The Internet might just make rabbit ears obsolete for local television

Have you ever had to use rabbit ears to pick up a local TV signal? I have, and I’d say most of us have as well at some point in our lives.

Quite frankly, it sucks.

Last year, I embarked on a cord-cutting experiment in order to save the money I had been spending on cable television. It is easier now than ever with online services like Netflix to provide affordable content and DTV broadcasts.

Digital Television (DTV) is an advanced broadcasting technology that has transformed the television viewing experience. DTV enables broadcasters to offer television with better picture and sound quality, and multiple channels of programming. Since June 13, 2009, full-power television stations nationwide have been required to broadcast exclusively in a digital format.

Federal Communications Commission

Despite these technological advancements and my modern flat-panel HDTV purchased new in 2010, my experiment failed miserably.

Apart from missing the programming from certain cable channels that could not be substituted online (I’m looking at you, ESPN), the most annoying thing was having to constantly adjust my antenna to get a good picture only to have it flake out on me a minute or two later. An omnidirectional antenna was still just as flaky, and I couldn’t even adjust it.

I live in the city — within 10 miles of all the local broadcast transmitters, in fact — so it wasn’t a matter of distance. I bought a newer amplified antenna that was a step above the basic, so there was no good reason why I should have trouble. Of course, in the city, there are a lot of tall buildings around that can interfere, but there is nothing especially tall between my apartment and any of the transmitters. I even contacted one of the local broadcast stations and told the engineer where I lived — he said something to the effect of “From where you are, you should be able to get a clear picture with a paper clip.”

Very frustrating. So frustrating, in fact, that I decided to pony up the cash and reinstate my cable TV subscription. There just seemed to be an inevitability about paying for television, and to me that payment was worth avoiding a lot of frustration.

Since that time, a few things have happened that lead me to believe this won’t be so inevitable for long.

    • Broadcaster/network/provider contract disputes. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but it’s definitely intensifying. Here in Indianapolis, the parent company of local CBS affiliate WISH-TV refused to pay the CBS Network more money for broadcasting rights to network programming, so CBS just found another local station (WTTV-TV) whose parent company was willing to pony up. On a related note, our local NBC affiliate (WTHR-TV) got involved in a contract dispute with DirecTV that led to a brief discontinuation of NBC programming for DirecTV subscribers. The dispute was resolved, presumably with DirecTV paying WTHR more money…and those subscribers ultimately paying higher bills for the privilege. Presumably the pressure from WTHR to insist on more money came from having to pay higher broadcasting rights fees to NBC. And the pressure on both the NBC and CBS networks to charge the affiliates higher rates is coming largely from sports — especially the NFL. It was no coincidence that DirecTV and WTHR resolved the dispute just in time to get an important Sunday Night Football game involving the Indianapolis Colts back on the air.

Broadcast networks offering online subscriptions.

      In addition to Netflix, television networks have increasingly begun to post programming online…it’s a good way to catch up on missed episodes and the like. But CBS recently made a much bolder move:

offering online-only paid subscriptions

      to live television and archived episodes. If the other major broadcast networks follow suit, then that will enable them to completely bypass the local affiliates and go directly to viewers.

Local news online.

      Those affiliates are even beginning to broadcast their local news shows on a

live online stream

      as an alternative to over-the-air or cable/satellite.

Easier ways to get online programming onto the TV screen.

      One of my favorite gadgets is Google’s

Chromecast

      . It’s small, it only costs $35, and it can use your WiFi connection to beam whatever is on your smart phone, tablet or on the Chrome browser on your PC to your TV with the touch of a button. I have one plugged into one of my TV’s HDMI ports, and I use it frequently. Now that the Chromecast device has been out for over a year, it has dramatically improved in terms of app support and full-screen casting. Dead simple. And even local affiliate stations

are coming out with their own apps

    .

So, that begs the question, why do we need to broadcast television over the air at all anymore? The obstacles are more on the business side than the technology side. Here’s where the FCC needs to be bold (but probably won’t be).

