Category Archives: lenses

Stabilize me

It used to be in the old days, you needed a shutter speed roughly the same as the focal length of your lens. So if you were shooting with a 200mm lens, you need to use about 1/250 to have a chance at a reasonable sharp lens. And telephones were the worst since their length amplifies the wiggles of unsteady hands, age, too much caffine and so on. If you were active, it was worse. You learned to pan very carefully, you learned to cradle the camera right up against your body like a gun. And you still ended up with fuzzy images.

Move up 20 years and now we have IS (Image Stabilization), VR (Vibration reduction) and other names for the same thing. Some work in the lens and some work in the body of the camera. It has become cheap enough that most new point and shoots have a form of it available. I can hand hold the lens at 1/80 and get a sharp image at a wedding without a tripod or monopod. In other words, I can get difficult shots much easier.

VR will not save the world in spite of the marketing propaganda. Sure, you can shoot at 1/10 F5.6 and get a sharp picture but whats the point if the subject is moving? Like kids at a party? So you get a sharp wall and a blur that was the kid running past.

But what does it DO? In simple terms, with the Nikon, there is a package of electronics that move the front element of the lens set actively to get the sharpest image when the shutter is triggered. On many Nikon DLSRs, you can hear a “clunk” as the system engages. I know alot of professional photographers who sneer at VR (I shoot Nikon, so I know this system) as a crutch and that “real” photographers do not use VR. To be honest, I did too for a while and then I thought VR would save the world but finally I understand that VR is just another tool that an help or hinder depending on how I use it.

For example, I spent quite a bit of money on a 70-200mm F.8 lens that is also VR. Why VR on a “fast” piece of glass you ask? Well, the lens can take amazinly sharp images but with the VR engaged, I expand my working range of settings. Instead of having to be still at 1/250 shutter, I can be in a car at 80 MPH and shooting 1/360 at F8 with the lens racked out at 200 mm and still get sharp images inspite of the car and the camera bouncing around on the roadway.

Lets take a look at VR (IS) and see when it’s useful. A typical arrangement for Nikon shooters is to use something like a D80/D90 with a 18-200mm F4.5 VR zoom. So the typical shooting would be something like ISO 1000 to 1600 to keep the noise manageable. So shooting at F4 which is wide open for this lens means in a semi-dark event, that you are shooting something like 1/20 of second shutter. It will be bad enough that the subjects will be moving but at 1/10-1/20 hand holding a zoom lens at something like 100mm on average means alot of blurry pictures. On the other hand, VR will at least give a clear image of what is not moving while you shoot. VR normally is like 3 stops.. so the 1/20 is really shooting at about 1/60 to 1/100 “apparent” shutter speed. It wont stop the action but the background, tables etc will be sharp. Where VR really shines is shooting something like a stage show with enough light that you will be shooting about 1/60 ish and you are shooting long like 100 to 200mm. The shutter is just fast enough to catch people standing still and the VR will give a good focus even at 200mm since the “apparent” shutter is around 1/200.

Here is a family shot taken at 200mm with a 18-200mm zoom shooting wide open at F5.6 and 1/100 shutter. Normally, this would have blurred unless taken with a tripod or supported some how. In this case the camera was held by hand and resting on my forearm. The VR gave a clear image with the low shutter speed relative to the smallish aperture.

Little Angels

VR is not a cure all and it does cost you some in clairity at least in the cheaper lenses like the NIkon 18-55mm VR and 18-200 VR. I always seem to see a bit of softness instead of a really sharp focus with these lenses. This even holds true for the expensive F2.8 VR but on that lens it is very dependent on how bright the image is. Shooting VR in good conditions gives a razor sharp image that you can count nose hairs with. In low light, it’s a bit fuzzy on the edges. But I got the image and it’s usable unlike shooting with it and not getting a usable image. I find that a high pass sharpening works wonders at cleaning up the edges.

Here is another shot where VR really makes a difference. I shot several pictures together by hand at night with the F4 aperture and about 1/30 shutter. Then I stitched them all together. With the VR, all of the images were sharp in spite of hand holding and the low shutter speed.

