Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Getting The Most Fall Color Out Of Your Pictures

With a little know-how, colorful fall pictures can be made even better.

Well, for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, it's been fall for almost a week now. For those of us living in certain areas of the world, fall means colorful foliage.

So how to get the most out of your fall pictures?

For one thing, shoot your camera using the RAW format. Yes, JPEG allows for some color-related editing, but with RAW, the number of ways to tweak the colors increases dramatically, as does the ease of doing so. Yes, RAW mandates post-processing, but in the end, many people who are serious about their digital pictures will agree with me that RAW rules.

For the examples and screen shots that follow, I am using Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) RAW editing software that came bundled with my EOS 30D. If you shoot something else, your RAW editor will be different, but the overall functions should remain the same.

Onto making your colors “pop.”

First thing: Examine the picture
This is a lot easier if you just came in from a shoot. Chances are, upon opening the picture, you will notice that the colors in rthe picture probably aren't as vibrant as you remember them.

Option 1: Boost Saturation
By far the simplest operation, boosting the saturation is simply what one can do in Photoshop or the like. Simply find your saturation controller and kick it up a few notches. On DPP, I can take my 30D 4 steps up (increasing saturation) or 4 down (decreasing saturation). In my opinion, a setting of +2 works best as the change is noticeable, but the picture sill looks like a picture, not a painting.

Option 2: Adjust white balance
The reason I love RAW so much is that, should you mess up the white balance setting when shooting, there's no worry, you can just go back and fix it later on the computer. True, when one thinks of white balance, one usually thinks of major mistakes,, such as shooting tungsten under daylight. However, more subtle mistakes can kill your colors. Just by clicking on the correct white balance setting for the conditions in which the picture was shot can help render more vibrant, accurate colors.

Option 3: Picture styles
Besides white balance, picture styles can have a major impact on color rendition. Obviously for fall scenery, the landscape setting is the best. However, for anyone who demands the greatest accuracy, the setting that is an exact recording of color, 'faithful' in DPP, is another option.

Option 4: Dynamic range histogram
On DPP, there is a histogram function. While not directly impacting color, the way it plays with the light and dark will have an impact on how color looks. On DPP, moving left will lighten the lights. For color, this will often lead to a loss of saturation, but a generally brighter picture. Moving right will create a darker image, but one that appears more saturated in color.

Option 5: Any combination of the above
While each of the above four techniques can help boost color in your photos when applied correctly, try using any two or even all of them together, one can really add some fantastic colors to fall photos.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Seize The Night!

Okay Northern Hemisphere astronomers, rejoice! The Autumnal Equinox has arrived and the Sun has crossed into the Southern Celestial Hemisphere, which means that, for the next six months, the nights will be longer than the days, which means more time for stargazing. However, there is more good news to report, too:

Shortening Days “Freeze” The Sky
Around the equinoxes, the shortening/lengthening of the days is at its most extreme. While this is a bad thing in the spring as the later sunsets will lead the winter constellations to disappear very quickly, come fall, the earlier sunsets freeze the sky to summer, but only to a point. Because the Sun sets earlier each night, the summer constellations will hang around for an extended period of time as the sky will get darker each night. In fact, it is still possible to observe the Teapot into November if you have a really good Southern horizon.

Standard Time Returns
In about 6 weeks, standard time will be making a return in the United States. While the fact that the Sun sets a few minutes earlier each night helps the stars of summer stick around well into fall, turning the clock back an hour on the first Sunday of November will give observers one last time to look at the summer constellations before they inevitably disappear until next season.

For more on the Equinox:
The equinox and a magic show courtesy of the Maya
“Super Harvest Moon”
Year-long photo shoot, anyone?
It's the equinox, stand an egg on end and take a picture!
All about the Autumnal Equinox

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Easy Polar Alignment In The Daytime

For any non-astrophotographer who has stopped by this website and taken a look at my astrophoto galleries, one big question may come to mind: "how does he do that?"

Well, a lot goes into capturing those stunning astrophotos and I'll probably touch on these factors at some point in the future. Today, I'll talk about the most crucial aspect of getting good astrophotos through a telescope: good polar alignment (aligning the mount to astronomical North).

Everyone knows that the Earth spins on its axis once a day, that's why the Sun, Moon, and stars appear to rise and set. So, with the celestial objects moving across the sky, it is absolutely crucial to accurately track them to compensate for the Earth's rotation. Any tracking inaccuracy will result in streaked, not perfectly round stars.