  • Preserve net neutrality. Video content takes up a large amount of bandwidth (especially high-definition and 4K video), so it’s important not to have the telecom companies create slow and fast lanes. After all, the concepts that I’m talking about that could save costs for consumers are a major threat to their cash cow business. Right now, the FCC is taking public comments on this issue — so make your voice heard!
  • Mandate live, free Internet streaming for all over-the-air broadcasts. By law, television stations are supposed to be operating in the public’s interest. As a condition of having a broadcast frequency, the FCC could also mandate that the affiliates provide the same content over the Internet. At the very least, they should have to stream the locally produced content like the local news. This should not be too difficult a hurdle because a lot of stations are already doing this. Now that we have made the full transition to DTV, all of the video content is already digital anyway. But ideally they should also have to stream the network content too for people within their broadcasting area. The programming is free by antenna, so why shouldn’t it be free online?
  • Complete the National Broadband Plan. The FCC is already hard at work implementing the National Broadband Plan, which should dramatically expand high-speed Internet access across the nation. Now that the DTV transition is complete, the older analog television frequencies have gone to emergency response, and the remainder will be auctioned off — presumably to telecommunications companies. The FCC estimates that there are about 7 million households currently without any access to broadband Internet at any price because they are located in sparsely populated areas where telecommunications companies could not expect much of a return on their infrastructure investments. Of course, having broadband access available for a price does not equate to actually having broadband access.
  • Auction off the DTV spectrum. Just as the FCC is auctioning off the portion of the analog TV spectrum not being used by emergency responders, it could also raise funds by auctioning off the DTV spectrum and using those funds to help subsidize broadband Internet access for those who cannot afford to pay for it. Ideally, this would be revenue-neutral, just like the National Broadband Plan is. With a mandate already in place to live stream all broadcast content, local TV stations would not need to change much.

Hopefully by this point in time — let’s say 10 to 15 years into the future — almost no one would still be using a TV without at least an HDMI port. And we already have lots of cheap Internet-based devices today like the Chromecast or Roku that could simply have buttons for local channels right next to their Netflix buttons. It would not be a huge leap. Much like the FCC created a coupon program for DTV converters, they could create something similar for an Internet-based device like this.

Television stations, of course, make their money from advertising, and the amount advertisers are willing to pay is driven by Nielsen ratings. But even Nielsen has said that Internet-based devices have reduced overall television viewership. Of course, you can still measure the number of hits a video receives (see everything on YouTube), and online video advertising is quite common these days. Getting the type of demographic information that Nielsen measures is a little harder than that, but having users complete a web-based questionnaire is a lot easier than having Nielsen install boxes in people’s homes. The Internet provides a far larger sample size to measure all the hits — not just a select few to extrapolate from.

What do you think? What other obstacles might there be to permanently throwing away the rabbit ears and the huge rooftop antennas?

Stop the megazoom insanity

Note: If you are not familiar with basic photography terms like exposure, sensor, aperture, depth of field, shutter speed, ISO and focal length, this article will make a lot more sense after you read a primer on photography. I recommend Lesson #1 and Lesson #2 of the Photo Basics Series. Really, the whole series is worth a read if you’re a beginner.

Trouble of their own making

The camera industry is in trouble once again, and camera manufacturers only have themselves to blame.

Just as the advent of digital photography killed the film business, the advent of smartphone cameras is taking a major bite out of demand for dedicated consumer cameras. Smartphone cameras have gotten so good, in fact, that the best ones can replace entry-level “point-and-shoot” cameras.

Enthusiast and professional photographers seem to be undeterred from buying and upgrading high-end gear, but the mass market is shifting.

What went wrong?

A comparison of various sensor sizes. The dark orange square represents a 35mm "full frame" camera. The light orange square represents the 1.6X crop APS-C sensor found in Canon's entry-level camera line, and the light green square represents Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile, the smaller sensors are what you would find in point-and-shoot cameras and, at the smallest point (the dark blue), the cameras in smart phones. Image courtesy of http://www.macrumors.com/2014/07/17/iphone6-sony-13-megapixel-imx220-sensor/

A comparison of various sensor sizes. The dark orange square represents a 35mm “full frame” camera. The light orange square represents the 1.6X crop APS-C sensor found in Canon’s entry-level camera line, and the light green square represents Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile, the smaller sensors are what you would find in point-and-shoot cameras and, at the smallest point (the dark blue), the cameras in smart phones. Image courtesy of http://www.macrumors.com/2014/07/17/iphone6-sony-13-megapixel-imx220-sensor/

For years, digital camera manufacturers sold new point-and-shoot models in droves and then convinced consumers that they could take much better pictures if they only upgraded to a new model with a longer zoom lens and more megapixels. For example, the Nikon Coolpix P600 has a 16-megapixel sensor and a 60X zoom lens.

While there were indeed some legitimate improvements in consumer camera technology during that period — the move from CCD-based to CMOS-based sensors led to huge gains in low light performance — consumers would need to dive deep into the spec sheet to notice gains in ISO flexibility. The megapixel counts and the zoom ranges, on the other hand, were printed right on the camera itself.

Yet these were exactly the wrong things for consumers to key in on when buying a camera. I’ve already written about the pitfalls of ever-increasing megapixel counts on consumer cameras, including smartphones. But now I want to talk about why you probably don’t want a point-and-shoot camera with a 60X zoom lens.

what you should know about super-telephoto Lenses

We’ve all seen the professional sports and wildlife photographers standing behind their massive telephoto lenses mounted on monopods, and maybe we wanted to be just like them.

