Merry Christmas!

A merry Christmas to all of you – enjoy the Holidays with your Loved Ones, make yourselves comfortable, come to rest, and most of all: stay healthy and happy!

Jochen =8-)

Merry Christmas!

Rented and tested: Sigma A 50-100mm f/1.8

Sigma A 50-100mm ƒ/1.8 on the Canon 760D

One remaining gap in my equipment list is a high-quality tele-zoom lens – in particular one that can capture portraits with a nice blurry background (bokeh). I already have two prime lenses that can be used in this way: the “nifty fifty” Canon 50mm ƒ/1.8 and the Tamron SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Di VC Macro. But for situations like events, where people are moving around, I prefer the flexibility of a zoom lens.

Two types of lenses come into mind: first, the “classic” 70-200mm ƒ/2.8, which is available from Canon, Sigma and Tamron in various different styles. Second, the rather new Sigma 50-100mm ƒ/1.8, which is designed specifically for APS-C Cameras like my Rebel T6s. All these lenses have one thing in common: they are in a price range where you no longer buy one “on a hunch”. Of course there are numerous test reports and reviews online. But there is only one way to find out which glass fits my personal photography  style: try it out.

SO TEST THEREFORE, WHO JOIN FOREVER

Only a few of you will be so lucky to have a photographer friend who will happily lend such a lens for some time. Fortunately, there are now quite a number of suppliers who offer to rent photo equipment – not only lenses, but also cameras or entire flash and lighting equipment. I have used such a service twice now, and have had very good experiences doing so.

ZOOMYRENTALS

The company I use is ZoomyRentals.de. They are in Berlin, Germany, and offer a wide variety of camera, lenses and accessories by and for Canon, Sony, and Nikon. They ship only inside Germany of course, but wherever you are – search for “rent camera lens” online, and I am sure you will find a provider in your area. The steps described below will most likely be the same. Here is how it works:

  • You register
  • When ordering for the very first time, you have to upload a copy of your ID to your user profile for verification. Your name and address have to be clearly visible.
  • You select the desired equipment
  • You choose the starting date and the term of lease – this can be from 3 days to 4 weeks.
  • There you go!

I highly recommend signing up for the option insurance that is offered with each order. With expensive equipment, it is better to go safe than sorry.

SHIPPING

A DHL messenger does the delivery. You will receive your equipment on the morning of the first day of the lease, and a messenger will pick it up again on the morning of the last day. This is very reliable; delivery and pickup will be acknowledged with a signature, so you are on the safe side. Most of all, the package won’t accidentally end up on your porch or at a neighbor who might not be there when you need it.

Gut verpackt: Sigma A 50-100mm ƒ/1.8 fertig zum Versand
Carefully packed: Sigma A 50-100mm ƒ/1.8 ready for shipping

All lenses come with front and back caps, lens hood, protection filter, and a pouch. This all will be safely packed between thick layers of foamed material. The box also contains the delivery slip as well as the return-shipping label.

Now you’re ready to go: you can use the rented equipment whichever way you want as long as you have it. Careful handling of all items is a matter of course.

SIGMA A 50-100mm ƒ/1.8

In December 2016, I rented the “big brother” of my Sigma A 18-35mm ƒ/1.8 for one week. I had friends visiting me during that time, and I also attended a festivity, so there were many opportunities to test the lens.

LOOK & FEEL

The lens immediately draws attention: It is big. And it is heavy. Holding the camera leisurely with one hand quickly becomes an athletic challenge; certainly not a lens to carry with you at all times, but only for specific occasions. If you set this in relation to its price tag of around (Dec. 2016) 1,000 €, you’ll quickly realize that this investment had to be thought through thoroughly. There’s a reason for the weight, though: A focal length of 100mm and an aperture of 1.8, as well as the zoom, require a lot of glass. In addition, the lens is made from sturdy metal and manufactured to high standards.

I liked the handling of the zoom as well as the focus ring very much. All in all, the finish, which is similar to my 18-35mm, is very convincing. Also, I didn’t mind the tripod collar, which is criticized in many online reviews, when handling the lens.

