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Camera Class by Harry Flashman


Speed shooter from Sony

Sony has come out with a new camera, called the Alpha A77, about which the manufacturer claims it is the world’s fastest continuous shooter.  The claim covers the 12 full size frames which the Alpha A77 can rattle off every second.  Now that is an unbelievable speed, where most other digitals are stuck on 3-5 frames per second.

Sony describes this new camera as being in the “prosumer’ class, and those who have tried it say the speed claimed is no ad-speak.  It really does manage 12 frames a second, complete with shutter and mirror noises.  And if megapixels excite you, then the Alpha A77 does not disappoint with its 24.3 Mp.

The camera achieves its speed by virtue of two hardware additions: a powerful new Bionz image processor and, more importantly, Single Lens Translucent (SLT) technology, which features a see-through mirror.  It is, however, not a DSLR.

The use of this see-through mirror lets this camera use the more accurate phase-detection autofocus technology, allowing it to deliver sharper images even in high-speed mode or when capturing video.

In practice, this means that at a car racing event, you let the autofocus lock on to the body of the car and shoot away at 12 frames per second. Alternatively, you can use the Focus Peaking mode which will show you when the edges of your subject are sharp in manual focus mode.  The technology in the Alpha SLT also works to deliver sharp focus when capturing videos.

This camera will really suit fast-action photographers, and this fast-focusing, fast-shooting camera is incredibly useful for people interested in taking photos of their baby, open-zoo animal pix, or the children’s sports day.

The Alpha A77's fixed translucent internal mirror makes the difference. Because it doesn’t reflect the light coming through the lens to an optical viewfinder as in an SLR, the camera doesn’t meet the ‘reflex’ requirement of the ‘digital single lens reflex’ (DSLR) name.

The light passing through the A77’s lens is partially redirected to the camera’s autofocus sensor.  The translucent mirror means that the Alpha A77's phase-detection autofocus system works when the camera is shooting video or is in burst mode, neither of which is the case with a DSLR.  In a traditional DSLR, the mirror is flipped up and remains up during video and in burst shooting mode, and the DSLR’s through-the-lens, phase-detection autofocus system uses the camera’s less effective contrast-detection autofocus system.

The speed-shooting 12 frames per second burst mode at full 24.3 megapixel makes it the first camera to shoot images at a resolution of greater than 20 megapixels with a speed faster than 5 fps.

The A77 is also the first interchangeable-lens camera to support the AVCHD Progressive format when shooting video, meaning that it can capture 1080p video footage at a higher frame rate and at a higher bitrate, with continuous autofocus employed.

Last year, Sony’s Alpha A55 and Alpha A33 offered Translucent-mirror technology but the Alpha A77 with 24.3 megapixel sensor (up from 16 megapixels in the A55), the new Bionz image processor (which has to be powerful to process huge image files and all of those AF adjustments simultaneously), a faster burst mode despite the significantly higher-resolution images, and video capabilities that appear to be second to none when matched up against consumer DSLRs.

So what don’t you get?  The first and main loss for many photographers is the optical viewfinder.  Instead, you get a 2.5-million-dot OLED eye-level viewfinder - which Sony claims is the first OLED EVF in the world, and is currently the sharpest and brightest in the field.  And it provides a crisp, bright, full-coverage view, and you get the benefit of better low-light visibility, a histogram display, and detailed data through the eyepiece as you're shooting - all advantages over an optical viewfinder.

The Alpha A77 may not be a DSLR, but you get a versatile interchangeable-lens camera with high-speed capture, video capabilities, autofocus sharpness, creative in-camera filters, and fun-to-use modes.

The Sony Alpha A77 is slated to be available in October for $2000 as a kit with a 16-50mm/F2.8 zoom lens, or for $1400 for the body only.

An enduring photographer

About 12 years ago, I met up with a wandering Swedish photographer in Pattaya, called Gerhard Joren.  At that time, Gerhard had been a pro shooter for 16 years, taking shots all over the world.  On his website he now admits that he has been wandering the globe, taking photographs for the last 28 years, so he hasn’t got it out of his system yet.

In many ways Joren is an example for all weekend photographers with any ambition.  He has arrived where he is, an internationally known photographer, by learning at the feet of the greatest teacher in the world - experience!

After deciding to be a photographer he did a six week night course in Sweden.  He then went to America and talked his way into a job with one of New York’s top professionals.  “After two weeks when they found out how much I didn’t know, I was sacked!  But I soon got another job after I said I had worked for the first chap,” said Gerhard with a laugh.

