Sunday, November 21, 2010

Viewer Q&A - Camera Maintenance and Care

It's been quite a while since my last video, but after receiving another request for camera maintenance and care, I thought I'd quickly whip up this show. In the next week or so I'll also finish off the supplemental post with some links to cleaning products and other websites on this topic. And if I'm not too lazy in the coming days, I'll also post a shot or two of my wooden shark as that project is progressing quite well. L8r!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

It's cold outside, but I still want to take pics! Can I? Huh? Can I?

I had a question submitted to me regarding what advice I could give about photography in cold weather... I mean really cold weather, think -20C (-4F). Even though I'm not very far north, living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada has taught me a thing or two about taking my cameras out in frigid conditions.

Let me first begin by saying that you should always consult your camera's manual and find out what the model's operating temperature range is. In general, most digital SLRs (and even many point and shoot cams) have operating temperatures listed between 0C (32F) and +40C (104F). Be warned that if your camera is still under warranty and damage is caused by taking it outside, the warranty may be voided.

What could go wrong?
Speaking of damage, what could happen? First of all, it's fairly common to hear about batteries loosing their power quite quickly, and having been in situations where I had my camera exposed to cool air for lengthy periods of time, they do die noticeably faster. Even if you keep a warm extras in your pocket, they're still going to be placed in a cold machine and the juice will run out sooner than in warm temperatures.

Now if all you use on your camera is the optical viewfinder, then this problem may not affect you much, but LCD screens tend to hate cold temperatures. If it's very cold outside, let's say -20C (-4F), then the LCD might not even function at all or will take a long time to display anything; even if it does manage to show an image, the colors on the screen will likely be off.

Most seriously though, the fine mechanical components of the camera could be impacted like the mechanism that flips the mirror up and the operates the shutter curtains. In very cold temperatures, these precision metal and plastic parts will contract ever so slightly, which could make them malfunction; in other words, they could jam. Although this type of damage might occur more rarely than the other forms mentioned above, I doubt most photographers want to see a broken or dislodged shutter curtain or experience unusual problems later on.

So far I've discussed what happens to a camera when it's in a cold environment, but the device can also be damaged by condensation, which occurs when the equipment is moved suddenly into a warm place. It goes without saying, but moisture and electronics are usually a bad combination and condensate can build up not only on the outside of the camera body and the exposed element of a lens, but also on the internal components and glass, respectively. To reduce the effects of condensation there are a few things that can be done and I'll sum them up briefly as the Buzzle article, listed in the Web Resources section, already does good work of explaining this in more detail.

  • If you took a camera bag out with you, put the camera and lenses into it before entering the warm environment. Then leave your equipment in there until they warm up to whatever the inside temperature is. If you want to see your photos immediately after, then remove the memory card before entering the warm and happy place.
  • If you didn't take a camera bag outside, then at the least ensure the lens cap is on the lens, or if you prefer removing the lens from the body, then replace all caps; that is the front and rear lens caps and the cap to seal up the hole in the camera body. This prevents the warmer air from blasting onto the cameras cold surfaces and suddenly forming condensate.
  • If you plan to go into the cold again with your camera, wait until it warms up and dries completely before doing so, because if any moisture did end up forming on the equipment it could freeze and potentially wreak havoc with your precious camera.

And like I said, check out the Buzzle article as it has some other useful suggestions.

So no shooting in cold weather?
I would say no to this question and although I haven't shot in cold conditions that often (mainly because I don't like being in the cold that much), there are a few things I've done to help keep my camera in good working condition. And as I usually say, if you choose to shoot in such conditions, it's your choice and responsibility, so you're doing so at your own risk; you can choose to follow my ways or not.

To begin with, I usually wear a large coat which not only keeps me nice and protected from the elements, but allows me to stuff the camera inside of it; if a long lens is attached, I usually point it downward... and yes, it does look a little odd with the camera bulging the jacket out, but I've never cared about style that much. This keeps the entire device much warmer than if I let it hang off my neck outside the jacket. When placing the camera in my coat, I ensure to have the lens hood or lens cap on so the glass doesn't get scratched. If I come across something I want to shoot, I first examine the scene to determine what I want, then I quickly whip out the camera, take the shots, and then put it back in my coat. To help speed up this process further, I adjust the settings to what I feel works well for the conditions (i.e. camera mode, ISO, etc.) before venturing out, and I keep a jacket pocket open so I can dump and the retrieve the lens cap with ease. Without rushing, I would say it takes me about 20-30 seconds to do this, and speaking for myself, I have thankfully not encountered any issues with condensation or my camera's operation. Lastly, using this method I've also noticed that the batteries live about as long as in "normal" conditions.