So, how does one go about this?

Traditionally, one gets accurate polar alignment through use of a polar scope (pain in the neck) or by using the latest computer-equipped telescope mounts (expensive). At the time I got started, a go-to mount was out of the budget and Polaris was (and still is) blocked by trees.

There had to be another way, and there was.

Step 1: Find Local Noon
Noon isn't noon (unless you live right on a time zone border), sorry. To find when the Sun is directly due South, just google it. To make things easier, here is a place where you can find your local noon:


Step 2: Get Prepared
Time of local noon found, wait for it to come, but in the meantime, find something that stands up straight. For me, this stool worked just fine. You'll also need a yardstick and something to write on the ground with.

Step 3: Mark the North-South Line
When local noon arrives, set up your object and trace the line of its shadow on the ground

Step 4: Extend the Line
Chances are, the line you draw on the ground won't be long enough to set up a telescope mount, so take the yardstick and extend the line so that it is big enough to cover the spread of your tripod's legs.

Step 5: Setup (in real life, do this at night)

Dark having arrived, haul out your scope and set the North leg of the tripod directly on the line. Next, spread the back legs so that they are about an even distance from the line.

Step 6: Measure
To get accurate alignment, be sure to measure so that the back legs are the exact same distance from the North-South line.

Step 7: Level
Don't forget to check that you are level. An off-level mount will offset perfect polar alignment every time. If you're lucky, your mount will have a built-in level(s) like my Meade LXD-55.

Step 8: Test
All set up, it's now time to test. Set your camera for 30 seconds and take a few practice shots with the self-timer engaged or with a remote control as vibrations from touching the camera/scope rig can look just like star trailing caused from bad polar alignment.

Author's Note:
I know this isn't the most advanced (it dates from the Stone Age!). method to get accurate polar alignment. However, for people using short focal length scopes (my Orion ED80 is 600mm long) and who are looking to stack short exposures in the realm of 30 seconds to a minute, this method should work every time as it has done for me going on four years now.

Good luck!

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Tokina 28-70 f2.6-2.8 ATX PRO In-Depth Review

The Tokina 28-70mm f2.6-2.8 ATX PRO

Tech Specs
Focal Length: 28-70mm
Dimensions: 3.2" x 4.8"
Weight: 760g
Maximum Aperture: f2.8
Minimum Aperture: f22
Diaphragm Blades: 8
Front Element: Rotates, extends about an eighth of an inch
Autofucus Mechanism: Micromotor (Canon version)
Closest Focus: 2.5 feet
Filter Size: 77mm

Tokina's 28-70/80 f2.8 lenses have quite a bit of a convoluted history to them. Originally developed by French company Angenieux, Tokina bought the design and rolled out several versions before ceasing production in the mid 2000s. For the forthcoming review, I will be referring to the 28-70 f2.6-2.8 version, which was marketed as being the widest aperture zoom in the world (even though cameras do not recognize the 2.6 aperture. So, is this oldie a goody? Keep reading to find out!

Build Quality: 5
Tokina is a company known for high standards of construction, and its 28-70 f2.6-2.8 ATX PRO lens lives up to the tough Tokina reputation. Upon picking up the lens, you immediately notice its sheer weight and perhaps, cool surface. This lens is solid metal and feels every bit of it, even the filter threads are metal. Yes, it may be a brick, but it inspires confidence in that it feels like a true photographic tool and not a toy like a lot of the newer third-party offerings. In terms of mechanics, the lens is top-notch here, too. The focus ring is the wide, outer one. Switching from AF to MF is a bit complicated. Unlike newer Tokina lenses, one must first flip a conventional switch and then snap the focus ring back or forth, depending on what you want to do. In addition, the clutch has a window where it can and cannot move. To find the spot, simply push/pull the ring as you turn. When the spot is reached, the clutch will engage and the ring will move, completing the transition. On newer lenses, simply snap the ring at any place to go from AF to MF and back. The good news is that, like newer Tokina lenses, the focus ring does not spin in AF mode. Unfortunately, this is not an inner focusing lens, either. In action, the focus ring is smooth in operation, no slop whatsoever. The zoom ring is the inner, narrower one. In action, it is smooth too. On my copy, the ring is a bit tight in the 28-35 range, but this is an old lens that I bought used, so if you decide to buy one, it could be different. Both rings are rubberized, highly textured, and give a good grip. When zooming, the external length of the lens never changes, but the inner barrel drops about half an inch at the long end of the zoom. Again, the constant size of the lens just exudes a high-quality product.