Sigma A 50-100mm ƒ/1.8
Big, heavy, high quality: Sigma A 50-100mm ƒ/1.8

CONFIGURATION & OPERATION DOMAIN

This lens serves but one purpose: the creation of professional-looking portraits with beautiful soft backgrounds with an APS-C camera. The constant aperture of ƒ/1.8 is its unique feature. The zoom range is rather limited – just 2x, compared to almost 3x on the classic 70-200. However, especially when taking pictures at an indoor event, I quite liked the zoom range. The extra 20mm at the shorter end definitely are an advantage in this case, and at the long end, you can make up for a lot of the missing focal length by cropping the image. Thanks to the fantastic sharpness this lens renders, this is no problem at all.

One point you will definitely notice is that this lens lacks image stabilization. In a room with lights dimmed for a festive mood, even using an aperture of ƒ/1.8 and ISO 800, I ended up with shutter speeds between 1/60 and 1/10 of a second. Even when seeking support on a table or armrest, this makes it difficult to avoid camera shake – especially at 100mm. I could have increased the ISO, but with my Rebel T6s I don’t like to go above 800 when I don’t absolutely have to. The resulting image noise at higher ISO settings becomes too intrusive in my mind.

Consequently, I will definitely also try one of the 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 lenses with image stabilization. Even though the shutter speed will become even slower due to the aperture being one and a third stops smaller, the risk for camera shake blurring the image will still become significantly smaller. I will see how this actually turns out in practice.

RELIABILITY & IMAGE QUALITY

The Sigma Art zoom lenses with an aperture of ƒ/1.8 – the 18-35mm as well as the 50-100mm – are famous for their rather ambiguous relationship to autofocus. It seems to depend on the individual lens whether the autofocus works reliably in phase detection mode (through the optical viewfinder) or not. The copy of the 50-100mm I had was exemplary: on every picture I took, the focus was on the spot. With my 18-35mm on the other hand, this is a matter of luck. On about one third of the images, the focus misses completely. Online test reports confirm the impression that this behavior depends on the particular lens; the conclusions for both lenses in this respect range from “hopeless” to “no problems at all”.

The back-up solution is to use the camera’s live view, because the contrast detection autofocus will always work – though slower (if you want to know why this is the case, watch this lecture). If you’re patient enough, you can also focus manually. When taking shots on a tripod, I prefer this option anyway.

The image quality is simply brilliant. Even when shooting wide open, the images are amazingly sharp throughout the frame, with just a touch of softness in the corners. And they have to be, because apertures below 2.8 are this lenses specialty. The blurred backgrounds are nice and soft; only occasionally the bokeh becomes busy when there are lots of little lights in the background. When you stop down, the lens produces beautiful stars around light sources. The images I made, indoors and outdoors, people and cityscapes, consistently enthused me. The image quality is definitely a very strong argument in favor of the Sigma A 50-100mm ƒ/1.8.

Sigma A 100-150mm ƒ/1.8 - Beispiel 1

Sigma A 100-150mm ƒ/1.8 - Example 2


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: The Sigma A 50-100mm ƒ/1.8 occupies are small niche: making professional portraits with an APS-C camera. It occupies this niche very well, though. The outstanding image quality was what excited me the most. The look and feel match the high value. Working with it was definitely very enjoyable!

Given the appropriate occasion, I will definitely try one of the 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 lenses with image stabilization for comparison. Based on the experiences gained with both lenses, I will then make my decision. You will read about that here as well.

What I’ve learned: Renting a lens for a week is the perfect way to test it thoroughly and gain an impression whether it fits your imagination and expectations. I will certainly use this option in the future again.

And: it is a lot of fun working with a professional lens like this! The week of testing however also proved the lens’ limitations. As beautiful as the images are, the 50-100’s wide aperture isn’t everything. Before taking a decision, I definitely want to compare, hence renting the lens for a week was the absolute right thing to do.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

My Gear: The “Always-on” – Sigma C 17-70mm f/2.8-4

Sigma C 17-70mm ƒ/2.8-4.0

After I had chosen my new camera, the next question obviously was which lenses to get for it. This time, I had deliberately bought the camera body without the kit lens that usually comes with it, the Canon EF-S 18-55mm ƒ/3.5-5.6. I wanted something with a bit more “punch”.

