Does equipment make you a better photographer?

Christo Redentor - A photo made possible by having a lens as wide as 18mm

Anyone who has subjected themselves to the alternately useful and abusive site that is KenRockwell.com has probably noticed a fairly consistent theme from him:  Equipment won’t make you a better photographer.

He makes this point again in one of his more recent and less useful posts comparing the Nikon D7000 to the Canon 5D Mk II, noting “If you’re still wasting your time worrying about such trivia, I doubt you’ll ever expend the hard thought required in actually making great pictures, as opposed to merely armchair shopping for cameras.  Time spent worrying about equipment is time not spent on concentrating about your image, so if you waste time comparing cameras for too long, you’ll probably never make much in the way of exciting images.  Worse, when making this choice between today’s two top DSLRs, you’re also committing yourself to a bank of one brand of lenses or another.”

First of all, I think it is a very strange to compare these two cameras.  At the end of the day, a Nikon D700 is the most direct competitor to the Canon 5DMkII, and it is an inane observation to say that by choosing between a Nikon and a Canon you are committing yourself to the lenses compatible with those manufacturers (duh).  I also take exception to the condescending tone being used – vintage Ken.  But at least the thought being expressed here is important, and it is consistent with my thoughts in one of my early posts that said the best upgrade for a race car is to upgrade the driver.

So I am, shockingly, agreeing with Ken:  Photography is no different – a great photographer is good with a shoebox camera.  A terrible one would take poor shots with a D3s.

But let me add a caveat:  Good gear can be more forgiving for the Enthusiast Photographer and allow you to get better results.  It can enable you to get a shot you can’t without it.  For example, my shot of Christo Redentor would have been a lot more difficult to frame with my 35mm f/1.8, the only other lens available at the time.  But the equipment only gets you so far.

These days, almost any DSLR is going to be pretty darn good – choice there comes down to budget (for what level of camera) and handling preference (Nikon vs. Canon vs. Sony and others) in my opinion.  Having a good tripod, a well-designed bag or the right lens can absolutely improve your photography by giving you a better platform and by putting less in the way of you getting the image.  However, If you’re struggling to make use of your tools, it won’t matter much.

The net is one should balance gear procurement with the continued focus on the acquisition of knowledge and building your skill.  Plus, just get out there and shoot!

Hello Twitter

OK – Enthusiast Photographer has entered the world of Twitter.  I’ll follow people – I hope you’ll follow me.  I’m one of those people who is still a little mystified by Twitter, but I like anything that encourages communication, and honestly, that is one of the reasons I started Enthusiast Photographer.  Please follow me and help get the word out to anyone you think would be interested in the blog – thanks!

Ona Union Street Messenger Bag Review

The Ona Union Street Messenger - Available in three great-looking colors. (from the Ona website)

In my job, I travel a lot and I’m in a corporate environment.  When I’m flying, I’m often going places where I’d like the chance to take some photographs, but I’m faced with a dilemma:  I’m the Master of Complicated Travel.  The living example of Murphy’s Law with a plane ticket.  I’ve literally chased my luggage around the world (it is a long story, and in retrospect a funny one…), so if I can avoid casting my stuff into the abyss that can be the airline baggage handling system, I try to do that.  The problem?  You can only take two bags on the plane.

That means I can’t have a briefcase, a camera bag and a carry-on piece of luggage.  I could (and have) put my camera bag in the carry-on, but that limits precious space for what is often a week or more of clothes to wear, plus I live in a non-hub city, which means my “carry-on” is often gate-checked for my first and last flights on small commuter jets.  That isn’t happening with valuable and delicate camera gear inside.

So the next option is to find a bag that combines the briefcase and the camera bag.  Honestly, I thought that was going to be a non-issue.  There are lots of people like me, right?  Apparently not.

Searching around, you find lots of bags in the backpack style, which I don’t prefer.  First, I think they don’t fit well in the corporate world.  Second, they are often overkill for what I’m looking for.  Lastly and most importantly, I just don’t find wearing a backpack comfortable.  My current bag is a semi-backpack, the Lowepro Slingshot 202 AW.  It served me well enough at Disney and in the various shoots I’ve been on, but it is just a little too cramped, especially for my 80-200 f/2.8 and it feels heavy with all the gear inside.  It wants to be worn across your chest or it isn’t comfortable.

There are tons of variations on the traditional camera bag out there, too (e.g. the Domke F-2, Billingham 335, Gura Gear line, National Geographic, ThinkTank, etc.).  The problem is many of them look like they belong on “That 70′s Show” or “Star Trek” and generally they won’t accommodate a laptop.  No joy.

