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Camera Class by Harry Flashman


Is Technology sometimes too smart?

We live in a technological age. Everything from your computer to your TV remote features ‘drop-down’ menus, through which you scroll and then press the ‘select’ button or whatever. Even resetting the digital clock in the family car requires an instruction manual. With cameras, the digital revolution has brought us the dreaded drop-down menu as well, plus other claimed advances.

These claimed advances include super little plastic bits called ‘memory chips’, onto which you store hundreds of your photos, to download to your computer when you feel inclined, and print even later. No more need to carry film canisters that store the negative film with a measly 36 images on each one. Hooray for technology!

However, is it quite as good as it is cracked up to be? There was a communication that had been written to the Bangkok Post, in which the letter writer was pointing out the fact that when he used to travel he would take 12 rolls of print film with him, which gave him a minimum of 432 frames. This needed the power of one fully charged NiCad battery and he was set up for the trip.

But technology has arrived, film is old hat, and now he needs three memory chips to cover the same number of shots, with each chip costing around B. 3,000. He also needs much more than one fully charged battery, so needs to take additional ones, and a battery charger. If he wished to save on chips being carried, he could download his single chip to a computer, meaning that he would have to carry a lap-top as well. The accoutrements of technology becoming both space consuming, and expensive.

The writer also found that he was now totally dependent upon a source of electricity, mentioning that sometimes this is not available as in some places in India, parts of China, and remote areas in Russia, Tibet and Nepal and many other countries. Suddenly, technology and its drop-down menus is not so user-friendly as it is claimed, and in fact has some serious limitations. The battery technology is definitely lagging behind. The writer states, “It tickles me pink to know it (technology) is so easily defeated and fallible.”

Now it should be pointed out that the writer said he was forced to go digital as his print film camera was deemed obsolescent after being in his possession for 12 years. “Just think of the simplistic beauty of a print film camera. Point, (auto) focus and shoot,” he wrote nostalgically, almost as if he had been forced at gun-point into the new technology.

Up till then, I felt very sorry for the writer, but what was being glossed over is that print film, and print film cameras are now completely dead. When we were all using a print film camera, you had all that simplicity, but it actually was not as simple as today’s DSLR. “Point, (auto) focus and shoot” is just the same, other than the fact that it is faster, more accurate and even simpler, and you have the most fantastic feature of ‘instant’ review. You know immediately whether you got the shot you wanted. Something print film cameras could never do.

But what camera remains my favorite? The venerable old Nikon FM2N. A totally mechanical camera with no drop-down menus, but handy rotary buttons on the top of the camera which I can turn to change shutter speed and the ISO of the film. A rotating ring on the lens barrel gives me complete (manual) control of the aperture too. Advance the film by working the lever. How simple is that? Unlike the letter writer, I do not have to carry spare batteries either.

Returning to the letter, “My new digital has buttons, bells, lights, menus to choose from, enough to rival a Boeing 747 cockpit. Who needs it all? Is it really necessary?” he asks. The simple answer is that it is not really necessary, but certainly will produce better results.

Simplistic beauty is better served these days than before. Believe, even I run completely digital these days.

Fungus isn’t really fun

In tropical, humid countries such as Thailand, everything grows very easily and quickly. Including fungi. A while back I had the problem of one of my lenses growing vegetables for me. A much loved 18 mm wide angle f2.8 Nikon began to get those tell-tale ‘spidery’ webs on the front element of the lens. I tried carefully polishing with a soft cloth, but to no avail. The fungus was on the inside of the lens not the exterior.

Like many photographers, you become adept at not seeing the gradual degradation of sharpness in your photographs, until one day it was no longer possible to ignore. Fortunately, my late photographic friend Ernie Kuehnelt knew of a place in Bangkok that claimed it could clean lenses. He took the 18 mm there and it was ready the next day. Cost? 500 baht and that was all, and I have a sparkling clean lens again. It was even easier than they had thought initially, having quoted 800 baht as the estimate.

I am happy to reward good work, so here is the name of the shop (and I hope it is still there). It was T.K. Camera Repair, 164/1 Sukhumvit Road, Soi 8, Bangkok, telephone 02 253 3827.

So how do you check for fungus? It is quite simple really. Take the lens off the camera (provided it is an SLR) and screw the aperture setting round to its maximum opening (this will generally be 2.8 or 1.4 if you have a super ‘fast’ lens). This allows you to scrutinize as much of the glass lens elements as possible. Look from both end towards a white background and see if you can spot the little trails or tendrils of the fungus. A little is acceptable around the edges, but it will continue to grow, so it will mean a trip to the camera doctor one day.