KIT LENS ALTERNATIVES

Canon themselves offer the Canon EF-S 17-55mm ƒ/2.8 as an upgrade to the kit lens. It lets in two thirds more light at the short end, and even four times as much light at the long end! The downside is, it costs around 750,- € (Nov. 2016). Fortunately, there are “off-brand” lenses available as well. This resulted in the following short-list:

  1. Sigma 17-50 mm ƒ/2.8
  2. Tamron 17-50mm ƒ/2.8
  3. Sigma 17-70 mm ƒ/2.8-4.0

The main similarities and differences can be quickly summarized:

  • No. 1 and 2 both have a 3x zoom, and a constant maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8. Both have a price tag of around 300,- € (Nov. 2016)
  • No. 3 has a 4x zoom, but a variable aperture with “only” ƒ/4.0 at the long end. It costs around 400,- € (Nov. 2016)

After studying numerous reviews, I dropped the Tamron from the list. The reviews consistently stressed that the Sigma lenses to have better image and build quality. So the remaining question was: what do I consider to be more important – longer focal distance or wider aperture? 17-70mm or constant ƒ/2.8?

In the end, I decided for the 17-70. I preferred the greater flexibility given by the extra 20mm.

SIGMA C 17-70mm ƒ/2,8-4,0 DC MACRO OS HSM

Sigma C 17-70mm ƒ/2.8-4.0
Sigma C 17-70mm ƒ/2.8-4.0

The Sigma plays a major role in the fact that photography has become so much fun for me with the new camera. Not only because it lets in much more light, making it easier to take good pictures indoors or at night – image sharpness and colour rendering have enthused me as well. As a result, it has truly become the “always-on”. Its external values are also convincing. I consider the used materials and the build quality to be very good. It comes complete with lens cap and lens hood – something Canon likes to charge extra for. Though it adds to the kit lens in terms of size and weight, it handles very well together with the camera.

Regarding taking pictures: The autofocus works very reliable on my 760D, as does the image stabiliser. This makes for good hand-held images even in difficult lighting conditions. It is not a true macro lens  – but an image scale of 1:2.8 still allows for some impressive close-ups. And thanks to the wide aperture, pictures with nice out-of-focus backgrounds (bokeh) are feasible as well.

ARE THERE ANY DOWNSIDES?

Yes, based on my experience from the past year, there are a few points to consider. What I notice the most: the zoom is very easy-going. When carrying the camera with the lens pointing down, on a belt clip or shoulder strap, the lens extends to 70mm by itself, due to its own weight (including the lens hood). This can be a bit awkward, because it becomes more likely to hit something. Plus you’ll have to adjust the zoom most of the times when picking up the camera again.

When recording video, as long as you do not use an external microphone well away from the camera, quiet clicking and chattering from the image stabilisation and autofocus will be audible. I rarely record videos, so that doesn’t bother me too much.

The images themselves offer hardly any reason for critique. The light vignetting (darkening of corners) when shooting wide open can easily be fixed in post-processing with just a few mouse clicks. In Adobe Lightroom, for instance, simply choosing the correct lens profile already does the trick. Chromatic aberrations – green and purple fringing on contrasting edges – are negligible.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: If you are looking at an upgrade from the kit lens, I can highly recommend the Sigma C 17-70mm ƒ/2.8-4.0! It is very versatile, reliable, and renders compelling results. Even more so when taking into account that the “original” from Canon costs twice as much – but in my mind, it’s not worth the extra money.

The sister lens, Sigma 17-50mm ƒ/2.8, is worth having a look at as well – especially when you’re taking videos on a regular basis, where a constant aperture is more important. Two of my friends have it, on a Canon 350D and a Nikon D7100 respectively, and they are happy with that choice as well.

What I’ve learned: The thorough research before getting the new lens was absolutely worthwhile. In particular: when you are looking for a new lens, have a look at the third-party manufacturers as well: Samyang, Sigma, Tamrom, Tokina etc. In terms of quality as well as value for money they offer some very interesting alternatives.


LINKS:

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.


EXAMPLE IMAGES:

Fall Colors
Fall Colors
Portrait of a Snail
Portrait of a Snail
Frankfurt - Night Skyline (HDR)
Frankfurt – Night Skyline (HDR)
December Sunrise
December Sunrise
The Forge (HDR)
The Forge (HDR)

On a personal note: All aboard! Your next connections…

Pictures Overview

While I’m happily sharing recommendations for the blogs, videos, and books that helped me getting started with photography – and still do – of course the question comes up: So? What came out of all this? Did it actually help?

