Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Great Starter dSLR: Canon 20D for $330!

If you missed it (because I typed in the wrong date and buried it), check out my last post, My Next Camera... a 5D?

I was searching through B&H the other day (just gained affiliation with them -- they are an awesome site for new and used equipment, some of the best prices and selection around) and I noticed something...

The used Canon 20D has dropped in price significantly.

This is a big deal. A year ago when I bought my 20D (my review) it was the second best prosumer Canon model available and commanded a price of $600-$650. Now, you can get a used 20D at B&H for $330. That's a significant discount (it is noted as a 'Back to School' special), but it appears the price of 20Ds has plummetted in the past year since the 40D and 50D have entered the market.

(Note: I'm not sure if the link above will work for very long. But, you can check current 20D prices by going to B&H, selecting Used Products in the search type box, and entering Canon 20D in the search area.)

The reason this is so exciting is because the 20D is the perfect digital SLR for entering the Canon line. For $400, you can get a great body with a good starter lens (I recommend a Canon 50mm f/1.8 ($90 new, $60 used) or even the kit lens ($50 used)) which is perfect for a photography student or budding photo enthusiast. This is the best deal I've ever seen on a starter kit, and the real difference (in terms of pictures) between the 20D and top of the line 50D is very, very slim. Yet, the difference between the 20D and 10D (or Digital Rebels) is HUGE: the 20D gives you much better ergonomics than the Digital Rebel series (if you have normal size hands; small handed people might like the Digital Rebel series better), and major improvements over the 10D like instant startup, ability to mount EF-S lenses (a deal-breaker right there, honestly), and better low light performance.

The 20D has the best value of any of the Canon dSLRs. There's no contest.

I kind of wish I'd made this post BEFORE Christmas because I suspect it might have helped out a few parents. But, better late than never.

If you are interested in a used 20D, B&H is a great place to go for used bodies. You also may be able to get a good deal on a body and some lenses on eBay -- here's the current listing of 20D's:

Sunday, December 28, 2008

My Next Camera... a 5D?

Welcome to all of you who got cameras for Christmas and are starting to look for accessories!

I have to admit, I'm a bit of a scrooge (grinch?) when it comes to Christmas. I'm not really sure why, but it just seems like the holidays are too much work for the fun -- and that's even though my wife does most of the holiday prep work!

This year it felt like I was the president of the AV club, from twenty+ hours of work on a photography project (more on that later once the gifts go out), kid portrait shoots and editing, and videotaping the kids in the Christmas Eve service (which isn't edited yet!). I don't know why it bothers me so much -- I generally enjoy the work and editing, but people saw me with a tripod and automatically assume I know what I'm doing. At least four people asked me for a copy of the service which is a bit... disconcerting... because my rig (and experience) isn't great and I hope they aren't expecting something great.

Maybe I'm just too much of a perfectionist, but I hate handing out anything that doesn't reach a high standard. Don't get me wrong, I think I did a decent job, but my goal was good home videos, if you know what I mean.

* * * * *

I didn't really get much for Christmas, which is honestly to be expected now that I'm older. I know I'm hard to buy for, and when it comes to things like photography equipment, I'm pretty particular and like to pick things out myself.

Actually, if I'm honest, sometimes I enjoy picking out the equipment more than using the equipment once I get it. There's just something I love about researching camera stuff, savoring the choices, planning how to get a good price, etc.

Yeah, I know it is dumb.

Santa did bring me a new 4GB CF card. I heard he got it for $15 after a rebate. Apparently memory of all types is dropping in price, so it's a good time to buy!

* * * * *

Gear-lust brings me to the point of this post. Actually, this post has been festering (and yes, I really said 'festering') for about three months. It all started when I heard that the new Canon 5D Mark II was slated to come out this fall. Of course, in my gear-lust, my first thought wasn't "Wow, I want to get a 5D Mark II," it was "I bet used 5Ds are going to drop precipitously in price -- I should get one of those!"

Yeah, I'm a little weird. I realize that. But I need to dream about stuff that's attainable. Not dream about a $3K camera that I can't afford.

Like most amateurs (or pros with cashflow problems), I've been planning which camera I'd get next for quite a while. For the longest time I was lusting after the 40D or 50D. Then, I realized that the extra resolution of the 50D was pretty much past the resolving limit of even the best lenses (in a crop sensor, my research tells me you don't really need to go beyond 12 MP before you bang into the limits of lenses -- see DPReview assessment). Sure, I'd still love a 50D (the VGA screen is stunning, I have to say), but I'd probably get a used/refurb 40D if I was to buy right now.

To be realistic, though, there's very little I could do with a 50D that I can't do with my 20D. Ultimately, most of my problems in photography relate to what I put in front of the lens (and how I light that) than anything on the camera.

I try to keep that in mind, but that doesn't quench the desire.

I think photography enthusiasts fall into two camps: those who are in love with the art and those who are in love with the science. I definitely fall into the latter camp.

But, there is a significant difference between a full frame camera like the 5D and APS-C frame cameras like the 50D. A larger image sensor means better wide angle, better resolving power*, and better low-noise performance. I'd like all of those things. In fact, I think all of those things would let me get high quality shots in spots I can't right now.

Good quality using available light indoors. Higher resolution suitable for stock. Experiments in extreme wide angle. Bumping the resolution of all my full frame lenses instantly!

Which is why I'm shooting for a used 5D next. Granted, it will be probably half a year before I can even consider it, but the price should continue to drop while 5Ds are dumped into the used market as the pros and rich amateurs upgrade.

Ken Rockwell predicted this predicted this back in September -- at the time, used 5D bodies were going for about $1,500. Since then I've been tracking the used price of 5Ds on eBay -- these prices represent the lower price-point for working cameras (which assumes you'll spend a little while bidding):
  • 9/20/08: $1,400 (new for $1900ish)
  • 10/8/08: $1,350
  • 11/24/08: $1,200
  • 12/26/08: $1,050 (a few went for lower than $1,000, but most are in the $1,100 range)
As of this writing, B&H has new 5Ds for only $700 less than the 5D Mark IIs ($2,700 on 12/26/08). That's not a very significant discount. Amazon still has a pretty high price on the 5D Mark IIs, but the 5D is a little lower and a 50D goes for $1,070 on Amazon.

Between a 50D and 5D, I'd go for the 5D almost every time, unless I needed the reach for wildlife or sports.

Of course, I'm not in a position to buy anything right now, and if I was, I'd be buying lenses or accessories because I need them more and they're less expensive. Specifically, I still want a used super-telephoto, a macro lens with autofocus, and a flash that supports E-TTL.

