My Gear: The long arm of the sensor: Tamron 70-300 mm f/4-5.6

Tamron SP 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 Di VC USD on the Canon 760D

When I considered what lenses to get for my then-new Canon 760D, it was clear from the beginning that I wanted to have a telephoto zoom lens as well. I am using longer focal lengths only occasionally, but still have effective use for them every now and them. As a result, good value for money was key for me. After some research, two lenses made it on my shortlist: the Canon EF-S 55-250 mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS STM, which I will talk about more in the ‘alternatives’ section below, and the Tamron, which I am going to introduce now.

TAMRON SP 70-300 mm ƒ/4-5.6 DI VC USD

The concurrent conclusion of many of the reviews on the internet was, that there is almost no difference between the two aforementioned lenses in terms of image quality. Thus, the longer focal range of the Tamron was the deciding factor for me at the time. After all, my “always-on” lens already covers the range up to 70 mm, so the Tamron perfectly falls into line. 300 mm on a Canon APS-C Camera render the same field of view as 480 mm on a full-frame camera. That takes you a long way, literally. Which also justifies the higher price compared to the Canon 55-250. If bought new, the Tamron currently (April 2017) costs around 300 Euros. I bought it used on eBay, in very good condition, for 180 Euros. At the recent CP+ trade fair in Yokohama, Tamron presented a successor to this lens, with slight improvements for the auto-focus system and the image stabilizer. However, it is not clear yet when, and for what price, the new lens will be available.

Tamron SP 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 Di VC USD
Tamron SP 70-300 mm ƒ/4-5.6 Di VC USD

EQUIPMENT

The lens’ features are characterized by the three abbreviations at the end of its full designation: ‘Di VC USD’. ‘Di’ indicates that this is a lens for full-frame cameras. Of course, it will fit on a smaller APS-C camera as well. But the point is: it’s huge! In particular, with the lens hood attached and zoomed in all the way to 300 mm, it reaches an impressive size. That also means it will take up a lot of space in your camera bag, and you will think twice whether you’ll take it along on every trip. The large lens hood, as well as the lens caps for the front and back are supplied with the lens.

‘VC’ stands for Vibration Control, which is Tamron’s brand name for its image stabilizer. On the 70-300, it renders quite impressive results, at least for still photos. I mostly shoot hand-held, and even at 300 mm, only a few images turn out blurry from camera shake. I never recorded any videos with this lens; the reviews say the image stabilizer tends to twitch and jump when filming hand-held, though.

Finally, ‘USD’ is short for ‘Ultrasonic Silent Drive’ and describes the type of auto-focus system used. It works sufficiently fast and it is extremely silent. In general, the auto-focus of the Tamron 70-300 works very well together with my Canon 760D. Only at 300 mm does it hunt back and forth occasionally.

The lens has two switches: one for the VC and one for the auto-focus. The lens features full-time manual focus, which means that even when the AF is activated, you can still manually adjust the focus. There is no focus range limiter as on the Tamon 90 mm ƒ/2.8 Macro, but then with the 70-300, the minimum focusing distance is 5 ft. The large zoom ring is very good to handle, but also tight enough so that the lens does not extend on its own when carried upside down, even with the lens hood attached.

USE AND RESULTS

I primarily use the lens to photograph far-away subjects.  With a minimum focusing distance of about 5 ft., the lens does not really lend itself to taking close-up pictures. There are some exceptions, however, as can be seen in the example images below. For portraits, I prefer lenses with a much wider maximum aperture, such as the 90 mm ƒ/2.8 or the 50 mm ƒ/1.8.

Be that as it may, capturing far-away subjects is what the Tamron excels at. Obviously, on a zoom lens that covers such a wide focal range, there will always have to be some compromises in the optics. At least at this price point – there is a reason why the professional lenses in this category cost seven to eight times as much. Hence it is not much of a surprise that the image, in particular at 300 mm on an APS-C sensor, is not razor sharp. On the other hand, the Tamron handles chromatic aberration – the green and purple fringes on contrasting edges – really well. The little that can be seen can be easily corrected in post-processing.

Long story short: I’ve always been very happy with the image quality.

Here’s a small extreme test to give you an impression of the lens’ performance. Below are two pictures taken during last year’s vacation in the Alps near Salzburg, Austria. They show the view from a mountain cottage to the summit of the Hochstaufen, which is a bit more than four miles away. The first image shows the entire mountain, taken in the evening at 90 mm:

Alpenglow: Hochstaufen illuminated by the setting sun
Alpenglow: Hochstaufen illuminated by the setting sun

The next morning, I wanted to see what the Tamron is capable of. Here’s the full image, taken from the same spot, as seen with the lens at 300 mm on an APS-C sensor:

The Hochstaufen summit from a distance of about 4.2 miles - Full picture at 300mm
The Hochstaufen summit from a distance of about 4.2 miles – Full picture at 300mm

The 760D has a 24-megapixel sensor, so the resulting images files have a dimension of 6,000 x 4,000 pixels. I zoomed in to 100% and then cut out the center of the frame around the summit cross. The cross is about 14 ft. tall. If there had been climbers at the summit when I took the picture, you would have clearly seen them. You can clearly see the golden ornament on the cross. There is a close-up image of the summit cross on Klaus Isbaner’s homepage for comparison.

The Hochstaufen summit from a distance of about 4.2 miles - 100% crop from the center of the frame
The Hochstaufen summit from a distance of about 4.2 miles – 100% crop from the center of the frame

I probably could have gotten a sharper image on a sunny day (with a faster shutter speed) and using a tripod. But then, who has perfect conditions whenever taking a photo? This way, I think the images give a representative impression of the lens’ performance. There are more “every day” example images below, at the end of this post.

ALTERNATIVES

As mentioned initially, the main competitor to the Tamron 70-300 mm, at least when using a Canon camera with an APS-C sensor, is the Canon EF-S 55-250 mm IS STM. Since it is designed specifically for these smaller cameras, it is built more compact. For comparison: the Tamron measures (diameter x length) 3.2″ x 5.6″ and weighs 27 oz. The Canon comes in at 2.7″ x 4.3″ and half the weight: 13.2 oz. While the difference in outer dimension doesn’t read impressive, it does make a significant difference in practice. The Canon costs around 180 Euros new; the Tamron around 300 Euros (April 2017). Concerning image quality, both lenses are on par.

In the meantime, I have decided to go for one of the classic 70-200 mm lenses with a constant aperture of ƒ/2.8. The wider aperture offers much more leeway in difficult lighting conditions (at dusk or indoors), for faster shutter speeds when taking action photos, or to blur out the background in portraits. There are several lenses available in this category, but there is one thing they all have in common: they are significantly larger and heavier than even the Tamron. A 70-200 ƒ/2.8 certainly is no lens to always take along wherever you go; I will only pack it for specific purposes. Which makes it important to have a small, light-weight alternative to carry on trips. Hence, I will switch my “everyday telephoto lens” from the Tamron to the Canon. What is a telephoto lens good for if you don’t pack it because it’s too bulky?


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: For its price, the Tamron offers great picture quality and a powerful image stabilizer. If you own an APS-C as well as a full-frame camera, or want to switch in the not too distant future, then the Tamron is the perfect all-round lens for you, and you will definitely have a great time with it! If you’re shooting exclusively with APS-C, and those last 50 mm of focal range are not absolutely mandatory for the type of photography you do, then I recommend the Canon EF-S 55-250 mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS STM for its smaller dimensions and lower price. Both lenses offer similar performance.

What I’ve learned: Personal standards change over time – hence the aspired upgrade to the 70-200 mm ƒ/2.8. I’ve also come to realize that the Tamron, due to its size, is a bit unwieldy – it barely fits into my camera bag. Thus, for the first time now, I will sell one of my lenses again. Nonetheless, I don’t want to miss a telephoto zoom lens in my equipment.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.


EXAMPLE IMAGES:

Puppy in Action
Puppy in Action – shot from further away, the dog has plenty of space to fool around. The grass nicely shows the depth of field.

 

Short break from playing
Short break from playing – the longer focal lengths lend themselves very well to portraits. The dog was sitting directly at the edge of the field, thus the background is not completely blurred.