A pro like this is most likely operating a DSLR camera with a full-frame sensor (24 x 36mm) to match the image size on a roll of 35mm film, so just to keep things consistent, I’ll talk about lenses in terms of full-frame equivalency.

If a professional wildlife photographer with a Canon camera wanted a really long telephoto lens, he or she might buy this one: the Canon EF 600mm f4 IS II USM. Purchase price: $11,999.00. The lens is a massive 17.6 inches long and weighs in at 8.64 pounds, and the focal length is fixed at 600mm…no zooming.

Let’s compare that to the 60X lens on the Nikon Coolpix P600: when fully extended, it reaches out to 1440mm of focal length in 35mm terms: that’s more than twice what the long, $12,000 pro lens can do, and of course it’s much smaller and covers the whole focal range below 1440mm all the way down to 24mm while being much smaller.

Sounds great, right? A quasi-telescope that fits in your hand and takes pictures…all for under $400. Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold, and there’s a reason that the pros buy huge $12,000 telephoto prime lenses to mount on their $7,000 full-frame DSLR camera bodies.

For the best possible image quality, a prime lens — that is, a lens with a fixed focal length and no zoom — is the way for a photographer with an interchangeable lens camera to go. Of course, sometimes pro photographers are willing to trade off a bit of image quality for the focal length versatility of a zoom lens. For example, the Canon 70-200mm f2.8L USM lens. If you divide 200 by 70, you get 2.86. That’s not even a 3X optical zoom, and yet the sticker price is $1,449.00.

So why doesn’t it cover a longer focal length range? There are three reasons:

  1. Size. This lens is already 7.6 inches long and weighs 2.86 pounds. Increasing the focal length would make the lens nearly unbearable to carry. Lenses attached to cameras with full-frame sensors have to be wide, and the focal length is dependent on the distance of the lens from the sensor as well as the width. That’s why point-and-shoot cameras with smaller sensors can pack on very long lenses while still being able to fit in your hand…if the sensor is small, the lens does not have to be as wide to cover the sensor.
  2. Aperture. There are zoom lenses available for full-frame SLRs that are cheaper and smaller than that one with longer focal ranges, but that is because they have narrow apertures. For example, the Canon EF 70-300mm f4-5.6 IS USM lens is only 5.6 inches long, weighs 1.39 pounds and costs “just” $649. Because of the laws of physics and light, the wide f2.8 aperture makes the 70-200mm lens even larger at a given focal length. (You may sometimes hear photographers refer a lens being “fast” or “slow.” A lens with a wide aperture like f2.8 across all focal lengths is considered to be “fast” because it’s more accommodating for fast shutter speeds.)
  3. Barrel distortion. Moving from a prime lens to a 2.86x zoom like this is already a tradeoff because zooms inherently distort the picture a little as compared to prime lenses. The longer the zoom range of a lens from the wide end to the telephoto end, the more the image is distorted, generally speaking. By distortion, I mean the image is actually bent out of shape a little. Some lens manufacturers, most notably Tamron, manufacture “all-in-one” zoom lenses for people (usually amateurs just starting out with an entry-level DSLR) willing to make this distortion tradeoff in exchange for not having to carry multiple zoom lenses, but even those compromised lenses tend to hover around the 10X to 12X range. And you never see these all-in-one lenses with constant fast apertures like f2.8 because they would have to be absolutely massive.

So, circling back to the Nikon P600, how good is that long zoom lens? Not very. First of all, the maximum aperture ranges from f3.3 at the wide end to f6.3 at the telephoto end. That f6.3 is a killer in low-light situations, and with a compact camera, you can’t raise the ISO much to compensate because your images will get noisy very quickly. And barrel distortion rears its very ugly head toward the wide end of the focal length range…turning your nice, straight vertical lines into slanted lines to the point where you might be reminded of the opening text crawl from the Star Wars films.

Back to that huge Canon 600mm f4 lens…there’s also a reason (besides just keeping it from tipping over) that photographers often mount super-telephoto lenses on monopods or tripods. It’s to keep the lens from shaking while taking a photo. At wide, normal, and even short telephoto focal lengths it’s not much of a concern, but in the super-telephoto range, a little shake of your hand can totally ruin your image. So if the professionals need help stabilizing a 600mm lens, do you really think you can keep your hands steady enough to shoot reliably at a 1440mm focal length without a tripod or monopod? (And, yes, that professional lens has image stabilization — hence the IS in the name.)

better alternatives

Fortunately, there are some newer fixed-lens cameras on the market that can really help you take better photos with a viewfinder and plenty of zoom…by emphasizing more important specs than megapixel count or extreme zoom range. Unfortunately, they do tend to cost more than more ordinary megazooms like the Nikon P600.

