Friday, May 29, 2009

Having Problems with the Camera Strap getting in the way for Vertical Shots?

Have you ever had this problem? You've got your DSLR camera hanging in front of you on the neck strap. You grab it and turn it on its side to take a vertical/portrait shot and this happens...

...the camera strap goes right in front of the viewfinder so that you have to shove it out of the way with either your hand or the side of your face?!

I'm not sure why, but this little annoyance only recently struck me...probably because I didn't have a vertical grip on my camera previously and so could easily use the thumb on my right hand to keep the strap out of the way of the viewfinder (since my hand was already on the horizontal shutter release button near the place where one end of the strap attaches).

I think the other reason I've noticed this problem is that I've been using a Black Rapid R-Strap for the past year.

The R-Strap attaches to the bottom of your camera (to the tripod screw hole) and keeps your camera hanging at your side. (Follow the link I provided to a Black Rapid R-Strap demonstration video in the previous paragraph to see it in action.) When you grab the camera and bring it up to your eye--in either horizontal or vertical orientation--the strap is nowhere near the viewfinder! It really works well.

Up till now, I've shot with one DSLR hanging from a neck strap (this is the camera I put the flash on) and the other hanging at my side on the R-Strap. However, I've noticed that having a hotshoe flash on the camera hanging upside down at my side doesn't appear to be a problem. If you have a big or flimsy flash diffuser attached to it, maybe you'd have a problem. But I'm not a big fan of exotic flash diffusers--like the LightSphere--anyway.

So, if you find yourself having a problem with the neck strap getting in the way of the viewfinder when you go to take vertically-oriented shots--especially if you have a vertical battery grip--take a look at the Black Rapid R-Strap. I've been quite happy with mine...:-).

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is:

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Finding a Good Low-light, Wide-Angle Compact Digital Camera

I've owned and used various digital DSLRs from Canon. I've also owned and used various lenses--both zooms and primes--in various photography situations, both professionally and recreationally.

One felt need that periodically but persistently emerges for me is having a smallish camera I can easily bring with me when I go on short excursions with my family--places like a playground, ice cream stand, the mall, etc--that doesn't hang out in front of me on a neck strap proclaiming me to be a "camera geek"...and hitting my kids in the head everytime I turn toward them (they're young and short)!

At the same time, this smallish camera has to take photos in all sorts of suboptimal lighting conditions and produce image files that I can enlarge to make good quality 10x15 and 12x18 prints--or even use as stock--if I happen to capture some great off-the-cuff images. (75% or more of the photos I take are candids.)

The common vision among photographers is imagining oneself being Henri Cartier-Bresson with a Leica, finding and taking impromptu shots that end up being works of art! Well, even a Leica M series camera--both film and digital--weighs over a pound. And even though they may be more compact than a SLR or DSLR, they're still larger than the digital "compacts" and "ultra-compacts" you see around these days.

The problem with these compact digital cameras is they usually have one or more of the following weaknesses:
  1. Too much digital image noise at and/or above 200 ISO
  2. Can't focus in low-light
  3. Have small maximum apertures (you're lucky to get an aperture as large as f/3.5 at the wide end of the focal length range)
  4. Can't save images in an unprocessed raw image format
  5. Seldom go wider than about a 35mm (full-frame equivalent) focal length angle of view
  6. Poor lens and/or image quality compared to DSLRs
  7. Limited manual/creative controls
A couple of years ago, I bought a Canon PowerShot S60 to fill this gap. It's a 5 megapixel camera which, by today's standards, is pretty low-resolution. However, it has a lot of nice features that many digital compacts don't:
  1. You can record images in raw format
  2. It focusses pretty well in low light (with the help of an AF assist light)
  3. Goes as wide as 28mm full-frame equivalent focal length
  4. Has a relatively large maximum aperture at 28mm of f/2.8
  5. Pretty good optics and image quality
  6. Good manual/creative controls
While I got some images I probably wouldn't have gotten otherwise (i.e., situations when I wouldn't have taken a DSLR, so I wouldn't have had *any* camera available), the S60 comes up short in three areas:
  1. Digital noise: even at 200 ISO it starts to get pretty horrendous
  2. That maximum aperture reduces very quickly as you zoom...all the way down to f/5.3 at the other end of the zoom range
  3. 5 megapixels doesn't cut it anymore for anything other than web images or small prints
The combination of #1 and #2 made it necessary to take flash photos in most low light situations. This was my biggest disappointment with the camera.