The following example images are taken from the post “In Focus: Changing the Perspective“:

Apple Blossoms in the Morning Sun
Apple Blossoms in the Morning Sun. Focal length and aperture help to emphasize the blossoms in the foreground, while the blurred blossoms in the back show it’s just one branch of a blooming tree.

 

Japanese Maple in Fall
Japanese Maple in Fall. Again, the telephoto lens at 300mm and aperture f/5.6 help to pull in the details while at the same time blurring the trees in the background into an even yellow backdrop.

 

Cherry Blossoms
Cherry Blossoms. With the telephoto lens at 300mm, you can get quite close to your neighbor’s cherry tree. At an aperture of F/5.6, the trees in the background get blurred enough to no longer distract.

In Focus: Changing the Perspective

Through nature with different Focal Lengths

The little detail or the big picture: from a photography point of view, nature can be captured in many different ways. With their abundance of blossoms and colors, as well as the beautiful golden light in the morning and evening hours, spring and fall in particular invite one to grab the camera and venture outside. In your own garden, in the street in front of your house, or in the next forest – there’s more than enough to photograph!

ONE MOTIF – DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES

The advantage of an interchangeable lens camera is the enormous bandwidth of focal lengths it supports. With my Canon 760D, for instance, my lenses reach from 8 mm with the Fisheye lens to 300 mm with the telephoto zoom lens. This equals roughly 15-480 mm on a full-frame camera.

This offers great creative latitude. Close-up images of individual blossoms, colorful leaves, and other details are classic subjects, of course. For this purpose, you usually select a medium to long focal length to get your subject filling the frame. Or you go straight for a dedicated macro lens, such as the Tamrom 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro. I have included several example images in my blog post about that lens, hence I am skipping the topic of macros here.

Magnolia Blossom
Magnolia Blossom. The intent here was to capture a single blossom. The aperture is set to ƒ/8 to have most of the blossom in focus.

But you can also go to the other end of the spectrum and use a rather short focal length, such as an ultra-wide angle lens, or even a Fisheye. These will also allow you to show an object large in the foreground; the difference compared to longer focal lengths is that due to the wide angle of view, you will also capture a lot of background in your image. It will also not be as blurry. As a result, your subject will be shown in the context of its surroundings, i.e. it’s not a “single blossom”, but a “blossom on a blooming tree”. The two pictures of our Magnolia tree illustrate this clearly.

Magnolia Tree in Full Bloom
Magnolia Tree in Full Bloom. It’s not primarily the large blossom in the foreground that is the main subject of the image, but more the entire tree with its many blossoms. The distortion from the fisheye lens is clearly visible in the upper half of the frame, but does not disturb the image as a whole. Due to the short focal length and the aperture set to ƒ/11, basically the entire picture is in focus.

I want to show you some of the creative possibilities for the various focal lengths. Not all flower photos have to be the same!

FISHEYE & ULTRA-WIDE ANGLE

I have two lenses in this category: The Samyang 8 mm ƒ/3.5 Fisheye, and the Tokina 11-20 mm ƒ/2.8 Ultra-wide Angle. Both offer a very wide field of view, which means you will get a lot into your pictures. The short focal length also means that objects at a distance will seemingly be pushed much further away. If there is nothing interesting in the foreground, the resulting images can look empty and boring. However, the background requires some attention as well. At such a short focal length, you won’t be able to blur the background much, even with a wide-open aperture, except when you get the camera very close to your subject. And even then, the background will still be recognizable – in particular with the Fisheye lens. Nonetheless, you can deliberately utilize this.

Rose in our Garden
Rose in our Garden. The intent of the image is to show not just a rose, but a rose in our garden. The framing makes the strong distortion typical for the fisheye lens less noticeable.

Here are two examples for this: the image of the rose above was taken with the fisheye lens, and the little red flower below has been captured using the Tokina. In both cases, it is clear what the subject of the image is; at the same time, it easy to see where the scene is located. The Tokina, with its wide-open aperture, even allows you to blur the background a bit despite the short focal length when being so close to the subject, so that the plant is standing out more. The rose in the image above was at the same distance from the camera, but due to its even shorter focal length and an aperture of ƒ/8, almost the entire garden including the house is in focus.

Little Flower in the Cops
Little Flower in the underbrush. Hidden under a large hazelnut bush, these little blossoms strive for sunlight. The short focal length includes a lot of background in the image, thus showing this scene is located in a garden. The wide-open aperture isolates the subject.

No rule is without exception: of course, you can use a short focal length deliberately without anything in the foreground, if you want to emphasize the size and vastness of the space you’re in. This is what I did when capturing the fall forest in the image below: I put the camera down on the ground and pointed the Fisheye lens straight up. Indeed, the biggest challenge when taking this photo was to not appear in the frame myself. I took a similar picture with my “always-on” standard zoom lens; the result was “a tree in the fall forest”. Using the Fisheye, I was able to capture the entire fall forest.

Fall Forest
Fall Forest. The Fisheye lens, with its enormous wide angle of view, captures practically the entire forest in a single frame. It also emphasizes the height of the trees. The straight lines leading to the center of the frame render the Fisheye effect almost imperceptible.

STANDARD ZOOM

This relates to the “default” zoom range, which is covered by the usual kit lenses. For an APS-C camera, that typically is 17-50 mm; equaling 24-70 mm on a full-frame camera. For reference: the back camera on an Apple iPhone, depending on the model and converted to full-frame, has a focal length of 25-30 mm. This should not imply that this “default” range is boring – on the contrary. Depending on whether you want to capture an entire tree, a plant, or just a couple of leaves, there’s a lot of creative leeway.

Colorful Maple Tree
Colorful Maple Tree. I wanted to capture the entire tree, to show that all fall colors appear in one and the same tree. This requires a default wide angle; the aperture is stopped down to ƒ/8 so that the entire tree is in focus.

It is worthwhile to play with zoom, aperture, and object distance; even, or in particular, with the kit lens. The most important recommendation in this context is: change your perspective! The usual snapshots taken from eye height quickly become boring. Hence, when you’re out and about: look straight up – what is above you? Get down on your knees and photograph the little mushroom as it pushes through the leaves into the grazing light of the setting sun…

Mushroom in a Forest
Mushroom in a Forest. The short focal length shows the mushroom in its environment; the wide-open aperture isolates it as the main subject of the image.

If there is such a thing as a “must have” lens for every photographer with a single-lens reflex or mirrorless camera, then it certainly is the 50 mm ƒ/1.8, and for a simple reason: value for money. Basically, every camera manufacturer offers one for a little money; it usually costs around 100 Euros. It is small, light, and versatile, which has earned it the nickname “nifty fifty”. On a full frame camera, this is a standard focal length, perceived to offer a very natural perspective similar to what the human eye sees. On an APS-C camera, the field of view equals 80 mm, so it can be considered a slight telephoto lens.

The distinguishing characteristic is its wide open aperture of ƒ/1.8. Most kit lenses have a maximum aperture of ƒ/4 or ƒ/4.5 at 50 mm, that’s a difference of 2-3 stops. This means that the “nifty fifty” not only lets in a lot of light; it can also provide a much narrower depth of field. This makes it a popular all-round lens, which is often used for portrait work. So why not take some portraits of colorful plants?

Maple Trees in Fall
Maple Trees in Fall. At 50mm, you can show not only a single leaf, but entire branch. Using an aperture setting of ƒ/1.8 still allows you to clearly separate the branch from the background.
Maple Leaves in Fall
Maple Leaves in Fall. The narrow depth of field helps to focus the view on the leaves in the center of the frame.

TELEPHOTO

This category basically covers everything with a focal length of 70 mm and up. There are essentially two types of lenses: the telephoto zoom lenses, like my Tamron 70-300 mm ƒ/4-5.6, and the prime lenses, especially macro lenses, in the range of 90-150 mm. The main difference is in how close you can get to your subject. With my aforementioned 70-300 mm zoom lens, the shortest distance I can still focus at is 1.5 meters. With the 90 mm macro, I can get as close as 30 centimeters!

This obviously has a significant impact on the creative possibilities. However, keep in mind: a macro lens can take more than just macro images, and you can use a telephoto zoom not only to capture things that are far away. You can probably guess where this going: I’m talking about perspective again.

