Monday, October 12, 2009

It's all about Vision

Continuing the theme from last week, photography is all about vision. Oh sure, great hardware helps to 'render' your vision, but do you really need it?

Here's a photo of the much-photographed Empire State Building in New York City:

It is, of course, located at 34th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan. I was in New York visiting my brand new granddaughter (oh yeah, and my son and daughter-in-law, and my sister and her husband, but the baby was the real reason!) and I took half a day to go into Manhattan specifically to visit B&H Photo. More on that later.

I bought a little point-and-shoot camera at B&H — not state-of-the-art, just something to kick around with. It's a Nikon (of course!) Coolpix S560. I threw in the battery and an SD-card and tried it. This is probably the 4th frame I shot with it (the first three being, "oh THAT's how that works"). Wasn't the lighting great?

About an hour later, I came back and shot this picture from exactly the same spot.

I had lost the light — the sun went behind some clouds, but this was shot with my D300 and my 12-24mm lens. Both shots were at the 35mm equivalent of 36mm. I was trying for the same picture.

Which one is better? The first one, because of the lighting.

I was interested in the comparison, so I cropped both shots in tight and converted them to monochrome. Except for the obvious lighting difference, which one is better (click the image to blow it up)?

The $2500 camera/lens combination on the left is contrastier and does have an edge in pixel sharpness but the $100 point-and-shoot isn't bad! It wasn't really a fair test because they were shot under different conditions, so it will be interesting to repeat the experiment under controlled conditions some time.

Does the equipment really make a difference? Sometimes. This picture was captured using the "C" (continuous) focus mode on the D300, relying on the high speed Silent Wave Autofocus motor in the Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 lens. I shot at high repetition rate, about 6 frames/second. Blow it up and check out the tack-sharp focus. I did basically nothing to this shot in Photoshop, other than to rotate it for better framing.

This beast is a "turkey vulture", hanging around the dump in Minden.
Ugly, but majestic in flight.

...and sometimes not. This was done with the little Coolpix (by the way it's time to start thinking about getting ready for winter!).

It's all in your vision. Don't be afraid to get out and shoot no matter what kind of equipment you have. There is one caveat, though: be familiar with your camera. Know how to adapt to different lighting situations. Know how to use the tools you're using so that your mind can be focused on the image you're trying to create, not the hardware.

Here's one more image taken with the Coolpix. I went for a bicycle ride and couldn't have carried the big SLR with me. That's what I bought the little guy for!

I did create the clouds and sky in Photoshop. Much better than the featureless sky that was there. It was easy to do using the "Magic Wand" tool to select the bright sky then "Select Similar" and "Render Clouds" after choosing the blue and the white colours.

B&H Photo
I said I'd comment more about B&H Photo in New York. The place is overwhelming. I had only 2 hours but wish I had had the whole day to spend there. It's located at 34th St. and 9th Ave. in Manhattan and the best way to get there is by subway (take the "A" Train: I feel a song coming on!). They do have a parking lot, but I think you'd be nuts to try to drive into the city.

The store is the size of a typical department store. But it's just cameras! When I came in, I told the 'greeter' that I wanted to talk to someone about a technical issue with my D300, and I wanted to look for a point-and-shoot. He asked me what brand, and I said I didn't know, I was hoping for some advice. They have kiosks set up for each brand. One for Nikon. One for Canon. One for Sony. One for Panasonic. etc. You get the picture. At each kiosk they have EVERY CAMERA that maker has to offer on the market: set up so you can pick it up, play with it, shoot some pictures, and talk to an expert in that brand. You see why I said I needed more than two hours?

There were at least 80 cameras in the price range I wanted to spend ($200: I told you, I just wanted a little backup camera, not a fancy beast). I tried most of them. I couldn't decide — people told me to go for a Canon but I didn't like it as much as the Nikon (I'm biased, but the image looked better on the LCD. That said, it's not about what it looks like on the LCD but what it's like on the computer!). There was a Kodak camera with better features, but more than one person told me to stay away from that brand. So here I am, waffling back and forth, and completely out of time. I was supposed to meet my sister at 42nd & 5th in 5 minutes (I was late). I gave up. I decided I would order something online another day. On the way to the exit, there was a big sign: "Used Equipment". I wanted to look for a TC-17e teleconverter for my 70-200, so I stopped to ask. Nothing. "Do you happen to have any used Point-and-Shoot cameras?" Yep. The S560 came with everything, including a 2Gb SD-card and case, for $120. How could I NOT buy it?

So here's how it works: you agree to buy it. They throw it in a bin that looks like a typical blue box and put it on a conveyor belt. You go down to the central cashier, pay, then walk to the pickup counter where, as if by magic, your camera is already bagged and ready to go. What a system!

I know I'm going on and on, but it's an incredible place. If you're into photography, you HAVE TO go there, just to see it. I talked to a Nikon expert about my D300 issue: You stand in line (for a second, I was next!) for the "next available tech support person" who sits at a station behind a counter. The guy I talked to was very knowledgeable. I wanted to know about the micro focus adjustment function and he explained it to me in detail. Yes, you may need to create more than one preset for multiple focal lengths on a zoom lens, and no, it's not unusual that a given lens/camera combination might benefit by doing so. He dismounted my lens and commented on how dirty it was in the camera, told me to buy a blower brush and cleaned it for me while we were talking. He recommended a different brand of teleconverter which was less than half the price of the Nikkor TC-17e, but I think I'll stick with Nikon product.

Oh, if you want Canon advice, it's not the same guy. These people are dedicated to the brands they're assigned to and they all shoot those brands themselves. This guy had a D700 and much the same lenses I do. By the way, I played with a D3 at the Nikon kiosk. I want one! Only $5000...

PS: Check their hours of operation before you go. They're a bit unusual  since they're closed on any Jewish holiday and of course on the Sabbath.

As I said, I met my sister and brother-in-law. As we were walking past Macy's again, they had a string of "Santa Clauses in training". I handed my sister the Coolpix and she took this shot of me:

One more picture. This is what I went to New York to see:

This is the first time that I've put anyone else's pictures on my Blog. The following two images were made by Shannon Lafferty last weekend and they are superb. She gave me permission to post them here. No words are necessary. Click to blow them up as usual.

Shannon, I adore your work.

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