Personally, I can say: The pictures I’m taking today – one and a half years ago, I wouldn’t have thought it is possible for me to take them myself. And I want to stretch this boundary even further over the next one and a half years. In the meantime, I have gathered quite a lot of images. I maintain a small selection – what I consider to be a “best of” – on the photography platform 500px.

Some of that, mixed with older images and mobile snapshots, can also be found on Instagram.

And last but not least, from time to time I produce moving pictures as well, which can be found on YouTube.

So if you want to keep track of what comes out of all the things I find, share, and learn – have a look there as well  😀 You will find the various links always handy by means of the respective icons in the top right hand corner of the menu bar.


LINKS: ALL ABOARD…

Blog Recommendation: 20 Tips for Composition in Photography

Composition - Rule of thirds and guiding lines

Purposeful composition of the image is the main differentiator between a snapshot and a photograph; between simply taking a picture, and making a picture. This should not be taken as ‘snapshots are forbidden’ – sometimes, capturing a short moment is way more important than everything around it. Usually, though, you will have the time to spend some thoughts on how to be best put the targeted motive into scene. We all know the typical vacation shots: horizon and/or person in the centre of the frame. I admit, I myself have produced quite a lot these in the past. And we all know how boring these pictures usually are.

Of course, there is more than enough literature on composition – you can literally hold entire lectures on that topic. And that is again exactly the problem: when searching on the internet, you will find pages after pages full of text, losing itself in details and historical context, and often without giving illustrative examples. Or you may find a good page, which then only talks about one isolated aspect, such as the rule of thirds for instance.

So I was extremely happy when I found  Barry O Carroll’s blog. Besides the picture galleries from his numerous travels, he has also written and published a number of guides. Foremost, the “Guide to Composition in Photography – 20 Tips“. In a well-structured overview, he presents the essential rules for composition – each with illustrative marked-up image examples and a short(!) text. Composition in a nutshell – in my mind, it can’t be done any better.

Keep in mind: these rules are not set-in-stone laws which you have to follow strictly at all times. Take them as inspiration how to arrange your pictures in more interesting ways. Once you have internalised them, and take a look at famous photographs, you will quickly recognise a number of these patterns.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Absolutely take a look!

What I’ve learned: All theory is grey, pictures say more than a 1,000 words – here is a fantastically prepared, concise and illustrative summary that provides lots of inspiration for the composition of your own images. The photo examples with the added lines and markings demonstrate very well how and why each respective rule works.


LINKS

Picture credits: Title image: own image

Make and Edit Pictures of the Milky Way

Lonely Speck

Photographing the Milky Way was the motivation for me to finally get deeper into the art of photography. In preparation for a trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico, I had already bought a new camera. The next step was to learn how to make the best use of my equipment – and in particular, how to get the best out of the pictures afterwards, at home on my computer. What helped me the most in all of this was the YouTube channel “Lonely Speck” by Ian Norman, which I will introduce here.

Milky Way over New Mexico
Milky Way over New Mexico

PREPARATION

PLANNING

I spent about a week in Albuquerque, including a few open evenings. While looking for tips where and how to best see the Milky Way, I came across Astronomy Adventures. Peter has a dark site on a ranch up in the mountains between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, at about 7,800 ft. elevation, where he offers guided tours through the night sky with his telescope. Together with a couple of friends, we had the great luck to catch a clear night at new moon – perfect conditions. Peter’s explanations of the history of astronomy, while pointing out interesting stellar formations with his telescope, made for an unforgettable experience.

Back home, in a densely populated region such as Germany’s Rhein-Main area, catching a view of the Milky Way is not so easy. In order to see a decent amount of stars around here, one would have to go to the northern Black Forest, or to the coast of the Baltic Sea. The web site www.lightpollutionmap.info provides a very detailed overview on light pollution levels; check it out for dark places near where you live.

Full Moon Rising
Full Moon Rising

A natural form of light pollution is the moon. In a full moon night, there isn’t much else to see in the sky. There is a number of web sites and apps that help you out with what phase to moon is in, or when it and the sun set and rise respectively. A good recommendation is The Photograhper’s Ephemeris, which can be used for free on any desktop computer. Then of course the weather has to be right as well – the fewer clouds, the less humid and the colder it is, the better. And last but not least, the Milky Way or whatever constellation you are interested it, has to be visible on the sky. There are plenty of web site and apps for this as well; personally, I use Sky Guide for iOS.

