On a personal note: System decision – Why Canon APS-C?

Canon 760D

When you are new to photography, or think about switching to a different camera, the predominant question is which system to go for. A compact camera or one with interchangeable lenses? Single-lens reflex or mirrorless? Micro-Four-Thirds, APS-C or Full-frame? Each of those has its applications, its specific strengths, but also its particular weaknesses – there is no “one size fits all”. Of course, there are “all-round” cameras – usually, they turn out to be Jacks of all trades, masters of none. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on what you are looking for.

The decision for a particular brand comes later. The technical differences between comparable cameras of different manufactures have become almost negligible. Thus, the choice is often one of personal taste: What controls and menu system do I prefer? Which cameras did I own before? To come to a good decision, there is one central point to ponder:

What do I want to photograph?

Calendar 2018

I already went through all these considerations once, about two years ago, when I picked my current equipment. Now that I am thinking about switching to a camera with a wider range of functionality, all these questions come up again.

DISCOVER THE POSSIBILITIES

There are many different disciplines within the area of photography that all have their own requirements. The following – drastically simplified – list gives a short overview of typical criteria:

  • Landscapes – great dynamic range
  • Portraits – shallow depth of field
  • Nightscapes – good image quality (little noise) event a high ISO values
  • Wildlife – long range with telephoto lenses
  • All-round – wide selection of lenses
  • Travel – light-weight, compact size
  • Video – good video auto-focus, connections for peripherals

It is clear that some of these criteria contradict each other: if you want to take classic portraits with minimum depth of field, you will need a full-frame camera and a lens with a wide aperture. A Canon 5D Mark IV with just its kit lens already weighs around 3.5 lbs.; with a portrait lens such as the 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 it’s over 5 lbs. This might not be a problem in a photo studio, but when going on a hike, you will think twice before lugging it along. A Sony RX100 III, on the other hand, weighs less than a pound, is about the size of a pack of cigarettes, and still gets highly recommended by many photographers as a very good travel camera. It has its limitations elsewhere.

For taking pictures at night, the best choice is a large sensor with low resolution, so that each pixel can gather a lot of light – such as the Sony A7S, for instance. This is a full-frame camera with just 12 megapixels, but outstanding low-light performance. For wildlife, a smaller sensor has its advantages, because it provides a longer reach with telephoto lenses due to its narrower field of view. A Canon 80D has 24 megapixels and a crop-factor of 1.6, which means that with a 300mm lens, it provides a view similar to a full-frame camera at 480mm.

Hence, the question you should ask yourself is not: Which camera is the best? You should ask yourself: Which camera is the best for me?

All packed up for the next photo excursion
All packed up for the next photo excursion

WHY I DECIDED FOR CANON APS-C BACK THEN…

Looking ahead on the upcoming upgrade, it is worthwhile to revisit the original considerations. Foremost: What has changes since then? Essential insight from back then: I am mostly an all-rounder. I do not have a particular area that I deeply specialize in. I photograph whatever I like: landscapes, but also people at events. Sometimes nightscapes, sometimes animals. A tiny detail here, the ‘big picture’ there. I want decent image quality, but I also want to be able to carry the camera along an entire day without it becoming a millstone around my neck.

After thorough consideration, I decided for the Canon 760D. In my blog-post about the camera, I have described in detail why. I’ve never regretted this decision.

The crucial points were the articulated touch screen, the (for me) intuitive handling, and most of all the huge range of lenses that are available from various manufactures. Last but not least, the price played a role as well, of course. The 760D has more than fulfilled my expectations, and I was able to take many great pictures with it – far beyond what I had originally thought of.

I have learned a lot over the past two years, and with skill, the requirements grow as well. Hence, I have asked myself increasingly often over the past few months: Is a camera like the 760D still the best camera for me?

…AND WHY I HAVE DECIDED NOW TO STICK WITH IT

Over the course of time, I have purchased numerous lenses of various brands (Canon, Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, Samyang…). In order to keep the financial impact of an upgrade at bay, it was clear from the beginning that I would stay with a Canon camera. That still left three options: mirrorless, full-frame, or an APS-C upgrade.

Mirrorless cameras are clearly on the rise, not at least because their live-view auto-focus systems, for a long time the Achilles heel of this type of cameras, has significantly improved. A DSLM would certainly have advantages for me: the electronic shutter can take thousands of pictures for a time-lapse video without wear, and focus-peaking makes focusing manually a lot easier. The problem, however, are the lenses. In theory, I can keep all my lenses and use them with an adapter, on a Canon EOS M5 for example. Reviews from many sources show that in practice, it’s not so easy. Not every lens works with every adapter, and oftentimes, autofocus issues remain. Of course, there are lenses made specifically for mirrorless camera – but that would mean an additional investment. Also, the limited battery life of most DSLMs is a factor for me. Last but not least, there is a very irrational reason: the feeling to have a “real” camera in my hands and the clunking of the mirror are an integral part of photography for me. The bottom line is, mirrorless is not (yet) the way for me.

That leaves full-frame. When the new Canon 6D Mark II was released recently, the temptation was big to go for it. I compiled a list and compared the overall costs of switching to full-frame with an upgrade on APS-C, and the advantages and disadvantages of each choice.

On the assets side, I listed realistic (compared across several platforms) selling prices for my current camera as well as lenses that are for APS-C only, such as my “always-on“. On the spending side, I listed the costs for the new camera, as well as for the replacement lenses needed to complete my lineup again. For the APS-C upgrade, the price difference of the camera was the only factor.

All in all, I concluded that switching to full-frame would cost me around 1,500 € more, mostly due to the lenses. I asked myself: Is it worth it?

