Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff

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08
Jul

Canon 5D – First Impressions

I finally dipped deep into the piggy bank to upgrade my digital SLR camera from my trusted steed, a relatively old Canon D60, to a brand-spankin’ new Canon 5D.  It’s difficult to compare these two cameras since 1) there have been several generations of Canon DSLRs between my two versions, 2) the D60 is an “enthusiast” camera – targeted at amateur photographers – whose successor is the current 30D and the 5D is a “pro-sumer” camera targeted at high-end amateurs and professionals looking for a smaller, lighter body, and 3) the 5D is a 12.8 megapixel camera with a full-frame sensor (more on this in a minute) and the D60 is a 6MP camera with a 1.6X focal length multiplier.  While these factors make a comparison inexact, at best, I’ll give it my best shot . . .

First, I had read that one drawback to the 5D over its DLSR siblings was that it was bigger and heavier – even compared to its newer siblings.  Since I ordered the camera sight unseen on the web, I was concerned about this – you can’t take good shots if you don’t have the camera with you, and you won’t have it with you if it’s too unwieldy (I’m an amateur photographer, not a pro – convenience is an important factor).  As I pulled the camera from its box, I was surprised that it didn’t seem larger or heavier than the D60 in any way.  When I put the two side-by-side, I could tell there was a difference, but by itself, I can’t really tell.

As with all gadgets, digital camera technology advances quickly.  The 5D includes Canon’s Digic II image processor which is WAY better than it’s predecessor.  The camera boots up quickly and takes shots very fast (3fps with a buffer that can handle 60 high-res JPEG or 17 RAW frames before having to write data to the compact flash card).  This is not as fast as some of the pro models, but is much faster than the D60 and is plenty fast even for photographing action shots.  Faster overall operation includes faster focusing, too.  It used to be that Canon digitals were known as slow-focusing cameras.  This just isn’t true any longer.  The camera locks up and shoots very quickly, even in low-light situations. 

Speaking of low-light situations, one of the reasons I had hesitated in buying the 5D was its lack of an on-board flash.  Those of you have tried to take quality pictures with the small flash on most cameras know that the little flash is frequently way too wimpy for long shots and much too hot and close to the lens for closeups.  So it’s impractical anyway, right?  Well, it might be a lame excuse for not buying a camera like this, but I like the convenience of that little flash.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found that the little flash (usually as a fill flash) made the difference between a good picture and a poor one.  The jury remains out on this factor.  I think I’ll miss having the little flash, but not enough to keep me from enjoying all the other advantages of this camera.

OK, enough of the minor stuff.  The big thing this camera brings to the photographer is a full-frame sensor.  What this means is that sensor is the same size, roughly, as a 35mm film frame (the actual sensor size is 36X24mm).  Ultimately, this means two things: 1) that all your lenses will produce the exact same field of view (FOV) as a 35mm film camera – this is what they were designed for and, 2) the larger image sensor makes more room for pixel locations without cramming them closer together (see my post, Compact Digital Cameras – ISO, Focal Length, Resolution and Disappointment for more information on this).

With most digital cameras, the sensor is smaller than 35mm.  So, as the image gets mapped to the smaller sensor through the lens, it is cropped, showing less of the image than was intended when the lens was matched to 35mm film.  In the case of the 5D, the resulting image is 1.6 times larger than the image as shot with the D60.  In physical terms, this means that to get the same shot, similarly framed with each camera, the photographer would have to move 1.6X further away from the subject with the D60 than he/she would with the 5D.

This can be seen in the images below.  Both of these shots were taken with the same lens (17–24mm f2.8 zoom set at its shortest focal length) from the same position.  The image from the 5D looks substantially wider than the image from the D60 as a result of the larger sensor.