EQUIPMENT

This topic can be quickly summarized. You’ll need:

  • A camera (the bigger the sensor, the better – however, even with a Micro Four Thirds camera you can take great pictures. With your cell phone… not so much)
  • A lens. That should fulfil the following requirements:
    • Widest possible angle, to capture much of the sky
    • Widest possible aperture (i.e., low aperture number, so that as much light as possible reaches the sensor)
    • For APS-C DSLRs, I recommend the Tokina 11-20mm ƒ/2.8 DX, which is what I am using
    • For other camera systems, I gladly pass on Stephan Wiesner’s recommendations: for mirrorless APS-C cameras, the Samyang 12mm ƒ/2.0; and for full-frame cameras, the Tamron 15-30mm ƒ/2.8.
    • However, expensive gear isn’t mandatory: even with your kit lens you can take great pictures, as will be shown below
  • Sturdy tripod
  • Optional: remote shutter release (if you don’t have one, you can use your camera’ two second delay shutter)

In addition: warm clothing (even in summer, clear nights tend to get cold), food, drinks, and a book. Also quite helpful: a flash light with a “night vision mode” (red lamp), so you can check or search something without blinding you or others in the dark.

TAKING PICTURES

Once everything is in place, line up your camera with the section of sky you’re interested in, and off you go. The most challenging feat is focusing correctly. In the dark, you have to focus manually, and simply turning the lens to “infinity” rarely does the trick. I usually look for a star that is bright enough to appear in Live View on the LCD screen, use the 10x magnification on it, and turn the focus ring until the star appears as small as possible. I take a few test shots in addition, zoom in, and then fine-tune as needed until the stars have become tiny pinpoints.

I typically start out with these settings:  11mm | ƒ/2.8 | ISO 1.600 | 25 Sec.

If you do not want to capture star trails on purpose, you cannot keep the shutter open for as long as you want – the earth rotates faster than you might think. Here is a rule of thumb for the maximum exposure time so that the stars still appear as dots: (500 divided by (focal length * crop factor)). The crop factor defined the relative size of your camera’s sensor compared to a full-frame camera. It needs to be taken into account because smaller cameras usually also have smaller pixels, hence are more sensitive to the movement of the stars. For a Canon APS-C camera like mine, the crop factor is 1.6 (it’s 1.5 for Nikon, and 2 for Micro Four-Thirds). So, with my camera and the Tokina 11-20mm, I can keep the shutter open for a maximum of (500 / (11* 1.6)) = 28.4 (rounded down: 25) seconds. Please keep in mind: this is a rule of thumbs. Check your images; you may find that you can keep your shutter open longer, or not as long, to get the desired results.

Always shoot wide open, to gather as much light as possible. Concerning the ISO setting, I usually start at 1,600. At least for my 760D, that is a good compromise between the amount of light gathered and the image quality. Once you’re all set, start taking pictures. And never take only one image of a particular target area; always take a series of pictures. I usually take 16 frames or more. This does take a while, but it drastically increases your post-processing options afterwards.

Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy
Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy

In closing, there is one important point to consider: when doing night sky photography for the first time, you’ll get easily tempted to make the pictures too dark. They’ll look great when you look at them on your camera’s bright LCD screen in the dark of night, but back home at your computer, you’ll be greatly disappointed. Make the pictures so that they actually look too bright at first! If your camera offers a histogram, use it. Of course, no parts of the pictures should be blown out (completely white), but there definitely should be information on the right hand side (lights) of your histogram. The more light there is in the image, the more information is available for post-processing – which brings us to the actual topic.

POST-PROCESSING

Ian Norman is a photographer living in California who specializes in astrophotography. Consequently, his YouTube-Channel offers a lot of information on this topic; in particular on post-processing the images. His tutorials explain the steps to be taken in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop very well and in an easy to follow manner. When I edited my first night sky images, I always had my iPad running the video tutorial at hand. I paused, scrolled back and forth, and followed each step carefully. By now, I can do most of it without having to ‘cheat’.

EDIT SINGLE IMAGES IN LIGHTROOM

The big challenge is in achieving good contrast and bringing out all the details, so that the image still looks natural and not overloaded. You will notice that the camera sees a lot more stars than the naked eye does. However when manipulating the night sky, and in particular the colors in the Milky Way, there always is some artistic leeway of course.