The headline already gave it away: No, it’s not. The gap between APS-C and full-frame has become significantly smaller over the past few years, much owing to lenses such as Sigma’s 50-100mm ƒ/1.8. This allows you to take great portraits and nightscape shots even with a smaller DSLR. Of course, some gap remains. But the occasions where this would really make a difference for me are so rare that this is not worth the extra 1,500 €. And there are other disadvantages as well: A Canon 5D with its kit lens is in every dimension (width, height, length) four fifths of an inch wider than my 760D with the ‘always-on’ lens, and it weighs one and a half times as much. What good is a great camera if I don’t take it with me because it’s too bulky?

Hence, I will stick with Canon APS-C DSLRs. For me, they are the ideal compromise between size, flexibly, functionality and image quality. Current rumors indicate that in the spring of 2018, the successor to the current Canon 80D will be released. If this comes true, I will take a very close look at that camera. The main reasons for the upgrade can be summarized quickly: increased functionality and vastly improved auto-focus. Until then, I will certainly enjoy my 760D, and the pictures I’m taking with it, a lot.

I hope these considerations have also been helpful for you.

– Jochen =8-)

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

Pictures in Motion: Timelapses – Post-processing

Time Lapse

The first two parts of this series dealt with capturing the images for a time lapse with different camera types. This easily results in several thousand pictures for a longer clip. There are numerous software tools available for all operating systems to convert these into the final video. Basically, all these applications work in the same way; they differ in functionality, usability, and price. I will present the two approaches I mostly use for creating my videos: the quick-and-easy way using Adobe Photoshop, without further editing of the images, as well as the comprehensive workflow using Adobe Lightroom and LRTimelapse, which offer powerful tools to optimize the outcome.

HOW 2,000 PHOTOS BECOME A MOVIE

Let’s start with the simple case: all of the images are already available in JPEG format, as is the case when capturing time lapses with my old GoPro. If you are using Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription, you will have Photoshop available in addition to Lightroom. In Photoshop, simply chose File → Open, select the first image, and then check the option for Image sequence. In the next step, Photoshop will ask for a frame rate. Afterwards, you can immediately export the movie in the desired format. If you’re using only Lightroom, many scripts can be found on the internet that will allow you to do basically the same thing.

Open image sequence in Photoshop
Open image sequence (“Bildsequenz”) in Adobe Photoshop CC

Furthermore, there are numerous image editing applications offering this capability. Without having tried them myself, I’d like to mention ImageJ, an open source tool written in Java, and the commercial tool Panolapse. Both are available for MacOS X as well as Windows.

There is one additional option for long-time Apple users, who still have a registration code for the Pro version of the old Quick Time Player 7 in their archives. You can download the last version of QuickTime 7 from the Apple homepage. You cannot buy new license keys for it any longer, but the old ones still work. After activating the Pro version, the option Open image sequence becomes available in the File menu. Just as in Photoshop, select the first file of the sequence, then choose a frame rate. A moment later, you can watch the video. Finally it can be stored as a movie file in Apple’s usual QuickTime format (H.264).

EDITING THE INDIVIDUAL IMAGES

Before the photos get merged into a video, it is a good opportunity to edit them. If you have shot in RAW format, you now have the full editing potential available. This allows for restoring a lot of detail in the highlights and in the shadows. In addition, you can optimize white balance, contrast, and color rendition to your liking.

However, this creates the challenge of editing the pictures consistently, to create a smooth video in the end. Hence, you need an editing tool that enables you to carry over the changes done on one image to the rest of the sequence.

In Adobe Lightroom this works best if you edit a photo from around the middle of the stack, and then synchronize the development settings to all pictures. This works very well, as long as the edits apply equally well to all images. As a part of this process, you should also crop the photos to a 16:9 aspect ratio. After exporting the images as JPEGs with a resolution of either 3840×2160 (4K) or 1920×1080 (Full HD), you can convert the sequence into a video as described above.

WORKFLOW WITH LRTIMELAPSE 4

If you want to make more advanced edits to the image sequence for the time lapse, a usual photo editing software won’t get you very far. The challenge lies in harmonizing the applied changes such that the resulting video doesn’t show any sudden changes in brightness or color, which occur when adjusting the shutter speed or ISO value during dawn. Videos of sunrises or sunsets are hence referred to as the “holy grail” of time-lapse recording.

For such occasions, I recently purchased Gunther Wegner’s software LRTimelapse 4. It works in combination with Adobe Lightroom and offers numerous functions which help to vastly improve the created videos. LRTimelapse is easy to use and offers some very powerful tools to manage adjustments to the original photos, and to handle changes of lighting conditions. LRTimelapse doesn’t modify the pictures itself, it just calculates the necessary adjustments and passes them on to Lightroom as meta data. The actual image processing is then done by Adobe’s Camera RAW engine. The workflow is as follows:

  • Launch LRTimelapse and open the folder with the RAW images for the time lapse. The software imports the files and analyses the brightness gradient. Based on that, it suggests a number of key frames; typically, four to eight. These can be adjusted as needed.
  • Using a special drag & drop button, the image sequence is then imported into Lightroom. Then you can set a pre-defined filter to show only the key frames.
  • These can now be edited to your liking with the full repertoire of Lightroom features. It is recommended to start with the first one, then sync the changes to all subsequent images. Then adjust the second image, if necessary, and again sync the changes to all subsequent images, and so on, until all key frames look the way you want them to. In addition, you should also crop the images to a 16:9 ratio. This will allow you to choose the image section yourself; otherwise, LRTimelapse will select the center part.
  • Once you’re done editing the key frames, save their metadata as files and return to LRTimelapse.
  • Now comes the magic: Based on the key frames, LRTimelapse will automatically calculate the necessary changes to all intermediate images. Thus, smooth transitions for brightness, color, and contrast are created. This will take some time, but you can see the results immediately in a preview clip.
  • LRTimpelapse offers a “deflicker” function for fine-tuning.  This way, I was able to achieve great results even when shooting in aperture priority mode and letting the camera determine shutter speed and ISO value automatically.
  • Store the new settings as metadata files (*.xmp).
  • In Lightroom, loading the updated metadata will apply the calculated changes to all pictures.
  • Finally, the export is started from Lightroom, using the LRTimelapse presets. As a start, all images will again be stored as JPEGs on your local hard drive. When processing 2,700 photos, this can take a couple of hours; at least on my six-year-old laptop. Once this is done, LRTimelaps renders the final video with the chosen settings (resolution, frames per second, video codec etc.). This works rather quickly, and can easily be repeated with different settings from the same JPEG sequence.

