Saturday, March 16, 2013

Phoenix Dragontooth

Ohisashiburi desu-Japanese for "haven't seen you in a long time"!  It's been 10 months since I last posted.  Sorry for the long delay, I hope this post will renew your interest and gain new readers.  My wife has been reminding me and encouraging me to start posting again.  She has about 470 consecutive daily posts on her blog at Hokkaido Kudasai .

My last post was about F stops, the number associated with the aperture of the lens. The more I  use the large F stops, like F1.4 or F 2.8 in my best lenses, the more I understand the value of the more expensive lenses.  Understanding these numbers will be important if you decide to buy a lens or a camera with a built in lens.

The case of the dissapearing fence
Here is a photo I borrowed from my wife.  I purchased a small point and shoot Nikon for her and she uses it for her blog and everything else. She used that camera to shoot the owl at the Maruyama zoo  and a shot of me shooting the same owl with my DSLR below that.

The little point and shoot has a maximum aperture (f-stop) of 3.2-5.6 on its zoom lens.
Also it only has auto-focus, so when she tried to photograph the owl, the camera focused on the strong lines of the fence, not the beautiful owl.  You can see there were metal bars and a monofilament net on the owl's enclosure.

Cameras do not discern what your mind wants to focus on.  It is all  based on mechanical and optical input with a sprinkle of programming.  Your eyes may ignore the fence and focus on the owl without your thinking about it to see the owl, but the camera basically assumes you want it to focus on the fence or whatever strong lines are in the focus area.

 In comparison to the point and shoot, my more expensive DSLR with a quality lens assumes the same thing. So I changed to manual focus, focusing on the eyes of the owl, and opened the lens to the maximum aperture of 2 to get theses shots on my 100mm F-2 Minolta prime lens. The F 2 aperture is pretty darn nice, so this 25 year old used lens now sells on Evilbay for about $800.00. Its a pefect lens for portraits of owls or people. A moderate telephoto with a large (F-2) maximum aperture.  I bought the lens from Craigslist in Raleigh as part of a package deal for less than $300 before moving to Japan.  I sold most of the rest of the package and basically got the lens for next to nothing.  In the photo below, left, you can see an X pattern, its the monofilament net around the cage.

 Prime just means its not a zoom, it has one focal length such as 200mm, also called "fixed focal length".  Generally primes have better quality and allow more light into the camera during exposure.  There are fewer pieces of glass in a prime lens than a zoom in general.  Zooms are convenient because you can stand in one place and zoom (change focal lengths).  With one zoom lens you can shoot wide angle or telephoto. With prime lense you have to physically move to change the angle of coverage or change lenses to match the perspective you want.  For example a 16mm prime is extreme wide angle while a 300mm is a long telephoto.  You have to carry around several primes to do the same job as one zoom. Most zoom's maximum aperture is around F3.5 or F 4 and changes to 5.6 or worse when zoomed out.  You can probably locate these numbers on the side of your camera or on the end of the lens.  When purchasing the lower the number the better when it comes to maximum aperture.  The problem is that one F stop, for example rom 3.5 to 2.8 can double or triple the price of the lens.  The pro use the more expensive ones, its a tool of the trade and can be a tax expense write off.
 I shot the next one on the way out of the zoo  through the fence with a 200 mm 2.8 prime lens, from about 10 meters away through the same fence.
The open maximum aperture (F 2.8 in this case), has a shallow depth of field.  This means there is a small slice of area that is in focus, the owl here.  The background is out of focus which is good, because it was ugly and distracting.  If you look closely, you will see the owl looks a little "soft".
The fence, especially the netting reduced the sharpness of the image, like looking thru a foggy window.  This softening is a technique often used in people portraits, you can use a filter or do it in post processing with software.
The foreground is out of focus also.  The fence was in the foreground and is basically invisible because the slice of focus is on the owl,  several meters behind the fence, throwing the fence out of focus.  The bad news is the smaller the number of the F stop on a lens, (F 1.4 not 3.5 for example) the more expensive it will be.   One F-stop can mean a $1,000. or more in price.  The more expensive point and shoot cameras often have a larger maximum aperture.
The expense of the lens based on maxium aperture often separates the pros from the hobbists.  The pros use their lenses as tools so they have to have the best available.  Hobbists like myself, often settle for the less expensive option unless money is not an issue.  I used mainly 20+ year old Minolta lenses that sell for 30% of the cost of a new comparable Sony lens and generally produce images that are just as good and sometimes better.  Sony does not make a 100 F-2, that is why its used value is so high now.
 I just checked on the Calumet photography website, a new 300mm F 4 Nikon lens costs about $1500.00, while a 300 F 2.8 costs about $5,800.00.   If you are shooting for a living, you need those extra f stops to freeze the action of a pro athelete or to shoot in a darker environment.  Note the photos of the president in the media, the shallow depth of field usually makes him appear "cut out" almost as if he were photoshopped into the scene.  The effect is only possible with fast high end lenses.
This photo of a railroad track shows how shooting at F 9 provides more depth of field to keep most of the scene in focus.
This portrait of Pamela and me for our 2012 Christmas mail was shot at F 2.5, to soften the background and add emphasis to us as the main subject.  It was shot on a Minolta 50 F1.4 lens.
Well, that's all for this post, stay tuned for more updates this spring.  I was awarded a small prize in a local photo competition recently and will be teaching outdoor photography again at the university, so I am motivated again to explore and share my photography skills. I will post again after attending the award event in Sapporo.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