I have been asked in the past just how do you check a camera to make sure it works correctly. The simple answer is that you look critically at photographs taken through it, but there are some items you should check first. Take a good look at the camera body, as well as the lenses as described above. Look for dents and scratches that would indicate that the camera has been dropped. Rule 1, don’t buy dropped cameras. For the camera body to be a light-tight box, it has to be completely rectangular. Even a small distortion will show up problems. The electronics, when they get shaken up are potential problems. They will always fail at the wrong time.

The next item to check is the battery section. Open it up and peer inside after removing the battery. If there are signs of corrosion on the terminals, this means that a battery has been left too long and has leaked. This is bad news, as the corrosion can get into the camera works and the electronics. The fumes will also damage the electronics. Rule 2, don’t buy corroded cameras.

Now is the time to see just how well the camera does as far as taking pictures is concerned. Put it on Aperture Priority and take a series of shots, each one at the ascending aperture values. Now do the same with Shutter Priority, using the different shutter speed settings. Now take shots on Auto Mode of different scenes - some dark, some bright. Finally put the camera into Manual Mode and go through the different shutter speeds and aperture settings, adjusting for correct exposure each time.

Now here is the tricky bit, which needs you to look at the results. Being digital you need to hook up to a large screen computer, squinting at the LCD screen on the back of the camera is not good enough. You should have series of shots, all with the same density if the modes are working correctly. Check the sharpness of the images.

If the camera passes all the inspections and dynamic testing, then it is in good condition and with correct use and regular servicing should stand you in good stead for at least 18 years. Just look out for the fungus!

Never get another out of focus photograph again

Focus foreground.

Background focus.

Just when you thought we had seen it all, along comes the Lytro camera. This technological marvel allows you to focus the photograph, after you have taken the picture, not before!

Countless articles have been written over the years, including some here, on how to make sure you get pin-sharp pix, with or without AutoFocus (AF). It now looks as if you can forget all that with the new Light Field technology which is being developed by Lytro Inc in the USA.

This technology puts a whole new perspective on the genre of ‘point and shoot’ photography.

According to the Lytro Press Release, it is developing a “light field” camera for consumers that will forever change the way people take and experience pictures. Later this year, Lytro will start selling light field cameras that can capture all of the light rays in a scene to offer photographic capabilities never before possible, such as focusing a picture after it’s taken. Lytro cameras will also create interactive, living pictures that can be endlessly focused and refocused by both the photographer and the viewer, bringing new creative possibilities to photography.

Lytro’s light field camera probably represents the most significant shift in photography since the transition from film to digital in 1988. The light field fully defines how a scene appears, from the foreground to the background and everything in between. Unlike conventional cameras, which can only record a scene in two dimensions, light field cameras can capture all of the light traveling in every direction through a scene in four dimensions. A light field picture taken with a Lytro camera can be manipulated after the fact in ways not possible with editing software.

“This is the next big evolution of the camera,” said CEO and Founder Dr. Ren Ng. “Lytro is introducing Camera 3.0, a breakthrough that lets you nail your shot every time and never miss a moment. Now you can snap once and focus later to get the perfect picture.”

Since the camera doesn’t focus before a photo is taken, people will no longer miss the decisive moment due to the conventional delay of the lens autofocusing as you press the shutter button.

Lytro creates interactive, living pictures that will allow viewers to immerse themselves in a living picture to discover and focus in on new details by simply clicking on different parts of a picture.

By using all of the available light in a scene, light field cameras can capture better pictures in remarkably low light environments without the use of a flash.
Using the full light field, Lytro cameras provide an immersive 3D picture that goes beyond the conventional stereo 3D by, for example, controlling the perspective view of a scene.

“Lytro’s breakthrough technology will make conventional digital cameras obsolete. It has to be seen to be believed,” said investor Marc Andreessen, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz.

“Humans have a deep desire to capture the experience of their lives and share it visually with others,” said Emmy-award winning multimedia journalist Richard Koci Hernandez. “From early man’s cave paintings more than 30,000 years ago to the first people posing for daguerreotype photos wearing iron collars to stay still in the 1800s, humans have gone to great lengths to tell visual stories. Light field cameras are the next step in that picture revolution.”

The digital still camera market is large and growing with $38.3 billion in worldwide revenue in 2010 and expectations to increase to $43.5 billion worldwide by 2015. Visual storytelling is universal, with 60 billion photos shared on Facebook in 2010, projected to reach 100 billion photos by this summer.