The inner barrel of the lens extends about 5mm at closest focus

Autofocus Performance: 4
Being an older model lens, the Tokina 28-70 f2.6-2.8 ATX PRO does not feature the latest sonic drive autofocus technology, but the old micromotor design. However, for such a design (let alone one about 10 years old), autofocus performance is still good by modern standards. Sure, it's not sonic speed, but it's still very good even in low-light. About the only time speed may be an issue is a when racking from macro to infinity or back (seems a little slow to get going at these extremes), but who shoots like this, anyway? When shooting normally, focus in near instantaneous. In terms of accuracy, this is nothing to sneeze at, either. Focus is dead-on in all situations except when dealing with nearby, fast-moving subjects. No light? No problem! Autofocus is top-notch here, too. I've shot Christmas lights from a moving car without any problems using this lens. Now the much-maligned micromotor. Sure, it makes noise, but it's not overly obnoxious and nowhere near as loud as the slap of the SLR mirror itself.

Switching from AF to MF and back is a two-step process: first flip the switch, then move the focus ring accordingly.

Optics: 4
There is a lot that goes into determining the complete package of optical performance for a camera lens, so let's examine each of them individually.

Lens at 28mm
At its widest focal length setting, the Tokina 28-70 f2.6-2.8 ATX PRO is at its best, at least in the center. Looking at the center of the frame, one has a hard time telling whether the lens is at f2.8 or f8, performance is that good. Moving out from the corners wide open, the story is different. Wide open, the corners are pretty mushy, the good news is that stopping down, while not completely fixing the problem, helps negate these optical shortcomings quite a bit.

Lens at 35mm
Increasing the focal length, sharpness in the center decreases a tad when wide open. Although not bad by any means, the lens will no be longer tack sharp as it was at 28mm. The good news is that, by f4, the lens is as sharp as it's going to get in the center, which is good. For some truly great news, at 35mm, the corner performance picks up quite a bit. Wide open in the corner, the lens at 35mm at f2.8 is about as good as it was in the same area at 28mm but stopped down to f8! As at 28mm though, performance only increases as focal ratio shrinks. Overall, I would say 35mm is the sweet spot of tested focal lengths when considering image quality across the frame.

Lens at 50mm
Wide open at 50mm the lens can no longer be considered sharp. The center is a bit soft and the corners are worse. The good news is that, like at 35mm, the lens is about as sharp as it will get by f4, still not bad. In the corners, the performance is similar to that at 35mm in that the extreme drop-off seen at 28mm is absent here, too. Bottom line, the corners are mushy wide open, but they improve quite a bit stopped down. One funny thing I noticed here was that the lens seems to have a funny small aperture bad spot at f8 in the 50mm zone. Weird.

Lens at 70mm
At its longest focal length setting, sharpness actually improves. Wide open in the center, sharpness is much better than it was at 50mm but not quite as good as it was at 35mm, let alone 28mm. Unlike at the three other tested focal lengths, sharpness does not peak at f4, but continues to improve through f8. However, the improvement from f4 to f8 is should not be much of an issue except to pixel peepers. In the corners, performance is still reasonably good wide open without the major drop off seen at 28mm. The good news is that this lens does not exhibit any optical quirks at 70mm, which means that, as you keep stopping down, sharpness keeps improving in the corners. By f8, the lens is almost as good at 70mm as it was at 35mm.

As is the norm with wide angle lenses, the Tokina 28-70 f2.6-2.8 ATX PRO exhibits barrel distortion on the wide end of the focal length spectrum. The good news is that, compared to some other standard zooms, it is very mild and disappears by 35mm. By 70mm, very slight pincushion distortion appears, but is nothing that to many would warrant correction in post-processing.

There is distortion, but nothing obnoxious

In terms of light falloff, the Tokina 28-70 f2.6-2.8 ATX PRO was a bit of a disappointment, especially considering the fact that it was mounted on a sub-frame Canon EOS 30D for the test. Wide open at all focal lengths, there is noticeable darkening. The good news is that this pattern is very uniform throughout the focal range and that it essentially disappears by f4.