  • Panasonic DMC-FZ200 (MSRP $599) offers a somewhat more reasonable 24X zoom (25-600mm in full-frame terms) with a constant bright f2.8 aperture across the focal length range. Because this is still a point-and-shoot camera with a small, 1/2.3″ sensor, you should probably consider anything above ISO 800 as a last resort due to noise concerns. This becomes especially important when you’re trying to capture fast-moving subjects at long distances, like sports or wildlife because those require fast shutter speeds in order to avoid motion blur. So having an extra stop or two of light at the telephoto end can make a big difference — and the f2.8 aperture delivers. Even at the reduced focal length of 24X, you still get to the super-telephoto length of 600mm. Barrel distortion would still be a significant issue with a 24X lens, just not as much as it would be with a 60X lens.
  • At an MSRP of $899, the Panasonic DMC-FZ1000 is the FZ200’s big brother. Instead of a 1/2.3″ sensor, it has a larger 1″ sensor for improved image quality and cleaner photos at higher ISO settings. A larger, wider sensor requires a larger lens for the same focal length and aperture, so this one only manages a 16X zoom (25-400mm focal length range) with an f2.8-4 aperture across the focal length range. A 400mm zoom is still a lot — this is typical for the long lenses you see on the sidelines of soccer or football games, and f4 is a full stop brighter than f5.6, so it’s still somewhat “fast.”
  • The excellent Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 has dropped from its original sticker price of $1,299.00 to a slightly less shocking $999. Like the Panasonic DMC-FZ1000, the Sony RX10 has a 1″ sensor. The RX10 has an 8.3X zoom, which provides a focal range of 24-200mm and a constant aperture of f2.8 across the focal range. The shorter zoom may cause you to miss out on some distant shots, but the photos you can get should look great. Another advantage of cameras with larger sensors and wide-aperture zoom lenses is that you can get shallow depth-of-field effects so you can have those dreamy defocused backgrounds with the foreground in focus.
  • The Olympus Stylus 1 (MSRP $599) falls somewhere in between the Panasonic FZ200 and the Sony RX10. It has a 1/1.7″ sensor, which is larger than the 1/2.3″ sensor in the FZ200 but smaller than the 1″ sensor in the RX10 and FZ1000. It also has a 10.7X zoom with a constant f2.8 aperture across the 28-300mm focal range.

Cameras like these will inevitably fall in price as technology improves, and that’s good for everyone. Right now, for about the same price, you can also get an entry-level DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera and maybe even a 2-lens kit for long zooming. Changing lenses isn’t all that difficult as long as you don’t mind carrying two lenses with you. You won’t get f2.8 lenses anywhere near this price range, but with big DSLR sensors, you can dial up the ISO with a lot less of a noise penalty than with a point-and-shoot camera, so you may not need such a fast lens. Those are for the professionals.

Just remember, that when it comes to megapixels and zoom, more isn’t always better.

The key to the smartphone camera revolution: Fewer, bigger pixels

Apple has exactly the right idea when it comes to smartphone cameras.

When it introduced the iPhone 5s, Apple increased the sensor size by 15 percent but left the resolution at a relatively paltry 8 megapixels. As I explained in my previous post, 8 megapixels is still enough to make an excellent-quality 8″ x 12″ print…which is more than enough for most consumers, especially those taking photos with smartphones. And even a 1080p television or monitor can only display about 2 megapixels full screen.

A comparison of various sensor sizes. The dark orange square represents a 35mm "full frame" camera. The light orange square represents the 1.6X crop APS-C sensor found in Canon's entry-level camera line, and the light green square represents Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile, the smaller sensors are what you would find in point-and-shoot cameras and, at the smallest point (the dark blue), the cameras in smart phones. Image courtesy of http://www.macrumors.com/2014/07/17/iphone6-sony-13-megapixel-imx220-sensor/

A comparison of various sensor sizes. The dark orange square represents a 35mm “full frame” camera. The light orange square represents the 1.6X crop APS-C sensor found in Canon’s entry-level camera line, and the light green square represents Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile, the smaller sensors are what you would find in point-and-shoot cameras and, at the smallest point (the dark blue), the cameras in smart phones. Image courtesy of MacRumors.

The advantage of this approach is that the individual pixels are larger (1.5 microns), and that means more light and better image quality.

A missed opportunity

Unfortunately, most smartphone manufacturers are moving in the opposite direction by increasing megapixel counts. For example, the Sony Xperia Z1 has 20 megapixels. Although the Sony’s sensor is a bit larger (matching many point-and-shoot cameras at 1/2.3″), the individual pixels are just 1.1 microns…and that means less light per pixel and reduced image quality. It also means larger file sizes — which is a major challenge given the relatively limited storage space on smartphones and the increasing trend to move away from card-based storage in smartphones. Even if users back up their photos regularly onto computer hard drives or cloud services, even those have limited storage space.