Gunther Wegner has a half-hour tutorial video (in English), where he introduces the functions and way of working with LRTimelapse in great detail.

EXAMPLE

The following video shows a sunrise over a period of four hours, with a picture taken every ten seconds. I captured this time lapse with the Canon 760D and the Radian 2. I set the aperture to 2.2 and let the camera choose shutter speed and ISO value automatically. The first images were taken at 5 seconds, ISO 400; the last ones at 1/4,000th second, ISO 100. The Radian 2 panned and triggered the camera.

The photos were edited using Adobe Lightroom and LRTimelapse 4 as described above. This created a video with smooth brightness and color transitions. The last step was adding the music, which is taken from YouTube’s free audio library, using Adobe PremierePro.

The thing that fascinates me even more than dawn itself in this video is the movement of the clouds. This is certainly not my last video of this kind; I will experiment more with capture interval, captured period, location, and weather…


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: The purchase of LRTimelapse was absolutely worthwhile for me, and I recommend it to everyone who considers working seriously with time lapses. A free demo version is available, which is limited to 400 images per sequence, but otherwise offers the full functionality. This will allow you to thoroughly evaluate whether the application meets your needs.

What I’ve learned: I think this series made it clear that capturing time lapses can be a lot of fun. Using the right tools, even difficult lighting situations can be mastered. Thus, small master pieces can be created with reasonable effort – literal “know how”.


LINKS:

Picture Credits: Title Image – Screenshot Adobe Lightroom CC; Open image sequence – Screenshot Adobe Photoshop CC; YouTube Video Sunrise – own images.

Pictures in Motion: Timelapses with a DSLR/DSLM

Time Lapse

This is the second part of a mini-series on the topic of time lapse photography. The first part introduced the creation of time-lapse videos with a GoPro (or similar action camera). This renders quite good results with a reasonable amount of effort. There are two starting points to further improve the outcome: free choice of focal length, and manual control of the exposure.

POTENTIAL FOR IMPROVEMENT

As mentioned above, the most obvious advantage when using an interchangeable lens camera compared to the GoPro is the ability to freely chose the focal length. This enables different perspectives, as you can emphasize certain details of a scene. The longer the focal length, the more obvious camera shake will be, e.g. because the wind pushes against the lens. This must then be stabilized in post-processing to avoid jitter in the video. Hence it is important to mount the camera in a very stable way.

Furthermore, the camera’s manual mode allows for full control over the exposure of the images – i.e., shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and white balance. If no drastic change in lighting conditions is anticipated during the recording time, it is highly recommended to set and fix all these values manually. This guarantees a consistent appearance of the photos and avoids strange effects the camera’s automatic mode might cause, e.g. when a cloud covers the sun and the scenery consequently becomes darker and bluer. It is also mandatory to manually focus on the most important object in the scene, to avoid any unintended re-focusing when something moves through the frame.

To take full advantage of the image quality, you should of course shoot in RAW. As a result, you’ll have to keep an eye on the amount of data generated, much more so than with the GoPro. A single RAW file from my Canon 760D is up to 30 MB in size. A time lapse of one and a half hours with a capture interval of two seconds creates 2,700 images – about 80 GB of data! Consequently, I have bought a 128 GB SD card for such occasions. The camera’s battery also has to last sufficiently long, hence I am using a battery grip than can hold two batteries for longer recordings.

An additional degree of freedom is offered by the use of filters. Whether you’re using an action camera or a DSLR, when taking pictures on a bright day, the shutter speed will be very fast – around 1/1,000th of a second. This causes the final video to look very “jumpy”, because moving persons or object suddenly appear in a different location, as can be seen clearly in the example video in the first part of this series. To achieve a fluid motion in videos, the shutter speed is typically set to half of the frames per second – i.e. 1/60th for 30 fps. This is where so-called grey filters or neutral density (ND) filters come into play: they allow for slowing down the shutter speed without over-exposing the image.

I have used a 10-stop (1,000×) ND filter, so I could work with a shutter speed of half a second. In combination with the Tokina 11-20 mm Ultra-wide angle, I have used the following settings: ISO 200 | 16 mm | ƒ/4.0 | ½ sec. This will blur the motion in each image. In combination with a time interval of two seconds, this creates a smooth flow. You will find the final video for comparison at the end of this post.

Motion Blur
Motion Blur due to a shutter speed of half of a second when using a neutral density filter

In general, polarizing filters can be used as well, but with limitations: Since the effect of a polarizing filter depends on the angle between the camera and the sun, the magnitude of the effect will change if the sun moves significantly during the recording. This can hardly be compensated in post-processing.

Unlike the GoPro, my 760D doesn’t have a built-in intervalometer. This means that the impulse to take a photo every x seconds must be given externally. The least expensive option is using a programmable cable remote. Usable models can be found on the internet for as little as 20 Euros for almost every camera. Another option is using a smartphone app. Basically every camera with built-in WiFi or Bluetooth nowadays comes with a matching app, which usually supports time lapses as well as many other functions.