Still, it is nice to dream. And maybe, just maybe, once we have more money I can find a used 5D for a good price.

* * * * *

* Here's a little appendix on the resolving power thing:

From the experimental data, it appears 12 MP is about the limit of even the best lenses for the APS-C form factor. That means it is pointless to go beyond 12 MP -- sure, you have more pixels, but each means less. Even looking at that 12 MP image at 100% resolution, you'll see less detail and sharpness than a 6 MP sensor.

Extending this to full frame (see sensor size comparison; full frame is approximately 2.6 times larger than APS-C) this means the theoretical resolving limit of a full frame camera will be about 31 MP. Actually, I suspect it might be a touch less since most lenses have less resolving power at the edges of the frame. Either way, the 5D's 12 MP is well below that limit and that means each pixel means a lot -- a 5D should give a noticeably sharper image at 100% crop than the 40D even though the 40D has slightly fewer pixels.

The 5D Mark II at 21 MP is nearing that theoretical limit, but I think it is safe to say each of those pixels will mean a lot if you have a good lens. In both lines though, continuing to push the MP would be pretty stupid. I'm hoping camera makers will instead shift to pushing dynamic range, where I think a LOT of improvements can be made by rearranging sensors on the chip and using multiple sensitivity pixels.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Post-Gig Reflections

Wow... Started this post soon after the gig and then promptly put it on the backburner for almost a month...

While I don't want to share too much, I figured I'd say a few things about last Saturday's job. Overall, I'd say it went well and I learned a lot, but I wasn't so happy with the candids. After I got home (pretty late) and knocked the 200 or so images down to around 90, I was a little happier, but the shots were far from perfect.

Before I talk much more about the candids (and share a few shots, thanks to the help of Mr. Pixelator) let me mention a few of the random things I learned:

  1. Give forty-year-old affluent women a reason (70's theme party) and they'll dress in very short skirts and very high heels.
  2. High-heeled shoes punch through seamless like nobody's business when that seamless is on carpet. Bring some plywood if the venue doesn't have hardwood floors.
  3. Novatron strobe kits are pretty nice and surprisingly inexpensive if you can find a set used on eBay. I learned the hard way that the setup dumps power to all lights at once, so if you turn one light on or off, the others will change intensity.
  4. Don't try to take pictures during dinner service. I quickly quit after I almost backed into a waiter laiden with four platters!
  5. Dealing with drunk people can be a bit of a challenge.

Shooting the candids, I was using my Canon 20D with a neutered Nikon SB-20 (the horror!) in auto mode. As usual, I was shooting about a stop down than the SB-20's recommendation because the auto mode tends to make it a little hot for my taste. That also could be because I didn't set the zoom control to the appropriate setting (I believe normal), which I only thought about later. Unusually, I was shooting JPEG in case I needed to deliver the images as soon as I was done (I didn't). Normally for low-light things I like to shoot RAW. Hell, I usually shoot RAW for everything!

The venue, shown at the start of this post (sans-flash) was your typical dark dance-floor type of room. Half had a standard (8 foot?) white ceiling while the other half, over the dance floor, had a 14 foot (white) ceiling. Pretty good bounce flash conditions, honestly.

To start out, I set the SB-20 to the lowest output at ISO 400 (f/4), the camera to f/5.6 in aperture priority, the flash bouncing up at 45 degrees, and an index card folded in the handy bounce card holder at the top of the SB-20. Actually, I pretty much kept the settings on this all night, and the ambient (which I had set to a stop down) provided shutter speeds between 1/2th and 1/30th. Here's the dance floor with a little bounce flash:

I learned pretty quickly that I needed to keep the bounce flash 90 degrees up because at 45 degrees it directly lit the top of the heads of the tall guys:

I also had to take care to not shake the camera too much with the slow shutter speeds. Some shake I liked, since the flash froze the foreground pretty well, but too much could be excessive (or it makes the party look a little too good).

I also got a lot of use out of the hail-mary, hold-the-camera-up-and-shoot-down type of shots. I personally liked how they look, but they did take some experimentation:

Overall, I was pretty happy with the SB-20 and the settings. It really made things pretty effortless, and it was very intuitive to work in terms of a consistent auto mode with the ambient set a stop or two down. The only, major downside was the lack of TTL metering, which made it difficult to get any usable shots when shooting a longer distance or with something nearby in the foreground:

For instance, in that shot I tried to get the couple talking, but the flash didn't have quite the oompf. One of the things on my list of equipment for the future is a 430EX or 580EX. But, for now, the SB-20 works pretty well for a fraction of the price.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Lighting Daisies

I'll make this quick because I'm supposed to be in bed already.

There's a lot of good shows on TV -- I've especially enjoyed Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, The Shield, The Cleaner, and, believe it or not, Pushing Daisies.

Yes, Pushing Daisies.

My wife thinks it's dumb, but for some reason I keep coming back. A lot of it is just the look and feel of it... the style of it.

And I can learn a lot about lighting from it.

Most shows require quite a bit of realism but the fantasy-style of Pushing Daisies lets them use some unconventional and dramatic lighting. Take the episode I watched tonight ("Comfort Food") -- near the end, Olive (Kristin Chenoweth) went into a little music video/song of unrequited love. Aside from the quality of her singing (she's surprisingly talented -- I say surprisingly because I don't expect most TV stars to be able to sing very well), the really cool thing was a sequence of lighting changes. So cool, in fact, I took ten minutes and went back and reconstructed the lighting in each shot.

I'll let you do your own reconstruction -- many of these lighting changes happened real-time as one set faded down and another set faded up. For instance:

Pushing Daisies uses such lush and saturated lighting and costumes that you can't help but be impressed. These screen caps don't quite do it justice and it really is better to see the whole sequence animated. (edit: which I've provided at the top of the page with a YouTube clip)

Plus, there was a lot of natural framing and restriction of light.

If you have the time, take a minute or two to break down the lighting on each shot. I've spotted cookies, a snoot or grid, backlighting, frontlighting, sidelighting, pretty much everything in this two minute segment of footage.

A great little learning experience would be to try to imitate a lot of these effects. Get an actor or two, set up a few scenes, and then shoot them to the best of your ability. Maybe I'll try it sometime; I know I'd learn a lot!