In those early years, Gerhard says he took many dreadful photographs - his “worthless images” as he calls them, but he feels an exhibition of these would be beneficial.  It could show to people that you can still take good pictures later on - if you persevere.  And let me assure you, Gerhard takes good pictures.

He also believes in the old adage that it takes the same amount of time to take a bad picture as a good one - so you may as well apply yourself and do the best you can.

He had some advice for the amateur photographers in the world, and here it is from the professional himself … “Learn exposure from slide film.  Look at other people’s pictures and ask yourself, ‘How did they do that’?  Thirdly, move in closer but respect your subject.”

Expanding those very important pieces of advice, let’s see what he means.  Taking exposure, yesterday’s print film had a lot of “latitude”.  In other words, you did not need to get the exposure 100 percent correct to still get a printable image.  However, to get the BEST image possible you should expose correctly.  Slide film has no latitude, so when you can shoot slides correctly, you will have the best exposures.  By the way, slide film is cheap and quick to process - just ask the lab not to mount them and you can place the strips on a light box and compare all the different exposures side by side.  Tip: if you haven’t got a light box use a fluorescent light fitting!  You will also need to have written the exposures down, so you can see what the result is compared to the settings used.  But now in the digital age, correct exposure returns the best results.  OK?

All photographers look at other’s work. In fact, when Gerhard and I started chatting we both mentioned J-H Lartigue (those of you with long memories will remember we covered Lartigue’s work a few years ago).  Gerhard said that amateurs can learn just by studying photographs and working out how the photographer got that particular image.  Was it the time of day?  Was it the angle it was shot from?  Was it the placement of the people in the shot?  Ask and try for yourself.

The last piece of advice you have been given here many times - walk right up and make the subject the “hero”.  The main item of interest being too small is the most common reason for photo failures.

Gerhard Joren has learned from his own early “worthless images” and is in the process of compiling a book of poignant Black and White photographs.  I have seen some of them and they are brilliant examples of true photojournalism.  “I am the messenger, not the prophet” is Gerhard’s description of his work.

He spends ten months on the road and two months recovering.  He has no favorite from the 45 or 50 odd countries he has visited in the past 28 years.  “I am where my stomach is.”  It was a pleasure to break bread with him while he was in Pattaya.

French bread and Willy Ronis

There is a large black and white photograph on the wall of my local coffee shop attributed to Willy Ronis.  It is slightly blurred, and yet the photo does everything that a photojournalist would want of his shots.  The boy is running with the long French bread loaf, and you can almost read his anticipatory thoughts as he runs home with the bread.

In many ways, Willy Ronis is the epitome of the French photojournalism school, being a photographer who probably showed post WWII French life better than anyone.  Even in the photo of the boy, the ‘prop’ of the French bread puts the photograph directly into France.

Ronis was actually born in Paris, of a Jewish refugee father from Odessa, and a Lithuanian refugee mother.  The principles of photography came from his father, who had opened a photography studio in Montmartre.  The business offered three primary services: portraiture, retail and retouching of prints for other photographers, and the young Willy Ronis was recruited to assist in retouching portraits.

However, the boy’s early interest was music and he hoped to become a composer, but when his father died from cancer, he had to concentrate on maintaining the photography studio and the portraiture business.

The work of other now famous photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams influenced Ronis, who closed the family studio to allow him to concentrate on reportage.

Ronis met other photographers of his generation, including David “Chim” Seymour (AKA David Szymin) who would become a good friend.  In the 1930’s he also came to meet Robert Capa (then known by his given name André Friedmann) and Henri Cartier-Bresson.  The four of them, along with George Rodger, founded the, now celebrated, Magnum agency.  With Cartier-Bresson, Ronis belonged to Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, and remained a left wing socialist.

The advent of WWII interrupted his photographic career, but in 1946 he joined Robert Doisneau, Brassaï and others at the Rapho Agency.  Ronis was the first French photographer to work for LIFE Magazine.  His reputation was such that in 1953 Edward Steichen included his work in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art titled Five French Photographers - the other four being Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Izis and Brassaï.

In 1957 Ronis was awarded the Gold Medal at the Venice Biennale, but his photographic career was waning.  He began teaching part-time that year due primarily to the growing competition within the field of photo reportage.  By 1968 he was teaching full time and over the next eight years taught at the School of Fine Arts in Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Saint Charles, Marseilles.