Canon D60

Canon 5D

Focal Length 17mm

Focal Length 17mm

I’ve often looked at this focal length multiplier as an advantage.  My 200mm lens became a 320mm lens, allowing me to shoot further away.  The downside is pretty tough, though.  It’s almost impossible to shoot close up.  Even with my widest angle lens I couldn’t get much of a FOV.  The 1.6 multiplier made my widest angle lens (17mm) an equivalent of a 27mm lens.  In the end, I find that having the FOV as I expect is much more comforting and helps me frame better shots.  Of course, I’m going to have to use my extenders more now to increase the focal length of my lenses for those shots from far away.

Another, not so positive, effect of the bigger image sensor is that it requires better lenses to take good looking pictures – especially at wide angles.  Of course, this is no different than it was for 35mm film.  The reason for this is simply that the larger sensor can see more, including the light coming from the edges of the lens and shutter.  By its very nature, light will bend around edges, distorting the images being projected on the sensor.  This means that this distortion is also captured by the edges of the sensor.

This can be seen in the 5D image, above.  Notice how the corners show a sort of zoomed effect with the image appearing squeezed into the corners and projected to the middle of the picture.  This lens distortion happens only with wide angle lenses, but is clearly noticeable at even 17mm.  Using the same zoom lens at even 20mm virtually eliminates this distortion.  I’ve also read that vignetting (dark areas in the corners of the image) is a problem with wide angle lenses at small aperture settings.  I have yet to see this, but I’m on the lookout for it. 

All of this sounds terribly negative.  I don’t mean it this way.  While I was surprised about the lens distortion at wide angle settings, I expect a fish-eye effect at  such settings.  I can easily crop it out or fix the perspective in Photoshop (CS2 makes this very easy, well . . . as easy as anything else in Photoshop).  Even with cropping, I still get a much larger FOV than I would with a smaller sensor.

Pixel count is often used to compare digital cameras.  For the most part, this is only one of many factors that should be used when making this comparison.  Even a 6MP camera can take high resolution images worthy of a 8.5X10” print.  Think about it.  A 6MP image (usually around 3,000X2,000 pixels) can generate a 10X6.7” print at 300dpi.  At 250dpi, still a more than reasonable printing resolution, the same image can produce a 12X8” print.  What this means is that a current 6–8MP camera is all you need for high resolution large prints.

What these numbers don’t factor in is that in today’s digital workflow, one often needs or wants to crop their image.  The examples above all require that the full image as shot be used in the print to get a high enough resolution to make the print look good.  If it is cropped, there will not be enough pixels left to get the needed resolution for relatively large prints.  The 5D’s 12.8MP resolution (this higher resolution is not unique to the 5D, of course) gives you plenty of room for cropping an image and still getting the high resolution needed for the print.  In fact, there’s plenty there to do high-res prints that are even much larger.  Since I tend to work more on my photos on the computer than through the lens of the camera, this is great for me.  I can edit away a lot of the image without having to consider what resolution I’m going to print at.

Of course, the 5D introduces a bunch of other small but important improvements, too, that make the camera easier to access and more fun to use.  These include more shooting mode information always visible on the LCD on top of the camera; being able to change the ISO setting without hunting through menus; a bigger display on the back of the camera to view pix, menus and picture information; 9 auto-focus points plus a bunch of “hidden” ones; simultaneous RAW + JPEG image capture; sRGB and Adobe 1998 profiles; etc.  For more info, check out the great review at dpreview.com.

I like this camera a lot.  The full-frame sensor is a big deal and I’m enjoying using my lenses as I think they should be used.  I also really like the higher resolution.  if I were a better photographer, I might not need it as much, but since I’m a Photoshop junkie whose not willing to give up his fix just yet, the extra pixels are my pal.  If you’re in the market for an upgrade or you’re thinking of making the leap from a consumer-oriented camera to a pro-sumer or professional camera, I’d highly recommend it. 