Photography for Free

David Hobby posted Four Reasons to Consider Working for Free over at Strobist and things have really blown up around the photo-web-o-sphere (yes, I made that up) on free work. Here's a quick summary types of views I've been reading:

  • David Hobby: "I have personal projects I'm interested in, but can never bill for. I'm going to start doing some personal work and hope it evolves into something paid down the road."
  • Many pros in comments: "This is not a new idea. Photographers have been doing personal projects for years."
  • Many amateurs in the comments: "Hurray! Thanks for motivating me to get off my ass and find a personal project or two."
  • Chase Jarvis: "Sign me up!"
  • Sportshooter people: "It's easy to take on personal projects if you have a secure income of over $100K a year. The rest of us can't!" or "This is just a ploy for traffic!"
  • Matt Brown: "People willing to do my job for free are making it hard for me to make a living!"
  • John Harrington (author of Best Business Practices for Photographers) has always been sending the message: "Amateur photographers willing to undersell their work are hurting the rest of us!"
  • Economists: "If the opportunity cost of the time needed for the project is larger than the expected future income, don't do it!"
So, here's my take which is heavily based on simple economics.

FYI, my situation is that of a graduate student trying to write his dissertation who makes $20-$30 an hour from a research assistantship and private tutoring outside school.

I've actually thought about Hobby's message before this -- if I can't get paid for the photography I'm interested in, should I do it anyway for the enjoyment and possibly as a way to get more business like that in the future? Of course, for me, a lot of the trouble is really knowing what sort of photography I'm interested in. More appropriately, I know what I'm not interested in -- endless family portraits or wedding shoots -- but I haven't really found what I really like.

A book I borrowed from the library by John Hedgecoe (Photographing People) touched on this topic too; Hedgecoe mentions that he's done a lot of personal projects in long-term portraiture which he's derived a lot of enjoyment and learning from. After reading the book, I decided I'd refocus on certain aspects of photography once my time freed up, including approaching others for non-paying (but portfolio-building) jobs that'd I could never get commercially.

The key is having the time (and money) to do so.

* * * * *

The photography world is under quite a bit of strain right now. With digital camera technology dropping prices enough that almost anyone who is interested can go out and make decent pictures, photography enthusiasts are able to (almost) compete with the pros. Sure, there's some obvious equipment barriers to entry and definitely some differences in quality between the amateurs and pros, but those differences are shrinking to the point where a dedicated amateur who's willing to work for free can take jobs from a pro because the difference in price outweighs the difference in quality.

This just isn't happening in a lot of other occupations. In many occupations, people just aren't willing to do the work for free (jobs of sanitation workers will never be taken by amateurs, for example). In other occupations, the difference in skill is so great that only a select few are able to reach the pro level (like pro sports).

How ever much I want it and work on it, I'll never be a good enough hockey player to even manage the equipment of the San Jose Sharks. Even the lowliest person from the bench would be able to skate circles (literally) around me. But give me a credential, rent me some equipment, and give me a few games of practice and I should be able to get some shots of that same hockey game which are worth posting on the web. Sure, I won't be the next Mark Rebilas, but they'd probably be good enough to warrant the price difference for low-end outlets. If you want evidence, just look at the results of the top amateurs on Sportsshooter.

It is no wonder pro photographers are so threatened by the amateurs. And my prediction is that it is only going to get worse.

* * * * *

Which brings me back to my original point.

The main reason I'm not doing more shooting for free right now is the opportunity cost. If I spend four hours on a Saturday shooting I could be missing out on a few hours of billable tutoring time. I just need the money more than I need the photography experience. Even worse, I've been so busy lately (tonight is the first night all week I'll be home for dinner) that time with my family has pretty decent value to me, definitely more than any photography experience and enjoyment I could gain.

Given the time, yes, I will start more personal projects. I definitely see where Hobby is coming from and I don't think this was just a ploy to get Strobist a bagillion hits (although I'm sure he's not upset about more traffic). He has the time and is financially secure, so why not? When I have more time and financial security, I'm going to do the same and if I want to do a project but can't get paid for it, I'll just do it for free.

The more important issue (which Hobby has definitely rubbed some salt into wounds on) is the constant pressure of amateurs on pro photographers. That's only going to get worse and pros need to compensate by moving into areas that are more sheltered where their superior abilities and experience will give them a competitive advantage. Obviously, that is high end shoots where perfection is necessary, portrait photography where the professionalism and speed of a pro is paramount, and high-end sports where there's too much financial barrier to the amateur.

Frankly, a lot of pro photographers just aren't going to survive this recession (depression?). Heck, a lot of all small businesses won't survive. That's just the nature of a free economic system.

The only thing that could stop the price competition between amateurs and pros is a union, and the photography community is just to large and broad to apply a union.

From a purely economic standpoint, I'm not going to hold off on activities that benefit me even if they drive down the price of other photographers. If it benefits me more than the opportunity cost in time, I'm going to do it (even just the enjoyment of doing the project and boost to my portfolio). I feel a little bad about that, but it is silly to act in any other way.

The onus is on the professional photographers to figure out how to survive this influx of amateurs.

Don't just blame us, adapt! Use your experience to carve out a niche!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

DIY Garage Studio for $33

Wow. I've got quite a backlog of posts I've been meaning to type up. I'll be keeping this short though, even though my point is pretty important.

My point is pretty simple: if you've been holding off on setting up a basic studio, don't. I set up a studio in my garage a couple months ago and it has helped my photography a ton.

And all it cost me was $30 for a half-width roll of white seamless and $3 of stuff I had around the house.

* * * * *

When I first started getting more serious about photography, I was all about natural light. Sure, maybe because natural light was the only thing I had to work with, but I was all about using natural light. Who needs flashes, strobes, or a studio?

Then, I discovered Strobist, and switched to being all about on-location, off-camera flash. Studios are evil and predictable; the real interesting stuff was going on outside of the studio.

Now I've compromised my morals and started doing studio-style work.

And I'm loving it.

Ultimately, all photography just comes back to shooting light into a scene and collecting it on an image sensor (whether film or digital). Sure, natural light gives a certain look, strobes give a certain look, but ultimately it is all light. And the best place to play with light and control it is in a studio setting.

Which is why I've learned so much with my garage studio.

For example, it never really hit home that it's possible to have dark shadows on a subject in front of a pure white-background. I learned that on my first day!

* * * * *

All along I thought a studio was out of my reach due to expense and complexity. Turns out it wasn't. All you need for a studio is a room and a background. And since a half-width roll of white seamless only goes for $30, the background part is very inexpensive. And I already had a garage!

Here's the setup (light placement is not identical to the shots of my daughter on this page because I was moving things around a bit). The real key to the DIY studio idea is that you can do a lot with just a single off-camera flash or even a few lamps or floodlights. The important thing is having a space and a clean background to work with. And white is the best background of all since you can turn it pretty much any color or shade (see Zach Arias' white seamless tutorial for details).

