Saturday, July 17, 2010

Various Thoughts on Photography (and video) with the 5D Mark II

I'm currently enjoying my Canon 5D Mark II digital SLR and my lenses. As many of you know, it is a excellent camera, and I have taken some pictures with it that I am proud of, but my photography skills still leave a lot to be desired. I would say that while I definitely have room for improvement with regard to my compositional expertise, it is the technical aspects that I need to improve more, and it is those techniques that I feel more comfortable with tackling.

I've recently shot a number of photos and some videos and I wanted to make some comments about some of those techniques that I want to improve. I'll blog more about other ones that come to mind in a future post. Here are the ones I will talk about today:

  • White balance issues:  I recently took some photos at the annual ARRL Field Day, and amateur radio event.  After the sun went down, I wanted to take some pictures using my fast glass, notably my Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM.  I increased the ISO speed to around 800.  The 5D Mark II has no problem with this.  I had already thought ahead to custom white balancing the evening shots.  Our Field Day event was held in a picnic shelter.  At dusk, several high-pressure sodium vapor lights came on to illuminate the picnic tables and our radios.  I realize that sodium vapor lights can only be corrected to a degree, but I wanted to attempt it anyway.  I grabbed my X-Rite ColorChecker Passport and opened it to the ColorChecker section and took a picture.  I figured that later in Adobe Camera RAW, I would use the neutral eyedropper to correctthe color balance.  The problem, as it turned out, was that the light that was falling on the ColorChecker was a combination of the sodium vapor lighting and the twilight.  The twilight tones were probably actually stronger.  The pictures that I ended up taking were actually taken a little bit later and from further inside (or under) the picnic shelter, where the sodium vapor light was more predominant.  The lesson to be taken away here, is to use white balance tools under the same lighting conditions and the photos that will be corrected.
  • During that same weekend, it took a short walk with the camera to take a distant shot of the picnic shelter along with the antennas, and the tents that were set up.  I wanted this to be an all-encompassing shot of the entire Field Day site.  I walked back about 500 feet or so.  I was using my Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens, and its field of view was perfect.  The problem that I had with these shots was that part of the foreground was distractingly out of focus.  I would have preferred to have it in focus.  The only solution to this problem would have been to stop down the lens and correspondingly lengthen the shutter speed.  As the photos in question were already night shots and I was pushing my luck to get acceptably sharp photos, I would've have needed my tripod.  I had packed the tripod for the weekend, but I never thought to grab it.
  • I was still taking evening pictures of fellow amateur radio operators making contacts at their stations.  I was still using the same 35mm f/1.4 lens.  That lens is a fairly "fast" lens and also focuses fast due to its ultrasonic motor.  For several of these photos, I wanted to keep the flash turned off, in order to capture the lighting coming off of the radios and the computer monitors.  I should've used a feature of my Canon Speedlite 580EXII that I tend to forget:  the ability to leave the flash turned on, but disable its ability to fire.  By doing that, I still get the benefits of the AF-Assist lamp, which can lead to quick and accurate focusing.  I don't really have any complaints about the focusing on the shots that I took without the AF-Assist lamp, but I still feel it could've helped.  I also have the Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter that performs the AF-Assist functions but without the weight of a full flash unit.  This can be used when it is already know that all of the pictures will be taken without flash.
  • The final technique that I want to talk about is shooting video with the Canon 5D Mark II.  Although some people may dismiss the video capabilities, I happen to think that the Mark II is an excellent video camera.  It is rapidly taking the place of my eight year old Sony VX2000 MiniDV-based camcorder as my primary tool for video.  There are two points I want to mention now about the video capabilities of the Mark II.  The first is that a custom white balance can be set for the video.  Since I was shooting under mixed lighting conditions, and since the video was going straight to YouTube (I don't edit these videos; they are more documentary in nature), I should have set a custom white balance before shooting my evening video.  I don't have a computer or editing software that is powerful enough to handle the 1080p video that the Mark II produces (I suppose I could shot standard VGA video), so the video that ended up on YouTube was the raw, un-corrected video.  The other point is that while the Mark II has a front-facing monaural microphone, I own a Rode stereo video-mic that includes a shock-mount and a "dead kitten" wind sock.  I should have used it.  Besides the radio, there were plenty of other environmental sounds to capture.  A stereo capture would have added a new dimension to the video.
 As I have said before, I'm still learning, and I will always be learning how to use my camera and my other photography tools.