Garden Flower
Garden Flower. Due to the narrow depth of field at 90 mm, the ground is already blurred despite using an aperture of ƒ/8.

With long hedges or bushes as shown below, you can try a “grazing shot”. It shows the details of the leaves and blossoms as well as the extent of the hedge in a single image. In a frontal picture, you could only see one of the two, depending on the distance. This works in the same way horizontally on a flowering meadow. It’s not a macro in the original sense, but I make use of the wide-open aperture and resulting narrow depth of field of the macro lens to show just a small stripe of the Kerria bush in focus.

Narrow Depth of Field in a Kerria bush
Narrow Depth of Field in a Kerria bush. At 90 mm and an aperture setting of ƒ/2,8, only a narrow band of the bush is in focus.

I have taken the following image with my Tamron 70-300 mm, even though at 92 mm, I could have taken it with the macro lens just as well. I didn’t have it with me, though, and I actually preferred the flexibility offered by the zoom lens on that photo excursion. The blossoms are at the minimum focusing distance (1.5 m). In the end, the best lens to take a picture with is always the one you have with you.

Apple Blossoms in the Morning Sun
Apple Blossoms in the Morning Sun. Focal length and aperture help to emphasize the blossoms in the foreground, while the blurred blossoms in the back show it’s just one branch of a blooming tree.

Of course, the distinguishing feature of telephoto lenses is to pull in distant objects. This allows for capturing details to which you cannot get close, for whatever reason. Blossoms in the crown of a tree are a good example. The narrow angle of view also allows controlling the background, or getting rid of it entirely. The image of the Japanese Maple above shows an almost evenly yellow background, made from trees with yellow leaves. I could have gotten closer to the leaves and used a shorter focal length, thus a wider angle of view. But then the house on the right side, and the garden shed on the left side, would show up in the frame and the background would no longer be evenly yellow.

Japanese Maple in Fall
Japanese Maple in Fall. Again, the telephoto lens at 300 mm and aperture ƒ/5.6 help to pull in the details while at the same time blurring the trees in the background into an even yellow backdrop.

How much the background gets blurred not only depends on the focal length and aperture setting, but just as much from the ratio between the two distances; camera – subject and subject – background. The two images of the Japanese Maple above and the Cherry Blossoms below were taken with identical settings, and the trees in the background were at about the same distance in both pictures. However, the maple was much closer to the camera, hence you can see a substantial difference in the appearance of the background.

Cherry Blossoms
Cherry Blossoms. With the telephoto lens at 300mm, you can get quite close to your neighbor’s cherry tree. At an aperture of ƒ/5.6, the trees in the background get blurred enough to no longer distract.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Well, that’s quite obvious in this case, isn’t it? Go outside and try it out!

What I’ve learned: In the end, it doesn’t matter which camera or lenses you have – interesting perspectives can be found all around you. Up close, far away, from above, from below, wide angle, telephoto, with or against the sun… It’s worthwhile to simply grab your camera next time you go on leisurely stroll or walk your dog.


LINKS

Last but not least, some YouTube videos with further inspiration:

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

Book Review: Tony Northrup – Stunning Digital Photography

Book Cover: Stunning Digital Photography (www.northrup.photo)

A comprehensive photography book, video tutorial and online community, all in one – does that even exist? Yes, it actually does. In his book, “Stunning Digital Photography” (SDP), Tony Northrup covers the ground from instructions for beginners to more advanced tips and tricks, across basically all photography disciplines.

When I started to take a deeper look into photography, I was primarily looking for orientation. What are the possibilities? What do you need, to do what? Where to start? After discovering YouTube as a plentiful source of information when choosing my camera and lenses, as well as for tutorials on photographing the Milky Way, I quickly came across the many videos in Chelsea & Tony Northrup’s channel – and thus, the book.

SDP: ONE FOR ALL

The book is available in various formats: as classic paperback, or as ebook for all major platforms. I strongly recommend the ebook, because here, the numerous videos with examples and tutorials can be accessed directly through embedded hyperlinks. This allows you to quickly jump between reading and watching. This makes the book very vivid, because the videos demonstrate the effect of certain settings much clearer than a few static sample pictures in the book could do. This appeals a lot to me, and was the reason for me to buy the book.

Another advantage is the fact that the book is never “finished”, it’s a living document – sections and videos become either updated or added on a regular basis. Once you have bought the book, you will have access to all future updates, which you can simply download from the homepage.

BOOK STRUCTURE

The book starts with a few generic chapters: the “Quick Tips” for people who want to get started right away, followed by sections on composition, lighting and flash, and camera operation in general. This part of the book explains the basics, such as the effect of aperture, perspective, and light direction on an image. In addition to the general operating instructions, Tony also offers one-hour in-depth video tutorials for many popular camera models, where he explains their operation and specific capabilities in great detail. The general part of the book is wrapped up with a trouble-shooting chapter that helps you track down why an image turned out blurry, or why the colors were off.

The second part of the book is comprised of chapters which, based on the foundation built in the first part, deal with specific photography disciplines: Portraits, Weddings, Animals, Landscapes, Night Photography, HDR Images, Macros and Close-ups, and finally Underwater. Each section starts with an introduction, followed by specific instructions and inspirations for planning, camera settings, equipment, and how to avoid common mistakes. Many sections also contain a short quiz, which allow you to quickly check how much of what you’ve read and watched you’ve memorized so far.

THE VIDEOS

The videos are all well-made – with a running time of two to five minutes each, they have an enjoyable duration. Complex topics might take ten minutes or more to explain in detail. Many of the videos are freely accessible on YouTube, but there also are a lot that can only be accessed through the hyperlinks in the book, which provides additional value. Chelsea’s and Tony’s English is easy to understand; in addition, you can switch on subtitles on most of the videos.

Each video focuses on a specific topic and demonstrates it clearly. This can be a bit of theory, such as the effects of the aperture setting on the image, or practical tips, for instance on photographing birds. I still access videos from the book every now and then, when I want to know or try something specific.

FACEBOOK COMMUNITY

Once you have the book, you can also ask for access to the closed Facebook group, “Stunning Digital Photography Readers”. Here you can upload your own images and thus get immediate feedback from this rather large community. Experience shows that, the more specific any questions you post with the picture are, the better the feedback will be. In addition, the many images from other photographers can serve as inspirations for your own efforts. This community is another reason that made buying the book worthwhile for me.

FURTHER ON

“Stunning Digital Photography” deals primarily with making the pictures. Post-processing is mentioned only briefly, which is OK for me. It would increase the size of the book to the point where it became unwieldy. Also, it depends on which software you are using because the workflows and terms differ significantly from program to program. If you’re using the Adobe tools, Chelsea and Tony offer additional books specifically for  Lightroom and Photoshop. They are structured similar to SDP, and in the same manner. Many, but not all, of the video tutorials are freely accessible on YouTube.

In case the explanations on the theory of photography, e.g. image composition or camera technology, given in SDP don’t go far enough for you, or if you’ve simply become curious and want to know more, I strongly recommend watching Mark Levoy’s Lectures on Digital Photography.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: “Stunning Digital Photography” will give you an all-in-one package to get started with this fascinating hobby. I can definitely recommend buying it.

What I’ve learned: The book, and even more so the videos it contains, have given me a great overview of the basics as well as the entire spectrum of photography. At the same time, I’ve learned to cross-check the contents with reviews and tutorials from other photographers to not just believe everything, but actually to question things and to try them out. In the end, doing something yourself always grants the best learning experience.


LINKS

Title Image: Book cover; Source: http://northrup.photo/

Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames

Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames

What do you do when you want to go out and take pictures, but it’s nasty and wet outside? Well, of course you could argue that there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong kind of clothing – but then, if you’re not deliberately going for bad-weather shots, there are probably more comfortable alternatives. So, you start looking for indoor photography ideas. Which is exactly what did.

Starting from the tutorial videos for photographing water splashes, I quickly came across guides to smoke and flame photography. I especially liked the idea of taking pictures of matchsticks right when they light up. Starting from the ideas given in the videos, I thought about my own setup, and then kindled for an entire afternoon – with results that definitely exceeded my initial expectations.