Just who is making 12″ x 18″ “high-quality” prints from a smartphone camera anyway? And would any photo from a camera with such small pixels be worth printing at this size anyway?

For too long, digital camera manufacturers have leapfrogged each other on megapixel counts as a selling feature for consumers, and this has carried over into smartphones. As a result, the real technological improvements in camera sensors for image quality and high-ISO performance have been stymied by smaller and smaller pixels. But the people who really need higher megapixel counts are professional photographers, not consumers. Yet the professional Nikon D4S with a full-frame sensor only prints 16.2-megapixel photos…because that’s all they need. But because of the larger sensor, the D4S has a pixel size of 7.3 microns — massive compared to even the best smartphone.

So why not just add bigger and bigger sensors to smartphones? Why not a full-frame sensor?

Certainly moving from 1/3.2″ on the iPhone 5 to 1/3″ on the iPhone 5S was a reasonable improvement, and the relatively obscure Nokia 808 Pureview offered a whopping 1/1.2″ sensor. But larger sensors cost significantly more in terms of manufacturing and require larger and larger lenses. That means more bulk. Not exactly something you want to slide into your pants pocket or replace when your 2-year wireless contract ends. Without a major revolution in lens design (which is dependent on the laws of physics), we can only realistically go so big with smartphone sensors.

Polka Boy performs at the biergarten at the historic Rathskeller restaurant in downtown Indianapolis. Shot with LG Google Nexus 5 smartphone. f2.52; 1/20 shutter; ISO 1531.

Polka Boy performs at the biergarten at the historic Rathskeller restaurant in downtown Indianapolis. Shot with LG Google Nexus 5 smartphone. f2.52; 1/20 shutter; ISO 1531; pixel size 1.3 microns.


Fuzzy (literally) math

So imagine if Sony had opted to go for 8 megapixels instead of 20 on the Xperia Z1 with its 1/2.3″ image sensor.

  1. A 1/2.3″ sensor measures 6.16 mm wide x 4.62 mm high.
  2. An 8-megapixel image measures 3,456 pixels wide x 2,304 pixels high.
  3. Divide 6.16 mm by 3,456 pixels to get 0.0018 mm per pixel.
  4. One micron is equivalent to 1/1,000 of a millimeter, so multiply by 1,000 to get 1.8 microns per pixel. That’s significantly larger than the iPhone 5S, and that would mean significantly better image quality.

As good as that is, what if the Nokia 808 Pureview only had 8 megapixels of resolution instead of 41? Let’s do the math again.

  1. A 1/1.2″ sensor measures 10.67 mm wide x 8 mm high.
  2. An 8-megapixel image measures 3,456 pixels wide x 2,304 pixels high.
  3. Divide 10.67 mm by 3,456 pixels to get 0.0031 mm per pixel.
  4. Multiply by 1,000 to convert millimeters to microns, and you get 3.1 microns per pixel.

That’s substantially larger than the pixel size of the Sony RX100 (2.4 microns per pixel), which is an award-winning, high-end compact camera with 20.2 megapixels of resolution.

Other tradeoffs – cropping and digital zoom

So part of the appeal of the 1/1.2″ Nokia 808 Pureview and its smaller 1/1.5″ sensor successor the Nokia Lumia 1020, was the 41-megapixel resolution that enabled “reinvented zoom.”

What the cameras in these phones are really doing when they “zoom” is cropping the image to a more reasonable 5 megapixels without any loss in image quality. This is quite useful for smartphones, most of which don’t have optical zoom lenses. But when the pixels are small to begin with (1.4 microns on the 808 and 1.1 microns on the 1020), “lossless” doesn’t mean a whole lot in terms of image quality.

But, as someone who regularly crops photos, if the full photo drops to 8 megapixels, then my crops could take them down even smaller. It leaves less flexibility…but even if I crop all the way in to 2 megapixels, that’s still 1080p resolution…great for displaying on screen (or Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) or making 4″ x 6″ prints. The addition of a real optical zoom lens on a smartphone minimizes the need for digital zoom or cropping in the first place.

What does the future hold?

I don’t know if we’ll ever get to DSLR image quality or lens quality with our smartphones, but considering the rapid pace of advancements the industry has already made, I would also not rule it out. As it stands today, the best smartphones can go toe to toe with point-and-shoot cameras in terms of image quality, although the new generation of bridge cameras like the Olympus Stylus 1, Sony RX10, RX100 and Panasonic FZ1000 are raising the bar higher than ever for what a point-and-shoot camera can offer. There are only a handful of smartphone cameras that offer optical zoom at all (the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom is basically a point-and-shoot camera first and a smartphone second, so it’s a bit awkward as a phone), but massive efforts are underway to bring real zoom lenses to smartphones while still allowing them to fit comfortably in your pocket.