Cold weather will likely never stop me from taking photos, as there are a lot of wonderful and amazing things to capture, and below I've included some shots I've taken in below freezing temperatures. So if you're out there in the cold snapping away, I wish you warm thoughts and great moments. L8r!

Web Resources

The image above is more impressive viewed at full size; click the pic to see it in Flickr.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Photography Q&A - Volume 001

I've been so busy lately with various things around the home that I've been neglecting my videos somewhat. The next episode should be a quick Q&A one, but after putting some good though into the answers to the questions, which were submitted through my Binary Graphite profile on Facebook, I came to the conclusion I could better reply to them here. Winging the video would yield short answers with little sustenance, and in the end I'd still end up writing a supplemental blog post. At least with writing I can take my time to better conjure up an adequate response. So let's get started!

Oh, but before I do, a quick word of warning. Some of the questions/answers below involve taking photos of the sun. If you do choose to take such shots, be warned that if you're not careful, you might not only cause irreparable damage to your camera, but to your eyes as well.

Question 1: What is the best way to use a lens hood? Once again, I tried to use one for a picture of a sunset but there was still a noticeable flare.

Answer 1: First of all, let me quickly talk about the purpose of a lens hood. For one, they are primarily designed to cut down extraneous light entering lens, which often has the effect of producing flare on the photo. Another way to understand this is that lenses are designed to take in light ideally coming from only particular angles, and if you try to visual this, think of a squashed pyramid of light going into the lens with the lens sitting at the tip of the pyramid. Still a little confused how that would look? No problem. After a little research I found a great link on the topic; the first one in the Web Resources section.

Hoods also offer some protection for the lens, especially the front element. Think about the time where you might have bumped your lens into a glass window; I know I've done that a few times at the zoo for example. But since I almost always have a hood attached to whatever lens I use, the plastic or metal shield easily handles the impact. Now to be clear, a hood does not make the lens invincible. Dropping your expensive piece of glass or giving it a heavy hit could cause damage to those fine components within the lens.

There are also a variety of lens hoods on the market. Often times, one will come with your lens, but they can also be purchased separately, to for example, replace one that has been damaged or went missing. Commonly, there are two major types: the petal and conical. I'm not going to rehash what is written in that excellent article mentioned earlier, but in a nutshell the petal design is generally more effective at blocking light rays that do nothing or are no good for photos verses the conical design hoods. Other reasons for purchasing a lens hood can include that you might already have a conical one but would rather go for a petal design to help further reduce chances of flare, or perhaps the existing hood is too shiny on the inside and one with a higher quality matte finish may improve the situation.

Now let's start addressing the question. In some cases, flaring might still occur even with a lens hood attached; simply said, they are not foolproof devices. When shooting photos of sunrises or sunsets with the sun framed within the image, a lens hood is next to useless (perhaps they help a little if there are other sources of light just outside the field of view of the lens; think street lights). Internal reflections (light bouncing between the lens elements and other internal components) often cause lens flares to occur. Some photographers like the effect, others don't; I personally don't mind, but it depends on the photo I happen to be taking. Now because I have not seen the photo from the person who submitted the question, perhaps I should have asked to see it, I have to generalize my comments a little. Since the sun is quite bright, even when nearing the horizon, there's not much one can do to completely eliminate flaring. Some lenses do handle it better, whether due to being prime lenses which are less susceptible to the effect or because they have high quality anti-reflective coatings (see that purplie-greenie hue on the lens?), or sometimes one can just luck out by being in such a position where the flare is barely visible.

My recommendation is to use a lens hood if you have one. It may not prevent flaring completely, but in many cases it will which can help improve your photos.

Question 2: I am still curious about multiple exposures.

Answer 2: I've been asked this question a while ago, but only now have I finally had the time to answer it (hence the "still curious" part). Stated simply, a multiple exposure is when two or more photos are taken to create a single photograph. In the days of film, there used to be some "magic" to this. To begin, you would take your first exposure and image would be physically there on the film. Then you would take the next exposure and of course the film would be exposed further, thus achieving some interesting effects.

However, taking multiple exposures using digital cameras is an interesting case. Many digital SLRs don't have the feature to perform such a thing, and those that do are limited to two photos (to the best of my knowledge I don't know of any that can do three or more exposures). So assuming the dSLR has a multiple exposure feature, you take your first shot like you would with film, but once the sensor has been exposed that image vanishes from the imaging chip. So where does the picture go? Well, right onto your memory card (or other storage medium). Here's where I feel the "magic" is lost. When you take the next exposure, and often the LCD screen will overlay the first image so you can compose the next photo more easily, the second exposure is again stored in memory and the brains of the camera combines the two shots into one. Yeay.