For home studios, most shops and online guides talk about expensive stuff like background stands and light stands and sandbags and various other items. In reality, though, all you need is the paper. As long as you have a wall that can take a little bit of abuse and a trusty roll of duct tape (or gaffer's tape if you can get it) you'll be able to get that seamless up. (Disclaimer: if you do stuff with models/subjects outside of your immediate family, make sure your seamless and lights are secure to avoid accidents and liability).

I just used some rope and PVC pipe I had around to hang my seamless from a rafter. Total cost... $3.

Here's the hung seamless:

I just cut the pipe (left over from a sprinkler project, but very inexpensive at any hardware store) to the right size, drilled some holes in both ends, ran the rope through, and tied some secure knots. The rope is just a clothesline we had out back :)

Here's the hanging detail:

Usually you'll want a clip of some sort (again, Home Depot has them for cheap) to keep the seamless from unrolling.

Trust me, even if you don't have pipe or clips or anything else, if you buy the seamless, it will get hung.

And you learn something new every time out. My first time, I realized that I needed to reduce the shadows on the side away from the flash. Enter a $7 piece of foam board from Office Depot... and the result was the "professional" Christmas shot of my kids. Nothing drives home the utility of a simple idea like a reflector better than actual experience.

So, if you are a budding photography student or raw hobbyist, do yourself a favor. Buy a roll of seamless, set it up, and start experimenting!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Gig Tonight

I know my posts have been few and far between lately. That's for a reason -- I've started the final push to my PhD Defense and I'm trying to eliminate activities that don't relate to my dissertation or making decent money.

Which pretty much means cutting out most of the blogging. Except at my new dissertation progress blog, Freakin PhD. If you're curious about the thoughts that are going through my head as I finish up my decade-long degree, check it out. If you are mostly here for the photo stuff, well, posting will be about once a week at best for the next few months.

And as for microstock, I've pretty much killed the idea. But that's a whole 'nother post...

* * * * *

Anyway, the reason I'm posting now is because I've got a gig tonight helping out a friend with his party photography business. This will likely lead to a longer-term deal, but I can't share any details or images for now. For now, even the business name and website will remain a secret until I get permission to share them.

Tonight I'm mostly there to help out and get a feel for their setup and how they run things. I think I can contribute significantly in manpower, photo technique/quality, and business ideas (although marketing, probably not so much) but I'll know more after we run the event tonight. There's definitely potential for success in this area of the market, but with the economy declining it is going to be that much harder to find a steady stream of clients.

I've also been tasked to get some candids during dinner, which I am nervous about even though I'm confident (and there's really no pressure because nothing was promised to the client). A flash that does TTL metering would be nice, but since I don't have one, I'm going to hope for ceiling bounce with a Nikon SB-20 and also plan on doing some available light with a monopod. If the ceiling isn't white, I'll just use the SB-20 straight -- the performance of the SB-20 auto mode is so much better than my Sunpak 383 that I just don't feel comfortable with the 383.

My biggest concern is perfection, or lack of it. I tend to spend too much time trying to get shots perfect when nobody else cares that much. So one of the things I'll focus on for tonight is just shooting and not worrying as much about perfect technicals. After all, a photography business is only 10% photography yet 30% preparation and 60% client relations.

I'd love to say I'll share some images tomorrow but I really can't; I have a strong feeling we aren't going to have anybody sign any sort of release.

Monday, November 17, 2008

I'm a Pro!

Two things confirmed me as a professional photographer today.

The first was taking some shots of the experimental apparatus of one of my lab mates. He bought me lunch, so I guess I'm a pro because I took compensation for photography.

The second was that Costco called me up while I was doing the first shoot. Turns out the photograph for our Christmas cards this year (the shot that opened the post) was done by a pro so I need to have a signed release when I pick up our cards.

I'm not sure if they'll just take my word for it that I took the shot or if I'll have to sign a release saying that I give myself permission to use my pictures in my Christmas card. Not sure if I should even both calling before I go or just be ready with a form to sign.

It sure was nice to be called a pro though!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Review: La Crosse BC-900 Battery Charger

A month ago I posted about three of the best high end NiMH battery chargers out there and mentioned that I decided to purchase and review the La Cross Technology BC-900 AlphaPower Battery Charger. (Note: the BC-900 has been replaced by the La Crosse Technology BC-9009 AlphaPower Battery Charger, which appears to be the same package, just a different color, and for the same price). While the charger has its user interface quirks, steady use over the past few weeks has proven to me that it is the best battery charger deal out there, period. The link above takes you to Amazon, the cheapest place I've found for the charger (currently $40 shipped).

Before I get into the details about how well the BC-900 works, let me explain why it is a good deal. Actually, the picture above will save me some time -- the $40 package at Amazon contains everything shown above, plus a few things I couldn't fit in!

Specifically, you get:

  • BC-900 charger and power supply
  • Carrying case
  • 4 AA batteries (2600 mAh)
  • 4 AAA batteries (1000 mAh)
  • 4 C adapters (letting you put AA batteries into something that takes Cs)
  • 4 D adapters (requires C adapters to adapt As to Ds)
  • Instruction booklets
What makes this such a good deal is the extra batteries (worth $5-8) and the C/D adapters (which I haven't seen anywhere else).

Charger Functionality:

A top of the line battery charger should do three things: charge, discharge, and let you know what is happening. The BC-900 does all these things very well.

Sure, in the instructions and sales literature it talks about four different modes (Charge, Discharge, Test, Refresh) but really, all the modes just boil down to combinations of charging and discharging:
  • Charge: Just charge the battery until it is full.
  • Discharge: Discharge the battery completely, then charge it until it is full.
  • Test: Charge the battery, discharge the battery, then recharge the battery to full.
  • Refresh: Discharge the battery fully, then recharge, then discharge, then recharge, etc. Stops when the capacity (measured during discharge) stops increasing. This can take DAYS, but is a good way to rejuvenate really old batteries.
Another really great thing about the charger is the ability to charge (and control the mode) of each battery separately. This is awesome for me, because I no longer have to worry about matching batteries during charging, or discharge batteries to get them to match. 95% of the time I just need to charge batteries at the slowest rate (200 mA) which is the default. So I just pop them in the charger and remove them when they say full, even if the other ones aren't done yet.

I can also control charging rate (200 mA, 500 mA, 1000 mA, 1800 mA (two batteries max)) with a few pushes of a button. Discharge rate will always be half of charging rate. If you do the math, this means that the test and refresh modes take a long, long time to complete at the lowest charging rate. Since most newer batteries don't suffer from memory effect (inability to take full charge if you don't discharge them before charging) most of the time I don't bother with the discharge cycle. As my batteries age, I'll probably start doing full discharges before every fifth charge or something like that, but for now, I'm not too worried.

