Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rebuttal to all those Lukewarm Sony A550 reviews

I wasn't going to write this.  After all, I never do camera reviews (I just write books about them :-) ) and I had not budgeted any time to write a newsletter this month.  However, I have just returned from a family vacation having taken my new Sony Alpha 550 as my only DSLR.  Unlike some of the reviews I've read online about this camera, I actually spent time using this camera as it was designed to be used: to take great family pictures.  Especially of toddlers (who don't sit still for anything).  Especially on a vacation.  Especially in low light.  And I have to tell you - for this purpose, this camera is just AWESOME!!  It can focus faster on moving children than I could using my older cameras and some skill.  It is lightweight and ideal for travel.  It can shoot in low light and show you images that look brighter than what your eye sees, all with relatively low noise.  My A700 (formerly my camera of choice for family events) would never had done this well in some of the challenging situations I found myself in.

Like those other reviews, when I first started to explore the camera, I first latched onto of all the features that were missing that I was used to coming from higher-end cameras: Release Priority mode, AEL-SPOT-TOGGLE mode for the AEL button, conveniently-placed buttons, mirror lock-up, etc.  But once I took off my "professional photographer" hat and put on my "tourist" hat these attributes (or lack thereof) quickly melted away (kind of like the molten lava shot on the right, also taken with the A550).

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

User Interface Design

Having recently finished the book on the A330 / A380 and spending considerable time with the A550 right now, I've been living with some of the user interface design choices that the engineers have made.  I'm talking specifically about button placement.  Sony's entry-level models have been derided due to very poor placement of buttons.  If you're used to the excellent ergonomics of the Minolta 7D, or the Sony A700 and higher, where buttons were placed where your fingers naturally fall to enable you to work very quickly, you will almost certainly pick up the entry-level cameras and notice that the controls are not conveniently placed at all.  (This happens when high-end Canon users pick up their low-end cameras as well.)  What were they thinking?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Replacing Faces

Below is another group shot, also taken outdoors, also with the group in the shade.  (See previous blog post for why I say "Another".)  This time because the group was larger I used two wireless flashes; one on either side of the camera.  The same formula was used: Aperture priority at f/8 and let the flashes do their thing on auto.  But look at the two kids in the lower-left-hand-corner!!  They're looking at someone else (probably a relative holding a point-and-shoot).  

In the olden days photographers would take many shots of a group in hopes of getting just one shot where everyone looked good.  Now they still take several shots, but this time hoping to catch one shot of each person looking good.  Once you have that you can take the best of each face and merge everything in Photoshop.  BUT, this is not just a matter of copying and pasting heads from one photo to another -- that is far too arduous a task.  It turns out all you really need to copy are the eyes, nose, and mouth.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Outdoor Lighting for Group Portraits

 Have a look at the classic family portrait above.  Easy shot, right?  Just put the camera on a tripod and press the shutter release button, right?  Nope.  This portrait has a classic look to it, achieved using an unintuitive lighting technique that wedding photographers use every day.  Have a look at the ground where the people are.  That's right, they're in the shade!  It's a bright, sunny day, but group portraits should always be taken in the shade.  Why?  Because harsh sunlight wreaks havoc on people's faces.  Strong, directional sunlight casts unflattering shadows under the eyes and below the nose, and worse, it often makes people squint. 

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Solution to the "Texting While Driving" Problem

Here in the states there is a flurry of legal activity going on, trying to make texting while driving illegal on a national level.  This is a topic of great interest to me, for back in my NASA days I had come up with a solution to this problem which I believe belongs on today's mobile phones.

I called it the "Data Egg"; it was a new type of typing scheme which allowed you to type in any position, while walking, running, lying down, and yes, even driving - without ever having to take your eyes off the road. 

Friday, October 2, 2009

Another Benefit to High-Speed Sync

In the past I have mentioned that the Morse-code "FIRE!" command used in the Wireless Flash protocol happens after the shutter has already opened, and because the intensity of the Morse-code commands is relatively small, it will probably never be noticeable in your shot.  However, there are situations (like when you're shooting up close and wide open) when it will show up, and in the past (like last month) I have always recommended putting an IR filter in front of the controller flash to eliminate this possibility.