After some hunting around, I found a few references to a new company called Ona.  They make very stylish bags with the promise of high functionality.  Scanning their site, the bag I’m looking for is there:  The Union Street Messenger, a very nice-looking waxed canvas bag in sophisticated colors with nice leather trim.  It holds a laptop, a camera and an array of gear and posses discrete looks that don’t scream “I’M A CAMERA BAG” that fit well in a corporate environment and don’t encourage thieves any more than absolutely necessary.  So I ordered one from B&H.

The result?  I’m blown away by nearly everything about this bag.  Except the one thing that kills it for me.  I’ll explain.

I’m able to put my D90, Nikon 80-200 f/2.8, Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 (mounted), Nikon 18-200, Nikon 35 f/1.8, a blower, a couple batteries and miscellaneous cables and bits as well as my 14″ ThinkPad, iPhone, a USB hard drive and ThinkPad tablet (10″) in the Union Street. That is a lot of gear to fit in something so small-looking!  The quality seems excellent throughout, though time will always tell. All the leather, the fabric and the stitching seem very solid and well done.  This is a beautiful piece of work.  Let’s get to some photos (apologies for the poor quality):

Ona Union Street Bag

The Ona Union Street arrives in a nice dust/storage bag

Ona Union Street Bag

A first look inside the bag

Ona Union Street Bag Loaded

Gear without body. I wound up moving the small divider in the middle up to give the 80-200 more protection and allow more room for the camera to slide in with a lens mounted (typically the Tamron 28-75).

Ona Union Street Bag Completely Loaded

Fully loaded.

Ona Union Street Bag -  Carry Handle

The carrying handle

Ona Union Street Bag - All Contents

The complete contents I could fit in the bag. Really impressive!

The Ona Union Street deals with bulk reasonably well. The buckles holding the flap to the main body of the bag are high-quality. There is no cheesy and noisy velcro.  I was kind of hoping that you’d be able to press on the outside of the buckle to release/open, but it doesn’t appear to work like that easily for me. Slightly fiddly. I’m not a fan of fiddly, but it isn’t a huge deal-breaker.

The handle at the top looks like it would be unbalanced, especially when loaded. It isn’t, at least for light movement and picking it up/putting it down.

It carries very well – I’m amazed how light it feels vs. the same gear in my Lowepro on my back.  It feels very comfortable on my shoulder, and the strap is extremely strong.

The gear carries well overall. The 80-200 has plenty of depth, though the pockets are shallow enough that the foot on that lens worried me. I pulled the shallow divider out from the “body pocket” and made a full-height space for the lens. No worries. The foot does provide some dimension to think about – I kept it turned toward the compartment with the shorter lens vs. the body compartment.

With everything inside, I did need to extend the buckles on the straps to allow closure and locking the flap.  That is what they are there for, right?  The bag didn’t look like it was bursting at the seams loaded up.  All good.

The list of gripes is short, but fatal (but probably just for me).  There should be a “pull-strap” on the buckle to help pull the buckle into the snap.  As designed, you pull on the buckle and strap itself, which is not only awkward, but likely to cause wear on the holes in the leather over time.

But the biggest issue is that the front pocket is very, very tight. Even when the main compartment isn’t loaded with gear, access to the front pocket is extremely and unnecessarily tight. This is due to the fact that the zipper at the top of the compartment goes straight across the top of the two sewn sides of the pocket.  A simple, minimal flap or gusset to allow a broadening of the opening would have been all that was necessary. But as it sits, it is tremendously fiddly.  There are spaces for a cell phone, memory cards and other stuff (I threw in a USB hard drive, the iPhone, a couple extra batteries, some cleaning supplies, etc.). Net: My issues isn’t so much with the space, but the access to it.

The front pocket - aka the Achilles heel

Ultimately, I decided to return the bag.  For $279 I’m not willing to live with a key area of a bag I use that much being that inconvenient.  I’m probably more picky about that than most people. At the end of the day, it is a gorgeous and capable bag.  With a couple tweaks, it would be a real star.

Readers:  What bags are you carrying?  What do you love or hate about them?  Any of you have the Ona bag and a story to share?

Please feel free to comment, send me ideas/questions and of course read my other posts.  Thanks!

New Gadget: Back Rapid RS-7 Curve

The Black Rapid in action. Of course, that is a model from their website, not me :)

If there is an industry full of gadgets useful and not-so-useful (witness the $300 gloves recently annouced by Manfrotto), photography ranks near the top.  Being and Enthusiast Photographer means almost by definition that you’re on a budget.  Balancing what looks cool and useful against what you need to successfully improve your images can be a mysterious process at times.

I’ve made several purchases recently, but the first I’ll write about is the Black Rapid RS-7 Curve.  This is one of those things that makes you wonder why someone didn’t invent  it long ago.

Is the standard camera strap something you find a useful part of your kit?  Do you actually hang it around your neck like the classic tourist in the movies?  Do you hang the camera from your shoulder and find it secure and comfortable?

I’m guessing the answer to all of those questions is “No.”