THE SETUP

Foremost, I wanted the images to have a completely black background, to give the smoke and flame as much contrast as possible. Much of this can be achieved by choosing the camera and flash settings accordingly; nevertheless, I decided to darken the room to be on the safe side. Now for the setup itself.

I’ve taken the images with my Canon 760D. Initially, I used the Tamrom SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro, but then later on switched to the Canon 50mm ƒ/1.8 STM. Its shorter focal length captures a larger portion of the set, thus making better use of the available space, and it also renders a larger depth of field. As the smoke spreads quickly, and in three dimensions, both facts are relevant. The camera was of course mounted on a tripod and triggered with a remote shutter release.

I used a boom stand with a clamp holder to hold the matchstick in place. I placed a metal tray underneath it to have a fireproof base. The match was enflamed by holding a burning candle a few inches under its head. I used black cardboard as background, approx. 1.5 ft. away. The camera was lined up so that, with the 50mm lens, the black cardboard just filled the frame, and the matchstick was positioned in the bottom quarter of the image.

Finally, the flashes were set up. I tried out various arrangements and optimized them during the shooting. I will describe here only the final layout, which rendered the best results: One of the flashes (Yongnuo YN565 / YN568) was positioned about 45° to the left of the camera; the other one exactly opposite. I attached a flag made from another piece of cardboard to the rear flash, to avoid its light spilling onto the background. This mix of front and back lighting gave full effect to the smoke. Both flashes were positioned above the match to light up the smoke, but they were also pointing downward enough to illuminate the matchstick itself in the final image. The flashes were controlled by means of the Yongnuo YN622C(-TC) wireless remotes.

This is how the final setup looked like:

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Smoke and Flames"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Smoke and Flames”: The flashes are set so that the background remains black. The matches are lit up using the candle.

THE SETTINGS

The settings got me thinking for a while, due to the fact that natural (flame) and artificial (flash) light sources had to be mixed. Using the candle, I started by adjusting the camera settings so that the flame was captured as bright as possible, while not overexposing more than just a small portion of it. I also had preset the shutter speed to 1/200 of a second. This is the shortest exposure the flash without high-speed sync (the YN565) supports. I also didn’t want to keep the shutter open longer than that, to avoid motion blur when the flame heftily flickers when the match ignited (that still happened in several images). The initial results, taken with an aperture of ƒ/8.0 (for good sharpness and depth of field) and ISO 100 (for good image quality), were quite satisfying.

The next task was to set up the flashes. My idea was to work with the lowest possible power setting (1/128), for two reasons: At this setting, the flash duration of speedlights like mine is about 1/20.000th of a second – this guarantees razor-sharp freezing of the smoke’s motion. Also, at this low power setting, the capacitor in the flash is recharged so quickly that I can use the camera’s continuous shooting mode with almost no delay, which vastly increases the chance of capturing great images. I actually tried it with a setting of 1/64 as well, but that had a considerable impact on the frame rate, due to the longer recharging time of the flashes.

Taking all of this into account, I found the ideal balance between the brightness of the flame and that of the smoke illuminated by the flashes using the following settings:

  • Camera: manual mode, ISO 200, ƒ/8.0, 1/200 sec., continuous shutter (with the 90mm lens, as well as later on with the 50mm one)
  • Flashes: manual mode, 1/128 power, zoom at 24mm (I flipped out the diffusor disc on the front flash)

Needless to say, you’ll need to adjust these settings to your particular setup and lighting conditions to achieve comparable results.

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Smoke and Flames"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Smoke and Flames”: ISO 200, ƒ/8.0, 1/200s, manual focus adjusted using live view. The flashes are adjusted and triggered via the Yongnuo YN622C-TX, and a cable remote is used to trigger the camera.

I manually focused the camera on the match, using the 10x magnification in Live View. I put a mark on the clamp holder so that I could put every new match in almost the same position, which spared me refocusing the camera every time. The camera was set to continuous shooting, to be able to capture a number of images in quick succession, and the white balance was set to automatic.

THE SHOOTING

After the test shots to get the exposure right, it was show time. The biggest challenge was to find out exactly how I had to hold the candle under the matchstick. The flame had to be so close that its head would get hot enough to ignite, but not so close that it would be visible in the image when match ignites. How long I had to hold the candle there varied, not at least because every match is a bit different. And finally, each match burns differently: some flame up in a short intense burst, others keep going for about 2 seconds until the head is burned up and only the burning wood remains.

The procedure was always the same: in one hand, I held the remote shutter release for the camera, the button already pushed half-way. In the other hand, I held the burning candle. Then I held it under the match, and as soon as it flamed up, I pushed the shutter button all the way and let the camera capture 5-7 frames. By then, the exciting part was mostly over. Just as with the water splashes, I quickly learned the right timing to trigger the camera.

Afterwards, I put the candle down on the tray, and as soon as the camera had finished writing all image data to the memory card, I blew out the flame. I took another 5-7 photos of the resulting smoke. Depending on how you blow out the flame, or wave your hand a bit, the smoke creates rather fantastic figures.

With a fresh matchstick in the clamp holder, the next iteration began.

Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames
Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames. Here you can see how the match is enflamed using the candle. The picture is unedited, straight out of camera. Compare it to the final version in the gallery.

At the end of the session, I had burned 36 matchsticks and shot close to 600 images. On the computer, I filtered the pictures in several steps. First, I deleted all test images and the ones that were obvious misses because they were either completely black, out of focus, or taken too early. This reduced the number of photos by more than half. Then I went to picking the images that were outstanding in one way or another. Finally, I kept 40 images for editing, and you can see the “top ten” of those in the gallery above.

TIPPS & TRICKS

This is another case of ‘practice makes perfect’, so here are a few points to improve for next time:

  • Fire protection: a sufficiently large, fire proof base below the match and to put down the candle is absolutely mandatory. It also doesn’t hurt to have a big glass or pitcher of water handy. And don’t forget: if the room you’re doing this in has a smoke detector, disable it before you start (and turn it back on when you’re done!)
  • Whether you darken the room or not, you need to have sufficient ventilation. Also take a break in between, and aerate the room. Unfortunately, the smell of the smoke is rather persistent.
  • The candle you are using to ignite the matches should be easy to handle, but also safe to stand when you put it down. I used a pillar candle left over from last year’s advent wreath. Its flame should be rather large, but without flickering or giving off sooty smote. You can cut down the rim of the candle with a tinker knife, and pour off some of the molten wax.
  • As for the matches, I recommend using the longer kind, usually sold for lighting fireplaces, instead of the small regular ones. The ones I used were about 5 inches long, compared to the regular 2 inches.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Definitely give this a try! In particular, during the dark winter days this is a nice handicraft challenge with which you can create moody images. By the way, this also works with sparklers.

What I’ve learned: Once again, I’ve learned quite a lot about the correct alignment and setting of the flashes, in order to create the desired effect – especially in the combination of natural and artificial light.


LINKS:

  • YouTube: Smoke Photography made simple
  • YouTube: Photographing flames and smoke
  • Note: Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any decent tutorial video in English on how to photograph matches when they light up. If you find any, please let me know. In the meantime, also have a look at the German version of this page…

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

Photo Experiment: Splashy Fruit

Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit

They are omnipresent on the decoration shelves in furniture and garden stores: pictures of fresh fruit and vegetables, dropping into water with big splashes. The idea obviously isn’t new, but it poses a challenge nevertheless: how do you take such photos? This is the perfect task for a grey and windy weekend when you don’t want to go outside.

A little research on the internet quickly showed: it actually doesn’t take that much. The only thing missing here was a suitable, rectangular glass vessel. Our vases are all round, which doesn’t work for this setup because the flash would be reflected in the image. After some consideration, I decided for a 25 ltr. (6.5 gal.) aquarium from a local hardware store. I will certainly use it for more experiments like this in the future, so the expense of 20 Euros was easily justified.