Some of his most celebrated photographs include Provençal Nude taken in 1936 of his wife, the Communist militant painter Marie-Anne Lansiaux (1910 - 91).  This photograph, taken in a house that he and Anne Marie had just bought in Gordes, showed Marie-Anne washing at a basin with a water pitcher on the floor and an open window through which the viewer can see a garden, and this is noted for its ability to convey an easy feeling of Provençal life.  The photograph was a “huge success”; Ronis would comment, “The destiny of this image, published constantly around the world, still astonishes me.”  Later in her life, Ronis photographed Marie-Anne suffering from Alzheimer's disease, sitting alone in a park surrounded by autumn trees, to show the loneliness of an Alzheimer’s sufferer.

Ronis continued to live and work in Paris, although he stopped photography in 2001, since he required a cane to walk and could not move around with his camera.  He also worked on books for the Taschen publishing company.

In 2005-2006 when he was then 95, the City of Paris presented “Willy Ronis in Paris”, a large retrospective show of his work, that had a huge success with over than 500,000 visitors.

Willy Ronis died at age 99, on September 12, 2009, but his photographs live on, even on the wall of my local coffee shop!  It is worth your while looking up some of his photographs and you will see the eye of the master.

10 (Advanced) Digital Tips

At the beginning of this year I gave 10 pointers for amateurs to improve their photography.  This time I am giving 10 tips for photographers who have moved up from the just point, shoot and hope level and could be considered advanced weekend photographers.

1.  Begin with the Rule of Thirds.  In this, you position the main subject one third in from either side of the frame and one third up from the bottom, or down from the top.  Putting the main subject slap-bang in the middle produces a very boring photograph.  Practice with thirds to get better and more interesting pictures.

2.  Digital cameras have become very smart at counteracting camera shake, but there is a limit.  Holding the camera in one hand while waving one, two, three fingers at the subject is a recipe for “soft” fuzzy photos.  Hold the camera in two hands.  One hand around the body and one around the lens and hold the camera close to your body for support, not at arm’s length.  If you are shooting with a slow shutter speed, use a tripod or monopod whenever possible, or use a tree or a wall to stabilize the camera.

3.  Most digitals have an in-built light meter, but if yours does not, the Sunny 16 rule will help you.  In bright sunshine, choose an aperture of f/16 and 1/100th of a second shutter speed at ISO 100.  You should end up with a sharp image that is neither under or over exposed.

4.  Use a Polarizing filter.  This filter helps reduce reflections from water as well as metal and glass; it improves the colors of the sky and foliage, and it will protect your lens too.  The recommended kind of polarizer is called a circular polarizer because these do not confuse the automatic metering.

5.  Learn to control ‘depth’.  When photographing landscapes it really helps to create a sense of depth.  Use a wide-angle lens for a panoramic view and a small aperture of f/16 or smaller to keep the foreground and background sharp.  Placing an object or person in the foreground helps give a sense of scale and emphasizes the depth of field to infinity.  You may need a tripod as a small aperture usually requires a slower shutter speed.

6.  Note the background and keep it simple.  If possible, choose a plain background - neutral colors and simple patterns.  This is vital in a shot where the model is placed off center.

7.  Avoid flash indoors.  Flash can look harsh and unnatural like a rabbit in the headlights.  To avoid using flash, push the ISO up - usually ISO 800 to 1600 will make a big difference for the shutter speed you can choose.  Use the widest aperture possible - this way more light will reach the sensor and you will have a nice blurred background.

8.  Become familiar with ISO ratings.  The ISO setting determines how sensitive your camera is to light and also how fine the details of your image.  When it is dark push the ISO up to a higher number, say anything from 400 - 3200 as this will make the camera more sensitive to light and then we can avoid blurring.  On sunny days choose ISO 100 or the Auto setting as we have more light to work with.

9.  Pan to show motion.  Choose a shutter speed around two steps lower than usual, so 1/30 is a good average.  Lock the focus and follow the action and shoot.  This gives a sharp subject and a blurred background.  You will need to practice this many times.

10.  Experiment with shutter speed.  Don’t be afraid to play with the shutter speed to create some interesting effects.  When taking a night time shot, use a tripod and try shooting with the shutter speed set at 4 seconds.  You will see that the movement of the object is captured along with some light trails.  If you choose a faster shutter speed of say 1/250th of a second, the trails will not be as long or bright; instead you will freeze the action.