Well, I started looking around again for a good compact camera. The three that currently seem to stand out in terms of low-light performance and image quality are the: 1) Sigma DP2, 2) Leica D-Lux 4, and 3) Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3.

The big selling point for the Sigma DP2 seems to be the size of its sensor; it's similar to putting the sensor from a 1.6 crop factor Canon DSLR into a compact camera. With this larger sensor comes better dynamic range, detail resolution, and low noise performance. The DP2 comes with a relatively large maximum aperture of f/2.8; but the lens is fixed at one focal length: 41mm (full-frame equivalent).

I was pretty impressed by the sample photos I've seen online from the DP2; they looked smoother and looked to have better detail than the images from the other two cameras. Also, this camera seems to have *very* nice bokeh (background blur).

I almost decided to get it. What stopped me?
  1. Even though the larger sensor seems to yield better quality images in good light, the advantage goes away--or is greatly reduced--in low light
  2. By all accounts I've seen, the focussing--especially in low light--is significantly better with the other two cameras
  3. Focal length is fixed at 41mm. I actually think this a relatively good focal length to be fixed at if you have to pick one. But sometimes 28mm and 24mm can be so handy!
  4. The maximum resolution of the images that come out of the DP2 are 2640 x 1760 pixels (about 4.6 megapixels). Even though it has been shown repeatedly that these images can be successfully up-sized to much larger than this, I don't like the idea of having to up-size most of the images I take to make them useful for my applications.
  5. This review of the DP1, which has the same sensor as the DP2
So, then I focussed more carefully on the other two cameras: the Leica and the Panasonic. First, let's look at a few specifications, which are virtually identical between the two cameras:
  • 10.1 megapixels
  • 24-60mm (35mm film equivalent) Leica branded lens
  • max aperture: f/2.0 - f/2.8
  • ISO range: 80 - 6400
  • Focus modes (Normal,Macro,Quick AF,Continuous AF,Manual Focus,One Shot AF,AF Area Select,AF Tracking )
  • AF Assist Light
  • Metering (Intelligent Multiple,Center Weighted,Spot)
  • Output formats: JPEG, RAW
  • Image stabilization
  • More specs (Panasonic Lumix LX3, Leica D-Lux 4)
From these few specs, I think you can see these are not your average compact digital cameras. They've got DSLR-level features and are well set up for wide-angle, low-light photography.

I found that the Leica was retailing for around $700 (May 2009); the Sigma was going for about $650. What about the Panasonic? Around $500. I'll come back to the issue of price a little later.

Well, it turns out there's all sorts of speculation on the web regarding the differences between the Leica D-Lux 4 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3. Some say it's the exact same camera with slightly different "packaging". Some say the differences are quite evident.

I did searches at both Google and Yahoo to find people who had access to both cameras and were taking comparison test images. Here are a few links if you're interested:
Here's what I decided: they are very close. Sometimes I think I see an advantage for the Leica. But then I think they're *so* close, a small tweak in the processing of the images (e.g., color, contrast, clarity, sharpening) and I could make either one look better than the other. Also, some of the differences could be attributable to the person taking the photos or slightly different settings or manufacturing tolerances, etcetera.

Now I, like other photographers, am sometimes swayed by "image"; I'm talking about the status related type here. This may seem a shallow consideration; however, showing up with a camera with the name "Leica" on it may engender more confidence in my client than showing up with a camera with the name "BumSplag" on it. Also, if I ever go to sell the camera, other photographers would probably be willing to pay me more for a "Leica" than a "BumSplag".

Since I will still primarily be using my DSLRs for professional photo gigs, I'm not so concerned with the brand name displayed on this camera. This camera is my more casual travel camera. Besides...even the Panasonic says "Leica" along the front edge of the lens! And anyone concerned about resale value of a digital camera when the digital camera manufacturers are putting out newer and "better" digital cameras every month is--in my opinion--a little off-base!

So, I'm opting for the $200 cheaper Panasonic. But wait...there's more!