Enter Black Rapid.  It is a sling that goes over your shoulder bandolier-style, with your camera hanging at the bottom.  It is secured by a screw mounted in the tripod mount of your camera (or lens if you have big glass with a built-in foot).  The screw has a rubber gasket that prevents damage as well as the screw coming loose.  A couple clips limit the range of swing by the camera.

The result is that the camera hangs perfectly and very comfortably on your hip, and is very naturally ready for action when it is time to take a picture.  Your hands quickly find the grip and you swing smoothly up to a shooting position.  The strap also gives you a little tension to use to steady your hands for a sharp shot.

They have several versions.  The higher-end models have modules you can add for storage, etc.  I can’t speak to any of the accessories, but the strap itself is just plain terrific, and they start a little over $50.  The camera is inconspicuous, comfortable and ready.  Highly recommended.  You can buy it at B&H or Amazon.  I’ll add a few pictures of the Black Rapid on my camera in the next few days – I’ll spare you the pictures of me ;).

Upcoming are blogs on the Ona Union Street bag and the new (used) tripod and head that is on the way to me (that will be a big one, or maybe several).

What gear are you thinking about?  You know, Santa is coming to town…

HDR

HDR Image of the Taj Mahal in India, by Trey Ratcliff

I was looking through Ken Rockwell’s Guide to the D90 and noticed a typical barb from him when it came to the section of the BKT button:

“This button is used to set the various exposure bracketing modes.  This is a hold-over from film days, and was a bad idea back then, too.  Don’t guess at exposures when you can look at your LCD and adjust from there.  HDR weirdoes might like it, but you shouldn’t need HDR if you do your lighting and use fill flash properly.

Forget this button.”

(and before you say it, yes, I use Ken’s site.  If you’ve read some of my other blogs, I do use and recommend his site as a resource for guides on settings and menus, etc.  His reviews can be a bit hyperbolic, but if you can get past all his arrogance and posturing, there is some great information there.)

Immediately, I was offended, for two reasons:  First, it is astounding to me that he’s writing a guide on how to use the D90 and he’s essentially skipping a whole button because he doesn’t like it???  Second, the comment about HDR is just uncalled for – you may not like or approve of HDR Ken, but you could be a big boy and explain how the button works.  Interestingly, he seems to have grown up just a little bit, since his D7000 review doesn’t take a swipe at HDR, giving at least a minimal explanation of the button and his coverage of the D5100 leaves it at “try it and you might love it”, noting that he doesn’t use it.

For some reason, it also make me have the thought that if you asked me who in the photography world, I’d immediately say Trey Ratcliff, the HDR guru and soul of the really cool Stuck in Customs website.

So far, I haven’t tried HDR (or High Dynamic Range photography), and I’ll admit to having slightly mixed feelings about it.  But so much of Trey’s work conveys something powerful and beautiful that I can’t condemn it.

I’m guessing you already know what HDR is, but for those who don’t know, I’ll take a swipe at explaining it from an interested outsider’s perspective:

Have you even taken a picture that shows a much different atmosphere than you were actually experiencing?  It is darker, more shadowy than reality, or maybe it seems much flatter that the scene you were looking at?  The roots of HDR are to allow an image to mimic the way the human eye and brain see the world.  Beyond that, folks engaged in HDR processing take advantage of the tools to also enhance the colors, saturation and a variety of other things that take the image beyond reality, but give it the ability to convey something in a way standard photography doesn’t always achieve.

It is typically accomplished by taking several shots at three or more levels of exposure.  If you’re guessing that having a tripod for shooting HDR is a good idea, you’re right.  It isn’t required, but it will make things a heck of a lot easier.  Anyway, you’ll have one or more dark exposures, a normal exposure and one or more bright ones.  Each image is going to have detail and parts of the image exposed in a way that the others won’t.  You use special software to merge the multiple exposures into a single image that allows you to take advantage of all the detail and information in the multiple images.  In each image, parts will be under- or over-exposed, but other parts will be perfect.  You get to use the best parts from the multiple photos to create a single HDR image, then use other tools to instill the mood or atmosphere you’re going for.

For some reason, it is one of the most divisive issues in the photography world.  I can only imagine it is similar to what the Impressionists went through in early struggles for acceptance.  There was much division.  They were mocked.  They were controversial.  Mainly, they broke the old rules.  They expressed themselves in a way that was new, just as Trey and other HDR devotees are today.  I’ve shown some examples below, but I highly recommend you view them full-size on Trey’s site – they are best experienced on a big monitor.

One of Trey's most famous works - the first HDR photo displayed in the Smithsonian Museum

One of my personal favorites from Trey

An example of the more surreal end of HDR

It is no surprise that Ken isn’t a fan of HDR – not only is it “tweaking” to a level that must make him twitch uncontrollably, but the best format to shoot for use with HDR is RAW!!

