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Photo Gear: Tripods

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manfrottohead

The Manfrotto geared head model 405.

Tripods are too often an overlooked accessory in photography. Most hobbyists, if they even own a tripod, too often settle for a model that is cheaply made and doesn’t offer the range of benefits a good tripod can offer. Plus, if you’re going to put your $1000+ gear on something, shouldn’t it be the best?

First, let’s discuss the basics: a tripod is composed of two parts, the legs and the head. The legs are, as you may already guess, the base of the tripod. It’s important, then, to get the best support possible.

I think the heavier the legs, the better. My favorite manufacturer in Manfrotto because I think this company offers the best product at the best price. I particularly like model 161MK2B (kinda boring name) AKA the “Super Pro Tripod Mark 2 Black (kinda long and still boring name). Despite the rather boring name, this tripod is fantastic. It’s very sturdy and has a high load capacity. This is a great base in which to begin.

As for tripod heads, I prefer what’s called “geared heads” because they are highly precise and easy to operate. In the Manfrotto line, I like the model 405 (now I think Manfrotto REALLY needs to working on product names) because its gearing system is needle-sharp. It allows for 360-degree panning and front and lateral tilt. This is very important for macro photography and landscape work.

I’ll warn you: This whole setup isn’t cheap. The tripod itself will set you back almost $500 and the head is about $400. Yeah, I know. Most hobbyists don’t want to set back nearly $900 for a tripod but, unlike most other photography gear, tripods don’t really go out of style. A good tripod now will last you probably your entire photographic career.

There are less expensive alternatives that are good but don’t offer the same quality as this gear. Be sure to look for these qualities when purchasing your next tripod:

  • Heavy-Duty Design: The heavier the legs the more stable the tripod. Try to pick gear that “feels” like it’s well made. If in doubt, move on.
  • Head Interchangeability: Can you change the head? If not, this probably isn’t the best tripod for your money.
  • Well-Known Names: Sometimes I’m not a fan of “brand names” because there’s some gear that may not be well known, but are great pieces of equipment. In tripods, I say go with the names you know. Manfrotto, Bogen, Slik – but only the “pro” rated gear and Swarovski Optik.
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Trip Through the Canon Store: Wide-Angle Lenses

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A lens is a tool. Most people forget that for some reason but simply enough, a lens is a tool that we use to make an image. Like all tools, at the risk of overextending the analogy, the better the tool, the better the finished project.

In our last installment, we discussed the basic facts related to lenses and then looked at Canon’s ultra-wide zoom lenses. If you didn’t read that article, you really should because it explains the basic mechanics of how a lens works.

Today, we’re going to look at the company’s fixed focal length, wide-angle lenses. I have always been a fan of prime lenses. Prime lenses are defined as lenses with a fixed focal length versus zoom lenses which have a range of focal lengths. I like prime lenses because they are generally very well made and typically cost less than zoom lenses. I also like prime lenses because they typically have a larger maximum aperture than zooms and often weigh less than zoom lenses.

There are, however, advantages to using zoom lenses. Zooms obviously cover a broader focal range, thus eliminating the need to carry multiple lenses. If you purchase a zoom, I highly suggest buying one that has a fixed maximum aperture throughout the entire zoom range. Although more costly, they are worth the investment.

Canon’s Wide-Angle Lens Selection
Canon currently manufactures nine prime wide-angle lenses. Of the nine, one lens is a fisheye and three of the lenses are L-series.

EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM: This pro-series lens has an amazing 114-degree angle of view and is a perfect lens for architectural applications. The lens also features better optical elements that reduce problems in edge-to-edge sharpness. It is dust- and moisture-proof and the ultrasonic motor (that’s the USM designation) means you’ll get faster and more responsive autofocus. This lens isn’t cheap, though. Expect to pay between $2000-$2200 US for this pro-series lens.

EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM: This pro-series lens has an amazing 114-degree angle of view and is a perfect lens for architectural applications. The lens also features better optical elements that reduce problems in edge-to-edge sharpness. It is dust- and moisture-proof and the ultrasonic motor (that’s the USM designation) means you’ll get faster and more responsive autofocus. This lens isn’t cheap, though. Expect to pay between $2000-$2200 US for this pro-series lens.

Canon's EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens: If you’ve never seen images made with a fisheye lens, you’ve missed out. The fisheye lens has a 180-degree angle of view and barrel distortion giving the image a curved look. With its f/2.8 maximum aperture, this lens works well for photographing fast-action subjects and with its 8 inch minimum focus distance, you can get really close and really wide. This is a specialized lens and you probably won’t use it everyday. But when you need to give your images a different look, this is a go-to lens to have in your camera bag. The lens isn’t priced too bad, either. You can expect to find this lens for about $625-$725 US.

Canon's EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens: If you’ve never seen images made with a fisheye lens, you’ve missed out. The fisheye lens has a 180-degree angle of view and barrel distortion giving the image a curved look. With its f/2.8 maximum aperture, this lens works well for photographing fast-action subjects and with its 8 inch minimum focus distance, you can get really close and really wide. This is a specialized lens and you probably won’t use it everyday. But when you need to give your images a different look, this is a go-to lens to have in your camera bag. The lens isn’t priced too bad, either. You can expect to find this lens for about $625-$725 US.

EF 20mm f/2.8 USM: This is a nice lens to have if you need to get wide and maintain a big maximum aperture. Plus, this lens is fairly well priced. You can expect to pick one up for about $450 US.

EF 20mm f/2.8 USM: This is a nice lens to have if you need to get wide and maintain a big maximum aperture. Plus, this lens is fairly well priced. You can expect to pick one up for about $450 US.

EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM: This is one of my favorite wide-angle lenses. First of all, it produces needle-sharp images from corner-to-corner. Second, its ultra-fast f/1.4 maximum aperture is ideal for photojournalists who may be shooting in tight spaces with less-than-ideal lighting. Also, this lens offers extremely pleasing bokeh (the out-of-focus, soft blur when using a shallow depth of field). The ultrasonic motor allows for highly responsive and quiet autofocus. Again, being a pro-series lens, the EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM isn’t cheap. Expect to pay between $1700-$1800 US.

EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM: This is one of my favorite wide-angle lenses. First of all, it produces needle-sharp images from corner-to-corner. Second, its ultra-fast f/1.4 maximum aperture is ideal for photojournalists who may be shooting in tight spaces with less-than-ideal lighting. Also, this lens offers extremely pleasing bokeh (the out-of-focus, soft blur when using a shallow depth of field). The ultrasonic motor allows for highly responsive and quiet autofocus. Again, being a pro-series lens, the EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM isn’t cheap. Expect to pay between $1700-$1800 US.

EF 24mm f/2.8: This lens is really ideal for students interested in photography but not ready - or able - to make a huge financial investment. The lens has a fast maximum aperture of f/2.8 and a great focal length to get into wide-angle photography. It has a minimum focus distance of 10 inches, which lets you get fairly close to your subject. You can pick this lens up for about $310 US.

EF 24mm f/2.8: This lens is really ideal for students interested in photography but not ready - or able - to make a huge financial investment. The lens has a fast maximum aperture of f/2.8 and a great focal length to get into wide-angle photography. It has a minimum focus distance of 10 inches, which lets you get fairly close to your subject. You can pick this lens up for about $310 US.

EF 28mm f/2.8: This lens is considered a good standard wide-angle lens. It’s a nice walk around lens because its both lightweight (185g) and offers a nice focal length for general photographic work. Again, this isn’t an expensive lens. You can find one for about $200 US.

EF 28mm f/2.8: This lens is considered a good standard wide-angle lens. It’s a nice walk around lens because its both lightweight (185g) and offers a nice focal length for general photographic work. Again, this isn’t an expensive lens. You can find one for about $200 US.