Really, a photographer could simply take as many photos as s/he wants and use an image editor like Photoshop to combine the images as s/he pleases. Frankly, I believe this option is open to far more creativity than being at the mercy of whatever capabilities the dSLR has.

Honestly, I've personally never been much of a fan of multiple exposure type shots, but there are a few that have caught my eye. In the Web Resources section below there is a link to an article on Shutterbug's website about this; I have to admit, I really like that dreamy appearance to the focus shifted shots.

Question 3: How do you take a picture of a sunset where the sun looks solid with sharp edges. Everything I have tried so far has yielded in a blurry blob of light (I am using a 50 mm lens with f16, high shutter speed and negative compensation).

Answer 3: Here again I should have asked to see some shots so I could target my response, but I do have some general pieces of advice to give. First off, as most people have already noticed, the sun is really, really bright, especially when it is high up in the sky. In cases like this, I actually don't recommend taking photos with the sun in the frame, especially with a telephoto lens (I would say anything greater than around 70mm). Remember when you used to be a kid and you could burn paper using a magnifying lens to focus the sun's light? Well, basically the same thing happens, but instead of being on paper, that bright spec of light is focused right onto your expensive sensor when you take a photo. And if you use the optical viewfinder, then keep in mind that the sun's light will be focused quite nicely onto your eyeball... it may be the last thing you see. Not cool.

Now does this mean you should never take a photo of the sun? Of course not. If the sun is very low to the horizon (sunrise/sunset) or if you're using a very wide angle lens, then usually this is not an issue. With the sun hanging low (below about 20 degrees), the earth's atmosphere filters out a lot of the sun's energy, in which case it's usually safer to use telephoto lenses. In addition, here's where an ND filter would come in handy, as that could further reduce the amount of light getting into the lens. And if the sun is above you head, then very wide angle lenses (less than 28mm), are generally ok to use; the sun is so tiny on the sensor that it lacks the energy to do much or any damage. But I will strongly recommend that if you are taking photos with the sun within your frame, make it quick, just to be on the safe side.

Back to the question. A few things come to mind as to why the sun appears as a blob versus a nice round circle with a hard edge. To start with and if you think this might be an issue, you could try manually focusing as on occasion the auto-focus system may not jive with the bright ball of mostly hydrogen in the frame. Next, using a 50mm lens means the sun will actually be quite tiny in the picture, and with the amount of glare around the sun, it may be challenging to get the sun to look hard edged. Thus, try shooting with a longer lens, like 100mm or greater (again, be careful and ensure the sun is nice and low to the horizon). Personally, nothing negative comes to my mind about using f/16, but you could open up the aperture to reduce the effects of diffraction. If you're not doing so already, I would also recommend shooting in manual mode, which will give you the ability to use whatever shutter speed you want. By the way, use a low ISO setting too (like 100); not only will this give you a cleaner image in terms of noise, but you may not need to use such fast shutter speeds as you would at higher ISO levels. The last thing that comes to mind at the moment is that perhaps the shutter speed was still to slow; depending on lighting conditions, the shutter speed might have to be around 1/1000 to 1/4000 of a second.

Lastly, I just want to add that if you are interested in solar photography (to clarify, that's taking photos of nothing but the sun --things like sun spots and prominences; not scenic landscape type photos), that's quite a different area and often involves getting very special filters (e.g. Baader solar filter) to block out as much as 99.9% of the sun's light and to capture specific wavelengths of light (e.g. H-Alpha). Also, this usually involves telescopes and very high magnifications of the sun, which again can permanently damage equipment and cause serious eye injuries and even blindness. If you don't know what you're doing here, don't try it.

Question 4: A little education on ND filters would be very appreciated.

Answer 4: Now I've already responded to this individual, but I thought I'd post my reply here as well. Episode 11 of my photography series is dedicated to the topic of neutral density filters, so for those of you also interested in finding out more about them, then by all means feel free to view the video. Now I've been meaning to do a show which discusses graduated ND filters specifically, but I have yet to find the time to work on it. Nonetheless, using graduated ND filters isn't very difficult and many issues related to "ordinary" ND filters apply such as quality of the material they are made from, color cast they might add to a photo, and how dark it is... well, how dark one half of the filter is.

Hopefully I've answered these questions well and they are helpful. As time permits, which has not been kind to me lately, I endeavor to finish that episode on taking photos of fast moving subjects. L8r!

Web Resources - Lens hoods - Lens hoods and flare - Multiple exposures