 July 8th, 2006  
 Will  
 Photography  
   
 7 Comments
11
Jun

Gadget Review – Canon SD600 Compact Digital Camera

Pros
– Small
– Fast
– Reasonable pictures for small prints
– Big LCD
Cons
– No aperture size or shutter speed controls
– Grainy/noisy pictures for large prints
– Small color saturation variance with ISO setting

While making plans to cycle through Holland, I decided it was time to upgrade my old compact digital camera (Canon S400) with a newer version.  The goals I had in the upgrade were pretty straightforward:

  • I had to bump up to at least 6 megapixels in resolution
  • The camera had to fit easily in my cycling jersey without bouncing around
  • The camera had to have a built-in flash
  • If possible, I wanted to move up from the 3X optical zoom in the S400 to 4X (digital zoom is useless, IMO)

This list is pretty much in order of my priorities as well.  I looked at the range of compacts available from the usual suspects – Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Casio, Kodak, etc.  I’m a bit of a Canon bigot, though, so I really ended up focused on Canon’s extensive line of compact digitals.

Earlier this year, Canon replaced their lineup of compact digitals with three new cameras:  the SD600, SD630 and SD700is.  All of these cameras use a 6.2 megapixel, 1/2.5” image sensor and the company’s Digic II image processing chip.  Features and function differ from there.

SD600 SD630 SD700is
Body Size (mm) 86X54X22 90X57X20 90X57X26
Optical Zoom 3X 3X 4X
LCD (inches) 2.5 3.0 2.5
Focal Length (mm) 35-105 35-105 35-140
Aperture f2.8-f4.9 f2.8-f4.9 f2.8-f5.5

Additionally, the 700is comes with image stabilization (thus the “is” moniker).  This means that the camera compensates for slight vibration that might otherwise blur pictures.  This is particularly helpful in low light situations where the shutter speed is too slow to accurately capture the image.

I chose the SD600 because it met the first three of my four criteria.  I hated to give up on the 4X zoom offered by the SD700is, but camera size was much more important to me.  Also, since most of my shooting with this camera is outdoors, the image stabilization (with its additional cost) was not worthwhile.

The first thing you notice about the SD600 is the size of its LCD.  Compared with previous generations of cameras, a 2.5” screen looks huge.  This is good because the viewfinder is just there for show – it’s so small that you could go blind looking through it.  Even though I like viewing my shots through the viewfinder, I end up framing them with the LCD instead.  The pictures on the screen are bright and clear.  I have no problem seeing them even in the brightest of light.  I also like all the on-screen information available about the shot – all EXIF data and a histogram are available.

One of the reasons that the display looks so large is that the body is so small.  There are smaller cameras out there (although there are not many smaller zoom cameras), but this one is just puny.  It easily fits in my hand and pocket.  The fit and finish are terrific and the buttons are reasonable in size and location to get the job done.

The camera is fast.  The well-proven Digic II processor works its magic with virtually instantaneous startup and autofocus lock times.  I can no longer blame the camera for missing a shot – it works very quickly.

On the downside, I think that image saturation appears to change with ISO settings (for more on this, see my previous post).  Lower ISO settings result in more color saturation and higher settings in lower saturation, making the images look a tad washed out.  Neither of these is a huge problem, though, and they will probably not even be noticed by the average point-n-shoot camera user.  In any event, they certainly can be compensated for in post-processing if desired.

Additionally, the images produced by the camera are a bit grainy/noisy (observed as dots making up the picture rather than a smooth, continuous image).  This is a result of the small image sensor.  There is no problem if you’re targeting small prints – 3X5 or even 4X7 – but if you think you’re going to print in 8X10 or even larger, the grain will become a noticeable factor.

Perhaps the biggest negative of the camera, although certainly not a surprise, is that there are very few manual controls.  While there is a “manual” setting that allows you to specify exposure compensation and white balance, there is no facility for aperture or shutter priority shooting.  The camera always has automatic control over these variables.  Of course, this is meant to be a fully automatic camera and this is a reasonable tradeoff for its diminutive size.

The bottom line: the SD600 is a small, fast and easy to use camera that takes reasonable shots (good shots for a point-n-shoot).  It is definitely a back-up camera or one for a specific purpose, though.  If you like taking good pictures, you’ll want to be using a camera with a larger image sensor and, perhaps, better control over aperture size and/or shutter speed.

See pictures taken with the SD600 here.