Christmas Block

VR works in the daytime also. One of my favorite lenses to shoot with for daily stuff is a Nikon lens that costs about 150 USD and looks like it might blow away in a stiff breeze. It’s scary light when you pick it up but it can really take some nice pictures when given a chance.

These images were taken with the 18-55mm VR and both images have sold. It is not always about the equipment.

This image of the Disney California Adventure Zephyr was taken by hand with a shutter of 1/2 second


This image was taken using a shutter of 1/40 and panning with the zoom at 18mm. Look how sharp the people and rocket is. Hard to believe it was a 150 dollar lens huh?

Rocket Ride

So the bottom line is that stabilization is your friend and even in a cheap lens, it can really make a world of difference. You just need to know the limits of VR (IS) and remember that some basic rules apply even with VR. Shutter speed is shutter speed, a slow shutter will give blurred motion to moving objects without or with VR enabled. Stationary objects work best with VR. VR is not perfect but it will certainly help.

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Shooting Mountains

We had a tremendous amount of rain this past week here in SoCal. The good news is that the mountains got ALOT of snow from all the water. Where I live, there is a bluff that overlooks most of the valley and has the San Gabriel Mountains in the background. It’s a popular place to shoot the snow capped mountains after rains like this week.

When you shoot something that far away, you can get all kinds of atmospheric issues. You get haze, color shifts, shake and sometimes, a heat “haze” effect. So to do this long distance shoot well, you need to shoot in the early AM when things are calm and cool. A tripod can help but my personal experience says to me that IF you are shooting with a VR or IS (some kind of vibration/shake reduction) technology, your tripod can actually add to the problems.

Point and shoots are really overwhelmed by this type of shot but still can pull off nice pictures within reason. I would highly recommend a DSLR of some kind and a reasonable length telephoto like a 200mm. In my case below, I was shooting with a 70-200mm VR Nikon lens by hand. One of the critical items to address is to shoot at a very low ISO to keep the noise down and fine detail up. I was shooting at ISO 200 and a high F stop of F10 for max sharpness. I also kept the shutter speed up to 1/500 which along with the VR technology gives me very sharp images even by hand.

At this point lets decide on what you plan to do with the images. If this is just a click and leave, then you need to be aperture priority and let the camera work out the rest with the ISO set by hand. But, if you want to do a pano where you stitch several images together, you need to be in full manual. The reason is that if left to it’s own devices, the camera will change the settings for each picture. This can plan havoc when trying to blend the stitched images, not impossible but harder than it needs to be. In full manual, you get exactly the same exposure and tones each time you press the shutter. Much easier to blend all together when you get home.

I also turn on the view finder grids so I keep the horizon in the proper place while swinging the camera around for each image. Dont forget that you can shoot both landscape or vertical when stitching. The pano multiplies the overall pixel resolution count so you can pick up a wealth of detail by shooting zoomed in and multiple pictures to build out a normal sized image after you crop it down.

Once you have the pictures, you will probably find them somewhat flat and blueish which comes from shooting RAW ( you are shooting RAW for this, never JPEG) and that when shooting to a mountain against the blue sky, everything seems to pick up the slight blue tint. Time for post in your favorite editor.

I tend to run a highpass filter to sharpen up the image and do a basic levels adjustment to get to a more neutral point in my colors. Then I decide if I want to amplify certain tones or go for a certain look.

The first image is right out of the camera with only the basic camera correction adjustments applied since I was shooting RAW.

The second image is after my post processing

The final image is here, adjusted and cropped to the final look

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Portrait shooting

There are alot of comments flying around about why one should use a short lens or a medium lens or a long lens for shooting portraits. Personally, I find that I really like the look of shooting with my 70-200 F2.8 lens for many lifestyle portraits. The lens give me alot of flexiblity in where I need to be and how tight I want to crop in camera. At 100mm and beyond the depth of field with a wide aperture is just a very clean look. Not as “creamy” as it would be shooting with something like a 85mm prime lens but certainly very nice.

When I’m shooting portraits in the studio, I tend to reach for the 18-55 F2.8 first. I will shoot on a tripod but I find it very confining and I prefer to get down on my knees or whatever and get the cool angles on the fly. Of late, I have been mixing it up, I shoot first on the tripod and then freestyle it for the 2nd half of the shoot. It seems to be working well for me.