The smartphone and camera industries just need to focus their energies in the right areas…and Apple has certainly set the precedent for that. As advancing sensor technology continues to squeeze more and more out of every pixel, then we can start to talk about larger and larger print sizes with more and more megapixels.

4K video may change still photography for the better

If you’re a pro photographer, especially a pro photojournalist, sports or wildlife photographer, the camera bodies of choice today are the Nikon D4S (MSRP $6,499.95) and the Canon EOS-1D X (MSRP $6,799.00). Not for the faint of wallet, especially with pricey full-frame lenses to buy on top of that.

And even if you have the budget for cameras like these, they are also bulky and heavy. The D4S body alone weighs 1,180 grams (about 2.6 pounds), and the EOS-1DX body alone weighs in at a whopping 1,530 grams (just under 3.4 pounds).  Add on a battery grip, a big full-frame telephoto lens and a bag with a few additional full-frame lenses, and you’re looking at a serious backache.

So why do professionals subject themselves to all that expense, bulk and weight? Because these cameras are the best tools available for their needs. Here are a few reasons why:

A comparison of various sensor sizes. The dark orange square represents a 35mm "full frame" camera. The light orange square represents the 1.6X crop APS-C sensor found in Canon's entry-level camera line, and the light green square represents Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile, the smaller sensors are what you would find in point-and-shoot cameras and, at the smallest point (the dark blue), the cameras in smart phones. Image courtesy of http://www.macrumors.com/2014/07/17/iphone6-sony-13-megapixel-imx220-sensor/

A comparison of various sensor sizes. The dark orange square represents a 35mm “full frame” camera. The light orange square represents the 1.6X crop APS-C sensor found in Canon’s entry-level camera line, and the light green square represents Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile, the smaller sensors are what you would find in point-and-shoot cameras and, at the smallest point (the dark blue), the cameras in smart phones. Image courtesy of MacRumors.

 

  • Full-frame sensors. Full-frame image sensors (that is, sensors the same size as 35mm film) provide lots of advantages in terms of shallow depth of field effects and image quality at high sensitivity (ISO) settings. Quite simply, bigger sensors allow more light to come in. A full-frame sensor (depicted in orange in the image below) is 36mm x 24mm.
  • Fast burst rates. The D4S can shoot continuously at 11 frames per second, which is very fast, and the EOS-1D X can shoot even faster at 14 frames per second.
  • Fast, accurate autofocus. Fast burst rates are meaningless without accurate autofocus, especially for fast-moving subjects like soccer players or birds in flight. You will just end up with a whole lot of blurry images. So these DSLR cameras have phase detect autofocus sensors.
  • Optical viewfinders. Those who use these cameras in the field can’t afford to miss a moment to capture the perfect shot. That’s one reason they tend to prefer optical viewfinders, because “Live View” on an electronic viewfinder is not truly live — electronic viewfinders are slightly delayed because the camera has to process the image coming in through the sensor as well as any exposure adjustments before the image appears in the viewfinder. For most photography work, the delay is not significant enough to matter, but for these users, it might be the difference between capturing the shot and missing it. Also, most electronic viewfinders do not display the entire frame.
Homeless car

This was the aftermath of a tornado on September 27, 2002 in Mooresville, Indiana. The tornado blew away the garage that had been sheltering this Corvette. Shot on a Nikon D1.

  • Weather sealing. Field work for sports, wildlife and general photojournalism can happen in all sorts of conditions and elements. I experienced this myself back in September 2002 when I was working as a reporter for The Mooresville-Decatur Times, and a tornado struck the town. After the tornados had passed, I had to go out and photograph the storm damage, and it was still raining quite a bit in the aftermath. It was a good thing the Nikon D1 I was using was weather sealed.
  • Fast ergonomics. These cameras are loaded with physical buttons that allow the photographer to change settings on the fly without having to rely on menus. The deep grips also help keep the camera steady in the photographer’s hand. Ergonomics might not be such a big deal for amateurs, but professionals who take very large numbers of photos and spend a lot of time holding a camera need a camera that “feels” right and doesn’t require navigating a lot of menus to change settings

A bold, new(ish) idea

But is there a better way? I think so. Enter the Panasonic Lumix GH4.

It has a burst rate of 12 frames per second, has a deep grip and lots of external dials just like a professional DSLR, a new “Depth from Defocus” autofocus system that is fast and accurate for tracking moving subjects, weather sealing and more. And, by the way, the MSRP is $1,699.99, and it only weights 560 grams (about 1.2 pounds).

Your fancy 1080p HDTV only has about 2 megapixels of resolution

Not only that, but it does something significant that the flagships from Canon and Nikon can’t: it shoots 4K ultra high-definition video. But why is this important to still photographers?

Video is, fundamentally, a series of photographs…one in each frame. And, at a minimum, video is shot at 24 frames per second.