Vignetting is obvious at f2.8, but largely disappears by f4

Chromatic aberration
While Tokina lenses are known for build quality, they are also known for a less than desirable feature: chromatic aberration, those annoying color fringes that appear in high-contrast situation. The bad news is that the 28-70 f2.6-2.8 ATX PRO does exhibit some false color. The good news is that stopping down from f2.8 to f4 greatly reduces or even eliminates the unwanted color in most cases. As usual, the higher the contrast, the more pronounced the effect

CA is present wide open, but stopping down reduces the problem greatly

In all, CA on this lens is not too bad, this is wide open

By and large, I would consider this lens to be on the positive side of the flare resistance spectrum. The lens is most prone to flaring at 28mm because this is when the front element is nearest the end of the lens. As focal length increases and the inner barrel drops back into the lens, the front element becomes more shielded and thus, more resistant to flaring. Generally, this lens doesn't flare/ghost unless you have the Sun (or another extremely bright point source of light) in the corner of the frame. When a bright light is in the center, sometimes you get flare, sometimes not. Go figure. In the center, the lens sometimes flares and sometimes doesn't, go figure. As usual, a hood, whether the standard or a thread-on variety, helps.

The fact that the inner barrel drops at the long end of the zoom helps reduce risk of flare in itself

Even at 28mm, one usually has to try and get flare on purpose for it to appear

Value: 5
When it comes to price to performance ratio, the Tokina 28-70 f2.6-2.8 ATX PRO is unequaled. Where else can you get a constant f2.8 zoom with so many positive attributes for in the $300 range? Nowhere. A good indicator of how good a lens is to look for it on the used market and see how much it pops on the used market and how fast it sticks around when it does show up. Generally, the rarer a lens is, the better it is. In the case of the Sigma and Tamron full frame-capable constant f2.8b standard zooms, you'll see them all the time. The Tokinas? In the case of this lens, they don't pop up all that often and when they do, they're gone very quickly. This is a great lens, people know it, and the market shows it.

In the field
There's a reason that constant f2.8 zooms are popular, they're just so doggone useful! While slower than primes, a constant f2.8 zoom give the photographer much more flexibility in making pictures, especially when mobility is an issue. Until a 18-70ish constant f2.8 lens comes out, we'll be forced to decide between wide (17-50) and long (28-70) if we want constant f2.8. With all of its positive attributes, the Tokina 28-70 f2.6-2.8 ATX PRO can make the perfect walk around lens, provided you're willing to trade off wide angle for extra reach.

While good at any time of day, the fast Tokina zoom really comes into its own when the light starts to disappear. Simply put, a 2.8 zoom can do things (especially on the long end of the range) that those 3.5-5.6 bundled kit zooms cannot, namely allow the photographer to shoot hand-held in low light without flash, which is good. In less than extreme low light situations, the extra stops of aperture allow the shooter to lower the ISO, thus preserving picture quality.

Indoor settings in low light are easy for a 2.8 zoom

Nightscapes, especially at Christmas, are easily possible without a tripod (note, no flare)

Even darker nightscapes are possible with steady hands

Nighttime architecture can be very cool

If you have really steady hands and no adverse reaction to ISO 3200+, astrophotography is possible! Here's Orion among some clouds.

While this lens is definately not a macro optic, at can focus reasonably close and make itself a great lens for shooting flowers or similarily-sized subjects.

This is no macro optic!

However, it is still good for closeups of large objects. . .

. . . especially if you can crop a bit!

Simply put, a 28-70 constant f2.8 optic is a lens that will live on your camera most of the time. Sure, other focal ranges with different applications will be desired at times but, for the majority of walk-around type shooting, such a range will get the job done far more often than not.
Wildlife is no problem . . .

. . . especially if you crop

Even with a 46mm equivalent on APS-C, landscapes are no big deal

Frame right and you can get some wide-open images

The standard zoom lens competes in a crowded market segment as such lenses are the go-to optics for many photographers, pro and amateur. As a result, everyone makes one. Closest in price to the Tokina are the Tamron and older Sigma model. Like the Tokina, both lenses are constant f2.8 and are driven by a micromotor/mechanical drive mechanism. Like the Tokina, both (especially the Tamron) are reputed to be good optically. Unlike the Tokina, both are plastic while the Tokina is solid metal and costs less to boot. Moving up the scale is Sigma's $900 24-70 f2.8. Costing about 50% more than the other two lenses, this one adds a sonic drive but still isn't up to the Tokina mechanically. Of course, at the top of the totem pole are the manufacturer versions, costing upwards of $1,200. Like the Tokina, these lenses are metal but add sonic drives and weather sealing in some cases. Bottom line, unless you absolutely need the sonic drive/weather seal, the Tokina is worth strong consideration, if you're lucky enough to come across one.