F- Stop or Aperture, its way cool!

What the heck is an "F stop" and why is it important?  The f stop refers to the relative size of the aperture (opening in the lens) that allows light to enter the camera.  Understanding how to use a particular F stop will go a long way towards creating images that you desire.  Wikipedia has a wealthe of information of course, check out "aperture" there to see some good graphics.

F Stop = 29


Examine the 3 photos above and decide which one you like best.

Why did you choose your selection?

The flower is in focus and looks essentially the same.  The background changes with the f-stop, either more or less in focus.  If you like nice arched Japanese bridges maybe you chose the top one. If you are less interested in the bridge and love flowers, maybe the bottom one with the bridge out of focus is your pick.

You can choose to have areas of the image be in or out of focus.  The text in the photo above stands out against the soft back ground.  Remember a small number like 1.7 or 2.8 is a larger size aperture opening.  A large number like f-22 is a small size aperture opening. An f stop of 2.8 will allow a shallow depth of field as shown in the the image above.  You can use this quality to make the main subject stand out or for graphics like the use of  text above.

Many people can understand aperture if they compare it to the pupil of the eye.  It gets larger or smaller to adjust the light coming in.

I usually shoot with my camera on "A" for apeture preferred.  I choose the aperture or F-stop, the camera automatically chooses the appropriate shutter speed to allow enough light in for the image to be captured.

In the shot above the aperture was set at 2.8, a large aperture which allows a lot of light in the camera in a short time.  The shutter speed was 1/1250 of a second, which if faster that you can say the "f"word, as in f-stop! This fast shutter speed "freezes" the action, which is good for sports or moving objects.

Shooting at f-32, the smallest aperture on the lens, the camera selected 1/3 or .333 of a second, fairly slow.  I used a tripod to make sure the camera was steady.  I had to lower the ISO to 100 so I could get a long exposure to soften the water.  This effect is often used for moving water, check out any calendar or greeting card with soft white water between rocks, probably shot with a tripod and an f stop of F-22 or F-32 and a loooong exposure or shutter speed.

Selective focus means you choose what you want in focus and intentionally choose an f-stop to make other areas out of focus or "soft".

This is a handy tool for making portraits.
Unn Chan at graduation party, 2012

Yamada Sensei speaking at the graduation.

You can add emphasis to your subject by focusing on it and throwing the other areas out of focus by choosing the appropriate f- stop setting or aperture.   A lens with a very small number, such as the F-1.4 Minolta I used for these portraits above, costs about double of a similar lens with a 1.7 aperture.  

The results can be twice as impressive, thats why pro photographers buy "good glass".   They pay high dollar for the best quality lenses that allow the most light in with the most clarity and allows a very large aperture.  The larger the aperture the faster the shutter speed, so its vitally important for many aspects of photography such as low-light, action/sports, birds, travel, portraits and so on.  Its better to spend the extra money on one good "fast" lens than two mediocre lenses.

My 20-30 year old Minolta F-1.4 lens was used to hand hold shots at our favorite restaurant Bombay Blue in Iwamizawa.  Jimmy the owner, hosted Indian music (all Japanese musicians) and a special dinner.  Without flash, I shot these photos which give it a homey feel and was less distracting to the other guests.