THE SETUP

The pictures were taken on the dining room table, and the setup can easily be explained:

  • I used my Canon 760D with the Tamrom SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro
  • The aquarium was placed on top of a box, so that the tabletop behind the aquarium didn’t show in the images
  • The first external flash – a Yongnuo YN568 EX II – faced into the aquarium from the left, at the same height as the water level.
  • The opposite side was covered with aluminum foil, which served as a reflector
  • The second external flash – a Yongnuo YN565 EX II – was directed onto the backdrop, a white foldable reflector, which was placed approx. 3 ft. away.
  • The flashes were adjusted and triggered using the Yongnuo YN622C(-TX) wireless remotes.
  • I used a simple cable remote for the camera.

The entire setup looked like this:

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Water Splashes with Fruit"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Splashy Fruit”: 6.5 gal. aquarium, one external flash for the fruit and splashes, aluminum foil as reflector. The second flash and the white background are used only for the bright images.

THE SETTINGS

Auto-exposure won’t be of any help, because the images need to be deliberately over- or underexposed (for white or black background), and autofocus is useless as well because it won’t pick up the falling fruit in the water; at least not fast enough. So everything needs to be set manually. The first thing I did was to place a roll of wrapping paper across the aquarium, and then let a ruler dangle from it at the point where I wanted to drop the fruit into the water. Then I used the camera’s Live View mode to manually focus on the ruler. Next, I set the exposure:

  • Camera settings: ISO 100, ƒ/8.0, 1/200 sec.

The settings are chosen so, that an image taken without flash will be completely black. I used an aperture setting of 8 to have the depth of field big enough so that the fruit would still be sharp even when I don’t drop them at the exact point I focused on. If you work on this experiment yourself and you still see some of the surroundings (e.g., a bright window) in the image with these settings, close the aperture even further to e.g. ƒ/11. If you want to use a faster shutter speed, you need external flashes that support high-speed sync. However, the shutter speed is not relevant for these images anyway, because the motion is frozen by the duration of the flash – which is much shorter than 1/200th of a second.

The flashes are set next. You will have to adjust these to your respective lighting conditions, so the values given here are just for reference. For the images with the white background I started by adjusting the rear flash. I turned the over-exposure warning (the ‘blinkies’) on my camera on, and then set the flash so that part of the background was shown to be over-exposed. You shouldn’t set the flash too bright, though, because otherwise the white background will outshine the water splashes and the rims of the fruit.

Following that, I used a few test images to adjust the aquarium flash so that the white areas of the lemon slice were not over-exposed. This flash will use a much lower setting. You might have to adjust it depending on the target object; a darker orange slice will need more light than a bright lemon. For the images with black background, the rear flash was simply turned off, and the aquarium flash was adjusted accordingly, because of the missing backlighting.

  • Flash settings for white background:
    • Background: 1/4 + 0.7
    • Aquarium: 1/64 + 0.7
  • Flash settings for black background:
    • Background: off
    • Aquarium: 1/8 + 0.3
Setup for the Photo Experiment "Water Splashes with Fruit"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Splashy Fruit”: ISO 100, ƒ/8.0, 1/200s, manual focus adjusted using live view. The flashes are adjusted and triggered via the Yongnuo YN622C-TX, and a cable remote is used to trigger the camera.

THE SHOOTING

With the proper fruit at hand, I stood next to the aquarium, holding the remote shutter release for the camera with one hand, and then started my routine. It was easier than I thought it would be. You’ll quickly get a feeling for how to drop the fruit and when to press the shutter release. I only had a few frames where the timing was completely off.

Some luck is required however, for how the various objects hit the water. It may happen that you’ll see the lemon slice edge-on, or that the apple wedge casts a big shadow onto the orange.

All in all, it was a lot of fun and made for an entertaining afternoon. The required effort and equipment are very reasonable – you can take these images even with just one external flash; instead of the aquarium you might just as well use a square vase, and for the background you can use some cardboard, or a tablecloth.

TIPS & TRICKS

When you do something like this for the first time, you’ll quickly learn that there a number of details you didn’t think of initially – and which you can improve on next time. Here’s an overview of my ‘lessons learned’, with no guarantee for completeness:

  • After every (literally every) drop, wipe dry the front and rear glass panes of the aquarium – a microfibre cloth is perfect. This is a bit tedious, but it will save a lot of time in post-processing; especially in the images with black background.
  • When working with citrus fruit, take the images with black background first, the ones with white background later. At every drop, these fruit will shed little pieces of pulp, which float around in the water as bright fuzz. This is much less noticeable in the white images, or at least it can be more easily removed in post. At some point in time, you will have to replace the water entirely. If you also have other objects you want to drop, use those first.
  • Take care with the background and the surface you set everything on: I put a plastic blanket on our wooden table to protect it from the water. A blue plastic blanket. With red balloons on it. Haha. Find the mistake. The glass panes of the aquarium as well as the water surface relentlessly reflected this pattern – when you take a close look at the images above, you will see the blue with red dots in some of the water splashes. Next time, everything will be covered black or white.
  • If you want to capture fruit and splashes above as well as below the water, the flash pointing into the aquarium has to be at the same level as the waterline. At first, I had positioned it a bit lower – with the consequence that its light was diverted by the surface of the water, and everything above the waterline remained dark. An alternative setting is to position the flash high above and a bit to the side, pointing down into the aquarium. This will mimic a natural light setting, as provided by the sun.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Kids, do try this at home! It’s the ideal occupation for a dreary afternoon, and as a bonus you’ll learn to work with your flashes and how to set up the lighting correctly.

What I’ve learned: Practice makes perfect – I’ve already written about most of my learning experience in the Tips & Tricks above. I will certainly make more experiments of this kind in the not too distant future…


LINKS:

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

My Gear: Make the little things count: Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro

Tamron SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro Di VC on the Canon 760D

Did you know that a butterfly’s eyes are dotted? It was surprising to me to see that on one of my own pictures. Macros – or close-up images in general – have always been fascinating me, because they allow you to take your time and see details that are usually overlooked.

Even for my old compact cameras I had some screw-on close-up lenses to take pictures of flowers, for instance. Considering my skill level and equipment at the time, the results were not very impressive, though. When I started to get deeper into photography in the fall of 2015, I quickly came across several video tutorials focused on macro photography. There many different technical approaches to doing this; e.g. the so-called “extension tubes”, which are mounted between the lens and the camera body, or retro-adapters, which allow you to mount the lens the other way around to your camera. These are widely used and inexpensive ways to get started.

However, I wanted to get seriously into this from the very start, so I immediately started looking for a dedicated macro lens. A review on a German YouTube channel brought the Tamron to my attention, and I was lucky to get a good deal on it by buying it used on eBay.

TAMRON SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 MACRO DI VC

Tamron SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro Di VC
Tamron SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro Di VC

One thing to consider is the fact that macro lenses aren’t just good for close-ups. They typically offer superior image sharpness, and with an aperture of ƒ/2.8 they also lend themselves well to making portraits. The model of the Tamron I have (F004) is currently (Feb. 2017) available for around 350 to 400 Euros on either eBay or Amazon. Since 2016, its successor (model F017) is available. The new model has a redesigned, more modern exterior, and according to internet reviews also some improved optics. However, the price point for it is between 650 and 700 Euros. From a value for money perspective, the old model is unbeatable in my mind, and has proven itself very well.

EQUIPMENT

Size and weight of the lens are in the mid-range. The lens alone weighs around 600g (1.3lb), and together with my 760D it’s around 1.200g (2.6lb). So it can be easily carried around, and, if necessary as described below, held in one hand. It comes with caps for the front and back, as well as a lens hood. The autofocus is relatively quick, and its range can be limited to different settings: 0.3-0.5m, 0.5m-∞, and full range. Thus, you can avoid the camera going through the full focus range when “hunting” for insects, which will save you precious seconds. Of course, the lens also has an image stabilizer – Vibration Control (VC) as Tamron calls it – which renders good results. You’ll have to keep in mind, though, that when working in close range, different rules apply for avoiding camera shake.

USE AND RESULTS

There are many different ways to perform macro photography. There is one thing however that you will always need: lots of light. When shooting close, especially when hand-holding the camera, the shutter speed should be as fast as possible to avoid camera shake. This close to the camera, the image stabilizer is of limited use – even at 1/100 of a second it’s not all that unusual to have some blurry images. When the sun is out, I grab my camera and the lens and go outside, looking for motivation. This is how I found the ice crystals, and the maple seed covered in white frost, in the example pictures below. While the bright sunlight around noon is shunned by landscape and portrait photographers due to harsh shadows and strong contrasts it causes, this is exactly what makes it ideal for macro photography because it emphasizes all the fine details.