I want to point out two of Ian’s videos in particular. In the first one, he explains how you can capture the Milky Way even under very difficult lighting conditions:

This also explains very well why it is better to make the images appear too bright in camera and then reduce brightness in post, than the other way around.

The second video walks you through the usual editing steps for night sky images in Adobe Lightroom. This also proves that you can take impressive pictures even with a slower lens, if you take some considerations into account:

Both videos describe the editing of single images. The advanced method is to merge several frames in Photoshop into a single image – but for this, the images are initially edited in Lightroom as well, before bringing them into Photoshop.

MERGING SEVERAL IMAGES IN PHOTOSHOP

Due to the physical limitations imposed on aperture and shutter time, it is inevitable to raise the ISO setting to 1,600 or even 3,200 when taking pictures of the night sky. This results in a visible amount of noise in the image, especially when zooming in. Using the default noise reduction algorithms included in most photo editing tools will result in losing a lot of details, such as smaller stars.

Now it comes in handy if you have taken several shots of the same area of the sky. The more, the merrier. In short, the trick is to stack and exactly align the images, and then to compute the average value for each pixel. As the stars will always be in the same places in all images after correct alignment, they are not affected. The image noise, however, is random and thus cancels out when calculating the median. If you combine four images taken at ISO 3,200 this way, the remaining noise will be comparable to a shot taken at ISO 800. For the Milky Way pictures you can see in this post, I have stacked more than 20 images each.

This video offers the detailed instructions for how to achieve this:

The particular challenge is the correct alignment of the images. If that does not match exactly, not only the image noise will vanish when calculating the media, but the stars as well, at least in parts of the image. As long as the pictures offer enough contrast, Photoshop’s auto-alignment will work very well. However, I had a number of occasions where the automatic alignment failed. This is no reason for despair, though, as there is a manual workaround:

What remains is the artistic design of the night sky. Ian explains how to best bring out the colors and details in the sky in this video:

This works not only for Orion, of course, but for every section of the sky that has to offer similar features.

Ian’s channel offers numerous other tutorials as well, which are all very helpful. If you have taken enough shots of a particular area, you might for instance consider turning them into a time-lapse video. Using the knowledge from these videos, I have taken quite a number of pictures of the night sky so far, and I am increasingly happy with the results. As with all other kinds of photography, practice makes perfect. So, then: wait for the next clear night around a new moon, and then take your camera out! Especially now during the long winter nights with their clear, cold air, the conditions are ideal…


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Absolutely watch, then go out and try!

What I’ve learned: The knowledge what to consider when taking the pictures, and how to post-process them, is a lot more important than the equipment. Thorough preparation is important, as well as the necessary patience while capturing the images. The results in the end will be well worth the effort!


LINKS

FURTHER INFORMATION

Picture credits: Title image: YouTube Screenshot; Milky Way and Moonrise: own images

My Gear: Canon 760D (Rebel T6s)

Canon 760D

Since August 2015, I’ve been out and about a lot with my Canon 760D. Read below why I made the decision to buy that camera, and whether I would make the same decision again today. But first, let’s start with a short history of my photography experience.

CAMERA RETROSPECT

COMPACT CAMERAS

My first camera was an Olympus C-700 UZ. In retrospect, what sold me at the time probably was the 10x optical zoom (the full-frame equivalent of 38-380mm). With 2 megapixels I started into the world of digital photography in the summer of 2001. All in all, I was quite happy with the camera, and consequently, in 2004 I upgraded to one of its successors – the Olympus C-750 UZ, now with 4 megapixels and several other improvements.

The two cameras went through a number of vacation trips with me, and were also used quite often at the local Railway Museum. This is also where the biggest disadvantage became obvious: the zoom was motorised and too slow to keep up with moving objects like an approaching train. In combination with the rather sluggish autofocus, I resented quite a number of missed shots. This led to the obvious conclusion: I need something with a bit more punch.

THE FIRST DSLR

Olympus E-510
Olympus E-510

Since I was happy with the cameras in general (look-and-feel, handling, reliability) and the images as well, I saw no reason to switch brands. So in 2008, I got myself an Olympus E-510, in a set with the two kit lenses: 14-42mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 and 40-150mm ƒ/4.0-5.6. With a full-frame equivalent of 28-300mm, I again had a ~10x optical zoom.