I chose a tungsten settting for white balance (WB) on my digital camera so that the skin tones would be more accurate shooting with regular lights. 

White balance will be a future post, so stay tuned and remember to keep your lens clean and your batteries charged, you never know when Brad and Angelina may let you snap the first shots of their baby, giving you a million dollar photo shoot

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Well spring is here, I guess the dragon's breath melted the snow and I am doing this my long over due post!

 I have been teaching at Hokkaido University of Education at the Iwamizawa campus since October of 2011.  We started a new school year and I am teaching a new course called Outdoor Photography, or OP for short.  So now I have motivation to renew my photography blog, so that I can share it with my students.

Below are a few shots from the winter of 2011. It was a record snow fall year since they starting taking records in 1946, lots of shoveling and many buildings and trees were crushed or damaged. The skiing was great though! The shots are from a backcountry ski class trip to Sandan Yama, north of Furano in Hokkaido.
Photography in snow is challenging, the high contrast is difficult to capture and exposures require special attention. The cold tempertures and moisture require special consideration for our photography equipment.  You have to keep your batteries warm (above freezing) and you should keep snow from melting on your camera.  My wife Pamela, gave me a hint she found on another site to use a small paint brush to clear the snow off your equipment as it falls.  It works well, buy a small brush at the dollar (hyaku en) shop.

Spring time!

These few shots are recent photos, April 2012, after the 3 meters of snow finally melted and the flowers popped out almost overnight.

This is a Tonbi, a common raptor that in Japan seems to be the equivalent of the turkey vultures in North Carolina.  They fly quite close to the ground.  I shot this one hand held with my Sony Alpha (A55) DSLR and an old autofocus Minolta 500mm, F-8 reflex lens.  A reflex lens is like the astonomy telescope design, a mirror reduces the length and size and weight.

 Autofocus reflex lenes are very rare, Minolta made one of the only versions I have ever known of.  The lens is probably made in the late 80's, I bought it used from Ebay before I left the USA, about $450.00.  Its not a main stream lens, so do not rush out to buy one unless you already have several lenses and some extra cash. 

If Sony made one, it would probably retail over $2,000.00.  Thats why most of my lenses are old, high quality inexpensive used Minolta lenses that fit Sony DSLRS.  These lenses were designed for 35 mm film cameras.

Minolta bought out Konica cameras years ago, then Sony bought out Minolta brand cameras to get into the digital camera DSLR business.  There has been a huge market for good Minolta lenses since, I have bought several Minolta cameras from Craigslist so I could get the lens that came with it.  The camera bodies are almost worthless now, they make good paperweights. I donated some to a summer camp that uses film cameras in their program for kids.

The autofocus is fast and the lens is lightweight and portable relative to the super-telephoto length of this 500mm lens.

Its about 6 inches long.  A normal 500mm lens would be about 15-18 inches long.

This view from the front of the lens shows the unusual design.

The next one is a close up of the inside center of the lens.

I shot the three photos above with a Minolta 100mm macro (close up) on my Sony A-55 DSLR.

For old timers like me who got into photography before digital was a household word, this 500mm lens is the equivalent of a 750 mm lens if on a 35mm film camera.  Basically the sensor in the digital camera is small, which means the image is 1.5 times larger than it would be in on a 35 mm film plane.   So a 100 mm telephoto lens is a 150mm equivalent if using an APS size sensor in a digital camera.  In recent years they have been making full size sensors for DSLRs which improve quality and jacks the price up.  I have not bought one yet.  The full size sensor means a 100mm telephoto lens is still a 100mm telephoto, not multiplied as it would be on an APS sensor.  If this is too confusing, no worries, I will do a post on basic focal length in the future to simplify the topic.

The shot above was from my apartment window at mountains tha are at least 10-15 miles away. Using the 750mm equivalent, is like the view from binoculars or a telescope.  This image was shot at 1/200 of a second, but I braced against the window sill to steady the camera.

One very important aspect of a reflex lens is it a fixed aperture lens. There is no moving aperture, its "fixed", in the case of my Minolta,  at f 8. Aperture is the opening in the lens that allows light in for the exposure. It is similar to the iris in the human eye.  So on this unusual lens, you cannot change the aperture.