While presenting the Nashville seminar, one of the attendees, Rick Werp, also reminded me of a property of High-Speed Synch flash which also can completely eliminate the "FIRE!" command from showing up in your image.  And he even created some test shots (which were designed specifically to make the "FIRE!" command look as bright and distracting as possible) showing how well the technique works!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

How to Shoot a CEO

Last month I had the pleasure of doing a studio session with the CEO of C4 Worldwide/ C4 Finance Group.  Using my usual poor man's studio (and my A900 and 80-200 G lens) I captured a wide variety of poses that would be used for marketing purposes throughout the year.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New HVL-F20AM flash and a DIY (Do-It-Yourself) IR Filter Switch

Oh happy day!  My biggest complaint about the A900 - mainly, its lack of a pop-up flash for triggering wireless - has essentially been solved by Sony, who has just started shipping its HVL-F20AM flash which is actually more versatile than a normal popup flash.  No longer must I attach a big, heavy, and expensive "58" flash just to control my wireless flashes!  Furthermore, unlike a purely infrared wireless flash controller (the usual manufacturer solution to the problem of triggering wireless flashes without a built-in flash), the "20" flash can do fill-in flash as well, something I love to use when shooting portraits outdoors.

I've been playing with this flash for about a week, and the more I experiment, the more I like it.  Here's what I like:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Postcard from Nova Scotia

The Nova Scotia, Canada seminar took place in early August, which was a joy.  Not only was it extremely well-received, but also Carol and I got a chance to see the province - something that we had always wanted to do.  We made so many wonderful friends and got to tour a beautiful location (and eat a lot of lobster!)  Some gratuitous pictures are below.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Antelope Canyon Images

A few weeks ago I headed up to photograph Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon in Navajo Nation, Arizona (a little northeast of the Grand Canyon). If you've never experienced these (or caves like it in Zion National Park in Utah), you may wish to consider doing so. Like the Grand Canyon nearby, these sandstone canyons were carved by thousands of years of running water. Photos cannot do the place justice -- the canyons are absolutely beautiful. Some of my favorite images appear below:

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Bigger Problem than Bit Rot

In the computer world, many people worry about "bit rot" (data erosion) when it comes to archiving old data.  And that's a good thing.  But there's an even more serious threat to data life than bit rot... it is format change.  Somewhere upstairs I have a low-density floppy disk of a paper I wrote on an Atari 1040ST using WordPerfect.  The data is intact... but I defy anyone to read it!!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Fast Image Selection: Take off your Glasses

 Here is a technique I learned many years ago to help me quickly select my “keeper” pictures from hundreds of images shot in the field, thinking "I'll choose the good one later".  Well, the more pictures you shoot the more time it takes to weed out the good ones, and after awhile you find you're spending way too much time in front of your computer. 

Friday, May 1, 2009

How to shoot a bust

I had the honor of photographing the work of Sandra Shaw, a talented bronze sculptist who was preparing for a museum opening and needed “head shots” of several of her pieces. One of the pictures can be seen above, and the somewhat-chaotic-looking garage in which it was shot can be seen below.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Importance of Fill-Flash

This is probably old-hat to most of you, but when it comes to situations where the camera sees the subject very differently from your eye, I find that you can never hammer this point home often enough: Fill Flash Matters!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Mirror Lockup Returns

This is a historic moment, ladies and gentlemen, for the same marketing team that brought us the lack of a popup flash on the A900 has also brought back the feature that camera engineers have insisted was no longer necessary: The Mirror Lockup Function.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Mime is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Reader Zulia Arbon, a Tajikistan citizen who's been living in China for 7 years, writes in with this question:  "You took quite a few photos of people in China. How did you get around this? Did your translator help you to ask those people for permission to take pictures? Has anyone minded? Were there any times when you weren't allowed to take photos? I quite often see some really peculiar moments here in China, and I took some lovely photos. But sometimes I just don't have enough courage to ask people if I can take photos of them."

Read on for my response.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Sony's New Wireless Flash Protocol

With the introduction of the HVL-F58AM flash, Sony has completely revamped the wireless flash protocols -- the time between pre-flash and exposure has been shortened, and more addressing capabilities have been added.  The result?  Automatic Ratio mode has returned (this feature worked with film cameras brilliantly, but was disabled in digital bodies for technical reasons), and now you can control up to 3 banks of flashes (well, sort of) from the rear of the 58.

Okay, but how does it work, and how much of it is backwards-compatible with the Minolta / Sony 56 and 36 flashes?  Can you mix and match the 56/36 and 58/42 flashes?  Read on to find out!