Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Canon EOS 5D Mark II On The Way

My new digital camera is on the way. It is the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. It will replace my 5D. I am really excited about the camera arriving and using it. As you can imagine it offers a number of updated or added features that make the upgrade worthwhile. I happen to find many of those features compelling. The first feature that I look forward to is the increased resolution. I will be going from 12 megapixels (MP) to 21 MP. The new camera captures data off of the sensor with a 14 bit depth, whereas the 5D was 12 bits. This equates to four times as much data, smoother gradations in tone, and more than likely more exposure latitude. The new camera allows for a greater high ISO range. The 5D topped out absolutely at ISO 3200. The 5D Mark II tops out at ISO 25,600. Although 25,600 is one of its extended high ISO settings, its maximum regular ISO speed (sensitivity) is 6400. I've seen pictures on Flickr taken with the 5D Mark II at ISO 6400 and they are quite clean considering the high ISO speed. For me, having the high ISO speed of 6400 (I'm sure that I will use 12,800 and 25,600 once in a while), means that many more pictures can be captured in natural light, at some pretty low light levels. Over the past couple of years, I have upgraded many of my lenses to better, faster (larger aperture), higher quality lenses. One of my lenses has a maximum aperture of f/1.2 and another is f/1.4. I'm really curious to see how dark it can be and still take a sharp picture hand-held with the lens wide open.

The 5D Mark II also supports Live View. In Live View, the mirror is flipped up and the shutter is opened and you can compose your picture on the LCD panel. For me, I will probably not regularly use Live View, but I can see four types of shooting where I will use it, plus one more type of shooting that I will mention in a little bit. With macro shooting and a narrow depth of field, focusing can be critical. With Live View, you can focus easier on the LCD screen and you have the option of zooming in five times or 10 times and really nail the focus. Another type of shooting is portraiture with my Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens or my Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM lens. With both lenses, depth of field can also be narrow, and therefore focusing is critical, and Live View can be used to achieve accurate focusing. Another type of shooting is nighttime shooting. With nighttime shooting especially with manual focus it is sometimes not possible to tell if your subject will be in focus, simply because the viewfinder is too dark. From what I understand, in Live View mode the LCD display will compensate for the dark conditions and brighten the display allowing focus to be determined. The fourth time, I would probably use Live View is with a tilt-shift lens. I don't have that type of lens yet, but I am looking at the Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L. With shift movements, you are controlling perspective, such as straightening the converging vertical lines of a building or trees. Although I understand that Canon sells a focusing screen with grid lines etched in it, you can also display grid lines on the Live View display and get your vertical lines truly vertical. With tilt movements, you are typically controlling depth of field, but again the Live View mode may make that easier to determine. While I am here, I will mention that I don't think I will have trouble adjusting to the new LCD display. It has approximately three times the resolution and is supposed to be much more readable in the sun.

Video is another very interesting feature on the 5D Mark II. It supports full HD recording in arguably one of the better codecs, H.264. The video possibilities with a large sensor, and potentially large apertures, along with other creative possibilities such as depth of field control with a tilt-shift lens, are pretty neat. Another thing to keep in mind is that this camera has excellent low light capabilities. I'm really looking forward to shooting some video with the 5D Mark II. I do already have a standard-definition 3-CCD MiniDV camcorder (the Sony DCR-VX2000) and for shooting video, nothing beats a dedicated camcorder where all of the controls are ergonomically placed.

Other features to be excited about are how the review histogram can be displayed. You can have the luminance histogram and RGB histogram displayed simultaneously, so you know if you are clipping the exposure on the overall picture or individual color channels. The 5D Mark II apparently has better dust and water sealing. It also has a self-cleaning sensor. I got burned before with a dirty sensor. I discussed it in an earlier post.

Me and a friend went together on the purchase. He has wanted the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens and, of course, I have wanted the 5D Mark II. Canon sells a kit that combines the two and saves the buyer some money over buying them separately. I also made a separate purchase and am waiting for the battery grip, a L-bracket, a spare battery, and a UDMA-capable CompactFlash card.

Check out my Flickr, Pbase, and Picasa photo albums for upcoming pictures from the 5D Mark II.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Adobe Bridge CS4

Within the past couple of weeks, I upgraded my copy of Photoshop. I previously had version CS, and now I have version CS4, which is the latest release as of now. Photoshop is an amazing product, and I look forward to learning much more about it. In the past, I had only used Photoshop to do some minor contrast adjustments, set different colorspaces, resizing, and sharpening. I also tended to use Corel's Paint Shop Pro X2 for similar tasks. Now I want to concentrate my learning towards Photoshop and start using it for much more, including things like compositing, retouching, and advanced color correction.

For the reminder of this post, however, I want to talk about a product that comes with Adobe Photoshop CS4, and that is Bridge CS4. In my old version of Photoshop I was accustomed to its image browser, but I really just used it to find a picture and open it and nothing more. The image browser was self contained in Photoshop. Bridge CS4 is a stand-alone application and the first time I ran it I was blown away. Perhaps some of the features that I am going to discuss were already available in the old image browser, but I never became aware of them. They are so much more accessible in this new browser, anyway.