So you should shoot on aperture controlled setting on your camera, then the camera will adjust the shutter speed automatically to expose based on a constant f 8 aperture.  You could expose manually, choosing the shutter speed yourself, as long as you remember to keep the aperture on f 8. 

The shot above shows trees from a few hundred yards.  The telephoto lens "compresses" the image, so it appears flat.
An aperture setting of F8 requires a lot of light in general.  A long (telephoto) lens generally needs a fast shutter speed to prevent blur from movement by the photographer.  

The shot of this small hawk was shot at 1/4,000th of second. It was flying and I was tracking
hand held. It looks OK now, but if I crop it close, its blurry, as seen below.

So combining these aspects of this lens, you need to use a tripod for long exposures or shoot in bright sun so you can hand hold it with out blurring. 

The good news is you can increase your ISO (formerly known as ASA) in your DSLR so you can shoot a fast shutter speed.  The newer the camera, the faster the ISO will be.  The very fastest ISO is often not very good quality, so its better to stay in the midrange if you plan to enlarge the photo.  An old rule of thumb if you are shooting handheld photos, (no tripod) your shutter speed should be similar to or a higher number than your focal length.  For example a 100 mm lens could be hand held at 1/100 or 125th of a second or faster.  So with this 750 mm equivalent lens, my shutter speed should be 1/750th of a second or faster, such as 1/1000 or 1/2000.

All these aspects, F-Stop, shutter speed and movement all have to be coordinated by the photographer to acheive the desired image.  It seems complex at first, but its like driving a car, if you learn the gas, the brakes and the steering one at a time, eventually you can combine them to get where you want to go!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Challenging youself to be a better photographer in 2012

The start of the year is a good time to set some obtainable goals.  In the the USA at least, New Year's resolutions are popular to make and even more popular to forget later.  If you are serious about improving your photography skills, this post offers 3 suggestions for you to consider for the coming year.

1. Enter a photographic competition. 

This does not require you to wade into the fray on a professional level.  There are tons of photography competitions at all levels, an internet search will easily find many more competitions than you will have time to enter. If you have never entered one, it may be best to enter some local event so you can have face to face contact and feedback about your entry and recognition in your locale. 

This next photo was part of a series I shot for a themed show on "Masks" in Clayton, NC, around  Halloween 2004.

This is one of my favorite photos and is a natural light still shot of a Japanese mask sitting on "found items", including a rice bowl, a pad for hot pots and a colorful folder from a thrift store. 

A competition or exhibition forces you to pay attention to the details.  You have to concentrate your study a specific subject, utilize your  best technique and learn to display your work in a professional manner.

As a college student in Boone, North Carolina in the late '70's,  I entered my first competition sponsored by a local photography shop.  I was fortunate to earn a second or third place and a $25.00 gift certificate at the shop.  In those days $6.00 would buy a tank of gas for my Mustang, so it was significant boost to my photo budget.

The subject then was a clown passsing out balloons on the King Street in Boone and it was done in black and white (B & W).  I was taking a photography course at ASU and printed it in the darkroom there.

I do not have a digital shot of the shot I entered, but here is a shot of me taken in photography class and hand printed around 1976.

The competition was a turning point for me as it motivated me to apply myself more  to the craft. The positive reinforcement of recognition for my shot added to my enjoyment and interest. 

A few years ago I entered a competition by a local animial protection league.  I won the category of "Senior Cat" with a shot of our cute cat, Monica.  We were rewarded with a basket of cat goodies and we helped promote an important non-profit organization.  See: --Monica at the bottom of the page.

The following link will take you to a top level annual competition that I was fortunate enought to see exhibited in 2007 in London.  Search the archives from this competition to see the best in the world in the challenging category of wildlife and nature.

I entered the shot below in the same International Wildlife Competition the following year.  Although it did not make it to the finals, I learned from the process.

This was shot at Lake Johnson in Raleigh, NC., with a 200 mm 2.8  Minolta lens on a Sony DSLR, at close range. (I will do a post soon on what the numbers mean on lenses) The backlighting makes this action shot stand out.  The cropping is a little tight, it might be better with a little more space around the duck.
If you enter a competition, be aware that you are giving away the use of your image, time and other valuable investments and if the only reward is publication in a marketing document benefitting the sponsor, it might not be the best avenue.  Many competitions also require an entry fee.  Choose one you have a chance at success and one that will reward you for your efforts or at least supports a  good cause.  In the USA, a county or state fair is a good place for your first entry and you can get the entry information in advance.