Like anything else, there are degrees of HDR.  If you look at Trey’s work on his page explaining HDR, you pretty much see the span: realistic to hyper-realistic to surreal.  At least for Trey, the goal is to covey something – a feeling, a moment, a mood, the atmosphere when the photo was taken.  Sometimes that takes him beyond what your mind believes, but virtually every one of his images is evocative of something in my head.  He doesn’t feel burdened by trying to make it look exactly has he saw it – he’s communicating the energy he saw it with.

When he talks about it, I almost hear him in a Yoda-voice describing The Force and the energy that surrounds us all.  Frankly, it is pretty cool to hear his quiet passion for photography and this method of processing, which is why he’s the guy I’d pick to hang around with: First of all, you’re likely to be somewhere interesting, and you’re absolutely not going to be bored, either.  He’s an interesting but humble cat.

His zeal is infectious, and it is clearly a liberating device for his disciples.  Shots that look very average un-processed can be very powerful through HDR.  Personally, the more surreal the shot the less likely I am to really enjoy it, but I do appreciate the form overall.  You can call it a lot of things, but you have to work hard for an HDR shot to be boring.  Not everyone does it well – sometimes it can be garish and exaggerated.  That said, I see a fair bit of HDR that isn’t my taste but is still clearly well done.

What is my opinion of HDR?  Anything that expands creativity and challenges the norm in such a positive way can only be a good thing.  I didn’t make the reference to the Impressionists lightly – I do think what HDR is offering to the world of photography is just as important as the dimension Monet, Renoir, Manet, Cassatt and so many others gave us in the world of painting.  The debate it creates can be ugly at times, but I think ultimately it broadens the world of photography and the number of people who consider themselves photographers.

So why haven’t I tried HDR?  I own a camera with a BKT function.  I’ve got some great glass (though I really want a Tokina 11-16 f/2.8). I shoot RAW (even one RAW image can be used to create an HDR image). I own Photoshop and multiple computers powerful enough to use the software.  I could even afford to get Photomatix since Trey’s site has a 15% off coupon code and his on-line class is less than a hundred bucks.  Mainly, it is a matter of time and the fact that I’m trying very hard to be good at the basic, classic photography before I start adding dimensions like HDR.  That said, I’ll probably be shooting with the idea that I’ll come back and play with HDR later.  Maybe I’ll even find a way to meet Trey!

What do you think about HDR?  How many of you have tried it?  As always, if you’re reading this, I’d love to hear your perspective!  I appreciate the time you took to read mine!

JPEG vs. RAW

I’ll warn you now – this is longer than I expected. A lot. If you’ve read my blogs at all, you’re used to it by now, but this is a whopper! I hope and think it is worth your time if you are an enthusiast photographer trying to decide what format you should shoot. It also has an angrier tone than my typical post, but condescending misinformation makes me boil a bit.  Lastly, if you’re new, you might want to check out my post “Are You Like Me?” (complete with disclaimers ;))  On with the blog:

If you want to get an idea of the worst kind of writing (and advice) in the photography world, start with Ken Rockwell’s rant on the topic of JPEG vs. RAW. He’ll tell you you don’t need it. He’ll scare you that your files might not work one day. He’ll insinuate that you have a hoarding problem for keeping them. He goes as far as saying “Raw is a waste of time and space, and doesn’t look any better than JPG even when you can open the files.”

What an absolute load of baloney. The whole article is a bunch of condescending, opinion-based, misinforming invective, and worse, it isn’t even factually correct in a few spots (we’ll get to that in a bit). Maybe it is an artifact of something written almost three years ago, but as someone who sees himself as a thought leader in the photography world, Ken should take responsibility and update his post on this controversial topic. Allowing it to stand on the internet is an embarrassment for him. Personally, I think he just enjoys being controversial. It drives people to his site, collects ad revenue for him, etc. He’s a shock jock driving his paycheck.

If you want a good laugh, Jared Polin has a series of amusing videos (if fairly repetitive – he could have stopped at two) rebutting Ken’s position: I tried to boil it down a bit, and I see where Jared failed, but I’m being slightly more concise than 11 YouTube videos. :)

My opinion is there are times to shoot JPEG, and times to shoot RAW. For me, if I’m doubt, I’ll shoot RAW. So when do I shoot JPEG? Any time when the pictures aren’t a big deal – neighborhood parties, pictures of my kids projects, etc. – the quick shots I just want to capture and get out of dodge, especially if I don’t want to burn storage space. 75% of the time when I’m shooting JPEG, I’m shooting on Auto, too – which happens less and less. There are serious photography situations that might recommend JPEG, but I don’t shoot them at this point.  Here’s the net for me: RAW offers the best chance at the final image I want, and it isn’t hard or time consuming.