In addition to technically better images, I also wanted to add another component to make my time lapses more interesting: moving the camera itself. This requires very precise control to create a smooth motion in the final video. Numerous devices are available for this purpose, which control the movement of the camera as well as the synchronized shutter control.

ALPINE LABS RADIAN 2

I became aware of Alpine Labs’ Radian 2 via a crowdfunding campaign. The device, which looks like a simple black can on the outside, packs a lot on the inside: a motor to move the camera, a sophisticated controller for the camera, and a large battery that will last for many time lapse recordings. It is operated via Bluetooth using the matching smartphone app. Basically it enables time lapses with camera panning: over a set period of time, the camera will be rotated by the chosen angle (horizontally or vertically), while taking a picture every x seconds. The Radian will always take a short pause between moving and shooting to avoid blur from camera shake.

Time-Lapse Setup
Time-Lapse Setup: Canon 760D with battery grip, Alpine Labs Radian 2 and iPhone with Radian App

The Radian didn’t have any problems at all when panning horizontally with the quite heavy combination of camera, battery grip, and Tokina lens (total weight: almost 4 lbs). However, that proved to be too much for a vertical tilt. I will test that again with a lighter setup.

Aside from that, the Radian can vary the shooting parameters over time in several ways. When taking a time lapse during dusk or dawn, it can adjust the exposure of the images (“exposure ramping”). It can also vary the time interval at which images are taken over the recording time, so that the speed of the final video changes (“speed ramping”).

All in all, it is a very versatile and easy to operate device, that brings a lot of variety to your time lapses. Of course, you can use the Radian also to pan the GoPro – however, this lacks the synchronization with the camera and hence many of the advanced capabilities, because the GoPro cannot be remote-controlled in the same way. The Radian 2, as I have it, is currently sold out at Alpine Labs. If and when it will become available again is unclear. However, similar devices are available from various manufacturers.

EXAMPLE

The following video shows a period of about one and a half hours. As described above, the pictures were taken with the Canon 760D, mounted on the Radian 2, and with an ND filter on the lens. A picture was taken every two seconds, with a shutter speed of half a second. The resulting motion blur makes the movements in the video appear much more fluid; the people no longer jerkily jump around. The panning motion of the camera adds additional movement. What fascinates me the most in this video, however, is the movement of the clouds on that day.

OUTLOOK

The next part of this series will cover the post-processing: how do you optimize the captured images, and how do you convert the individual pictures into a movie? There are countless ways for processing and conversion of the data. I will present the approaches and software I mostly use.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Concerning image quality, there is a vast difference between photos taken with a GoPro, and those taken with a bigger camera. On the other hand, the necessary equipment is bulkier and heavier (and more expensive). Depending on the occasion, you will have to balance to pros and cons for each. Whenever feasible, I highly recommend using a DSLR or DSLM, to have full control over the outcome of the images and the maximum creative leeway for post-processing.

What I’ve learned: It is important to choose and fix all relevant setting manually: shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, focus point. This ensures a consistent appearance of the images and avoids the strange side-effects from automatic adjustments. When capturing fast action, such as passing cars for instance, the resulting video will look much more pleasant when using an ND filter to slow down the shutter speed and thus blur the motion.


LINKS

Picture Credits: Title Image – Screenshot Adobe Lightroom CC; all other pictures – own images.

Pictures in Motion: Timelapses with a GoPro

Time Lapse

This post is the first part of a mini-series on the topic of time lapses. One of my main motivations for doing photography is to capture scenes in ways that usually elude the naked eye. This includes macro images, freezing fast motion, or visualizing movements in a movie.

To achieve a special effect, you can slow down movements – many current smart phones and action cams offer slow-motion capabilities with up to 120 frames per second. This allows to show action at about 1/5 of the original speed and still have fluent motion. If you want to go even slower, and still have a decent video resolution, you’ll need a dedicated (hence pricey) slow-motion camera.

The opposite effect can be realized in a much simpler way: time lapses are suitable to visualize motion patterns that move too slow to grasp them in their entirety by simply looking at them. All you need for a time lapse is a digital camera with the capability to take photos at fixed time intervals, as well as a software tool that turns the individual images into a movie. Numerous such tools can be found on the internet. The camera doesn’t even need to be a high-end model; a 10-megapixel camera can already render a 4K video.

This first part of this series will cover the process from capturing the images to creating the movie using a GoPro camera and its proprietary software.

IDEA & LOCATION

The Railway Museum Darmstadt-Kranichstein is definitely one of the locations where I have taken the most pictures, and over the longest period of time. I don’t primarily focus on the various engines in the exhibition, but rather try to capture the hustle and bustle during the events. This is particularly true for our biggest event, the “Railworld Days”, which take place every year on a four-day weekend around the mid of May. I put the focus of my images on the audience in the first place, while the moving engines and such are shown as what is drawing the visitors’ attention.

However, these photos always captured just a single moment in time: Since I am working in the museum myself, I am bound to my tasks in the exhibits during the events. Thus, I mostly miss what is happening outside – except for breaks, which I use for taking pictures as well. But I was always curious about what happened “out there” during the entire day. Hence, I mounted my camera right in the middle of the action. It would be rather boring to watch the recording of an eight-hour day in real time, and so I had the idea to capture time lapses.

GOPRO CAMERA & SOFTWARE

Many years ago, I bought a GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition action camera, to capture photos and videos from perspectives that are not – at least not easily – accessible with a big camera. In addition to various video modes, all GoPros offer a time lapse mode, which takes a photo every few seconds. The time interval can be set between 0.5 and 60 seconds. Which interval is the best depends on what scene you want to capture, i.e. what is moving, and how fast it is moving.