In summary, I was very happy with the E-510 over the years. She was a reliable companion on many journeys and rendered plenty of really nice images. I have to admit, though, that I mostly stayed with the automatic settings and never really occupied myself with the basic principles of photography. I never fully exploited the capabilities of the camera, but I realised one thing: in low-light conditions – at night, or inside the gloomy roundhouse at the railway museum – the E-510 with its kit lenses quickly reached its limits.

Though Olympus did offer “pro lenses” for the E-series at the time, I never pursued that upgrade. Mostly there never was a big event where I had the feeling I actually missed something due to the camera’s limitations. However, exactly that changed last year – which brings me to the current…

CAMERA SELECTION

In the fall of 2015, I had the unique opportunity to travel to Albuquerque, New Mexico. That provided the opportunity to take pictures of two major sights: the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta with about 550 hot-air balloons, and the night sky free of light pollution. Up in the mountains away from Albuquerque, in the clear, dry desert air and at an elevation of almost 8,000 ft., the view of the Milky Way was nothing less than breath-taking. I asked myself: How do I photograph this right? And what else do I want to take pictures of? So I wrote myself a list:

  • Mostly interested in (“must have”): Landscapes / cityscapes (including twilight and night shots), macros, night skies and moon, interiors, also with difficult lighting conditions (e.g. railway museum roundhouse)
  • Somewhat interested in (“nice to have”): Events (group pictures), taking videos
  • Not interested in (not relevant for decision): portraits, sports, action, wildlife

I fired up the internet, and I felt immediately clobbered over the head with the sheer amount of information. One of the things I learned to value as an information source at the time was YouTube. My initial suspicion that my trusted old E-510 wouldn’t get me very far with what I had in mind was quickly confirmed. Hence, I drafted the selection criteria for my new camera:

  • Wide choice of Lenses
  • Easy handling
  • Large display
  • Good image quality, even in low-light conditions
  • Range of available accessories, including third-party vendors
  • Affordability – my available budget at the time was 1,500 €

APS-C OR FULL-FRAME

The first decision I had to make was for the camera system. Considering the last item on my list, full frame seemed out of reach to me at the time. To be flexible, I wanted to be able to afford more than one lens from the start. So I decided in favour of the smaller (and less expensive) APS-C format, which I have not regretted since. Would I have preferred a Canon 6D after all, if I had had more time for the decision (and to save more money)? Hard to say, but then, the situations where a full-frame camera can really show its strengths compared to APS-C – in the dark, or when separating subjects from background – only occur in a small share of my images.

CANON OR NIKON (OR SONY)

I looked at Sony mostly because of the famed low-light performance. In particular the A7S made a lot of headlines on this subject at the time. However, its price point was way beyond my financial horizon. The smaller models, on the other hand, didn’t convince me in terms of handling and accessories (choice of lenses). That has improved in the meantime, and I do admit that the A6500 is a very interesting camera – not only for its in-body image stabilisation (which my old E-510 had as well). But a launch price of 1,700 €?

I ended up swaying between Canon and Nikon. I think this is mostly a gut decision, because the technical advantages and weaknesses on either side more or less balance out. At times, one is in the lead; then the other. Here, the image sensor seems better; there, it’s the lenses. So I went to a number of stored and looked at the cameras, took them in my hands, played around with them. And came to the conclusion: Canon it is. Simply for the reason that I liked their handling better; it seemed more intuitive to me. In addition, the better video autofocus is a bonus, too.

70D, 700D (Rebel T5i), 750D (Rebel T6i), 760D (Rebel T6s)

Those were the models I had on my short list. The naming is a bit confusing as the entry-level DSLRs have metric names in Europe (700D, 750D…), while they are called “Rebel Tx” in the US. I will stick with the metric names for the rest of this article. The 700D was dropped first. It was good value for money, but all reviews unanimously stated that the leap in quality offered by its successors 750D/760D was significant. The smaller of the two, the 750D, was sorted out next – the additional features offered by the 760D, such as the shoulder display or the second scroll wheel, justified the higher price in my eyes.

This left me with the 70D, and the 760D. They were in the same price range, and offered similar performance. In a number of comparison reviews, the 760D came in first – though close – on the points that interested me most. The choice was made.