It turns out that the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 comes in both black and silver. The black version looks much more like the Leica D-Lux 4. I assume--I don't know this for a fact--that this similarity to the Leica is why the black version sells for more than the silver version?! I saw the black version of the LX3 selling for $30 more than the silver version at B&H. I guess the black version is more hip....and more Leica-like!

Anyway, as I write this blog post, it's actually difficult to find LX3s in stock right now. So, both the silver and black versions are going for a premium right now (more than $500).

Well, let me leave you with a tip: I found a silver version of the DMC-LX3 at Dell Computers for $429.99. It's unclear to me whether it's actually in stock (i.e., it doesn't say it's *out* of stock). But for that price, I can afford to wait a little for my uncool silver "Leica-like" compact to arrive...;-).

Addendum 1: it turns out they're actually back-ordered at Dell. I canceled my order and bought a lightly used one from eBay. At this time (6/8/09), eBay is probably your best bet for finding one of these right now...!)

Addendum 2: A new camera from Olympus will start shipping in July (2009) that is definitely competitive in this category of cameras: the Olympus E-P1.

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is:

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Canon EF 35-350mm f/3.5-5.6L USM versus Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM: A Visual

I recently purchased a Canon 35-350mm f/3.5-5.6L USM zoom lens. (This lens was replaced by the Canon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 L IS USM and is no longer in production.) Due to some of the complaints I heard, I was a little worried the size and weight of it might be a problem...especially over the course of a long day of shooting.

Well, I haven't used it during a long day of shooting yet; but I have used the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM at some of my weddings and haven't noticed any major problems with weight. So, just out of curiosity, I thought I would compare the two purely in terms of size and weight.

First, I weighed both of them with their hoods and caps on. The 35-350 weighed in at a fairly substantial 3 pounds and 4.6 ounces. When handling them, it's a little difficult to tell which is heavier because the weight is distributed differently. The 70-200 IS has a larger diameter and looks more substantial. And, as it turns out, it *is* somewhat heavier: 3 pounds and 8.3 ounces.

So, the 70-200 is heavier even though it covers a smaller range of focal lengths. However the 70-200 has two attributes that make it especially heavy: 1) a relatively large and constant maximum aperture of f/2.8, and 2) an image stabilization system.

I took a few photos to further illustrate their differences in size. In the first photo, they're standing upright on a table (the 70-200 is on the left; the 35-350 on the right):

As you can see, when the two lenses are not extended, the 70-200 is longer/taller than the 35-350. How about when they're fully extended?

Actually, the 70-200 doesn't extend when you zoom it out; so its length is unaltered (I know, I know...the 70-200 shows it's at 70mm, not 200mm. Trust me: it's the same length at 200mm). The 35-350, on the other hand, has now surpassed the length of the 70-200 (it's a push-pull zoom like a couple of Canon's other L zooms: 28-300 and 100-400)...and there's a relatively large and heavy piece of lens glass inside that extended end.

How about a photograph of the two with their hoods on?...

To the casual observer, they look like they're almost the same length! I guess this is good as far as the 35-350 not making me "stand out" any more than the 70-200 does. However, much of the length on the far end of the 70-200 is lightweight plastic. The 35-350's hood is quite a bit shorter.

So, even though the 35-350 weighs less than the 70-200 IS, the weight distribution is quite different. I'm a little concerned that when the 35-350 is fully or nearly fully extended, it'll act as a substantial lever with my upper back acting as the counterweight....possibly making it ache after a few hours of shooting.

I guess the proof will be "in the pudding" once I actually shoot an event with it! More on that sometime soon...:-)

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is:

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Nice General Purpose Prime Lens for a Digital Rebel or other 1.6 Crop Factor Canon DSLR: Canon 35mm f/2

I like large maximum aperture prime lenses. The variable maximum aperture consumer grade zoom lenses (usually something like f/3.5 - f/5.6) can be good for outdoor daytime photography; but for general purpose indoor/outdoor, daytime/nighttime photography, a f/2 or larger maximum aperture prime lens can get a lot of shots the consumer grade zoom lenses just can't get. In addition, you get better image quality with a prime lens and a really nice background blur that can be difficult to get with those smaller apertures.

Now, a standard entry-level prime lens that I and many other photographers start with is the plastic Canon 50mm f/1.8. For the price (under $100), the image quality and bokeh (background blur) can't be beat. And it gave me a normal focal length lens (between wide angle and telephoto) on my 35mm film SLR camera. 50mm can be (and is for me) a very good general purpose focal length.