EF 35mm f/1.4L USM: This is another great lens I enjoy using. It has a super fast maximum aperture of f/1.4 and is a really well-made lens. For those of you who don’t own a full frame camera, which many Canon digital cameras have a 1.6x magnification ratio, this lens is a really nice portrait lens because it gives you an actual focal length of 56mm. The bokeh effect of this lens is also aesthetically pleasing. Like most pro, L-series lenses, this one isn’t too cheap. Expect to part with $1200-$1400 US for this lens.

EF 35mm f/1.4L USM: This is another great lens I enjoy using. It has a super fast maximum aperture of f/1.4 and is a really well-made lens. For those of you who don’t own a full frame camera, which many Canon digital cameras have a 1.6x magnification ratio, this lens is a really nice portrait lens because it gives you an actual focal length of 56mm. The bokeh effect of this lens is also aesthetically pleasing. Like most pro, L-series lenses, this one isn’t too cheap. Expect to part with $1200-$1400 US for this lens.

EF 35mm f/2: This is a less-priced lens that still offers the 35mm focal length and a fast aperture. Although it’s not as solidly built as the EF 35 f/1.4L USM lens, it still offers the photographer a compact, lightweight and relatively low-cost lens. You can purchase this lens for about $300 US.

EF 35mm f/2: This is a less-priced lens that still offers the 35mm focal length and a fast aperture. Although it’s not as solidly built as the EF 35 f/1.4L USM lens, it still offers the photographer a compact, lightweight and relatively low-cost lens. You can purchase this lens for about $300 US.

EF 28mm f/1.8 USM: A nice all-around lens, this model offers a super fast maximum aperture and sharp edge-to-edge images across the aperture range. A good student lens, you can purchase this model for about $450 US.

EF 28mm f/1.8 USM: A nice all-around lens, this model offers a super fast maximum aperture and sharp edge-to-edge images across the aperture range. A good student lens, you can purchase this model for about $450 US.

Sample image from the Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM lens. (Photo Credit: Image from Canon)

Sample image from the Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM lens. (Photo Credit: Image from Canon)

For our next installment, we’ll discuss Canon’s standard and medium telephoto prime lenses. Good luck and keep shooting!

Sample image from the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens. (Photo Credit: Image from Canon)

Sample image from the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens. (Photo Credit: Image from Canon)

Sample image from the Canon's EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens. (Photo Credit: Image from Canon)

Sample image from the Canon's EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens. (Photo Credit: Image from Canon)

Trip Through the Canon Store: Ultra-Wide Zoom Lenses

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A lens is a tool. Most people forget that for some reason but simply enough, a lens is a tool that we use to make an image. Like all tools, at the risk of overextending the analogy, the better the tool, the better the finished project. I hear from people asking about lenses and I spend some time trying to explain them. I will go into great detail about lenses in future posts but for the sake of time, let’s make a few things clear:

  • Lenses are Measured in Focal Length: The focal length is the definition of how strongly an optic system focuses (converges) or diffuses (diverges) light. The focal length is measured, as a rule, in millimeters and it is the measurement from the optical center of the lens to the focal point on the image sensor (or film).
  • Focal Lengths Based on 35mm Film Standards: With the popularity of 35mm cameras, the focal length is based on that measurement. IF you have a camera that has a image sensor smaller than a 35mm camera’s film surface, which most digital camera image sensors ARE smaller than film, there is a multiplier you must use. For instance, the image sensor on a Canon EOS Rebel XS is 22.2mm x 14.8mm. The dimensions of 35mm film is 35mm wide (actually, it’s 36mm wide but you have to take in consideration spacing between the frames and room for the perforations). So, the EOS Rebel XS in our scenario has a magnification rate of about 1.6x.
  • Do the Math: So if you purchase a 20mm lens, it would be at 20mm on a film camera or 20mm x 1.6 or 32mm – in case you don’t want to do the math – on a digital camera.
  • This is Photography, Not Math. Why is it Important?: Well, simply put, if your camera has a magnification ratio, then you’re not getting as wide of an angle as you want. Let’s say you really want a 14mm lens because you’re shooting wide landscapes or large groups. OK, but your camera has a 1.5x magnification factor. So, you’re really getting a 21mm lens.
  • What are the Alternatives: Camera and lens manufacturers have settled the problem for the most part. They have made “full-frame” sensors that are close enough to the size of 35mm film that the magnification ratio has little impact. Secondly, these companies have also made “digital specific” lenses that already calculate the magnification ratio into the millimeter measurement. For instance, the Canon 5D Mark II is full frame, so if you buy a lens, you’re going to get the focal length as measured for film. Also, Nikon makes full-frame cameras (called FX format), which includes the D3 and D700 plus they make DX format (digital specific) lenses, which already account for the magnification.