At the end of the day, a RAW file is just like a digital version of a film negative. It gives you as much data as the camera and settings are able to deliver, and that allows you more control over what the final image looks like. I want the control. I like the control. It makes the end result better. I edit almost all the photos I liked a bit anyway, RAW just offers me broader and finer tools. That makes me a stupid, non-pro, info-hoarding time-waster in Ken’s book. If I was a nature or sports photographer and needed to shoot lots of images in an extended burst, it might be a little different. That said, there are a lot of highly successful sports photographers that did well with film, where your “buffer” was the number of pictures on a roll (meaning you had to stop shooting, pull the old roll out and put a new roll in after 36 shots – how quickly can you go through 36 shots now?). If these guys could be successful without today’s machine-gun frames-per-second, isn’t some discipline in shooting a good thing if RAW gives you better editing and detail?  I also see press needing to hand photos to someone immediately following a shoot as likely JPEG shooters.

It certainly isn’t for everyone. Maybe three years ago there weren’t as many commonly available tools to work with RAW files and they were hard to use. Today you have lots of support and lots of easy-to-use choices. If you don’t have the tools to edit RAW or you just want to trust what the camera can do for you in JPEG mode, there is nothing wrong with that. JPEG is simple. JPEG is smaller. JPEG is easy. You can customize your JPEG characteristics in-camera. But JPEG is a file refined to a point and the rest of the data is thrown away (to make the file smaller and use less space). That is fine, but have you ever tried to make an enlargement from a 5×7 print because you didn’t have the negative? I have, and it came out terrible. That is because the print didn’t have the information the negative had, and the negative would have made a perfect enlargement. See where this is going?

If you’re spending any significant time improving your photos on your PC and you consider yourself a photographer, I think you should shoot RAW most of the time because RAW has all the information you captured. The only real downside is the size of the files, and storage is cheap. Ken makes it sound like you have to spend huge amounts of time fixing a RAW file so it looks good. I don’t spend much additional time at all. It’s easy.

Here’s a nice YouTube video I found that illustrates what kind of flexibility RAW gives you:

In the name of saving storage, I will say that you should dump the bad files. It is a hard thing to do, but if the image is bad, delete it. It won’t get any better sitting on your hard drive, and digital makes it too easy to take a LOT of photos – the old days when each *click* cost you money are gone, and if you ever had that limitation, you don’t anymore. So no matter what you shoot, pick the keepers and dump the rest.

But let’s get to Ken’s points and my perspective: (note: these are all copied directly from the link above, except where I paraphrase as noted. If I have misconstrued Ken’s point, I apologize, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t.)
———————————————————————————————————-
“Get it right in-camera” and “Prolific shooters shoot JPG because time is money and we are able to get things right the first time.”
Gee Ken, I’m sorry I’m not as good a photographer as you. And when you shot film, you didn’t use any special techniques processing the negatives, did you? Even pros make mistakes. I once heard one tell a story very similar to a vacation situation I had: I left the white balance on Tungsten and all my outdoor shots looked green. If I’d been in JPEG, they would have been nearly useless. RAW gave me the ability to easily fix it completely. Yes, pros check and re-check, but sometimes we all make mistakes, and I’m definitely no pro – why not give myself the best chance for a great photo? Frankly, I kind of want to punch “get it right in-camera” snobs in the nose. I strive to take the best image I can in the camera, and there is nothing wrong with improving it from there.

“RAW requires dedicated software to read”
Possibly that was true in 2009 (though I think he was being selective in his view), but today, Windows XP, Windows 7 and Apple OS X all have native support for RAW codecs for a huge variety of cameras, and the manufacturers seem pretty intent on keeping them up to date. Freeware editing software like Picasa and others recognize RAW. And, of course, Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, Elements, Apple Aperture, Apple iPhoto and many photo processing programs fully embrace the RAW format.

“Raw is OK if you only shoot a few dozen images and you want to play around with each of them in Photoshop; JPG is best if you need hundreds or thousands of images each day and get them right in the camera to begin with” and “If you’re shooting action RAW doesn’t work”
What he’s saying here is that RAW files are larger than JPEG (which is true). Guess what? Storage is cheap! Buy bigger cards and a big external hard drive (a 2TB – 2,000GB! – drive is as little as $100 these days) and manage what you have. Also, wouldn’t shooting hundreds or thousands of JPEG images each day fill up a lot of storage, too? Wouldn’t that require lots of time to sort through and manage? And how can you be careful and thoughtful enough to get thousands of JPEGs right in-camera? Ken talks himself in circles sometimes.

As noted above, if you’re shooting action (sports, birds in flight, etc.), JPEG is probably a better bet – you’ll need to shoot more frames faster, and JPEG won’t fill up your camera’s buffer as quickly, especially if you aren’t shooting a pro body. If you do that kind of thing and want the advantages or RAW, shoot selectively and get a good, fast memory card (I use Lexar Pro and many swear by SANDisk Extreme cards). It won’t replace a big buffer, but it will help.  Ditto for press who need to hand their photos over immediately.