And I’m happy with it! It handles well, and offers great functionality with its tilting and turning touch display, or the remote-controlling capabilities via Wi-Fi. Most importantly: I’m more than happy with the image quality! Given the choice at the time, I would make the same decision again today.

In addition, by now I have a collection of lenses that cover my interests as listed above very well. I will write about the particular lenses in future “My Gear” posts.

AND TODAY…?

As far as I’m concerned, there is only one boundary condition that has changed since then, and that is the choice of available cameras. For half a year now, the Canon 80D has been out. Though it comprises the same image sensor as the 760D, it offers drastic improvements in terms of autofocus and overall functionality. Six months after launch, the price of the 80D has dropped by about one third to an acceptable level. An upgrade might be warranted in the future.

WHAT IS THE RIGHT CHOICE FOR YOU?

That’s not easy to answer. Which camera is the best for you depends on what you want do with it. Hence: make lists. Write down what you’re interested in, what you want to photograph – now, and for the next few years. After all, you will have to live with the decision for a while. What is important for you on the camera itself? What budget do you have? Also keep in mind the possibility of buying a used camera. I bought a number of used lenses, and saved a lot of money doing so, without compromising quality.

I have included links to the considerations of several well-known photographers on this matter. Definitely have a look at those, while checking your lists from time to time.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Given the choice at the time, I would decide for the Canon 760D again. Today (October 2016), though, I clearly prefer the Canon 80D. If you get along better with Nikon, have a look at the D7200.

What I’ve learned: There is not “the one best camera”. You have to ask yourself: what do I want to take pictures of? There are many cameras that are specialised to excel at certain tasks – however, they are usually quite expensive and often really shine only under those specific conditions, while falling behind in other areas. For the things I do, I prefer an all-rounder.


LINKS

Picture credits: Title image (Canon 760D), Olympus E-510: own images

YouTube Recommendation: DigitalRevTV

DigitalRevTV

The YouTube channel “DigitalRevTV” is with around 1.8 Million subscribers most likely the largest photography show on the internet. It is created by a group of people. For the most part, the videos are presented by Kai and Lok from Hong Kong. They deal with all kinds of photography-related topics, while not taking things too serious. This turns out to be both a blessing and a curse: one the one hand, much of the channel’s attraction comes from the videos being quite entertaining instead of justing enumerating technical facts; on the other hand, they sometimes do not convey as much information as you’d expect, or simply drift off into shenanigans.

They do offer numerous tests and hands-on reviews for cameras and lenses; however, they fall short compared to what many other channels have to offer in that area. Occasionally, I watch them anyway, though mostly for their entertainment value. But there are other categories that are much more worthwhile.

PLAYLIST – RECOMMENDATIONS

  • “How To” Videos: Close to 100 videos can be found here providing all kinds of creative ideas: what can you do while being stuck at home, for instance due to bad weather? How do you best take pictures of smoke? Or water? How can you play with out-of-focus backgrounds, or light painting? Browse through the list, there are some really cool ideas there. I will certainly try some of them myself when I find the time.
  • “Pro Photographer, Cheap Camera”: As the name suggest, a “cheap” camera will be given to a professional photographer, who then has to solve a given task. “Cheap” can mean all kinds of things: it can be a really old camera, or an actual toy – whatever it is, its features are certain to be significantly below the standard average modern cameras have to offer nowadays. All the more astonishing it is to see the marvellous results at the end!

UPDATE DECEMBER 2016

End of 2016, both Kai and Lok quit DigitalRevTV within a few days. With the loss of its two main characters – Kai in front of the camera, Lok behind it – none of the original founders remain with the channel. DigitalRevTV continues with new staff; produced by some who already worked with Kai and Lok before, even though more in the background. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.

Kai and Lok continue as well. Kai has his own YouTube channel by now, on which he continues to post entertaining camera reviews. Within the first three weeks he already gathered 200,000 followers. Lok seems to be undecided at the moment; maybe the two will work together again in the future…


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Very interesting ideas; but all in all, more a site for browsing than a must-see.

What I’ve learned: The actual camera is secondary when it comes to taking impressive pictures. You need the idea, and an eye for the motive. Plenty of inspiration is provided.


LINKS

Title image: YouTube Screenshot

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