 June 11th, 2006  
 Will  
 Photography  
   
 2 Comments
06
Jun

Compact Digital Cameras – ISO, Focal Length, Resolution and Disappointment

Photography is one of my six million hobbies, but sometimes it gets more than its fair share of my time and attention. With no real artistic talent, I focus my photographic energies on the bits and bytes of creating passable digital images.

While my tool of choice is a digital SLR (right now a several generations old and soon to be replaced Canon D60), I often try to mix photography with another hobby/activity, cycling. Of course, it’s difficult to carry an SLR body and lenses while riding, so I pack a compact digital camera when I’m on the road. The problem that this creates is that the more I see in the images produced by digital cameras and the more I understand about what to expect from them, the more disappointed I am with the images captured by compact digital cameras.

For sure, there are always going to be tradeoffs simply by virtue of the size difference between an SLR and a compact. The manifestations of these tradeoffs, however, have a much greater impact on the images produced than most people believe. To be more specific, the key problems of a compact that effect image quality and intent are the compact’s seemingly limitless depth of field (DoF), the amount of digital noise (or grain for those of you still using film terminology), and softness (slight blurriness) that can be seen in captured images.

Soft Images

Of these problems, softness is the least related to the application of digital technology in the camera. While all digital cameras produce somewhat soft images, it’s the size of compact cameras (digital or film) that cause even softer pictures to be produced. This is an artifact of the size of the lens. Generally speaking, the smaller the camera, the smaller its lens and the smaller the diameter of the lens, the more that light diffracts around the border of the lens. It’s just what light wants to do.  The smaller the aperture, the more diffraction and the more light gets deviated from hitting the sensor (or film) perpendicular to its plane.

This is something to consider when buying a compact camera. Always look for the largest diameter lens available when you have a choice (e.g. if you can’t decide between two cameras, you may want to use the size of the lens to help make your choice). It’s also something to consider when you’re shooting pictures. In general, you want to keep the aperture of the lens as wide as possible (letting in the most light) by selecting the lowest f-number that works for a shot. As many compact cameras become increasingly automatic, though, this is often not a choice.

Image softness is certainly not a major problem and it’s one that’s somewhat fixable by post-processing your pictures in photo editing software – something that wasn’t an easy option with film.  If you’ve always shot with a compact, you’re unlikely to see any major difference in softness with a digital compact.  If you’re looking at improving your pictures, though, keep in mind that this is an important factor in your final result.

Depth of Field

You may consider Depth of Field an opportunity rather than a problem.  The greater the DoF, the more of the foreground and background of the image you take will be in focus.  If you’re into taking sweeping panoramas or you like taking shots where subjects are scattered throughout your image, you may love the fact that a compact gives you an incredible amount of DoF in virtually every shot you take – almost everything is always in focus. Similarly, if you take action pictures with your subject moving closer to you or further away, big DoF is what you want.  If, however, you want to make your subject stand out, there’s nothing quite like playing with the DoF of the image to capture an eye-popping photo.

In the digital world, the DoF is significantly affected by the size of the image sensor.   At any given aperture opening of the lens (the setting for how much light enters through the lens), DoF is inversely proportional to the image sensor’s diagonal dimension (all other things being equal including focal length).  So, a compact digital camera with a 10mm sensor will have almost three stops more DoF than an SLR with a 27mm sensor at the same aperture setting.  Wow, that’s a mouthful!

What this means is that a camera with a bigger sensor will have less DoF at the same aperture setting.  Of course, you can change the aperture setting to balance things.  This is much easier to do on an SLR than on a compact.

There’s some saying about the value of pictures over words, so lets try this in photos.  The pictures below are taken with two digital cameras – one compact and one SLR.  Both cameras have a resolution of 6 megapixels – virtually identical resolutions (slightly different aspect ratios, though – the compact is 2816X2112 and the SLR is 3072X2048).  The pictures are taken at very similar focal lengths and aperture settings and identical ISO settings.