When I bought my first 1.6 crop factor DLSR (the Canon EOS 20D), the 50mm f/1.8 lens went from having the angle of view of a normal lens to that of a 80mm telephoto lens. This isn't necessarily bad if you want a telephoto angle of view; but it *is* bad if you really want normal lens coverage.

The first lens I bought to accommodate the APS-C sensor of the 20D was a Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 zoom lens. 28mm on the 1.6 crop factor DSLR is about 45mm...slightly wide angle compared to a normal 50mm view. Of course it also gave me the full-frame equivalence of a 120mm at the 75mm end. It was a good lens for me, until my daughter accidentally knocked it off of our kitchen counter and permanently crippled it (I was a little surprised how fragile it was).

I eventually went on to a full-frame Canon 5D DSLR and my 50mm lenses (the f/1.8, f/1.4, and f/1.2...I've owned all of them at some point) went back to being true normal angle of view lenses. However, I still have a 1.6 crop factor Digital Rebel that I like to travel with.

On our family vacation to a New York state park last summer, I brought the Digital Rebel and two lenses: a Canon 24-105mm f/4L and a Canon 35mm f/2. Even though the 24-105 gave me the better range of coverage (full-frame equivalent of about 38 - 168mm), I found myself preferring the 35mm f/2 for a few reasons:

1) It's much more compact (here's a photo of the larger 24-105mm next to the 35mm, both with their hoods on)

2) Significantly larger aperture that allowed shooting at lower ISOs indoors and made it possible to shoot in much less light (e.g., photos of my family next to a campfire lighted only by the fire light)
3) Less worry about losing or damaging the lens since it's much cheaper than the 24-105 zoom

A 35mm lens on a 1.6 crop factor DSLR is equivalent to a 56mm lens on a full-frame DSLR. It's slightly telephoto compared to a true normal lens angle of view, but it's not far off. Canon makes a 28mm f/1.8 that I think I would slightly prefer in terms of angle of view (approximately equivalent to 45mm on a full-frame), but compared to the 35mm f/2, it's: 1) bigger, 2) more expensive (around $420 new compare to $240 for the 35mm), 3) has poorer center sharpness wide open (i.e., at large apertures).

I have found the 35mm f/2 to give me great photos and to focus quickly and accurately, even without a USM autofocus drive motor (it makes a high-pitched whizzing sound when it's focussing because it's not USM; but this doesn't bother me).

I really think the Canon 35mm f/2 is a great lens for anyone who owns a 1.6 crop factor Canon DSLR (includes the Canon EOS 10D - 50D and all the Digital Rebels) and would recommend you try one out if you haven't already!

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is:

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The One Canon Lens for Photojournalistic Coverage of Outdoor Events (Super Zoom Lenses)

Over the past week, I photographed two events at my children's small private as an observer and one as a participant. (It's much easier to photograph an event as a non-participant!)

In any case, during the event when I was an observer, I put the Canon EF 70-300 F4-5.6 IS USM on my Canon 5D with the assumption I'd mostly want close-ups of the children. On the other day (when I was an event participant) I brought the 5D again, but had two lenses: the Canon EF 24-105 F4L IS USM and the Canon EF 70-300 F4-5.6 IS USM again.

On the day I had just the 70-300, I did run into some circumstances where I wanted a wider perspective. But being outdoors and fairly mobile, I just retracted the zoom to 70mm, ran some distance away from the children, turned around, and took the shot. Of course, during a little run like that, you're liable to miss a few shots..! (I can just imagine telling the wedding couple at an outdoor wedding to go back and walk down the aisle again so I can run some distance and get a wider perspective...:p).

On the other day when I had two lenses, the 24-105 came in handy when I was taking shots of the people around me...especially, when I was right in there with them participating in some group activities. It was a little difficult, though, to get any decent shots of the people that were far away from me (we were quite spread out over a large grassy area).

Later--when I got a chance--I changed to the 70-300 lenses to get candids...mostly of children who, hopefully, wouldn't notice me focussing on them. This was fine until the children got into groups and lines for some games. Again--as I did on the previous day--I had to run back away from them to get them all into the 70mm view.