Display and User Interface:

One of the great things about the BC-900 is the display. In addition to displaying the mode, it also displays the instantaneous voltage (good for estimating how much charge the battery has or how soon it will finish), time spent (dis)charging, capacity in mAh, and (dis)charging current.

Specially notable is the capacity display shown in mAh. For instance, in charging mode, it will display how much charge the battery has taken. This lets you know how much the battery was used or if the battery is starting to suffer from memory effect. Similarly, the discharge mode displays the capacity discharged or charged depending on the current state. Finally, the test and refresh capacity shows the status of the most recent discharge (for the most accurate estimate of capacity). Not too many chargers let you know exactly how much capacity an old battery has left; the BC-900 does. That alone is worth a lot.

Also, there are buttons which let you set each battery mode and charging rate individually, but I have yet to master them. The first few times I tried to set battery rates/modes individually I reset the modes of the other batteries (not a big deal, but I need to spend more time figuring it out). Again, though, most of the time I just need to charge at 200 mA, which is as simple as putting the batteries in the charger and walking away.

I did use the 1000 mA charging rate once when I left an SB-20 on all night and rendered a set of batteries (that I needed) stone dead. So, I popped them in at 1000 mA for a half-hour while I was setting up other things and had enough charge to get what I wanted done.

One thing that really bugs me is the lack of a backlight or LEDs. Just a single red/green LED for each battery would let me see at a glance when the batteries were finished charging without crossing the room. Minor, but on my other chargers, I find it very handy to be able to see if they are full at a glance.

Batteries and Adapters:

While batteries are pretty cheap commodities (good NiMH batteries cost between $1.50 to $2.00 each) it is always handy getting extras. In this case, the batteries alone are worth maybe $10, easily boosting the value of the BC-900 package over the BC-700 charger (which is near identical). And what can I say, the included batteries are... functional batteries. The first few charges didn't get me to full capacity, but now I'm getting 2400-2500 mAh out of them.

A big plus for me is the adapters included in the package. Yes, they are pretty cheap and no, I haven't needed them yet. But, since similar adapters cost about $2 each new, that's another $8 added to the value of this package. Again, this is an EXCELLENT deal.

Add the carrying case in, which while not necessary, is useful, and it's an even better deal. The carrying case, by the way, has slots for the adapters and would be useful for carrying around a store of batteries with the charger. Why I'd need to do that... well, maybe if I was shooting with three-four speedlights on a regular basis, it'd be handy. I have no problem taking it for free though!


I'm a numbers guy -- I love numbers and stats. And more than anything, this charger gives me numbers. I can tell exactly how much charge a battery has taken, check the status of my batteries, or just pop batteries in whenever I need to and know that they'll be charged safely.

And that is the real key -- convenience. The La Crosse BC-900 makes battery charging very convenient for me and gives me all the information I need to maintain the large stock of batteries I need around my house. If you use a lot of batteries (which is pretty much any family) you WILL save money with this charger.

Speaking of money, honestly, I would have bought this charger for $40 without the extras. Add the extras in, and I think this is one of the best purchases I've made. I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but there's a reason I keep repeating this stuff.

I love this little charger!

Note: On Nov 2nd 2009, I started this post and the charger was $38. On Nov 4th, the price bumped up $2 to $40. On November 7th, the price dropped $3 to $37 (with the tag 'Friday Sale'). Not sure why these fluctuations occur, but I'd recommend monitoring the price for a few days if you have the time. Don't wait too long though, with the newer model out (La Crosse Technology BC700 Alpha Power Battery Charger) at only a few dollars less but no extras, I suspect they may phase out the BC900 soon. Current price is below: (link removed)

Note: Almost a year later, it appears that the BC-900 was replaced by the BC-1000. Consensus is that it is the same charger, maybe with a few bugs out of the firmware, and a different color to the case. I highly recommend the BC-1000, especially with the package (batteries and such). My charger (and batteries) is still working perfectly! The updated link to the Amazon page is below:

Lighting Setup:
For those who enjoy lighting setups, here is the setup for the battery shoot. White seamless in my garage, charger/subject sitting on a cake pan (don't tell my wife!). Key light was an SB-20 shooting through an umbrella quite close to the subject at camera left (to keep spill off the background. To further reduce spill on the background, I put the umbrella cover over the back side of the umbrella.

Background light (SB-20) through a red gel. In the image it is positioned in front camera right with a clothes gift box lid as a gobo to keep the red off the subject. Blue hair light which cross lights with the key at minimum power (1/16th). Looking at this image I think I should have restricted it a little bit to keep it off the background, but that caused only minimal problems in post.

The trickiest part of the shoot was getting the key at the right angle to illuminate the display. I'm still disappointed that I couldn't keep the display numbers from shadowing on the back of the display.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Many Ways to Photograph Obama

If you aren't looking at the Big Picture on a regular basis, what are you waiting for?

The newest Big Picture is all about The Next President of the United States (or Barack Obama, if you have been living under a rock). Thirty-five photos of one guy sounds pretty boring, but there are some real gems that can teach you about lighting, framing, and composition. My personal favorites are the one which uses the teleprompter mirrors creatively and the images in the rain (which gave me some great ideas, but I have to figure out how to get my kids to play in the sprinkler outside at night).

Monday, November 3, 2008

OT: California Proposition 8 and Ham

Absinthe's most recent post produces a good argument against CA Proposition 8 based on ham. I highly encourage you to read it if you live in California and plan to vote tomorrow.

(If you don't know Prop 8, the best way to start learning about it is the Prop 8 Wikipedia entry).

I'm generally not a political guy and I try to stay out of other people's faces about the things they care about. As a result, Prop 8 rubs me the wrong way, even so that I decided to post about it. I recommend voting No on Prop 8.

My wife and I spent about half a year in a domestic partnership, and as much as the proponents of Prop 8 would like you to believe that a couple in a domestic partnership has the same rights as a married couple, that is not the case. We were both very happy to make the marriage final because it meant we could stop jumping through many legal hoops.

From what I have heard, Prop 8 is on the edge of swinging towards yes so I'm trying to give my little nudge the other way. This thing could be decided by just a few votes and I'd hate for it to pass just because I didn't spend 10 minutes writing up a post.

As for my readers and friends who disagree, well, I believe everyone has a right to believe what they believe (hence my NO ON 8 absentee vote last week).

But I'll still like you even if you vote yes.

I'll still like you even if you tell me you voted yes.

And I'd be happy to have a conversation about why you voted yes or I voted no.

Just understand, as is the nature of these things, that neither of our minds will likely change.