6MP Compact

6MP D-SLR

Full Image at f4.9 ISO 100

Full Image at f4.5 ISO 100

Zoomed Image – More DoF

Zoomed Image – Less DoF

The zoomed area is outlined in black in the original picture.  You can see that at a very similar crop, the DoF of the compact is far better than that of the SLR.  What you’re seeing is the difference in the sensor size.  Remember, that the sensors on these cameras are the same resolution, but the physical sizes of the sensors are different.

Remember, you may not even think of this as a deficiency in your compact.  For those who want to be more artistic, however, you’ll find it’s very difficult to do with a compact camera because of it’s virtually non-adjustable DoF.

Noise/Grain

Somewhat harder to see in the pictures above is the how much more grainy or noisy the image from the compact is.  With film, the ISO rating represented the sensitivity of the film to light.  The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the film was.  If you were going to shoot in the dark, you would shoot with high-ISO film.  ISO 400 was very common for indoor shots.  For shooting in the daylight, a lower ISO film was desired.  Perhaps ISO 100.

In the digital world, the sensitivity of the sensor is electronically fixed.  When you use a higher ISO setting, though, amplifiers increase the gain of the image sensor.  Since there is no additional data, the increased gain results in more noise in the picture.  As you can see above and below, at certain resolutions, this is not a problem (note the non-zoomed pictures), but as the picture detail becomes more apparent, like when printing an image in a larger format, the grain becomes quite visible.

The pictures below were shot at ISO 400, a fairly normal medium light, indoor setting.  The full pictures don’t look too bad, but the zoomed pictures show the difference in grain produced by the smaller sensor in the compact digital and the larger sensor in the SLR.  Again, these pictures are at the same resolution.  The smaller sensor creates more noise because the pixels of the sensor are much closer together.  If the signal in one pixel is amplified, it tends to interfere, electronically, with its adjacent pixel sites.  This is what causes noise.  A larger sensor has its pixels further apart and, therefore, each pixel interferes with its adjacent pixels less.

One thing to keep in mind here is that digital image sensors have “native” ISO levels.  That means that the sensor is constructed to have a certain sensitivity to light.  Today, almost all sensors have a native ISO setting of between 100 and 200.  This means that when the ISO setting of the camera is adjusted to a level higher than this, amplification is going to take place and, therefore, there’s going to be noise in the image.  As we can see, the extent of that noise depends greatly on the size of the sensor.

6MP Compact

6MP D-SLR

Full Image at f4.9 ISO 400

Full Image at f4.5 ISO 400

Zoomed Image – More Noise/Grain

Zoomed Image – Less Noise/Grain

This has even a more profound effect at ISO settings of 800 or higher.  Below you see the difference between the two cameras at an ISO setting of 800.

 

6MP Compact

6MP D-SLR

Full Image at f4.9 ISO 800

Full Image at f4.5 ISO 800

Zoomed Image – Loads More Noise/Grain

Zoomed Image – Less Noise/Grain

If you end up printing pictures in a 3X5 format, you may never see the problem.  If you print in larger sizes, however, or view the pictures at a reasonable size on your monitor, the problem becomes very apparent.

Compact cameras have there place and come in very handy.  Their use comes with several trade-offs, though.  Some of these issues can be minimized if you know what is going on.  First, when looking for a compact, try to find one with a larger sensor.  There are many sensor sizes and while there is a some correlation between the size of the camera’s body and the size of its sensor, some manufacturers are putting larger sensors in small camera bodies.  Also during the buying process, make sure that you select a camera with a wider lens diameter.  Each manufacturer has a different philosophy here, so you will be able to find some with larger lenses.

Once you choose your new photographic weapon, consider the choices you can make with camera settings and lighting when you shoot pictures.  Try shooting at the widest aperture possible; maximizing the light you have available to take your shot; and forcing the camera to use lower ISO settings (assuming you have enough light).  Thinking about these adjustments before you take your shot can have a very big positive impact on the quality of the images you produce.

Of course, if you’re not into it.  Switch the camera to its fully-automatic mode and fire away.  You’ll still have a blast looking at the images with family and friends.