Undoubtedly this computational approach to the reproduction of images is the way of the future, the way forward. And equally as predictable, will be the howls of rage from the ‘conventional’ photography bloc throughout the world - the same group that pooh-poohed the digital camera as giving nowhere near the same precision and clarity as the now long dead film cameras. However, this light field technology should mean you will never miss another photo opportunity gain!

If you would like to experience what is coming, visit the Lytro Picture Gallery

Tabletop photography

As a commercial photographer, much of the work that came along was tabletop photography. The most usual was for catalogues, and you have all seen those, just have a look in your letterbox.

These are generally photos of individual items, all placed in the same positions and all of the same size. This style of catalogue photography is very easy and not beyond the capabilities of any weekend photographer with a good camera and some lights, and these do not need to be expensive either.

For this type of commercial photography you will only need three lights - one on one side of the object, one on the other side and the last one to light the background.

Now in the professional arena, the main lights will be flash heads, usually triggered off by an Infra-Red sender from the camera, but for the weekend photographer, you do not need to go to this expense to start with. You can buy internal reflector lights - the kind of light often used as a spotlight in the garden. My first ones were attached to dinner plates with tape, so they didn’t fall over.

The two front lights (left and right) you should place at around 45 degrees from the camera axis, and one should be twice as far from the subject as the other. You are not looking for flat lighting here, as it is necessary to get some shadow to give the object some form. This is called ‘modeling’, and expensive flash heads even have tungsten lights built in, and these are called modeling lights. These two main lights you can play with to get the effect you want, but once you have the result required, leave them alone, as you want the lighting to be the same for all the objects.

Because there is a linear relationship between these two lights and the square of the distance from the object, you can work out what the ratio is going to be, but at this stage, go on the appearance that your eyes can see.

The background light is also very important as it is needed to give some visual separation to make the object stand out from the background. I have found that lighting the background from below gives a good gradual tapering off of the light and again is left in position once the desired visual effect has been found.

Now if you are using the cheap tungsten spotlights, you now have to reset the white balance on your camera, or else you end up with different color casts which makes the objects look wrong, but once you have done that - fire away!

One item you will have to decide upon is the lens you are going to use. If you opt for a wide angle lens, you will have problems with distortion, as you will be shooting very close to the objects. If you move further away, the distortion will be less, but you will get all kinds of other images in the photo. The answer is to use a longer lens, so that you are further from the objects, and less likely to have light getting into the camera.

This longer lens does produce some other problems, in particular depth of field. In any catalogue, you cannot have the object going out of focus, so even though you are using a long lens, which produces a very short depth of field, this must be overcome. You do this by selecting the smallest aperture (which is the largest number on the lens) and around f16 is fine.

But this also means you will need a proportionally longer exposure time, so when shooting still-life objects you will need a tripod. For this type of photography, you do not need a large expensive tripod, but the small tabletop variety will be perfect. You can expect a shutter speed of several seconds.

So, to successfully carry out tabletop photography, you need three lights, a long lens and a tripod. It is not too difficult and if you follow the instructions this week, you will be able to produce good images which could be used in a catalogue.
Try your hand at it this weekend.

Getting rid of Red Eye and Noise

How many times has a great photo of a subject been ruined by unreal, staring red eyes in the person? There are a few causes for “red eye”. Ignoring the obvious ones of late nights with excessive alcohol intake and scratchy contact lenses, the photographic cause of “red eye” is the flash burst illuminating the back of the eyeball! This is particularly a problem with cameras that have their own in-built flash. The startling look of staring red eyes can certainly spoil an otherwise pleasant portrait.

The reason for this is that the beam of light from the flash is very close to and parallel with the axis of the lens, so the lens “looks” directly into the back surface of the eyeball as does the flash beam.

To get around this problem, professional photographers will use a flash gun mounted off to the side of the camera. In this way the flash actually comes across the subject’s eyes at an angle and “red eye” is less likely.

Another reason for the prevalence of “red eye” is that in low light situations (and that’s the times when you have to use flash illumination) the subject’s pupils are naturally dilated and it becomes even easier to see into the back of the eye.

Many camera manufacturers have now begun incorporating a “pre-flash” before the main flash to make the pupil contract, so it is less likely that you will see inside the eyeball. The only problem here is that many people imagine that the “pre-flash” going off means the picture has been taken and move away just as the main flash fires. If you are using a camera with this facility it is best to warn the subject that there will be two flashes, with the real one being the last one!

If all else fails, there are computer programs to change the color - or use sunglasses!