Legal disclaimer: My opinions are mine alone, and don't extend to my wife (although she agrees), my employer, my other employer, my kids, pork and pork byproducts, or anyone/anything else you can sue me about.

Amusing anecdote: Immediately after posting this, there were ads supporting prop 8 in my Adsense slots between posts. So I removed them temporarily and requested that Adsense block those ads. A few hours later I get home to see them in my banners too! So now those are gone (temporarily). If that doesn't show you just how much certain religious entities are willing to spend to attack LGBT rights, nothing does.

Parting Shot: Of course, the opposition to Prop 8 has raised slightly more than that. Of course, who has more motivation here? The people who will lose rights or the people who want others to lose rights?

Last Thing: Wow, I should stay away from the politics in this space. At least this post is close enough to the election that I shouldn't get too much hate mail.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Microstock: October Summary

I really like the fact that Lee Torrens at Microstock Diaries shares all his earnings information with the general public. It really puts a lot of things in perspective to see real numbers and real performance comparisons.

So, in the interest of full disclosure, here are my results for the first two months. I've essentially earned a meal at In 'n Out for maybe 30-40 hours of work (yes, folks, that's a big 10c an hour). Blogger doesn't do tables very well so it takes a little creativity to read it. The first column is the number of images in my gallery at the end of the given month and the earnings are specified per month (not cumulative).

September 15 $0.00 11 $0.00 - -
October 20 $2.70 15 $2.31 12 $0.00

Total Earned to Date: $5.01

I sold two images at Dreamstime and three at Fotolia.

I won't lie; I'm realizing Microstock isn't really a huge moneymaker and it takes a LOT of time and work to achieve anything. Like many things, it is a hard way to make an easy living, and I don't foresee anyone but the top 1% of microstock contributors making enough to make a real living.

I'm not abandoning it yet, but I am going to focus on shooting specifically for microstock to see if I can get more sales for less images. The main complication for that is I can't use my kids for models and I don't want to pay pro models, so that doesn't leave me with much.

As long as it stays a fun hobby, I'll keep going, at least until I can get my first payout.

For November, my goal is to finish getting my archives online (which I think will result in 10-20 more images at each site) along with maybe one or two microstock specific non-model shoots. My income will be tiny and inconsistent and I would be unsurprised if I earned absolutely nothing.

Sonia Optical Trigger Problems

I've got a bunch of random things to post today, so stay tuned.

First up, an update to my Sonia Optical Trigger Review.

After plenty of time in the garage studio, I'm realizing my Sonia trigger doesn't seem to be syncing like I think it should. It works with direct, hard flash or large, very bright sources (like bounced from a pure white background), but it has trouble with diffused or small sources over distances of 4+ feet. This is quite a surprise to me since no one else has reported these problems, and I wonder if my peanut slave is faulty.

The problems were highlighted when I was trying to sync from my on-camera DIY ring flash (Sunpak 383) to a Chinese optical trigger (with eBay radio trigger on top) to a radio-triggered shoot-through umbrella to the Sonia trigger on an SB-20 as a background light. I know this sounds a little Rube Goldbergian but in theory it should work well. In practice, the ring flash triggers the radio trigger and the umbrella well, but the Sonia slave doesn't trigger. It DOES trigger if I manually fire the umbrella or if my ring flash is closer to the receiver (3 feet instead of 5 or 6). It is almost like multiple sources are causing the Sonia to not trigger.

Either way, I'm spending too much time messing with optical sync and not enough time shooting, so I'm definitely going to do something to address it. I'll post more when I learn more.

Update: After a little more experimentation, the problem is definitely from the multi-level triggering scheme I was using. I switched the the radio transmitter on the camera (instead of relaying it through the other optical trigger) and suddenly I was getting perfect triggering. So, somehow relaying the signal made things fail. I've got an idea of why (I suspect the slight delay from the optical trigger caused the Sonia trigger to lose edge detection) but for now I just need to avoid that situation and use the radio triggers to trip the flashes that feed the optical triggers. In other words, maybe my Sonia trigger isn't defective after all...

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Review: Sonia Optical Slave

As I mentioned last week, I love my Nikon SB-20s but I could not get them to reliably sync with my cheap Chinese optical trigger from eBay. So I went ahead and bought an alternate optical slave trigger from an Indian company named Sonia and put it through its paces this week.

My one-sentence review:

The Sonia slave syncs great with the SB-20, but it's still an inexpensive optical trigger and has limitations.

Hardware and Build Quality:

Most eBay Sonia slaves have a female PC-sync and are packaged as a pair with a hot shoe -- at least, that was what I purchased. Sonia slaves are available individually with other connection mechanisms (FlashZebra has a range with male PC, female PC, microphone jacks). While I'd love if they'd packaged the male PC-sync slave (so I could slap it directly on an SB-20 if I desired) I expect it was probably a safety-type issue to make sure the multiple-sync capability worked.

Yes, I said multiple sync. But more on that later.

I went with the hot shoe option because the price was about the same as the peanut alone and I need a 1/4" screw mount to fit my flashes to my tripod/light stand/monopod. For the record, I paid $12.95 + $2.01 shipping, which is relatively cheap for a slave + hot-shoe mount, but still the cost of half an SB20.

Actually, maybe I should refer to everything in terms of SB-20s now... I get paid about one SB-20 an hour at my job and my rent is a little under 100 SB-20s a month! Yes, I know my hourly rate is too low compared to my rent -- I live in the bay area after all! Anyway, back on topic...

First, the slave itself.

There really isn't much to it -- a few components soldered together and epoxied into one solid little package about the size of my thumbprint. By inspection, it looks like a few resisters, a cap, a transistor, and a phototransistor at the business end. My phototransistor isn't centered very well which may be influencing my sensitivity (or maybe that's by design). The female PC connection is solid and unlikely to break (good thing too -- I could never fix it if it did). I'd have no qualms about letting these little guys float around in a gear bag -- they'd never break. FYI, all pictures are clickable if you want to see the units larger.

The hot shoe is definitely a big step up from the Chinese optical triggers. Instead of plastic, the entire unit is made from metal. I suspect it is machined because I see no obvious mold marks, which is remarkable for such an inexpensive unit. It really is a tank and you'll break your hot shoe before you break the foot of this thing. The back is marked with "Sonia, multi-terminal slavettach solid state" in retro RCA fonts. Somebody in India likes their antique radios. And you gotta love the solid state to let us know they didn't cram any vacuum tubes inside!