2.    Study your camera instruction manual and PRACTICE using the various setting and features. 

With digital cameras, you can practice and delete with no extra cost, so shoot a few hundred frames and discard the rejects back to cyber- purgatory.  When you need to really make a good shot later on, you will have the tools dialed in and be able to use them quickly.

       If you never read my blog again, nor take a photography class, using your manual will be a great investment in improving your skills.  If you do not have your manual, you can usually locate it online from the manufacturer.  Look at your camera body for the company and model information to narrow down your search.

       Camera manufacturers sell new models because they add new features or gimmicks and they change annually or sooner.  You should make use of the features on your camera as they will be obsolete in a year or two.  Choose a shoe or cat or something easy for a subject and just try to apply the information from the manual to a variety of shots.

My Sony A-55 will do some amazing things that I did not know about til I took the time to read the manual.  I bought it used from craiglist and did not have time to get acquainted until I arrived in Hokkaido.  It will shoot about 5 shots quickly in low light (night time) and digitally combine them to create a shot that normally would require a tripod and a long exposure.

This shot of snow removal with snow falling in the background shows how spectacular a night scene can be. In the old days with film cameras it was exceedingly time consuming and difficult to shoot something like this.  This one was done spur of the moment, hand-held as I walked up on the scene near the local market.

3. Another pro-active concept is take your camera with you and check the settings and set it up to shoot a quick series of shots in your current light and environment. 

 If an award winning or newsworthy shot happens in a window of a few seconds, you can point and shoot instead of adjusting your ISO or exposure compensation while the shot runs off into the woods! 
Armadillo and my friend Kazu, Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia, USA

So 3 ways fairly painless ways to become a better photographer in the coming year. 

1. Enter a competition.
2. Read your manual and practice with the camera.
3. Program your camera for quick action and take it with you whenever you can.
You might have noticed I use google blogspot and I also have some google albums.  Picasa is a free google photo software that is easy to use.  If you do not already have photo editing software, consider downloading Picasa. I have used it for about 10 years with great success.  I have photoshop, but it takes a lot of time to learn to use.

Another note, if you double click the photos in the blog they will enlarge on your screen. 

Thanks for reading, feel free to comment or follow the blog.  I do not have a definite schedule for postings, but there is system to send out emails to those who want to be notified of new postings that I will research and apply to the blog.

Parting shot taken today at Tonebetsu forest park, Iwamizawa, Hokkaido.  I went nordic skiing there today with my wife, Pamela.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Year of the Dragon

The focus (pun intended) of this blog is photography.
The photo below gives a good hint about the title of this post.

I recently moved from North Carolina, USA, to the northern Japan island of Hokkaido.

The next shot taken by my wife, shows me purifying my hands and hopefully my soul for the new year, at the Shinto Shrine in Iwamizawa City.

As any serious photographer knows, it is nearly impossible to get the shots you want while accompanied by your spouse on a recreational outing.

So I came back the next day with my craiglist purchased 100mm F-2 Minolta AF lens mounted on my Sony A-55 to shoot some more
serious photos.

I hunkered down for this handheld shot of the purifying water.  I thought it was OK, but not the best.  So the next day and my third visit to the shrine, I brought my carbon fiber Gitzo tripod and my 2.8, 100mm Minolta Macro lens.  Of course by then the cleansing springs were covered with a blue tarp and most of the festivities packed away for next year, leaving me few inspirational subjects.
    As I started home, I was thinking there would not be anything much to shoot.  Then I remembered that a "real" photographer would not have such thoughts.  I turned the corner and found this ice formation on the side of the street.

I tried a few angles to catch the sunset colors in the back or a dark background of cedar trees.

These were also shot hand-held, the light was fading fast and there was knee deep snow to deal with.

The moral of the story if you cannot find something worth shooting, you probably should take up another hobby.  One of my favorite photography authors back in the ancient day of film, Freeman Patterson, used to have work-shop students shoot whatever was found in a hoop made from a coat hanger thrown randomly in a field.
    All that glitters is not gold.....but a Dragon's tooth can be found if you are willing to look it in the mouth....

Til next time... keep your lenses clean and your eyes open!