Two cameras
When people pay me to shoot an event--like a wedding--I normally bring and wear 2-3 cameras with 2-3 lenses to cover a wide-angle, normal, and telephoto perpective simultaneously. When I travel or go to an event that I'm covering with little concern for fiscal remumeration, I don't want to walk around with two or three cameras hanging from me! Not only is it nicer to have only one camera to tote around, but having multiple cameras hanging from me puts me in "work" mode...and tells all the people around you that you're truly a camera geek!

No, I'd rather have one camera and one lens (maybe one additional small lens that fits conveniently in a pocket) when I'm traveling or photographing my kids. Yet, I want that camera and lens to yield "professional" images that could be sold as prints or stock images should I happen upon shots with such promise.

One Good Camera + Lens Combo
I've toyed with the one perfect camera + lens scenario a number of times over the past couple of years. I have seen the Canon EF 28-300 F3.5-F5.6 L IS USM out there on the market and thought that 28-300 on a full-frame sensor would do a pretty good job of covering most shots I would want when traveling or when photographing my kids' school events.

So, what's stopping me from buying it? A $2300 price tag and mediocre image quality reviews. And if I'm going to pay that amount of money, I would want to replace a bunch of my lenses. The 28-300 can't replace my Canon F2.8L zooms (24-70 F2.8L and 70-200 F2.8L IS) or my F2.8 - F1.4 primes, which are critical in indoor low-light situations. And although I don't use my 17-40 F4L zoom that often, when I need it I *need* it. I suppose the 28-300 could almost replace my 24-105 F4L IS, but I'd have to be convinced the image quality is close enough before I could get rid of a dependably good performer like the 24-105; same with my 70-300 F4-5.6 IS.

Canon has recently come out with a EF-S 18-200/3.5-5.6 IS that covers the equivalent of 29-320mm on a full frame DSLR; but it's gotten even more mediocre reviews than the 28-300, and I don't have a good APS-C format DSLR (1.6X crop factor) to put it on...and don't really want to buy one this year.

I started looking around at third-party lenses, but the only one that came close to what I wanted while achieving acceptable image quality was the Sigma 50-500mm (nicknamed the "Bigma"). But I'd be giving up any wide-angle coverage. I guess I could carry around something like a 24mm F2.8 in my pocket for wide-angle shots; but I hesitate to give up on my quest for that single affordable, good quality lens that I can just leave on the camera the whole time. Also, even though I've owned a good third-party lens or two in the past, I'm most comfortable sticking with the original manufacturer's lenses to keep compatibility issues--especially with future DSLRs I might buy--at bay.

Since I'm not afraid of older Canon lenses (I've had a great Canon 80-200 F2.8L zoom that went out of production in 1996), I started to look for a blast from the past. Well, I found the Canon EF 35-350mm f/3.5-5.6L USM zoom, which apparently went out of production in 2004. It doesn't go as wide as the 28-300, but it's got more telephoto reach (350mm vs 300mm). From my past use of a 24-70mm on a 1.6 crop factor DSLR (24mm becomes effectively 38.4mm on the APS-C sensor), 35mm on a full-frame DSLR should work quite well for me, especially outdoors. The 35-350 doesn't have the image stabilization (IS) of the newer lens, but it's about 10oz lighter than the latter.

What about image quality? I haven't been able to find a side-by-side comparison on the web, but I've been led to believe there isn't a huge difference in image quality: both are "L" lenses with the superior build and image quality that the "L" designates; but the image quality ratings are dragged down for both by their trying to perform well at such a huge range of focal lengths.

It seems that the image stabilization is pretty important for some commentators and the wider wide-end is a big factor for people with 1.3X or 1.6X crop factor sensors. People complain about the heaviness of both, but--as I said--the newer lens is the heaviest (those IS systems add significant weight).

Well, I discovered you can get a used 35-350 in immaculate shape for about half the price of the 28-300. I saw a "bargain" quality 35-350 selling for around $800 without a hood; but I fear getting a well-used lens that is no longer in production because getting it fixed could turn out to be difficult. No, give me a lightly-used out-of-production lens every time!

So, I went and bought the 35-350 L and haven't even received it yet. You can be sure I'll post some sample shots and some observations in coming weeks. I should also get a chance to compare it head-to-head against the newer 28-300 L in about a month because I plan to borrow that for an outdoor wedding. Keep an eye out for that if you're interested!

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is: