natural to me.

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I hear newer editions of the micro 4/3 camera have evolved significantly, but in the end I decided to give the technology some more time to mature.

It was not a cut and dry choice. I almost got a Nikon D610, but elected to hold back on the full frame format for now. If I grow Tenacity5 to ten employees, that will be my reward.

So here’s to a new vessel for wonderful pictures. What do you shoot with?