Enough with the math, right? Just remember, unless you’re buying a digital-specific lens or your camera is full frame, the focal length of you lens is multiplied by the magnification factor.

Aperture Settings
Professional grade cameras, for the most part, have a fixed aperture value versus a variable aperture. Fixed aperture lenses have a constant maximum aperture throughout the zoom range. A variable aperture lens changes its maximum aperture in regards to the zoom. For instance, a 28-70mm f/4-f/5.6 lens means at 28mms, the maximum aperture is f/4 whereas at the high-end of the zoom range (70mm) the maximum aperture has reduced to f/5.6.

Variable aperture lenses are not normally as well constructed as the fixed aperture counterparts. The advantages, however, tend to be less weight and lower cost. Remember, the aperture value effects the depth-of-field you can achieve.

Canon’s Ultra-Wide Lenses
Canon makes three ultra-wide lenses: the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM; the EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM; and the EF 17-40mm f/4L USM.

16to35

The Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM

10to22

The Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM

17to40

The Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM

EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
This pro-level lens (Canon’s professional lenses typically have the “L” designation) is perfect for those who need wide angle capabilities and a big maximum aperture. On any Canon digital that does not have full frame, this lens will give you the focal length equivalent of a 26-56mm lens while still retaining the f/2.8 aperture value. This lens is ideal for photojournalists, landscape photographers and wedding photographers who shoot big groups in often poorly lit churches. It’s a relatively heavy lens (640 grams) mainly because it needs big glass for the fast shutter. The ultrasonic motor (that’s the USM designation) delivers fast and silent autofocusing. This isn’t a cheap lens, either. Expect to pay nearly $1500-$1900 US for this piece of glass. Is it worth it? Depends. If you’re interested in photojournalism or documentary photography or have a goal of becoming a wedding photographer, then yes. This piece of glass will be around to stay.

EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM
This consumer-grade lens is designed specifically for Canon digital cameras that LACK full frame sensors, so basically most Canon cameras (You can tell by the EF-S designation that it’s for digital specific cameras). This lens is the equivalent to a 16-35mm zoom lens. This is also a variable aperture lens, meaning the biggest aperture setting is f/3.5 at 10mm and at 22mm it’s f/4.5. It’s a little more than half the weight of the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM (385 grams). This lens will not, however, cost as much. You can find this lens for about $750-$850 US.

EF 17-40mm f/4L USM
The last lens on our ultra-wide zoom lens list is the EF 17-40mm f/4L USM. Think of this lens as the compromise lens between the high-priced EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM and the consumer-grade EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM. This is still a pro series (L series) lens and still offers a great wide angle zoom range. For cameras that are not full framed, this is the focal length equivalent of a 27-64mm lens while still retaining the fast (but not real fast) f/4 maximum aperture. I like this lens and use it often. I find it to be a high-quality lens for a relatively low price. You can purchase this lens for about $700-$850 US. While not as wide as the 10-22mm lens mentioned above, I’ve never found myself too limited by its focal length. I highly recommend this lens as a good “walking around lens” because its range is going to work for a variety of assignments.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss Canon’s wide angle prime lenses.