Until next time.


    Saturday, May 1, 2010

    Adding Another Blog

    I'm adding a third blog.  There are times when the topic is not amateur radio or photography, so I've created a miscellaneous blog for those posts.  It is located at

    Saturday, January 23, 2010

    New Photography Blog

    I have decided to create a new blog devoted to photography. I'll be able to keep my amateur radio topics separate from my photography topics. If a post happens to involve both, then I will probably post in both. I'm going to try to move my photography posts from the amateur radio blog over to here. We'll see how that goes.


    Saturday, January 2, 2010

    Want a New Tripod

    Lately, in my picture taking endeavors I have been trying to concentrate more on some of the technical aspects of photography. When I am shooting hand-held, for example, I am trying to keep the shutter speed high enough to avoid noticeable blur in the photos. There is a guideline that indicates your shutter speed should be at least faster than the reciprocal of your focal length. For example, if you are using a 50mm lens, then the shutter speed should be faster than 1/50, which would typically mean faster than 1/60 of a second when discussing whole stops. That guideline was probably developed from some trial and error. The fact is that longer focal length lenses, such as telephotos are typically heavier and tend to magnify camera motion more because they are trained on some distant subject.

    As I take pictures these days using my month-old Canon EOS-5D Mark II, I'm trying to pay attention to those numbers in the viewfinder. If my shutter speed doesn't meet that guideline and I'm shooting hand-held, I first see if I can open the aperture any further. If I am already at my maximum aperture, then I will adjust the ISO speed of the camera. The 5D Mark II excels at taking pictures with high ISO settings and keeps the noise level to a minimum.

    Sometimes, you don't want to increase the ISO speed because you want the cleanest picture you can get. At that time, you need to suspend hand-held shooting and grab a tripod and a remote shutter release. I currently have a Giottos carbon-fiber tripod which is reasonably light and is strong and stiff. To the tripod, I have mated an Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 SP ballhead. This is arguably one of the best ballheads out there. Ballheads are very quick and easy to use. This tripod and head combination is great, but it is relatively big and bulky, although it is not that heavy. This Christmas, while spending time with my parents in Florida, I wanted to take pictures of the lights. I didn't have my tripod because it would have been too much to carry on the plane. My Dad's Slik aluminum tripod really wasn't up to the task of supporting the 5D Mark II with battery grip and 24-70mm f/2.8L zoom. I then decided that I needed a compact tripod along with a smaller ballhead to complement my other tripod/head combination. I think that I have settled on a Gitzo GT1541T Traveler carbon-fiber tripod along with a Really Right Stuff BH-40 ballhead. The Traveler is a 4-section tripod that collapses to 16" when the legs are folded back over the center column. The ballhead should easily support my typical camera/lens combinations.

    Besides trying to think about using a tripod more, I'm looking at the other techniques for taking sharper photos. One of them is using a remote shutter release or some other remote trigger. I've got two remote options at my disposal. The first is Canon's timer remote control. This is a wired remote control that also be programmed to take photos are specific intervals, can take a pre-determined numbers of photos, and a couple of other functions. Of course the main purpose of the remote shutter release is to ensure that you aren't touching the camera at the time that the picture is taken. My other remote method involves a couple of PocketWizard radio triggers. One PocketWizard sits in the camera's hot shoe with a cable running to the camera's remote control socket. The other PocketWizard is in my hand. I just hit the Test button to take a picture. Another technique to get sharper photos is to use mirror lockup, ideally in combination with a delay timer on the camera. You hit the shutter release button on the remote the first time and the mirror swings out of the way. Then after a delay determined either by the camera or the photographer, the actual picture is taken, but by this time the vibrations caused by the mirror moving out of the way have diminished. The other method that I can think of to achieve sharp photos is to use Live View. Until I got the 5D Mark II, I didn't have this option. But by using Live View and manual focus and Live View's 5x and 10x magnification modes, I can fine-tune focus on my subject. A tripod and several of these techniques are going to be absolutely necessary when I acquire a tilt-shift lens (either the Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II or the TS-E 17mm f/4L), I suspect.

    I'm also trying to work on my photographic composition. So far, my photos have more of a photojournalistic style to them, and although the document something, they can be rather boring. I know one thing, photography is like many other things: there is always more to learn.