If there isn’t enough sun, I use a flash in addition – either a dedicated macro flash that mounts to the front of the lens, or a regular flashgun which I hold in my left hand and then aim for the subject of my motivation as needed. I use wireless remotes, or a cable, to fire the flash. Handling the flashgun is a bit circumstantial, especially because it means having to hold and operate the camera with one hand as well, but it provides more freedom for setting the light. I took the photos of the butterfly and the bumble bee using this approach.

Of course the “hunt” for moving targets such as insects demands a lot of patience. The little beasts are faster than you think, as you will notice when you wish for one to just once sit still for a second. On a single weekend, I took about 500 pictures at our lavender bush – in the end, I kept ten.

Finally, you can set up your camera and flash around a table and position your object of interest in front of the lens. I fixed the dandelion in a small vase and then photographed it piece by piece. Close up, the depth of field is very shallow, so it’s impossible to get the entire blossom sharp from front to back in a single exposure. Hence I took several images, focusing on different areas of the dandelion – front, center, back – and then afterwards combined them in Photoshop to a single sharp image (“focus stacking”).

Looking for the tiny things, or tinkering with focus stacking, is a lot of fun for me, and the results are astonishing over and over again. The fantastic image quality the Tamron renders contributes to this as well.

ACCESSORIES

Over the course of the last year, I picked up a variety of accessories for macro photography; a macro ring-flash, a camera slider for the tripod, a cable for the flash and an additional close-up adapter. I will write more about those in future posts – in particular since now that spring is coming up, the number of interesting motivations quickly increases again.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: I can highly recommend the Tamron to anyone taking a serious interest in macro photography. The old model (Foo4) renders very good results and provides unbeatable value for money.

What I’ve learned: Macro photography is great fun! No matter whether you’re outside, on the hunt for flowers, insects, and other details, or if you take your motivations back home and then carefully set them up – seeing all the fine details afterwards enlarged on your screen is amazing. And this is how I learned that a butterfly’s eyes are dotted.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.


EXAMPLE IMAGES:

Dandelion - Composite of nine images by focus stacking
Dandelion – Composite of nine images by focus stacking

 

Butterfly on a lavender bloom
Butterfly on a lavender bloom

 

Bumblebee on a lavender bloom
Bumblebee on a lavender bloom

 

Maple seed with white frost in the morning sun
Maple seed with white frost in the morning sun

 

Ice crystal on a car roof on a frosty January morning
Ice crystal on a car roof on a frosty January morning

My Gear: Refresh – SSD in a MacBook Pro

Mission accomplished: the SSD in its new place

For nearly six years, my MacBook Pro model “Late 2011” has proven itself as a reliable companion whenever and wherever I’m traveling. When I bought it, I consciously made the decision to go for a – for that time – loaded configuration. On the one hand side, I wanted to be able to run demanding software, and on the other hand, I wanted to have a hardware that would remain up to its task for many years. So far, this strategy turned out well. My main computer is a mid-2010 iMac, which will still be good for some time. It was certainly more expensive than a PC when I bought it, but I’m still happy with it, while many of my friends or colleagues are on their second or third PC over the same period of time. So over their lifetime, both the iMac as well as the MacBook Pro have been well worth the initial investment.

However, in one respect the MacBook Pro has considerably lost its punch, and that is performance. This applies in particular to starting the laptop up, as well as launching bigger programs. Once an application runs, there is no reason for complaints. In talking with friends, it was soon clear that the old hard drive was the bottleneck. This assumption is supported by the observation that my iMac, even though being more than a year older, still is a lot quicker – but then it had a SSD built in from the start, which holds the operating system and applications.

THE CONVERSION: HDD OUT, SSD IN

The advantages of a SSD compared to a classic hard drive are obvious: it grants a significant boost in performance, while at the same time using a lot less power. Also, SSDs have now become very affordable. Currently (Feb. 2017), the Samsung EVO 750/850 as well as the SanDisk Ultra II come highly recommended. I have chosen the latter, with a capacity of 960 GB, to replace my old 1 TB hard drive.

The conversion of an older MacBook Pro like mine fortunately is very easy. After saving all relevant data – for instance by means of an up-to-date TimeMachine backup – the laptop is switched off and turned upside down. After removing the ten screws with a small  Phillips head screwdriver, the lid can be taken off.

Everything ready for the upgrade: SSD, MacBook Pro, Tools
Everything ready for the upgrade: SSD, MacBook Pro, Tools

On my 15″ model, those are seven short and three longer screws. In case you forget which screws goes where: don’t worry about it. When putting it back together, simply start with the long screws, as they will fit only into the proper holes.

After taking off the bottom plate, the interior becomes visible
After taking off the bottom plate, the interior becomes visible. The hard drive is in the bottom left corner.

After six years of intense use, quite an amount of dirt had gathered inside the casing. I cleaned it out carefully before proceeding. Then I went to removing the old hard drive. It’s held in place by an easily removable bracket fixed with two Phillips head screws. Once that is out, the hard drive can simply be taken out, and the combined plug for the power and SATA connections can be pulled off.

Removing the old Hard Drive
After removing the bracket that holds the hard drive in place, it can be removed and the cable can be unplugged.

The next step is a bit fiddly: The hard drive is mounted on four screws that fit into rubber fasteners inside the laptop casing. These four screws need to be transferred to the new SSD now. This requires a small Torx (TX) 6 screwdriver as well as a considerable amount of patience.

SSD ready to be mounted
The new SSD ready to be mounted. Switching the the four screws from the old hard drive that hold it in the rubber mounts of the housing was the most fiddly task of the entire upgrade.

The assembly is then done quickly and in exact reverse order: the combined power/SATA plug is securely plugged into the SSD. Then it is placed into its rubber mounts and the holding bracket is screwed back into place. Last but not least, the lid is closed and secured – done!

As the old hard drive certainly was no miracle performance-wise, but still in good overall shape, I quickly put it into an external USB housing. After thoroughly deleting its contents, it is free for future use.

In the meantime, the old hard drive moves into an external USB casing
In the meantime, the old hard drive moves into an external USB casing

The last remaining step was freshly installing macOS Sierra on the MacBook Pro. By means of flash drive that I had converted into an installation media beforehand, this was quickly accomplished as well. Including installation of all relevant application, the whole conversion was done well inside of one afternoon.

All that remains is reinstalling the software
All that remains is reinstalling the software.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: In particular for the owners of older laptops with a classic hard drive, the conversion to a SSD is very worthwhile. Good and sufficiently large models have become very affordable by now. On an older MacBook Pro such as mine, the modification is quick and easy. In particular when starting the computer up, the gain in performance becomes evident: while it used to take several minutes to boot and log on until it was ready to actually do something, it now boots in about 20 seconds. Logging on takes about another half minute and then I’m good to go. All in all, this afternoon was well invested!

What I’ve learned: Formerly, when I worked (and played 🙂 ) with PCs, tuning and rebuilding them was more or less a daily task. Hence, switching the hard drive was no challenge. SSDs have overcome their teething problems and are an established media now. It did surprise me that even models with large capacities no longer cost an arm and a leg. I am confident that my MacBook Pro, primed like this, will be a trusted companion for several years to come.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

YouTube Recommendation: Christopher Frost

Christopher Frost Photography

When I started looking for additional lenses for my 760D, the YouTube channel by Christopher Frost was among the first I subscribed to. Chris is an enthused photographer living in Cardiff and currently training to be become a vicar. He characterizes himself as a “lens enthusiast” and continuously publishes detailed reviews.

I’ve come to appreciate these reviews a lot. Chris follows a thorough and consistent scheme, so that his reviews can be easily compared to each other. From time to time, he takes advantage of that himself and combines several reviews into a “battle” – for instance, ten different 50mm prime lenses, or eight ultra wide-angle ones. Hence, it not only becomes evident how one particular lens behaves under various settings or on different cameras, but you can also easily compare lenses to each other.