Bridge CS4 is divided into several panes. The main one is the image thumbnails themselves. They show the pictures already rotated if orientation data was recorded in the file. Just as you would expect, you can click one picture or use Shift or Ctrl to select several images. If you select one image, that image will show up as a larger preview in another pane. Below the preview pane is a pane for viewing and updating image metadata. Metadata is data that either the camera embedded in the file when it took the picture or it is data that is recorded later in an application such as Bridge. Camera data consists of such things as camera model, lens used, focal length used, f number (aperture), ISO speed, shutter speed, white balance settings, metering modes, whether flash was used or not, portrait/landscape orientation, colorspace, and so on. Data that is recorded later can include photographer contact information, copyright notices, keywords, geotagging information (although some cameras can record this when the picture is taken), and ratings. The final pane is for filtering and for collections. I'm not sure what collections is all about right now, but I will check it out later. Filtering is really neat. After Bridge has had a chance to scan the folder, it builds a list of various criteria that can be filtered. Some examples are date created, lens used, focal length, ISO speed settings, and portrait/landscape orientation. Based on one particular folder on my hard drive that has about 3,100 pictures in it, I can quickly see that I mainly shoot at ISO 100, that by far my favorite lens is my Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens, and that my favorite focal length is 24mm and my next favorite is 105mm. Those, of course, are the two extremes of that lens. I can tell you this because Bridge CS4 tallies the number of times each focal length (or other criteria) is used. For me this has some real practicality. I've been debating about getting a new, fast prime lens. I have been looking at the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM and the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM. Although I will likely get both eventually, I can tell from my past picture taking that I will get far more use (according to Bridge) out of the 24mm lens, so that is probably the one I will get first, if I can find it in stock (that's another story).

The ability to add metadata is a nice feature, too. I can add keywords to images, and add my contact information to photos as well. The contact information can be stored in a template and applied to a whole bunch of pictures at a time. Keywords can be applied to one picture at a time or multiple pictures. It just depends on how many pictures you select in the thumbnail pane. There were several things that I was curious about when it came to metadata. The first was whether the process of adding metadata to the JPEG was destructive in any way to the image. Based on my research it is not. The JPEG has a header part and an image part, and the process of adding metadata only involves the header and not the image. Of course, my concern stems from the fact that using an image editing program to repeatedly open a JPEG and re-save as a JPEG, will lead to degradation. The next thing that I was curious about was whether other applications messed with the metadata previously written. Bridge does not really handle geotagging, so I wondered if I can add most of the metadata in Bridge and then add the geotagging information via the Picasa and Google Earth combination. This process works fine and leaves all metadata intact. Finally, I was wondering how websites such as Flickr and Picasa would read the metadata. The Picasa website doesn't really use a lot of the metadata, but it does use the geotagging data, and the keywords, and the shooting data (aperture, shutter speed, etc.). Flickr can use pretty much all of the data that can be recorded. It has ways to map the location of the picture. It will show the shooting data with just one click of the mouse, and will show the majority of the metadata with another click of the mouse. The keyword metadata is automatically shown as Flickr's tags.

I am very impressed with Bridge and expect to be using it quite a bit. I did forget to mention one pane of the Bridge screen, and that is the folder view, where it shows your entire directory tree. I will post more about this application once I learn more about it.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Lessons to Learn

Last weekend, I visited the home of a friend and co-worker. She had asked me to come over not only to chat, but also to photograph her immediate and extended family. I figured that this would be a perfect opportunity to dust off my Alien Bees studio lights, and take some portraits for them. I did not realize at the time, but there would be several things that I would still need to watch out for.

I took a wide variety of equipment out, including my Canon EOS-5D SLR, a number of lenses (many in my collection are now Canon's L-series, which is typically considered the "good stuff"), an Alien Bee B400 and B800, two silver/white umbrellas, light stands, a Sekonic L-758DR flash meter, three PocketWizard Plus II transceivers (for remotely firing the strobes), and a Photoflex Multidisc reflector (which was used for some photos outdoors). That weekend I mainly used a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L lens, but I did use a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens for a short time (it was generally too "long").

I got the light set up, and I got out my light meter. Since this was the first time that I had used it for flash photography, I had to pull up the owner's guide on my friend's computer. I was planning to use the L-758DR PocketWizard capability. It took about ten minutes, but I figured out how to fire the strobes with the meter, and to also understand the peculiarities of the meter. I adjusted the camera and strobe output in order to get a proper exposure. During this photo shoot, I think that I had the exposure generally correct. Unfortunately, I had other issues, as seen in this photo (the color may be washed out since this was shot in Adobe RGB color space and has not yet been converted to sRGB).

