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!