Most modern high-definition cameras shoot 1080p video with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. If you multiply 1920 by 1080, you get approximately 2 million, or about 2 megapixels. So each image in the frame would have a very low resolution in terms of photography and would only be usable for making very small prints: a 4″ x 6″ at 300 dots per inch. Larger prints are possible, but the quality becomes degraded.

But 4K video is shot at 3840 x 2160 pixels. Multiply 3840 by 2160, and you get more than 8 million, or more than 8 megapixels. That’s enough resolution for an excellent 8″ x 12″ print — larger than a full page in National Geographic or Sports Illustrated. Cinema 4K is shot at 4096 x 2160, but that’s a strange aspect ratio for still photos.

Unless the photographer needs an even larger print than 8″ x 12″ and cannot fudge on print resolution at all (an 8-megapixel photo could cover a 2-page spread in National Geographic at 200 dpi instead of 300, and that’s still considered “good” resolution), then the GH4 offers the ability to capture very printable action photos at 24 frames per second.

Drawbacks

So why isn’t everyone jumping on the GH4 bandwagon? There are a few drawbacks to the GH4, but they don’t seem to be enough to make up for the price and weight difference or the potential for 24 fps photography.

  • Sensor size. The GH4 uses a Four Thirds sensor, which is considerably smaller than full frame: 18mm x 13.5mm, depicted in lime green above. There are some compromises in terms of depth of field and image quality at very high ISOs, but the GH4 produces images that are quite usable for 4K video up to ISO 3200, and usable up to ISO 6400 at smaller sizes, including 1080p video. Sure, a full-frame sensor provides super-shallow depth of field effects, but that’s more important for portraiture than for sports or wildlife photography. You can still get somewhat shallow depth of field with Micro Four Thirds cameras. And, since the sensor is smaller, the lenses can be a lot smaller and lighter too. For situations when you really need full frame image quality and 4K video, you can buy a Sony A7S for $2,499.99 in addition to the GH4 and still spend less and bear less weight than you would on a D4S or EOS 1D X. (Unfortunately the Sony A7S is not weather sealed, and its burst rate for stills is only 5 fps, or else I would recommend it instead of the GH4.)
The man on the other side of the glass.

This boy had his face pressed up against the glass at the zoo, making an interesting reflection. With my 45mm f1.8 portrait lens, I was able to achieve shallow depth of field in very low light even with a relatively small Four Thirds sensor. Shot with Olympus E-PL5.

  • No optical viewfinder. The biggest reason why the Panasonic GH4 and the Sony A7S are so light is that they do not have the pentamirror mechanism found in traditional DSLR cameras. And that means no optical viewfinder — only an electronic “Live View” viewfinder. But electronic viewfinders are not what they used to be — the electronic viewfinders on these cameras have so little lag that it’s “nigh imperceptible.” Both electronic viewfinders also cover 100% of the frame, which is an improvement over EVFs of the recent past. And the advantage of Live View is that you can see the results of exposure adjustments on the fly before shooting. EVF latency will never be zero, but with the GH4 and cameras like it, it’s awfully close.
  • Limited lens choices. Panasonic has the basics down in terms of professional lenses with its 12-35mm (24-70mm equivalent) and 35-100mm (70-200mm equivalent) weather-sealed, stabilized f2.8 zoom lenses. There are also some tremendous prime lenses in Panasonic’s lineup to get most of the shallow depth of field effects that you can find in a full-frame camera…including a 15mm (30mm equivalent) f1.7, a 25mm (50mm equivalent) f1.4 that I personally own and love, and 42.5mm (85mm equivalent) f1.2 portrait lens. Plus, Olympus has some great lenses of its own in the Micro Four Thirds lineup, with more pro lenses on the way. Canon and Nikon still have the edge in terms of lens selection, but a professional can build a fairly complete Micro Four Thirds lens kit at much lower prices and with much less weight than with full-frame Canon or Nikon lenses. (And maybe, just maybe, the excellent Olympus OM-D E-M1 will get 4K video as well…if not, we know Olympus is getting into the 4K game soon.)

Will this be enough to pry the Nikon D4S or the Canon EOS-1D X out of a professional photojournalist’s arthritic hand? Or will the next-generation pro DSLRs just start shooting 4K video too? Will we start to see more 8K video (with each frame being a 32-megapixel photo) or even higher resolutions? Memory cards that can hold terabytes of ultra HD video? Will the DSLR video revolution reverse course and place camcorders in every photographer’s hand instead of still cameras in every videographer’s hand? Will photo and video editing software converge to help photographers sift through 24 photos for every single second they were covering an event to find that one perfect image for publication? Smart phones that take professional-quality photos? It’s certainly an exciting time for photography.