Good luck and keep shooting!

Making the Switch to a DSLR? Cameras to Consider

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If you’re planning to switch from a point-and-shoot camera to a digital SLR, then congratulations, it probably means you’re ready to get serious about photography.

DSLRs allow you tons more creative freedom than do point-and-shoot cameras. With the vast selection of lenses and lighting equipment, you can really start to control the way you make images.

There are many DSLRs to choose from and all of them offer various features that will appeal to different users. So, let’s first determine what kind of user you are.

User Profiles
In order to make this simple, I’m going to categorize users into three categories: family event photographers, hobbyists and students.

Family event photographers, as the name implies, utilize a camera mostly for special events: birthdays, holidays, vacations, etc. They need a camera that’s user friendly and relatively low priced.
Hobbyists are photographers who explore photography. They go beyond candid photos and snapshots and make composed photographs. The need a camera that allows more creative freedom and often look for mid-range priced cameras.
Students are photographers who either want to make photography a career or at least a serious part of their lives. They need a camera system that grows with them as they advance in photography.

With these categories in mind, let’s examine some entry-level DSLRs that can fit the bill for the various photographer categories.

Cameras for Family Event Photographers

  • Canon Rebel XS with 18-55mm IS Lens Kit: This is a great camera for the family photographer. It’s easy to use, relatively lightweight and at 10.1 megapixels, you can make great prints. Street value: Around $600 US.
  • Nikon D40 with NIKKOR 18-55mm Lens Kit: This camera features a 6.1-megapixel image sensor with easy-to-use controls all packaged in a very lightweight body – about 17 ounces. Street value: Around $500 US.
  • Olympus Evolt E-410 with 14-42mm and 40-150mm Lens Kit: With a 10-megapixel image sensor, a handy dust reduction system and a kit that contains two lenses, the Olympus Evolt E-410 is a great deal. The camera is easy to use and the controls are quite intuitive. Street value: Around $650 US.

Cameras for Hobbyists

  • Nikon D90 body only: Honestly, I would tell hobbyists to skip the Nikon D60 and D80 and go straight for the D90. It’s a great camera that will meet any challenge you throw at it. The D90 is built well, designed well, has a 12.3-megapixel image sensor and all the controls are very intuitive. Even if you never use the video capture mode, the D90 makes beautiful still images. Street value for body only: Around $1,000 US.
  • Canon EOS 40D body only: This camera has a 10.1-megapixel image sensor, Canon’s Integrated Cleaning System to help reduce dust on the image sensor and boasts a whopping 6.5 frames-per-second shooting speed. This is a fast little camera that will be a great tool for hobbyists, especially those who shoot sports and/or wildlife. Street value for body only: Around $1,100 US.

Cameras for Students

Students are a unique category. As a student, you have two choices: Either buy a camera listed for hobbyists in order to see how far you want to go in photography or if you’re absolutely CERTAIN you want to be a pro photographer, buy one of these cameras so you won’t need to upgrade later.

  • Nikon D300 body only: This cameras has it all – a 12.3-megapixel image sensor, 6 frames-per-second shooting speed that can bump to 8 fps with the optional battery pack, and a great ISO range with low noise in the higher ISOs. This is the camera that will get you through school and will work well in your early career. Street value for body only: About $1,800 US.
  • Canon EOS 50D body only: At 15.1 megapixels and 6.3 frames-per-second, this is a workhorse camera. Canon serves up some great cameras and this is one of them. You won’t be looking for an upgrade for this camera for quite some time. Street value for body only: About $1,400 US.
  • Olympus E-3: The Olympus E-3 is the flagship camera of the Olympus DSLR lineup. It’s a great camera built for heavy-duty use. It shoots fast – 1/8000 second is the highest shutter speed and has the ability to shoot 5 frames-per-second. Olympus also has a great lineup of lenses to compliment this camera. Street value for body only: Around $1,700 US.