Once started, the camera keeps on recording until either stopped, the battery runs out, or the memory card is full. To avoid the latter, I bought a 64 GB micro-SD card. I used two different power supplies: the internal battery, in combination with the additional snap-on battery that is available for the GoPro 3+. This lasts for about 3-4 hours. To capture an entire day, I set up external power via a power adapter and a USB cable.

RECORDING

As with everything in photography, a time laps requires a suitable (interesting) subject. An additional challenge is that the scene should change over time: clouds in the sky, traffic on a lively intersection, or – at the railway museum – the turntable in front of the roundhouse. Next, a good location for the camera is needed, as well as the necessary adapters to mount it securely and solidly. I checked the orientation of the camera using the freely available Smartphone app, and also started the recording this way.

I usually work with a two-second time interval at the museum. In the course of an entire day, this results in 14,400 pictures being taken. Turned into a video at 30 frames per second, eight hours become eight minutes.

POST-PROCESSING

My old GoPro is capable of taking JPEG images only, which limits the post-processing possibilities; especially considering that any changes would have to be synchronized to all images. Given the huge number of files, this poses high demands on the hardware and software alike. So how can all these single photos be turned into a video? The simplest solution is using the “GoPro Studio” software that comes with the camera.

GoPro Studio
Screenshot GoPro Studio (v2.5.12) – Import and edit timelapse video

In the first step, you select the folder on the hard drive that contains the files copied from the camera. The software automatically creates a preview video from the images. Then you chose the desired options; primarily, how many frames per seconds the video shall have, and whether the fish-eye effect from the GoPro’s ultra-wide angle lens shall be removed or not. This makes sense especially if there are many straight lines in the image, but it can also lead to strong distortions in the corners of the frame. Finally, the tool converts everything into a final video, which can then be exported in the desired format.

EXAMPLE

The following video was created three years ago, using the GoPro and the included software as described above. The time interval was set to two seconds, so over the course of eight hours, 14,400 photos were taken:

This clip doesn’t have any sound, because it has been assembled from individual images. It can be used as-is, or combined with other building blocks to create a diversified movie – with sound, of course. The GoPro software offers some built-in video authoring capabilities, but I have never used them. Earlier, I used Apple’s iMovie software to create my movies. Now, I am using Adobe’s Premiere Pro CC. However, I will not cover video editing in this post.

ALTERNATIVES AND LIMITATIONS

Thus, it shouldn’t go unnoted that in the meantime, many very affordable alternatives for the original GoPro cameras are available. Of course, there are some differences in terms of quality of the resulting photos and videos, at least when comparing them to the top-of-the-line model. Whether that is worth the additional price depends on your personal preference.

Many modern smart phones also offer a time lapse function – either directly in the built-in camera app, or by means of third-party apps. For my use case, however, this is not a viable alternative: smart phones are much more susceptible to environmental conditions (direct sunlight, rain), the storage capacity usually is as limited as the battery capacity – and who wants to mount their smart phone with all the data on it unguarded somewhere in the event area?

Either way, there are limitations. Foremost, you are bound to the fixed focal length of the camera, which contains an extreme wide-angle (fish-eye) lens. That is not always what you need. In addition, the small camera tends to have problems with high contrasts – on a bright sunny day, either highlights such as clouds end up as pure white blobs without any details, or the shadows drown in black. In addition, the automatic white balance and the auto-exposure function sometimes create strange artefacts, for instance when clouds move across the sun and cause the brightness and color of the light to change.

GoPro cameras offer an advanced capturing mode, called “ProTune”. It allows to set a fixed white balance and creates images with reduced contrast to offer more leeway for post-processing. However, I never achieved satisfactory results using this for time lapses. This may well be because I lack the necessary experience with color grading and look-up tables. Current GoPro models, such as the Hero 5, can capture photos in RAW format. If your camera supports this, you should definitely use it!

OUTLOOK

The next part of this series will cover capturing time lapses with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, as well as adding some additional motion to the video. Finally, the third part will deal with the post-processing; in particular, how to take full benefit of the RAW images to create a high-quality video with reasonable effort.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Time lapses can be created quickly and easily with the GoPro, and the results are remarkable. This approach offers several advantages: the camera is small, light-weight, unobtrusive and can be mounted almost anywhere. It works completely silent and lasts many hours when using the additional battery. The conversion of the individual pictures into a final video is just a matter of a few clicks using the included GoPro Studio software. All in all, lots of fun for little effort!

What I’ve learned: Time lapses opened a new way for me to use photography to capture motion patterns. The fact that you can leave the camera to “do its thing” once it has been set up, and that you can tend to other things in the meantime, is an additional bonus.


LINKS

 Picture Credits: Title Image – Screenshot Adobe Lightroom CC

What is…? – Terms, Abbreviations and Lens Designations

Terms, Abbreviations and Lens Designations

Everyone who takes a deeper dive into photography for the first time, gets drowned by a flood of strange terms and abbreviations. Test reviews, tutorials, and online communities are just full of them. What confused me even more in the beginning, was the fact that there is often more than one designation for the same thing – or, vice versa, one and the same shortcut has several different meanings. I am currently replacing some of my gear, so I had to make sure I was adding the correct designations to the respective item descriptions. And since I was at it anyway, I’m writing it down here for future reference – yours, as well as mine.

BASIC TERMS

Photography fills an abundance of books and videos, which describe the basic steps, give instructions, and explain the terminology. I do not intend to compete with that. However, I do want to give an explanation in my own words of the terms I am using regularly in my blog posts.