“Raw is a waste of time and space, and doesn’t look any better than JPG even when you can open the files.” and “Time is money to people who need to make money from photography.” and “Image quality is the same in JPG and raw”
Thanks for the reminder never to hire you, Ken. I want someone who is going to take the time to give me a great image and not see it as some kind of race. My guess is that outside of news photography (which are either printed or on the web in a very small format and where time is so critical) that very few commercial images are published without extensive post-processing (whether JPEG or RAW). Wedding photos are extensively processed, too. Also Ken, you understand that the vast majority of your readers aren’t pros, right? Lastly, RAW files not only render to finer detail, they preserve more detail that can be recovered if exposure isn’t correct (see the video above). I’m guessing that there is a similar benefit with sharpening and other post processing tasks: there is more information to work with. If you look at reviews of cameras on dpreview.com, it is pretty clear to see where the jpegs lose fine detail that the RAW file preserves. For most of us, RAW is worth it for the final quality we can achieve as well as the forgiveness factor it provides.

(paraphrased) “You’re doing the same thing the camera is doing, so why bother?”
This is the one that really kills me (well, other than the “in-camera” thing). Every camera has its own in-camera methods of tweaking JPEG files so they look their best. You can even go into your camera and adjust the settings for things like color saturation, sharpness and more. My question is this: If you really care about the output, why would you put a tiny piece of electronics in charge with a very limited set of instructions on how to “improve” the image and apply those instructions generically across all the photos you are taking?? Ken makes it sound like there is a little wizard in your camera making them the best they can be with no additional effort on your part! To be fair, the camera is pretty capable at what it is doing, and if you’re happy with it, that is great. But for many of my pictures, I’ve been very unhappy with the camera choices and since I don’t have the RAW data, I can’t fix it as well as I’d like. Think about it: what has more processing power and more sophisticated software, your camera or your PC?

More importantly, if you need to adjust the white balance or colors, you have far more flexibility with RAW than JPEG. I’ve got an experiment in mind to demonstrate this – I’ll do it in a future blog. But the camera isn’t going to do this for you very well, and JPEG will limit your ability to do it on your PC.

“If you love to tweak your images one by one and shoot less than a hundred..RAW could be for you” and “Raw is designed for people who intend to spend a lot of time twiddling with one image at a time.”
I don’t spend an enormous amount of time tweaking 90% of my RAW images. I’d say I edit only slightly more than I did with my JPEGS. I’ve noticed my better lenses give me better RAW files that need less adjustment, but even before I discovered RAW, I adjusted my favorite photos. These days, I’m a better photographer, and what I’m adjusting has changed, but I still take the time to improve the images I like the most. Maybe I’m in the minority of the world of people who own a DSLR, but I think I’m in the majority of photography enthusiasts, and I’d dare say pros possibly outside of the news/sports press (but I’d bet there is tweaking going on there, too…)

“RAW becomes obsolete”
This is potentially true, but fear-mongering garbage nonetheless for this reason: It is only a problem if you never convert your images to JPEG (or TIFF, etc.). If you’re sharing these pictures at all (uploading them to Flickr, Picasa, SmugMug, etc., posting them on Facebook, emailing them to friends and family) they are getting converted to JPEG! Automatically! If you’ve edited a picture in Photoshop or some other editing software, it is going to make you save it in some non-RAW format. I also read an article recently from a guy who was re-editing old RAW files from his flower-of-2001-technology D1X with improved results.  In other words, not only is the very old D1X RAW format still current and compatible, newer editing tools are doing a better job with those files.  So I wouldn’t worry too much about obsolescence.

To be totally safe, you should occasionally archive your favorites to a CD or DVD in JPEG format and print the ones you love. There is no monstrous process to getting RAW files to JPEG. It happens naturally.

(paraphrased) “RAW isn’t customer ready”
Here Ken again assumes his audience are pros or wanna-be’s who think if the pros do it then it must be for them. Anyway, what’s the point? A film negative isn’t customer-ready either. Very, very few pros gave their clients access to their negatives since they aren’t finished images. The rest of us just care about getting the best photograph. If you really want something you can instantly hand to someone, use the RAW+JPEG setting in your camera and have it all.  Of course, if you’re press and you need to shoot at the highest frames-per-second and/or need to hand photos over immediately (or even real-time), JPEG is going to be the choice.