1. Distractions: It's like I wasn't even trying to take a decent photograph. On the left hand side of the photo you see several distracting items. I just wonder if I'm not paying attention to those things when I am looking through the viewfinder (because whether they appear is dependent on the focal length used). Anyway, I should have moved those items out of way.

2. Annoying reflection: The fireplace facing is marble and is highly reflective. At the top left corner of the marble you can see a reflection of the umbrella. Although you can't make out the spokes of the umbrella, you can clearly see the hotspots caused by the folds of the umbrella.

3. Color balance is off: The adult in the picture above was wearing a purple sweater. In the photo the color does look pretty close to the way that I remember it, but when viewed larger it seems to be too blue. I did notice this during the shoot, because on the viewfinder her sweater definitely appeared too blue.

4. Dust on the sensor: The photo above does not show a rather large dust particle. It was obscured by the adult's hair, but it is definitely there and was present during my whole weekend of shooting. I had shot pictures on the previous day at the Franklin Park Conservatory. Many of those pictures were quite busy with leaves, flowers and so on in the picture. They were also typically shot with a wider aperture. These family portraits on the other hand was mostly shot at f/9.0. Smaller apertures tend to accentuate the dust. I figure that of the 89 photos I shot at their house that day, I have 53 where I need to fix the dust.

5. Shadows: I suppose the shadows are not too distracting, but I should have tried to avoid them. I own three Alien Bees strobes, but one quit working a couple of years ago and I have never sent it back in for repair. More light would help with the shadows.

6. Posing: I don't know squat about posing. I relied on the mother and father mostly for posing. I did speak up sometimes when I saw a particularly annoying reflection in someone's eyeglasses, but that's about it.

How to eliminate or lessen these issues?

#1 and #2: For distractions and reflections, I am actually looking at two types of products that should be able to take care of that. The first item is a backdrop and its accompanying supports. I am currently looking at the hand-painted muslin backdrops from Aura Backdrops. They are 10' by 20' in size and include a rod pocket for the support beam. The one issue that I can see with a backdrop that I haven't encountered yet with walls, is that the backdrop will need more light on it, to separate it from the people. I can relegate my Alien B400 (the least powerful) to a shorter backlight stand to take care of that, but then I need another Alien Bee unit, I think. I am looking at the Alien Bee B1600 (their most powerful) which can also be used with the second type of product I am looking at for getting rid of reflections (not distractions). That item is the softbox. A proper softbox should be able to provide a nice uniform light that, even if it is reflected, might be mistaken for something else (such as a window). It's hard to mistake the reflection of an umbrella. I am currently looking at Photoflex's Multidome. The Multidome has an internal diffusion panel and the front diffusion panel and also has optional gold and silver inserts to modify the light.

#3: There are two ways to be proactive about color balance. The first is to shoot in RAW. The 5D supports RAW and I need to start using it. As RAW implies, the camera is recording the raw data from the image sensor. Color balance can be adjusted on the computer later. The other thing that can be done to be proactive (whether or not RAW is used) is to shoot a gray target under the same lighting conditions that will be used for the portraits. I've got a Lastolite EZYBalance 20-inch target on the way. What I notice on the JPEGs that I did shoot that day is that prior to me adjusting the camera's white balance from auto to flash, the colors appeared too cool. After changing the white balance, the colors appear too warm. Of course, I still haven't converted them to the sRGB color space. Shooting a gray target should allow me to nail the color balance.

#4. Dust on the sensor: I didn't see this until I got home. The dust is too small to see on the 5D's LCD display, but it clearly shows up on 19" monitors. How do I eliminate dust? The first is to be aware of it. If you take a longer focal length lens, manually focus it to infinity, stop it down to a smaller aperture, and shoot against a plain background, the dust particles should be easy to see. I already have the complete VisibleDust kit including the lighted-loupe, static brush, and swabs, and I also have a Giottos Rocket Blower. I need to start carrying those items with me. Of course, short of examining the actual sensor each time, which I feel is just an invitation for dust, the problem is going to be trying to see dust on the 5D's LCD display. Now that dust is on my photos, I've got to learn how to eliminate it. I figured Photoshop had a tool for dust removal. Sure enough, one of the best tools is the spot healing brush, but I currently have Photoshop CS, and the spot healing brush was not released until Photoshop CS2. However, in a couple of days (when my latest B&H order arrives), I will have upgraded to Adobe Photoshop CS4.

#5. Shadows: As I alluded to earlier, another key/fill light could help out. If I buy a B1600 and and have my B800 repaired, then I will have four strobes. One can do a lot with four strobes.

#6. Posing: I've just got to learn how to pose people. I recently purchased one of Monte Zucker's portrait books. Of course that book contains just one person's opinion, but his portraits were usually highly-regarded.

So that's quite a lengthy post, but I wanted to share with you some of the pitfalls with shooting portraits, and I hope that you will learn from my mistakes. By the way, I thought that the Photoflex Multidisc that I used (for the first time) outside worked quite well, as shown in this photo.

Until next time.