He assesses the following points:

  • Look & feel, build quality, and equipment
  • Image quality (sharpness, contrast, chromatic aberrations) – on a full-frame as well as an APS-C camera, as far as applicable, at different apertures, and (for zoom lenses) at different focal lengths.
  • Distortion and vignetting
  • Close-up image quality
  • Behavior against bright lights
  • Bokeh

When it comes to lenses, he tests about everything that can be mounted to a Canon DSLR; in particular off-brand ones. Thus, he created more than a 130 videos by now. Recently, he obtained a mirrorless camera, so that lenses made specifically for DSLMs are now being reviewed as well.

The videos are made in a very likeable way. In addition to the always-similar test images, they always contain some example images as well as personal experiences when using the lens. He’s enthusiastic about what he’s doing, but he doesn’t overdo it. The videos have a very convenient duration of five to ten minutes each. His British English can be easily understood. Based on his reviews, for instance, I have decided to go with the Tamrom SP 70-300mm ƒ4-5,6 Di VC as my telephoto zoom lens.

PLAYLIST RECOMMENDATIONS

In addition, Chris has some other playlists mostly focused on music, TV shows, and his engagement at Church.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: If you’re looking for well-made, substantiated, and informative reviews on lenses for Canon cameras, then Chris’ YouTube channel comes highly recommended!

What I’ve learned: Due to the comparability of the reviews, I have learned how significantly different lenses can behave concerning sharpness and color-fringing at different aperture settings and focal lengths, and also how big the differences can be when using one and the same lens on full-frame body or an APS-C camera.


LINKS

Title image: YouTube Screenshot

My Gear: Vast Spaces – Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8 DX

Tokina AT-X Pro SD 11-20mm ƒ/2,8 DX on the Canon 760D

The main reason for me to get a new camera in the fall of 2015 was the unique opportunity to photograph the Milky Way in the mountains on the edge of the desert in New Mexico (USA). This also meant: I needed a lens suitable for astro-photography. From research on the Internet, I quickly learned two essential criteria:

  • widest possible angle, to catch plenty of sky
  • widest possible aperture, to gather enough light

For APS-C cameras such as my 760D, “ultra wide-angle” means a focal length between 10 and 20mm.  A wide variety of lenses from different manufacturers are available in this range. Most of these have a variable aperture, from ƒ/3.5 or even ƒ4.5 to ƒ/5.6, which means they do not let in a lot of light. But then there is one lens with a quite unique setup.

TOKINA AT-X Pro SD 11-20mm ƒ/2,8 (IF) DX

Tokina AT-X Pro SD 11-20mm ƒ/2,8 DX
Tokina AT-X Pro SD 11-20mm ƒ/2,8 DX

The Tokina has a constant wide aperture of ƒ/2.8 and thus lets in a lot more light (about two to four times as much) than the other lenses in this focal range. With a price tag of around 600 € (Jan. 2017), it is also the most expensive lens, though – aside from Canon’s professional lenses such as the 14mm ƒ/2.8 for around 2,000 €. If you want to capture the night sky and hence need the wide aperture, the Tokina is well worth the investment.

BUILD QUALITY

A wide aperture always means a lot of glass, hence the lens is big and heavy. Together with the camera however, it balances well in your hands. It feels solid, and even though the casing is made from plastic, it doesn’t feel too “cheap”. The focus switch, however, is subject to critique: the lens has a push-pull mechanism, i.e. you move the focus ring back and forth to switch between manual and autofocus, as can be seen by the respective markings on the image above. Most of the time this won’t work without wiggling and you’ll inadvertently shift the focus point. Aside from that, the autofocus is reliable, and the manual focus is smooth and precise. The lens doesn’t provide image stabilization, but at such short focal lengths, this is not really needed in my opinion. The lens comes with front and back caps as well as a lens hood. Due to the wide angle of view, the hood is short, but has a very large diameter. This means it doesn’t fit into most pouches along with the lens but needs to be stored separately.  Because of its size and weight, I don’t take the Tokina with me whenever I go out, but pack it only when needed.

USE AND RESULTS

I use the lens on a regular basis now. Of course I use it for capturing the night sky, as can be seen in the examples below. There are other uses as well – it also lends itself to taking pictures in confined interior spaces, in particular with atmospheric lighting. For instance, the picture of the steam engine cab, which was illuminated just by a simple lamp, would not have been possible with a longer focal length because of the limited space. It is also great for landscapes, such as a sunrise at the beach. These uses technically do not require the ƒ/2.8 aperture, but it still offers the advantage of reaching a sharp image throughout the frame earlier than other lenses when stopping down.

The example images below have all been taken at the short end – i.e. at 11mm – because that is what I bought the lens for. Even though I do have alternative lenses for the long end with the Sigma C 17-70mm, or the Sigma A 18-35mm, the Tokina’s zoom range up to 20mm offers the flexibility to snap a “regular” wide-angle shot in between without having to change lenses.

I am quite happy with the image sharpness the lens renders. It’s always sharp in the middle; the corners of the frame however are perceptibly softer at ƒ/2.8. This can be seen in the shot of the Milky Way below, by comparing the sizes of the stars in the center of the image to those in the corners. This behavior is typical for all ultra wide-angle lenses, and stays within acceptable bounds for me. When you stop down, the image gets sharp from end to end at ƒ/5.6 at the latest. If you close the aperture even further to ƒ/11, you’ll get beautiful sun stars. However, when shooting into the light, the lens will create very prominent lens flares. They can look stylish, but often they are not desired.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: If you want to photograph at night, to take pictures in moderately lit confined interior spaces, the Tokina is definitely worth the investment. It is solid, reliable and renders good image quality. It’s not flawless, however, and the recommendation is primarily based on its unique feature, the constant wide aperture of ƒ/2.8.

If you don’t need such a fast lens, I highly recommend the Canon EF-S 10-18mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 (Link to Amazon). It is considerably smaller, lighter, and most of all a lot less expensive (Jan. 2017: 230 €) than the Tokina. It also renders sharp images, but it lets in a lot less light – only a quarter of the amount compared to the Tokina – so you’ll be tied to brighter scenes, slower shutter speeds or higher ISO setting.

What I’ve learned: Taking pictures with an ultra wide-angle lens is a lot of fun – in particular because you can get a lot into your image even in a small space, or capture vast landscapes with just a single shot. This however poses the challenge of finding something interesting for the foreground, otherwise it’s easy to get lost in the scene because everything is pushed back – something I’m still working on. In particular with the Tokina, I have discovered the joy of astro-photography – even though that’s not an easy task considering the amount of light pollution in the area I live in.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.


EXAMPLE IMAGES:

Sunrise on St. Simon's Island
Sunrise on St. Simon’s Island

 

Fire Basket on the Terrace
Fire basket on the terrace

 

Driver's cab of a steam engine (HDR)
Driver’s cab of a freight-train steam engine (HDR)

 

Milky Way over Albuquerque
Milky Way over Albuquerque

 

Mountain cottage in a full-moon night
Mountain cottage in a full-moon night

On a personal note: My photo board 2017

Photo Board 2017

With photography, as with many things in life as well, you get better by setting goals for yourself, making your homework, accepting challenges, and doing things you didn’t do before – at least not that way. So I asked myself: What pictures do I want to make? How do I achieve that? And then: what worked as planned, and what didn’t?

In order to not lose track of my ideas, I resort to an idea by Stephan Wiesner: the photo board. I’d like to share my own photo board for 2017 with you here – and of course, I will report on my progress here as well.

RETROSPECT

When I think back how my photography developed, there were three stages: At first, I simply took snapshots – I documented where I was and what I did without thinking too much about it. At times, some really great shots would come out of that, which I still like today, but back then, those were mostly coincidental.

Then came the time when I started to think more before taking a picture: careful choice of the field of view, the main motivation or item of interest in relation to its surroundings and background, the lighting etc. I became pickier with my images. I no longer simply photographed everything, but cherry-picked the things that interested me most. And I also deliberately chose to not take a particular picture, for instance when the lighting was completely off. However, the motto still was: “Ok, now that I’m here, let’s see what pictures I can take”.