“Raw records usually with 12 bits, but a linear 12 bits. JPG uses only 8 bits, but these are after the log and gamma conversion, and thus preserves the 12 bit precision at the shadow levels where it’s important!
I’m going to give Ken the benefit of the doubt that in January 2009 the dynamic range and/or resolution of cameras just wasn’t enough to see the difference, and that he honestly believed this statement is true (even if his Nikon D3 review is dated a year before that…). Today, I’m confident it isn’t true. The current generation of cameras generally has excellent dynamic range, and a JPEG is absolutely going to lose detail in the shadows. Again, check out the image samples on DPreview from a Nikon D7000. In the same review, if you go to their comparison page and compare ISO 400 D7000 JPEG with D7000 RAW in the shadow area where the spools of thread lie, there is a significant amount of additional detail in the RAW file. The detail we’re talking about is very fine, but frankly, I want to make the decisions – not the camera. There are times when it is the difference between having an image and not having one. And frankly, the quote above is a load of hooey. There is undoubtedly less information in a JPEG file, and the area JPEGs suffer most is in the most or least exposed areas of a picture. This is where JPEG decides an over-exposed area is all white or an underexposed area is black (or whatever) and just saves the room in the file. A RAW file allows you to recover details in the shadows and the over-exposed areas you’ll never see in a JPEG. The video above is excellent documentation of that absolute fact. Ken’s statement above seems to be assertion that a JPEG has the same fidelity as a RAW file, which is just plain untrue.

“Each camera maker has its own incompatible format.”
This is absolutely true. If you’re an early-adopter of the latest thing, be ready to wait for the software tools and operating systems to catch up. Sometimes it is fast, sometimes it isn’t. It is driven by how early the camera maker closes their “spec” for the file and provides it to the Microsoft, Adobe and Apples of the world (and how busy they are when they get it!). Every camera also comes with software that can be used to import and adjust your RAW images to a certain point, from which you can export to JPEG and finish anything else you need to in Photoshop, etc. If there is a single point where I think Ken is being generally fair and on-target, this one is it. And he’s still not giving you the whole story.
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One non-Rockwell-quote-related tidbit: Ever saved an edit of a file and wish you hadn’t? Ever cropped something and later realize you cut something out you really wanted? No worries with RAW. You can edit the file as many times as you want, and never change the RAW negative. Programs like Lightroom or Aperture are only saving the changes, not changing the original file itself. So you can make as many different versions as you want, and they’ll never limit your ability to go back and take a different approach.

So that’s it. Is it wrong to shoot JPEG? Absolutely not. I think most “family shooters” who have a DSLR for more control and interchangeable lenses don’t care and will prefer the convenience and out-of-the-camera quality of JPEG. Many shooters of birds in flight and sports will want the speed JPEG offers. I’d guess a fair number daily news photographers shoot JPEG since their photos are due immediately and never make it much bigger than the size of a wallet photo. If you want it quick, simple and small, JPEG is great. There is no reason a JPEG can’t be an amazing photograph.

If you want to be able to optimize for the best image and have as much information as possible, go RAW. If you can’t decide, your camera almost certainly has a setting that will give you a RAW and a JPEG. I shot this way until I realized how much more flexibility I was getting editing the RAW photos and how much more I enjoyed the final result, and now JPEG is the exception to the rule. My guess is you’ll wind up in the same place.

I’d love to hear your opinions, and any other questions on this topic!

Separating the wheat from the chaff…

I’m pretty active and knowledgeable about polishing and waxing cars, and I notice a parallel in the auto detailing world that there are lots of people intimidated by the process, products or equipment who are seeking help.  What they often get can make things worse:  conflicting information, “experts” who give out incorrect information and generally more opinions that facts.  I try to help the people I can in the detailing world with simple, fact-based information and guidance, and help.

So as an enthusiast photographer, someone looking to expand my skills and knowledge and acquire the best gear for the money, where do I turn?  If you’ve read my previous posts, you know I’m a fan of Scott Kelby.  His books are an excellent place for photographers using the “Auto” setting to get away from it completely.  His website is pretty useful sometimes, too.  I’ve debated about subscribing to his Kelby Training site – it is $199 a year (~$17 a month) or $24.95 for a single month.  Over the holidays I’ll take advantage of the 24-hour free trial and report back.  I have every expectation it will be very useful.  Honestly, $14.99/month or $149 a year would make it a no-brainer, but that looks stupid even as I type it – there aren’t many $50 things that improve your photography much.  The books I referenced in “Breaking Through the Wall” are a terrific place to start.

On-line forums can be useful, too – Nikonians and FredMiranda.com have both been great.  Dpreview.com is just too chaotic, and frankly their forum software is hard to use/follow.  The key in the forums is to follow a few regularly, see if they are giving you something useful, and figure out who the useful experts are and identify the blowhards, too.  That will take some time, but will be worth the patience.  It will also give you a feel for how to write your posts/questions for the best responses.