The most important part of any hot shoe is the connections, and there's no disappointment here. The peanut attaches to the shoe very securely. All three PC connections (two female, one male) are a step above what you usually get in a cheap unit. I don't foresee anything breaking in the future. And the hotshoe on the top is simply a tank. Overall, the whole thing is the most solid accessory I've seen. As you'd expect, it has some mass to it, but it's small enough that it doesn't really matter.

Funny thing actually -- the other day I found that the back of my Chinese optical slave had fallen off. Apparently it had gotten hot enough in the garage to make the adhesive fail and the back just popped off on its own -- luckily it wasn't structural and I snapped it back on easily.


Of course, what really counts is how an optical slave trigger works. And in that respect, I can't tell it apart from my Chinese optical slave other than the fact it works with a Nikon SB20. That's not necessarily a good thing.

Indoors, it works pretty well as long as there is a direct line of sight from another flash to the eye, or at least a line of sight from a bright reflection (like white paper) to the eye. The only time I've had trouble getting sync was when the trigger was in shadow, as you'd expect. Once you get things set up, the triggers work as their supposed to near 100% of the time.

Outside, though, it is a whole different story. In deep shade with the source flash on high, close, and directly illuminating the trigger you may have a chance. In the sun, or near sunlight, the Sonia unit will just not trigger. When I was shooting the bees I tried a lot of different approaches (including shading the sensor) and nothing worked. So with cheap triggers, the verdict is still OUTDOORS = BAD, INDOORS = GOOD.

I should also mention that there are reports of the Sonia slaves not working with the Canon 580 EX II. I believe I read something somewhere about a mod to the Chinese slaves to make them work on the 580 EX, but it isn't really possible on a Sonia since everything is encased in epoxy. Anyway, you've been warned.

Multiple Sync:

If the solid build of the hot shoe unit wasn't enough to motivate you to pay the extra few bucks for it, they've also added a multiple-sync capability with 'built-in diodes'. What this means is, if you attach the peanut slave to the male sync socket, you can attach a flash to a hot shoe and two other flashes to the female PC sockets on the sides with PC cables. And yes, everything will trigger at the same time!

It turns out I have PC cables for my Sunpak 383 and another hot shoe around the house (I had totally forgotten about them), so I verified multi-sync capability with all three flashes. Of course, I couldn't get a picture because my 20D refused to omit the preflash.

So, the image at left only shows two flashes going off. But I was seeing all three go when I fired my 20D.

I love the idea of using this little baby to triple the power of the flash (or cut the recovery time). Sadly, the best place to use that feature would be outdoors, where the trigger refuses to even go. But, I may try adapting a radio trigger to female PC-sync to make a super-powerful three-flash rig.

While multi-flash capability isn't really a killer app inside, I'd rather have the capability than not. And if I had a longer PC-sync cable, it'd let me add even more to a studio rig.


If you use SB-20s or might buys some in the future, you need to buy this optical trigger, period. Chinese triggers just don't cut it with those units.

If you don't use SB-20s, I still might recommend the Sonia triggers because of their superior build quality and multi-sync capability. I'm not sure I'd pay double for Sonia triggers, but a few bucks is definitely worth it.

If I get another flash, I'll likely pick up another Sonia trigger and/or another wireless trigger. Either way, I'm definitely not buying any more of the cheap Chinese triggers.

If you're curious, here are the current Sonia trigger listings on eBay. eBay seems to have the best prices for the triggers, but that could change -- make sure you look around!

Note: I recently posted an update about some problems I've been having with the trigger.

Microstock: Shutterstock Priorities

At Shutterstock, apparently new images have quite a boost in the search priorities which almost always results in immediate sales right after upload.

Of course, I haven't gotten any sales, since all my images have taken days to appear in the search index. Apparently I'm not the only one either according to this forum post.

While I don't mind too much if I don't get a bunch of sales right out of the gate, if the search system causes images to be buried soon after upload, that is a problem for me, especially if each sale only pays me 20 cents. I'm going to upload more this week to see if I can get the boost. If there's no boost or I don't make significant sales this week, I may stop uploading because it is not worth the time involved.

PS, my second batch of images took about 48 hours to be reviewed, which is in line with many other sites.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Yes, More Bees

This is filler material since I haven't made much progress on any of my bigger posts (Sonia trigger review, $30 garage studio).

On a whim the other day I decided to go out to the garden and shoot a little with my macro lens (a 100mm FD with EOS/FD converter). Boy, the biggest problem with the thing is it doesn't automatically stop down when the shutter is released since the mechanical aperture release doesn't work on EOS. Well, it does, but there's a big difference between automatically hitting that lever and rotating the wheel on the converter. The end result is it is difficult to find focus on fast moving objects, let alone compose a frame well.

So, out of 90 shots, I got maybe six decent ones. Oddly enough, many of them looked very similar, like these last two. Click to see them larger...

I used strobes because I wanted to get as much depth of field as possible and avoid shutter speed blur and noise from high ISOs. Plus, I just wanted to play with my flashes :)

At first, I tried to use the sun as a third light (actually, at first I tried to use a strobe as a third light, but that's another story). My goal was to use the sun as fill but I quickly found having my key light be something other than the sun gave me very different results in the image than when I looked through the viewfinder. So, instead, I used the standard cross-lighting the sun approach but lined up my key light with the sun, so what I saw in the viewfinder approximated the final image and I was able to drop the ambient (sun) about four stops down so my 1/200sec sync speed didn't cause any blur at magnification. For whatever reason, my radio triggers were having trouble getting the 1/250sec sync speed; maybe I need new batteries.

Anyway, I know for some of you this is just a lot of mumbo-jumbo. Feel free to ignore it and just enjoy the shots of the bees.

For you technically oriented people, I ended up getting some pretty decent pictures of bees, definitely sharper than most of my other shots with a much better depth of field. For next time, I may try to restrict my light a bit more to darken the background. I think it could look REALLY cool if I get it right.

Of course, I won't even bother submitting these to microstock sites; I'm sure they've got tons of bee shots already!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Microstock: Registered for Shutterstock

I've decided I shouldn't wait any longer for the review-based microstock sites like Shutterstock. After all, worst case I'd have to wait a month to resubmit.

So I submitted a bird-heavy batch of 10 photos to Shutterstock tonight. We'll see how it goes!

First impressions:

  • Initial sign-up was easy.
  • Shutterstock's website is a bit primitive.
  • Shutterstock is very straightforward on their rules -- quite nice because many sites bury them.
  • Getting 7 of 10 photos is a little daunting but shouldn't be a problem. It helps to have a list of accepted photos at Dreamstime and Fotolia and a bit of sales history.
  • The submission system is pretty nice, although it forces you to keyword all images at the same time which is scary (what if I lose my connection!). Generally, though, it is easy to keyword and tag, and it even highlights possible misspellings for you.
  • From what I have heard, Shutterstock's subscription program gives you a lot of sales whenever you have a decent number of new photos submitted. But, at only 25c a sale, I'll need a lot to make any money.
  • Minimum payout is $75.
That's all for now. I'll keep you posted!