This leads us to stage three, where this is becoming reversed. Now I ask myself: “if I want to make this photo, where do I have to go to get it?”. “When do I have to be there?”. Thus, the image becomes the goal for a trip or afternoon, and no longer is a mere side effect. This requires planning, not only on the where and when, but also: what equipment do I have to take along? Which lens? Do I need a tripod, a filter, a remote shutter release, an external flash…?

When I have an idea for an image, I start looking for hints and tricks on the Internet, gather suggestions, and then I go out and try it. This way, I managed to create a number of great images over the course of the past year, which I certainly could not have created in 2015. And in 2017, I want to raise the bar even higher.

PHOTO BOARD 2017

NIGHT CAPTURE / LONG EXPOSURE: SYKLINE

I always like nighttime photographs, especially of larger cities. In that respect, I am fortunate to live close to Frankfurt. With the combination of the Main River and its skyline, it offers a number of marvelous motives. I made several attempts on this image over the last year, but so far, the result does not meet my expectations.

But these attempts were not in vain. For instance, I have found my preferred vantage point: on Flößerbrücke (‘rafter’s bridge’). From there, you can see the Ignaz Bubis Bridge in the foreground, which is nicely illuminated when it’s dark, and then the skyline of the financial district in the background.

Foto-Skizze: Skyline zur blauen Stunde
Photo Sketch: Skyline during the Blue Hour

In addition to selecting a good spot, I was also able to try out and optimize my equipment. I will definitely take the picture using my Sigma A 18-35mm ƒ/1.8 lens, due to the outstanding sharpness it renders. Tripod and a remote shutter release are a given as well. In addition, I always take along a piece of black cardboard or something similar, because the Flößerbrücke is illuminated as well by strong floodlights mounted in front of the bridge – these will shine into the lens despite the lens hood and tend to created distracting artifacts in the resulting image. I also take along my neutral density filters. I have two of them: an 8x and a 1,000x. I will use them to slow down the shutter speed to make the water appear silky and smooth.

All that is missing is: a workday evening in winter, when it gets dark early and many of the offices in the high-rise buildings are still illuminated, and an interesting sky. No clouds at all is boring, and too many clouds isn’t good either – because then the sky doesn’t get dark, since it reflects the lights of the city and in particular the airport behind the city. I am mostly interested in the time period from sunset to about 45 minutes afterwards, the so-called “Blue Hour”.

CLOSE-UP / MACRO: EYE

Macros, or at least close-up images, are another area of photography that appeals to me. The reason is that these images expose details that are usually missed – either because they are simply too small to see, or because they move too fast to take a thorough look. This was important enough for me to get a dedicated macro lens: the Tamron SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Di VC Macro. I went hunting for butterflies and bumblebees in the lavender bush with it, and took a magnified image of a dandelion.

While browsing the Internet for macro photography ideas and tutorials, one fascinating motive repeatedly came up: close-up images of eyes. This has become something I definitely want to try myself.

Foto-Skizze: Nahaufnahme eines Auges
Photo-Sketch: Close-up of an eye

Of course I’ve read a number of how-tos and tips, so what remains is to actually try and do it. I don’t know yet, for instance, whether it works better for me to take the picture outside in the sun, or inside with a flash. How does the light have to be set up so that the details in the iris are clearly visible, but the model does not squint from the glare, and so that I don’t cast a shadow on the eye with the camera or lens?

MACRO: ICE CRYSTALS / SNOWFLAKES

Let’s stay in the macro realm for another photo idea: ice crystals and snowflakes. However, this requires something that around here is a complete no-show for the third winter in a row now: snow. Or at least, long-lasting decent frost.

Foto-Skizze: Eiskristall-Makro
Photo Sketch: Snowflake macro

I was able to get a few “test images” with white frost on clear mornings at least – with promising results. But I am sure: there is way more to be seen. Preferably in the grazing light of the low early morning sun, but otherwise, a strategically placed flashgun will to the trick as well.

FREEZING MOTION ON A FOUNTAIN

This idea is basically the opposite of a long exposure: Here, I do not want to show the water in a silky-smooth way, but instead I want to freeze the motion with a high shutter speed so that every single drop can be seen floating in mid-air. With my Rebel T6s, this means: 1/4,000 second. Maybe I will manage the upgrade to the 80D, then I can even go with 1/8,000 – but there are other priorities to take into account as well. Anyway, because of its wide aperture and image sharpness, I will use the Sigma A 18-35mm ƒ/1.8 for this shot.

Foto-Skizze: Bewegung einfrieren am Springbrunnen
Photo Sketch: Freezing motion on a fountain

While I am rather sure on the “how”, so far I am missing the “where”. I am looking for a well with a nice fountain. Unfortunately, many of the fountains here in Darmstadt are permanently turned off, even in summer. Either due to lack of funding for necessary repairs of the ailing pipes and basins, or due to wanton damage and pollution.  So far, I haven’t had the patience to systematically look for fountains in the nearby cities, but it’s definitely on my list for 2017. If you know any beautiful waterspouts, I will gladly take any suggestions!

CAR PORTRAIT WITH AN EXTERNAL FLASH

This idea came from rummaging in the Internet for the questions: “what can you possibly do with an external flash?”. In doing so I came across a YouTube video by Christian Adams and immediately thought: what a great idea! The concept comprises taking many pictures, in each of which a certain area of the car is illuminated by a hand-held external flash, and then afterwards compositing them in Photoshop to get the final image with a “showroom” feel to it. Fortunately, a worthy model for such a picture has been a member of our family for 20 years now:

Foto-Skizze: Auto-Portrait mit Aufsteckblitz
Photo Sketch: Car portrait with an external flash

I’m still thinking about a good location, where there are no distracting reflections or background objects. Most of all, I want to be undisturbed, and also do not want to irritate anyone with all the flashing. Aside from that, all I need is the right occasion – and of course a fresh polish for the gem.

PLANES AT THE AIRPORT

For me, planes are kind of special, because they are tied to a very specific feeling: wanderlust. Oftentimes, when I am sitting in the garden at home, or I’m looking out of my office window, and see the planes climbing into the clouds I wonder: where are they going? What would be like to be on that plane now? And even when I am actually sitting on a plane for business travel every now and then, it still feels special to me to be at the airport.

Foto-Skizze: Flugzeuge am Flughafen
Photo Sketch: Planes at the airport

I want to try capturing this feeling in an image. At and around the Frankfurt airport, there are a number of photo locations that are suitable for that purpose. So far, I stuck to theory and research on that topic. I want to change this next year – go out to the airport, get a feeling for the views the various vantage points actually offer, and take pictures. I’ll definitely pack my telephoto lens, as well as my “always-on” lens – and a tripod.

FURTHER IDEAS

Of course, there are more ideas than that – but they are not as concrete or thought-through yet as the ones listed above, so they haven’t made it to the sketch / photo board stage yet. For instance, Darmstadt has a small but pretty zoo, called the Vivarium. It offers a wide variety of potential motives, ranging from butterflies to kangaroos, hence I definitely plan to go “hunting and shooting” there.

And I’ll keep looking around the local Railway Museum, for special lighting moods – for instance, when the setting sun floods the roundhouse with orange light through the old windows. Or behind the scenes, capturing sights usually hidden from the public eye.

Apart from that, I’ll keep my eyes and mind open for new ideas throughout the year…

CALENDAR 2018

I definitely plan to work on a photo calendar project again. For 2017, I had composed a calendar with a “best of” my pictures taken between October 2015 and October 2016. Some of my family and friends really enjoy having one, not only because many of the images have a quite different effect when viewed in A2 size (roughly 16×24″) compared to a small screen. I particularly liked the challenge of finding a motive matching each month.

Hence, I want to repeat that for 2018. This time, I tasked myself with creating a calendar in portrait orientation. I have started by adding a few images from this year to a short list. Probably not all of them will end up in the final calendar, since the fire and forge images are very similar, but I will take the final decision only when I have the rest of the images as well, to make sure they fit together.

Kalender 2018
Calendar 2018: The first candidates

Of course, some ideas from the photo board will make it into the calendar as well – even though not all ideas can be done easily in portrait mode. But this challenge is also what makes it appealing…

Stay tuned!
– Jochen =8-)

Picture credits: All sketches and photos: own images.

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