For hardware reviews, I think there are 3 main sites – dpreview.com, bythom.com and kenrockwell.com are all really useful.  You’ll find Thom is opinionated, a little cranky but very consistent and dependable with his reviews and guidance.  Some people don’t like him, and reviews have a lot of opinion in them, but he strikes me as a very balanced guy, and I like reading his stuff.  dpreview has a very technical approach, but it is easily the best site to see what the bodies can do and compare them to others.  They are extremely thorough, and though they are more “fact” than “opinion”, sometimes it is a little hard to tell which is which – an occasional opinion gets thrown in amongst a lot facts and comes off stated as fact, but I suppose that is difficult to avoid.  As I mentioned in my previous post, you can get some idea of head-to-head specs of cameras at SnapSort.  Just remember that specs don’t tell the whole story, and some aren’t represented at all.

Then there is Ken Rockwell.  A lot of folks in the photography community hate him, and it is easy to see why.  He has a healthy opinion of himself, he states opinions as if he is a god of the photography pantheon and tends to have a controversial way to putting things.  I’m an odd mixture of technical and non-technical, but there are times when he’s stating things as fact that are not only opinion, but are just plain wrong.  Personally, I think his rants on RAW vs. JPEG are misleading, and they are the epitome of his arrogant style.  To read through his site, I have to put a filter on or I get annoyed.  He’s shouty, egotistic and generally kind of an ass.  He’s also a cheerleader – you’ll have to learn to ignore all the “world’s best” and “best such-and such in history” blurbs, since he seems to throw these around with abandon and at times even in conflict with each other. But his site can be really useful.  It does a terrific job of indexing the features and settings for lenses and cameras, and giving some comparison to the previous generations, etc. It is a site absolutely worth your time, if you can stand it long enough.

YouTube is another resource I’ve found useful, but it is also a place of high chaos.  I haven’t found one that is consistently good.  Jared Polin has some interesting and funny stuff, but boy does he need an editor!  I’m not sure I have a recommendation here other than to search on your topic – there will eventually be one that is useful.

So that’s how I do it – how do you get your information and how happy are you with it?

August Madness or Buck Fever

If you’re hanging around a Nikon photography forum, you’re probably seeing lots of threads about upcoming announcements in August.  A new D4, maybe a D400, possibly even a D800.  All of these are likely to be fantastic cameras, and I’m already noticing a flurry of new “For Sale” ads on the Buy/Sell area of my favorite forum for Nikon D3, D3s and D700 models.  In some cases people explicitly state they are selling in anticipation of Nikon’s August 24th announcement.

I’m anticipating the huge wave of “should I upgrade” threads on the forums.  And while it is a question virtually every Enthusiast Photographer will ask, the answer is really going to be “It depends”.

From a feature perspective, I use Snapsort.com to compare the specs of one camera to another.  It is a pretty handy way to look at what the new things offers, but it isn’t a definitive list.  For example, a key reason you might choose a Nikon D300s over a D7000 would be the much larger buffer for the D300s, allowing Birds-in-Flight (BIF) or sports shooters to shoot continuously for longer – a key spec not represented.  But for most specs it is an extremely useful site.

So as you’re looking at all the things that the new camera will do, ask yourself “Is it worth the money and hassle of switching?”

I’m no different than anyone else – I find myself in serious covet of both the D7000 (D7K) and the D700.  I’ll probably be sorely tempted by the D400 whenever it comes out.  But let’s stay in reality for now.  Of the things I care about, here’s what a D7K gives me over my D90:

  • More autofocus points (39 vs. 11)
  • More cross-type autofocus points (9 vs. 1)
  • True ISO 100 at the bottom and ISO 6400 at the top
  • 1/8000 max shutter speed (vs. 1/4000)
  • More color depth – 70% more colors
  • Will meter with manual lenses
  • An intervalometer (allows for timed pictures – e.g. a shot every minute for a certain amount of time)
  • Two SD slots – one can back up the other, or use it for overflow
  • Weather sealing

So that is a lot of features, right?  I’m not even mentioning the higher resolution (which is a post for another day…), the video features or the range of other upgrades over the D90.      I surely could have used 1/8000 on my recent trip to the beach.  More colors is always nice.  I’d always prefer better autofocus and manual lenses fascinate me for their bang-for-the-buck prowess and the challenge they represent.  A better ISO 3200 and a native ISO 100 would be good things.  But for the additional $600 it will cost me to get the D7000, I can be well on my way to some mighty fine glass, or a flash, or a better ball head, or some photography lessons, or…  well, you get the point.

Here’s the net:  Do you really NEED it, or do you just really WANT it?  I’d submit 90% of us (myself included) fall into “want” vs. “need” when it comes to the latest body.  I have to admit my affection for my D90 has grown quite a bit since the recent addition of my Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 ED and the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 non-BIM.  So boils down to a nearly universal cry in the photography world:  Invest in glass first.  Then invest a good tripod and head, or lessons, or a good book and get the most out of your current camera.  From there, a body isn’t a bad upgrade, but it won’t be too long until the next thing is out…