 June 6th, 2006  
 Will  
 Photography  
   
 0 Comment
03
Apr

Apple Aperture

Last week I attended a
seminar put on by Apple and Canon on Apple’s new Aperture product.  Targeted
at professional photographers, but clearly usable by advanced amateurs,
Aperture appears to have the following functional goals:

  • Handling of RAW files (non-compressed or
    processed pictures)
  • Loads of printing options
  • Project management
  • Non-destructive image processing

I have not used it yet, but
I now have had several detailed demos that give me a pretty good feel for what
it is.  At the seminar, I also had the
chance to sit among many professional photographers and got their feedback. 

First, this is not a
replacement for Photoshop.  In no way is
Aperture an editor.  There are no layers,
no selections, no fills, no funky filters, no transformations, none of
that.  If you want to do any “digital
lying,” as my wife likes to call it, you need to stick with Photoshop or
similar to do that editing.  Photoshop
can be easily called from within Aperture, although you lose some of the
incremental change handling (see below) as a result.

You can use Aperture,
however, to adjust hue, contrast, brightness, saturation, sharpening and
exposure.  Unlike Photoshop, you can only
apply these changes to the entire image. 
If you’ve gotten used to futzing with images in an editor, Aperture
won’t become a standalone tool for you. 

This is a big problem for
many because a Universal Photoshop app (runs on both PowerPC and Intel-based
Macs) won’t be available for a while. 
That means that if you’ve already upgraded, or intend to upgrade to the
latest generation of machines soon, you may find yourself stranded without an
editor.

Of course, you can make most
of the adjustments that are available in Aperture in Photoshop already.  So why add another tool to your already
complicated workflow?  To me, it comes
down to two reasons, although only you can judge whether the $500 investment
and the added tool in your process makes sense. 

  1. RAW files are big.  They can be huge.  Think about 12.5Mp at 16-bits/channel
    with three channels uncompressed. 
    Like I said, BIG.  In order
    to maintain your original in an editor, the first thing you do is make a
    copy of the file.  Now you have two
    big files on disk.  Then you add
    layers and adjustments and perhaps another copy or two along the way.  Soon, one edited picture is taking up
    some real disk space (even in government terms).  Aperture keeps all changes to photos as
    increments which take up a very small amount of space.  At any time, you can undo the changes
    and get back to the original.  The
    original is actually never changed, so changes are completely
    non-destructive.
  2. Printing. 
    Apple has done a superb job at configuring printing options
    including producing beautiful web pages. 
    There is a light table feature in which you can layout your photos
    any way you’d like on virtually any size paper you’d like before printing.  Very nice and very easy to use.

Aperture’s handling of RAW
files is nice and its ability to do some easy categorizing and project management
for large groups of files is good, but these features are not unique to
Aperture and there are far less expensive tools than Aperture that perform
these tasks well. 

Aperture also has some nice
facilities for comparing pictures to decide which one better meets the goals of
the shot.  They use a virtual loop that
is a nice tool to compare detail, but it’s a gimmick that makes up for the fact
that Aperture really can’t do a lot of variable zooming – strange.

In the end, it seems like
Aperture would be an excellent plug-in for Photoshop.  At the very least, editing features need to
be combined with the processing features of Aperture to make a complete,
next-generation tool. 

Aperture will soon have
competition.  With Adobe’s acquisition of
Macromedia, they got a new tool called Lightroom that is available as a beta now from Adobe Labs.  Unlike
Aperture, Lightroom will also be available on Windows when it is released.

Aperture is beautiful and
fast but, in my opinion, doesn’t do enough to add to an already complicated
workflow – today.  Storing incremental
changes and reducing storage requirements for shots, especially if you take
thousands, is a big problem that needs to be addressed, though.  Either editors like Photoshop will have to
adopt this functionality or tools like Aperture and Lightroom will start to add
editing functionality and will take over.

 April 3rd, 2006  
 Will  
 Photography, Software  
   
 0 Comment