Speaking of angles, one of the most common mistakes I see people make when shooting pictures of their kids is that every picture is “shooting down”. In other words, the photographer is taller than the child so he/she has to tip the camera down to get the child in frame. Learn to get down to their level and shoot from the ground. It can make amazing differences in how the portrait looks.

In the images below, I was on my butt and knees in the wet sand to bring the camera and lens wayyyy down to where the children were playing. I was also using my 200mm to it’s fullest to keep out the “play space” so the children would be more natural instead of trying to “pose” for the man with the camera.
Christmas Beach

Sand and water makes?

In this image, I was standing but still far away from the parents so not to have them trying to pose also.
Happy Parents

The change in perspective up or down and the distance away from the subjects can really make a difference in how your pictures turn out.

These pictures could just as easily been shot with the much cheaper 18-200 VR zoom or even a 70-200 VR F4.5 lens. The trade off would have been some clarity and sharpness but they certainly would have been very usable for a photo album. Even a point and shoot would do better with just the going low to be level with the children. In this case, it is more about technique than fancy gear or expensive glass.

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Are you focused?

One of the hidden features of higher end digital DSLRs is the ability to micro-tune the autofocus. This stems from the fact that any mass produced widget has a perfect setting and a high and low allowable setting. You have seen and heard this referred to “plus or minus X”. But in mass production, nothing is perfect so the lenses and camera bodies both will have a plus or minus tolerance on their autofocus settings. The problem arises when the body is at the end of the acceptable tolerance and the lens is off the same way and maybe at the end of it’s acceptable tolerance. The aggregate plus or minus is far beyond acceptable can show up as a “back focusing lens” or a “front focusing lens”. This is where you set your focus point on, say the eyes and you get the nose instead when using a shallow depth of field.

People will try several lenses to get one that works well with their camera body when all the while it’s the body that is off adjustment. Meanwhile the lens manufacturer takes the hit for making “junk” lenses. Newer and higher camera bodies such as the Nikon D300 have an adjustment for this very thing but very few photographers even know about it. To use it is pretty easy and can be cheap or if you are bit more picky, somewhat pricy to use. In both cases the tools are the same, a marked ruler and a way to present it at a 45 degree angle.

The cheap way is to go to Tim Jackson’s website and download the PDF with directions and the ruler chart. The cost is how much the piece of paper costs you. Follow the directions here to actually make the adjustment.

The more expensive but professional and repeatable way is to buy a LensAlign Focus Calibration System. This fun tool comes from and while not cheap, makes a very professional and very repeatable alignment station. This allows you to check and tune the lens and body anytime something has changed or just as an annual item.

It my own case, I have both, the paper and the fancy tool. I tried the paper first since there was a Christmas delay in getting the real tool and I was impatient. I have a 50 mm 1.8 lens that I like but never was as sharp at 1.8 as everyone said it should be. I also was of the opinion that it was a “junk” lens. I did the fast check with the free tool and I was stunned at what it showed.

Out of Focus 50mm 1.8
50mm 1.8 out of focus

After a fast adjustment on the D300
50mm 1.8 now in focus

NOW the 50mm works like it should on my D300. So much for the junk lens. All of my lenses were off some but the 50 was the worst. Perhaps as a cheap lens, it does not get the same level of care in the final adjustments. The 50mm is so far off that it probably should be sent in for a alignment but given the cost of the lens, it’s not worth it but this provides me a way to use it effectively on my D300s.

Not all DLSRs have this feature, for example, my D90 does not but the D300 does. I would suspect that the average consumer with a D90 is not shooting tight wide open shots where a couple of mm’s one way or the other matter alot. I know when I started off shooting a 35mm film camera, I was happy just to get the background to blur out, much less everything around an eyeball 🙂 And times have not changed that much, most people are happy with a in focus picture without a worry about the depth fo field. It’s the pro’s that care about this sort of thing and even then, it’s the pro’s who are shooting wide open and need that critical focus point because it will make or break the entire picture.

I will post my results from the more expensive tool vs. the free PDF in a later post.

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