For most of the terms, I have added links to the respective articles on Wikipedia, in case you want to read more about a certain topic. And if you’re interested in all the details, I highly recommend Mark Levoy’s “Lectures on Digital Photography”.

Aperture

From a technical point of view, the aperture is the opening in the lens through which light hits the sensor. Usually, it can be varied in size (⇒ Wikipedia).

From an artistic point of view, the aperture is the most important tool for creating an image. It controls the depth of field, i.e. the distance range that will be shown sharp in the picture. This makes the difference between a portrait with a soft background, and a landscape photo where the entire frame is in focus. It also influences the amount of light passing through the lens, in particular when using a flash.

  • The aperture setting is always given in relation to the lens. The aperture value is calculated by dividing the focal length of the lens by the diameter of the effective opening. As the size of the opening is the denominator of this fraction, it means that the aperture value is the smaller the larger the opening is.
  • The aperture values are set so that switching from one value to the next always corresponds to either doubling or halving the amount of light let through. This is equal to doubling or halving the size (area) of the aperture opening. The area of a circle with radius r is generally known to be π * r². If I want to double that area, that means: 2 * π * r² = π * 2 * r² = π * (√2)² * r² = π * (√2 * r)². Hence, you need to change the radius by a factor of  √2 ≈ 1.4, if you want to double the area.
  • Thus, the aperture values are always multiples of √2: ƒ/1, ƒ/1.4, ƒ/2, ƒ/2.8, ƒ/4, ƒ/5.6, ƒ/8, ƒ/11, ƒ/16…
Lens with aperture set to different values for comparison (Source: Wikipedia)
  • Since on manual lenses, the aperture ring clicks into place at each of these values, they are also referred to as ‘stops’. Accordingly, the terms ‘stop of light’, ‘stop up’ and ‘stop down’ all relate to doubling or halving the amount of captured light. These phrases are used even if the effect is not achieved by changing the aperture, but by other means, such as changing the exposure time, ISO value, or flash output.
  • Between these ‘full’ values, there are usually values for ±⅓ stop, i.e.: ƒ/2.8, ƒ/3.2, ƒ/3.5, ƒ/4.
  • This notation makes the aperture value, respectively its effect on the exposure of the image, independent from the lens and camera used. Consequently, an image taken of a particular subject and correctly exposed at ‘ISO 100, ƒ/8, 1/200th sec.’ will be correctly exposed with every camera, regardless of size and brand, on which I can dial in these settings. What will be different, though, depending on focal length and sensor size, are the field of view, the angle of view, and the depth of field.
  • When mixing ambient light and flash, the aperture controls the amount of light from the flash in the image, while the ambient light is controlled by the shutter speed.
Bokeh

The term is derived from the Japanese word for “blurred”. In photography, it describes the quality of the out-of-focus areas in a picture taken with a wide-open aperture (⇒ Wikipedia). The bokeh depends on the construction of the respective lens, and the quality of the individual lenses it is comprised of. In particular, portrait lenses usually produce a nice bokeh, to create smooth backgrounds that do not distract in any way from the subject. There are, however, lenses that produce a rather fidgety bokeh, for instance because contours get doubled in out-of-focus areas.

Chromatic Aberration /
Color Fringing

When light passes through drops of water, the individual colors are refracted differently. Sunlight gets split into its individual colors, which we see as a rainbow. The same happens when light passes through pieces of glass in a lens. This means the individual lenses need to be tuned in a very specific way to ensure that on the camera sensor, all the different colors match up again in the intended way. Where this fails, green and purple color fringes appear on contrasting edges in the image, for instance at branches of a tree against a bright sky, or the white frame of an otherwise dark window (⇒ Wikipedia). Chromatic aberration can be corrected in many image-processing software tools, such as Adobe Lightroom.

Crop Factor

To be able to compare different camera types, the main parameters such as the focal length are always converted to the so-called full-frame format. This designation applies to cameras with a sensor the same size as a negative of a 35 mm miniature film (24 x 36 mm). The crop factor equals the ratio of the length of the diagonals (⇒ Wikipedia).

  • Popular formats include APS-C (crop factor 1.5 (Nikon) or 1.6 (Canon)) and Micro-Four-Thirds (crop factor 2 (Olympus, Panasonic)).
  • To compare focal lengths, the values are multiplied by the crop factor: 50 mm on a Canon APS-C camera thus equal – times 1.6 – 80 mm on a full-frame camera. This correspondence applies only to the field of view, however, and not to the angle of view.
  • To compare depth of field, the aperture also gets multiplied by the crop factor. The rear camera on Apple’s iPhone 7, for instance, has an aperture of ƒ/1.8 and a crop factor of 7.2. This roughly equals ƒ/13 on a full-frame camera, which makes it clear why it is almost impossible to get pictures with a blurred-out background using a cell phone camera (large aperture number = large depth of field).
Depth of Field

Depth of field refers to the distance range, within which objects are shown sufficiently sharp in the image (⇒ Wikipedia).

  • In principle, only objects exactly in the focus plane are shown 100% sharp on the image.
  • The further something is away from the focus plane, either in front of it or behind it, the more blurred it becomes. This is a gradual transition, and where an object is still “sharp enough” depends on the resolution of the camera as well as the eye of the beholder.
  • Depth of field is controlled by three factors:
    1. The aperture: low aperture number = shallow depth of field; larger aperture number = large depth of field.
    2. The focal length: the shorter the focal length, the larger the depth of field.
    3. The focus distance: the further away the subject is, the larger the depth of field. Beyond a certain focus distance (depending on focal length and aperture), the depth of field becomes infinite. This distance is called the hyper-focal distance.
  • For this reason, portraits are usually taken with a long focal length and wide-open aperture. Thus, only the face is in focus, while the background becomes as blurred as possible. For landscape pictures, on the other hand, usually a short focal length is used, together with a medium or narrow aperture (such as ƒ/8), to get as much of the picture in focus as possible.
Exposure Triangle

Illustrates the correlation of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO setting for the correct exposure of an image.