Tuesday Update (two days later): Nine of my ten images were accepted first thing Monday morning, but a second batch of eight images is still awaiting review over a day later, so I suspect Shutterstock puts priority on new signups. Also, my original images haven't been indexed into the search yet (although if I search for my name they show up), so apparently indexing takes days rather than hours like many sites.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Microstock: Look Ma, I Made the Cover of TIME Magazine!

Ok, so let's say you shoot your kids on a white background for microstock and upload images to a few different microstock sites. Suppose the image above is included in your submissions.

Then, a few months down the road, you see this TIME magazine on a rack:

Your son, with t-shirt digitally removed and a needle placed menacingly near him, is essentially on every news stand in the world!

And what you'd get paid?


Well, ok, I doubt it happened exactly like this. TIME knows how important appropriate permissions are, so I guarantee they contacted owner of the baby shot (Sergei Chumakov) and negotiated appropriate terms. TIME knows it has to dot all the "i"s and cross all the "t"s -- otherwise they'll be sued nearly instantly. In this case, the credit for the photo was:


In fact, the iStock page doesn't have the extended license option, so I'm sure TIME approached Chumakov to provide suitable payment. What's a Time cover worth, anyway? (I'd guess at least a few thousand).

Although the Dreamstime version does have extended licenses available -- can you imagine how upset the photographer would be if TIME had (legally) increased the maximum copies and paid only $20-$30 for the primary source image for their cover?

This stuff has been on my mind lately because I'm currently trying to convince (or decide if I want to convince) my wife to let me use images of my kids for microstock. I still need to sit down with her and find out what her big concerns are so I can do the research and see if there are any protections against them. My kid making TIME wouldn't bother me that much but it would likely bother my wife a lot. (Attention TIME: a suitcase full of cash might smooth things over with her... If you like any images on this site, I'm sure we can come to an agreement for the full-size image, RAW file, or lock of hair!).

Anybody heard of any similar microstock horror stories (or microstock success stories)?

Anyway, thanks to Steve at Microstock Insider for the post that led to my discovery of this image.

Also, guess what I have to do today? Get my kids their flu shots!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Microstock: Fotolia, the Honeymoon is Over!

Of the latest batch of 11 images that I submitted to Fotolia, only 3 were accepted! Some rejections I understand or at least can deal with (Similar Photograph), most of them were the general umbrella term Technical Problems.

According to the e-mail, technical problems can be:

  • Blurry or out of focus
  • Over/Under exposure
  • Framing problem
  • Over or under saturated colors
  • Problems with contrast
  • Noise or Pixelation
  • Quality of routing
  • Interpolation problem
Really? You can't give me any more of a clue to which one?

In particular, the images in this post (click to see larger) are some of my favorites. I really like how the birds are engaged with the camera. The extreme depth of field is due to shooting nearly wide open from inside my parents' house outside to the bird feeder.

So now, I don't know if Fotolia (or that reviewer) just doesn't like extreme depth of field on wildlife shots or is concerned about noise (I shot at ISO 800 but did a pass of Noise Ninja in Bibble Pro), sharpness, loss of shadow detail, or some other random reason (quality of routing? what the heck is that?).

So I posted a message to the forums and anxiously await a reply. Hopefully someone in the know (i.e. a reviewer) can give me a real reason because other photographers speculating isn't quite good enough for me at this point. I'm also not against reducing the noise in each image a little more and resubmitting in the hopes that it was (a) a noise problem or (b) a cranky reviewer.

I'll get extra feedback once they get reviewed at Dreamstime, but that will probably be in a week (!).

If any of you experienced microstockers have an idea of why these images didn't meet technical standards (or why Fotolia reviewers are cranky) please leave a comment!

For now, consider yourself on notice, Fotolia. I can deal with rejections and even my current 45% acceptance rate. But if you complain about technical problems but don't tell me what they are so I can fix them or at least be aware of them... well, you're just wasting my time. And making me wait 48 hours to get the images reviewed was pretty uncool too -- the only reason I let Dreamstime get away with making me wait a week is because I love everything else about the site.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Microstock: Comments on Fotolia


This post has sat in my drafts long enough -- time to bang it out. Mostly, I'm just trying to outline my experiences with Fotolia and give a little bit of comparison with Dreamstime.

All my Fotolia related posts are here and my Dreamstime related posts are here.

The first big plus for Fotolia is speed of review. At Fotolia, review time is measured in hours, and at Dreamstime, it is measured in days (and honestly it feels like weeks). Typically Fotolia has my images reviewed within 8 business hours of when I submit them, although I submitted a batch this morning and they didn't get reviewed today (I expect them first thing tomorrow). BIG improvement!

One downside is the lack of an FTP upload... err, they have it, but I can't for the life of me figure out how to log in. And I'm a computer scientist! But, their flash uploader is very easy to use and fast, so no problem there.

Also, Fotolia initially rejected a few of my images (pretty much silently, actually). They require all images to be >= 4 MP unlike 3 MP at Dreamstime. Easily fixed by widening my crop slightly or in some cases just upsampling a little bit.

Keywording at Fotolia is a MUCH bigger hassle. For one thing, they accept multi-word keywords, which forced me to go back through all my images and re-keyword them (although I had to do it anyway because Bibble was lopping off parts of my longer lines). Along with that, it is just not a very convenient system, and once you submit an image for review, you can't change anything until it gets through review! Once you get used to the system it isn't as bad, but it still takes longer to finalize submissions.

The increased speed of review is a huge win though, since it really lets you keep a feeling of momentum. A day to wait isn't too bad... a week is horrendous.

Finally, there's lots of rumors flying around the web that Fotolia is overly picky compared to the other sites, and I've seen a little bit of that. I've had a few images rejected at Fotolia which I thought were definitely acceptable (and even sold one at Dreamstime!) but overall, it hasn't been as bad as I thought it would be.

Finally, one benefit of Fotolia is you can cash out at any time (with a $1 fee if under $50) instead of needing to wait until $100 at Dreamstime. Although, I tried checking it out at Fotolia and it gave me an error that I had less than $50... So maybe that's not as much of a benefit as I thought it was.

Overall, I like Fotolia -- not sure if I'd say I like it better than Dreamstime, although my portfolio on Fotolia is outselling my Dreamstime portfolio at a 3:2 ratio. I've sold three images at Fotolia... I'll let you do the math!