Conclusion: 4.5 out of 5
The Tokina 28-70 f2.6-2.8 ATX PRO is an all-around winner, especially considering its rock-bottom price point. Some pluses are undeniable. The Tokina's build quality is top-notch and equaled only by the manufacturer's own $1,200+ version lenses. Again, the price ($300ish) to performance ratio is unrivaled by anything else. The 'floating' focus ring is another convenience one normally associates with sonic-drive lenses, so feel free to grab the lens anywhere when shooting with it. The conventional drive focus mechanism does not offer full time manual override, but is nonetheless fast and accurate. Optically, this lens has more positives than negatives, with distortion, chromatic aberration, and flare all being well controlled. The only real glaring weakness of this lens, optically speaking, is the extreme corner softness wide open at 28mm and wide-open vignetting. The good news is that, from f4 on, this lens is about as good as it gets. With all the good and so little bad, I whole-heartedly recommend the Tokina 28-70 f2.6-2.8 ATX PRO, should you be lucky enough to come across one.

The Tokina 28-70 f2.6-2.8 ATX PRO: an all-around solid workhorse of a lens!

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Friday, September 3, 2010

Are The 100-400L's Days Numbered?

Is this dinosaur soon to go extinct?

Last week, Canon launched a new dSLR and a bunch of new glass. Of all the lenses, the 70-300 f4-5.6L IS seemed like a completely boneheaded move, especially considering its $1,500 price tag. Why so dumb? A few points to ponder.

The new 70-300 f4-5.6 L IS costs $1,500. For a few hundred more, you can get the Mark I version of the 70-200 2.8L IS lens, which offers a two f-stops advantage in light-gathering power plus was a stable of pros/serious amateurs for its entire production run. Still want long? Then add the 1.4 teleconverter for a 100-280 f4L IS. Point 2: 300 is nice, but wouldn't 400 be better? Well, by spending a little more, you can land the Canon 100-400L IS which, although the same speed, adds 100mm extra reach on the long end (which, in telephotos, is what people really want). Want to spend less but still want a weather-sealed, stabilized L? Then there's the 70-200 f4L IS, which is widely regarded to be Canon's best zoom.
Needless to say, the new lens has a lot of competition just in the Canon stable alone. So what was Canon thinking in releasing such a lens?

How about killing the 100-400L?

While it is still a popular lens, the 100-400L is getting pretty long in the tooth, even for a pro-grade zoom. Introduced way back in 1998, the lens appears even more dated than it is thanks to the old-fashioned slide zoom, which, in the age of electrically charged CMOS sensors, has earned the lens the undesirable nickname of "the dust trombone." Besides this, the lens doesn't exactly have a reputation for top-notch optical performance on the long end, either.

With a new 70-300L soon to hit the market, a 100-400L refresh is looking likely.

Obviously, the telephoto zoom market is very crowded even within Canon's own lineup. As it is now, the 70-300L seems like a really dumb decision given the competition on both focal and price range. However, with a new ultra-long zoom, the new 70-300 may find itself a nice niche in camp Canon.

So what may the new ultra-long Canon zoom look like?

First up, forget the slide zoom, it's ancient history. Let this old technology rest among the dust that it so loves to pull into the camera. The next long Canon will be a twist style zoom. As for focal length/ratio,. that's a hard call. Currently, Nikon has a ridiculously high-priced 200-400f4 zoom. If Canon were to go that route, say a 100-400 f4, the lens would jump out of the average Joe's price range, not good for wide-ranging appeal. What I foresee for a 100-400L replacement is this: something with expanded focal range, say, a 150-500 f4-5.6L IS, instead. That way, the price won't go through the roof and Canon will have a nice lineup of sub $2,500 telephoto zoom L lenses: the 70-200 family, the 70-300, and then the theoretical 150-500.

However, only time will tell if this comes true.

Tokina 28-70 2.8 Review Update:
I've said it before, but yes, it's now right around the corner. I had to reshoot some of the test and product images after (I guess) accidently deleting them in my CD burning madness. Look for the full review Monday or Tuesday. Who knows, this may be the most in-depth review of this lens anywhere on the web!

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