  • Each of the three parameters has an exposure component and an artistic component:
    • Each component can make the image darker (fast shutter speed, narrow aperture, low ISO) or brighter (slow shutter speed, wide aperture, high ISO)
    • The shutter speed can either freeze motion (fast) or show motion (slow)
    • A wide-open aperture creates a shallow depth of field, so only the subject is in focus, while a narrow aperture results in a large depth of field, where most of the image is in focus
    • Low ISO values create a clean image, while high ISO values will cause a noisy (grainy) image
    • Depending on the type of photo you want to take, you set one or two of them depending on your priorities, and let the camera figure out the rest.
    • The blog ‘Hamburger Fotospots‘ offers a great cheat card, which illustrates the three parameters listed above, along with their respective effects. The web page is in German, but the ZIP package you can download includes an English version of the cheat card:
Source: Hamburger Fotospots
  • First example: If I cut the exposure time in half, but double the ISO setting, the exposure stays the same (motion blur is reduced, but the picture quality decreases)
  • Second example: If I change the aperture from ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/5.6, I can quadruple the exposure time without changing the exposure (motion becomes more visible, but the depth of field is changed, too).
  • All theory is grey, so here are two YouTube videos that illustrate this very well:
Exposure Time /
Shutter Speed

The time interval during which light hits the sensor. Most cameras allow adjustment between 1/4,000th of a second and 30 seconds (⇒ Wikipedia).

  • Higher-range camera also offer 1/8,000th of a second
  • For long exposure times beyond 30 seconds, there is the so-called ‘bulb’ mode, where the shutter is controlled manually by either pressing and releasing the shutter button, or by pressing it twice.
  • See below for more information about the shutter.
Flash Sync Speed Identifies the shortest exposure time at which a flash without special ‘high speed’ capability will render a fully exposed image. This depends on the build of the shutter (see below), but with most cameras, it is around 1/200th of a second.
Internal Focus On a lens with internal focusing, all moving elements for focusing on your subject are inside the lens. This means that in particular the front element of the lens does neither extend nor rotate when focusing. This is important when using filters that depend on the correct orientation to get the desired effect, such as polarizing filters or graduated filters.
ISO

The name of the International Organization for Standardization in Switzerland. As the shortcut for this organization would be different in every language (in English, it should actually be IOS), ISO is used as a proper name. It is derived from the Greek syllable “iso”, meaning “equal”. In photography, the ISO value describes how sensitive an analog film or digital sensor is to light, as defined in the standard ISO 5800 (⇒ Wikipedia).

  • The default value with most cameras nowadays is ISO 100.
  • The higher the ISO value, the more sensitive to light the film or sensor is. This goes along with an increasing reduction of image quality by increased grain or noise. How strong this effect is on digital cameras depends on the build of the sensor, in particular the size of each individual pixel – the larger, the better. This is why low-light cameras usually have low resolution.
Minimum Focus Distance

The minimum focus distance is the shortest distance on which the camera can still focus with the respective lens. It is important to know that this distance is always measured from the sensor, and not from the front element of the lens. The position of the sensor is marked by a symbol (0) on the camera body. If it is given e.g. as 5 inches, but the distance from the sensor to the front element is already 4 inches, then there is just 1 inch of space left to the targeted object. In general, the minimum focus distance increases with the focal length; for telephoto lenses it can easily be 5 ft. or more. Macro lenses are an exception, because they are built specifically to focus at very short distances, to achieve the large magnification.

Shutter

The shutter is a mechanism inside the camera that allows light to hit the sensor only for the chosen exposure time (⇒ Wikipedia). There are two main types of shutters:

  • An electronic or digital shutter actually isn’t a shutter in the original sense, because light is hitting the sensor all the time. The sensor gets reset (all values set to zero), and after the given time, the values of all pixels are read out. The advantage is that this happens completely silent, as there are no moving parts. Most video, cell phone, and compact cameras work this way, as well as DSLRs in video mode.
  • SLRs usually have a mechanical focal-plane shutter, which allows for very precisely controlled exposure times, as short as 1/8,000th of a second. It is usually built as a pair of two curtains. At the beginning of the exposure time, the first curtain, which until then had completely covered the sensor, slides away. At the end of the exposure time, the second curtain moves out of its resting position, follows the first curtain, and covers the sensor again. At higher shutter speeds (less than 1/200th of a second), the two curtains move so close to each other, that at no point in time the entire sensor is exposed at once. Instead, a slot moves across the sensor so that every region of the sensor gets exposed for the chosen time interval.
    • This slow-motion video on YouTube shows very well what happens inside a camera when taking a picture.
    • Due to the way the shutter works, flashes need a special ‘high-speed synchronization’ mode for working with fast shutter speeds. Otherwise, a black bar would be visible in the image, because only that part of the sensor that was visible between the two shutter curtains when the flash fired, was exposed.
    • Design and way of working of the shutter also explain the terms ‘first / second curtain‘ for firing the flash at the beginning or at the end of the exposure time.
  • Both shutter types do not capture the entire image at once, but the exposure rather moves across the frame. This caused by reading out the pixels row by row with an electronic shutter, or by the movement of the curtains of a focal-plane shutter. The downside is that fast moving objects become distorted in the final image (so-called ‘rolling shutter effect‘). There are also cameras with a so-called ‘global shutter’, which capture the information of the entire image at once. This technology is typically used in rather expensive high-speed cameras.
  • Robert Hall has a video on YouTube where explains the differences as well as the pros and cons of the two shutter types.

ABBREVIATIONS

There are an almost infinite amount of abbreviations in photography. I have selected the ones I often use myself. This section leaves aside all abbreviations that designate lens characteristics; you will find those below in a table of their own.

AF

Auto-focus – The system your camera uses to focus on the targeted subject. There are two distinctly different auto-focus systems: Phase detection is what single-lens reflex cameras employ when using the optical viewfinder. Edge detection is applied when looking through an electronic viewfinder or using the display, for instance on a cell phone. Phase detection is faster, while edge detection is more reliable. In addition, depending on your camera and lens, there are different types of drives moving the lenses accordingly; also see the lens designations below.

APS‑C

Advanced Photo Systems-Classic – This designation embraces digital cameras with a sensor size between 22.5 x 15.0 mm (crop factor 1.6) and 25.1 x 16.7 mm (crop factor 1.5). Basically all interchangeable lens cameras with a retail price under 1,000 € have such a sensor. APS-C is not a standardized label; the actual sensor size varies between manufacturers. Nikon calls their APS-C cameras “DX”.

The designation goes back to the APS system, which was invented back in the 1990s for analog film. The image size is about ⅓ of a 35 mm miniature film. This made it possible to build much smaller cameras, and to store additional information on the film. Due to the quickly emerging digital photography, however, APS never became accepted for analog film, and quickly vanished again.

APS-C as a classification of the sensor size is not related to the camera sensor technology APS (Active Pixel Sensor). This is a type of so-called CMOS sensor, which, due to their compact build and low energy consumption, are used in almost all cell phones and compact cameras.

ILC Interchangeable Lens Camera – A camera where you can quickly change the lens. Often used as a generic term for mirrorless or single-lens reflex cameras, to distinguish them from compact cameras with a built-in lens.
DSLM Digital Single-Lens Mirrorless – Digital cameras without optical viewfinder. They are often also referred to a System Cameras (Example: Sony Alpha a6000). “Single-Lens” means that the image in the viewfinder is captured through the same lens as the actual photo. On older compact cameras, the viewfinder often had its own optics. Nowadays, basically all cameras are digital, the D is often omitted and just SLM is being used. In addition, there are several synonymous acronyms: MILC (Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera), MSC (Mirrorless System Camers) and – my favorite  :mrgreen: – EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens camera).
DSLR Digital Single-Lens Reflex – Digital cameras with an optical viewfinder that uses the same lens as the image sensor (Example: Canon EOS 760D). Again, the D is often omitted and just SLR is used.
MF Manual Focus – Interchangeable lenses usually allow for manually focusing on your subject. This is meaningful in difficult lighting conditions, e.g. for night photography, or for pictures where a moving object shall be captured in a certain position and the auto-focus wouldn’t be fast enough.
MFT

Micro-Four-Thirds – A sensor format with crop factor 2, used primarily by Olympus and Panasonic. “Four Thirds” relates to the 4:3 aspect ratio of the sensor, in contrast to the otherwise usually 3:2.

SOOC

Straight Out Of Camera – This abbreviation is mostly used in online forums and photo communities, and means that the picture it refers to has not been post-processed on a computer in any way.

LENS DESIGNATIONS

Acronyms on lenses tend to be especially confusing, because the manufacturers use different labels for the same functionalities and characteristics.  The table below summarizes the most prevalent shortcuts for the brands I use.

I have left out all terms related to the ‘optical formula’ of a lens, i.e., which specially shaped lenses are built in, and which specific coatings they have. This would go far beyond the scope of this post. In the end, all that matters it their effect on the image quality (distortion, flaring, and chromatic aberration).

Function Canon Samyang Sigma Tamron Tokina
Lens for Full-frame Cameras EF DG Di FX
Lens for Cameras with APS-C Sensor EF-S CS DC Di II DX
Lens for mirrorless Cameras EF-M FE (Sony E-Mount) DN
Image Stabilizer IS (Image Stabilization) OS (Optical Stabilizer) VC (Vibration Compensation)
Auto-focus USM (Ultra-Sonic Motor)

STM (Stepping Motor)

 AF HSM (Hyper-Sonic Motor) USD (Ultrasonic Silent Drive)  AF
Internal Focus IF IF IF IF
Professional Lens L (Luxury) A (Art)

S (Sport)

EX (Excellence)

SP (Super Professional) AT-X Pro
Consumer Lenses C (Contemporary) AT-X
NOTES:
  • Canon: Lenses with internal focus, as well as consumer lenses, do not have a dedicated designation.
  • Samyang: Lenses from Samyang are sold under several different brands, including Rokinon, Bower, Opteka, Pro-Optic, Vivitar und Walimex. They are technically identical, but their prices vary drastically. Full-frame lenses do not have a special label. No lenses with image stabilization are available. Finally, Samyang does not distinguish between different product lines.
  • Tamron: As far as I know, Tamron does not offer any lenses for mirrorless cameras. Consumer lenses do not have a specific label.
  • Tokina: There are no lenses available with image stabilization, or for mirrorless cameras.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: When you get started, all those terms and abbreviations seem rather confusing. But don’t let yourself be scared by that! To learn the basic terms in the beginning, a book can really help; but in the end, it’s ‘learning by doing’. In particular, the exposure triangle needs closer attention, and you’ll need to memorize the creative possibilities (How do I blur the background? How do I freeze motion?).

What I’ve learned: A lot  😀 And I’m still learning. Even writing this article helped me to better understand a number of things…


LINKS

In addition to the Wikipedia links, additional information can be found here:

Picture credits: Title image: own graphic.

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/

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

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