How I got hooked on “How I Met Your Mother”

Kids, I’m going to tell you an incredible story. It’s the story of how I got hooked on How I Met Your Mother, including the controversial finale episode.

You should know that this story contains some major spoilers (Major Spoilers!), but what do you care? I’m not letting you leave until you hear the whole story anyway, so get comfy and be sure to watch the embedded videos throughout — everything will make a lot more sense.

The year was 2008. I actually wasn’t familiar with the show at all until I happened to catch an episode from Season 4 called “Do I Know You?” I remember distinctly how I thought it had a whole different feel and rhythm to it than anything I had ever seen on television before. Before this guy Ted (Josh Radnor) could marry a woman named Stella (Sarah Chalke, whom I recognized from her days on Roseanne and Scrubs), he had to be sure that she liked Star Wars…because she said she had never seen it before, and it was his favorite movie. Meanwhile his buddy Marshall (Jason Segel) hid behind the couch trying to gauge her reactions to the movie to be certain if she would be an acceptable wife for him.

Here’s a sample:

It was a funny bit, no doubt. But that could have just as easily been from an episode of Friends…which was a funny show if not always imaginative. My mother, who had admittedly not seen much of the series, later told me that she thought How I Met Your Mother was a copycat of Friends…the group sitting around a booth at an establishment where beverages are served, young, single people trading partners, etc.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was a moment a little later on in that episode that encapsulated what made the show so different. Stella tells Ted (dishonestly) that she loved the movie.

Even without one of the show’s signature flashbacks from Old Ted (the voice of Bob Saget), present-day Ted had a flashback to his youth.

It was a long time before I saw another episode of How I Met Your Mother. Considering the first one I saw was from Season 4, I was already behind. Fortunately, thanks to DVDs and, later, Netflix streaming, I was able to catch up and watch the series in order.

After I saw the pilot episode, I began to understand what made How I Met Your Mother so different from Friends and all the other sitcoms out there. If I were Marshall, I’d have a few charts to illustrate, but I’ll settle for a few paragraphs.

Flashbacks (and flash forwards) as a central plot device. Of course, a lot of shows had used flashbacks in the past. This wasn’t a new idea. What was new was that the entire show was a flashback: It was after all, a father telling his kids about things that happened decades earlier. He even forgot some details (like Blah Blah’s name) and sanitized others (sandwiches as a euphemism for marijuana) like a real father would when telling stories to his kids. it felt like traveling in a time machine operated by someone with ADHD. Although you hear laughter on the show from an audience, there were very few scenes actually shot in front of an audience because the producers knew that it would be impossible for them to keep up or get most of the jokes due to all the jumping around. As any fan of Arrested Development can attest, having a narrator makes all of this a lot easier.

Not that all of the format-bending fun involved the narrator…

Storytelling and themed episodes. One of the advantages of using so many flashbacks and a narrator was how it facilitated the show’s unique sense of storytelling. Whether it was Old Ted telling his kids the story of getting beaten up by a girl who knew Krav Maga, Barney illustrating why he shouldn’t date his doctor Stella based on “The Platinum Rule,” or Marshall spending an entire episode telling stories in rhyme in order to keep his baby son asleep, the characters on How I Met Your Mother knew how to spin a good yarn.

Of course, there are other funny ways for sitcom characters to tell stories — sometimes it’s funniest when they just tell them.

The show’s refusal to be constrained by any format — including its own — also led to “How Your Mother Met Me,” a truly inspired and touching idea that added another perspective to all of Ted’s near misses in meeting the mother. Through Season 9, Tracy McConnell’s (Cristin Milioti) own story was revealed. She became a realistic, flawed character instead of an abstract ideal of “the perfect woman.” She even met all of the other main characters before she met Ted. We actually got to know the mother, which was not what I had expected during earlier seasons.

Absurdist bits with pop culture homages. I’m a big fan of absurdist humor…things that could never, ever really happen. The fact that writers come up with these impossible scenarios is a testament to their broad imaginations. The later episodes of Seinfeld had a definite absurdist tone to them that was not present in the earlier episodes of the series. And much like Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards), How I Met Your Mother had Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) to do a lot of inspired physical comedy and sell patently silly lines with great conviction. The combination of absurdism and storytelling/flashbacks enabled the show to create a sort of sketch comedy within its broader narrative. That ’70s Show was also famous for this.

Absurdism, like whisky for Barney and Marshall, turns subtext into text. In a strange way, this sort of comedy allows the characters to be more honest and reveal deeper truths about the real world.

Old Ted’s narration as well as Barney’s intricate rules were really just a variation of Woody Allen breaking the fourth wall.

But it’s not like the show’s writers tried to hide their influences.

Extremely elaborate, recurring jokes. One of the more transformative moments for How I Met Your Mother came in Season 2 with an episode called “Slap Bet.” This episode was very important to the rest of the series because of two recurring jokes that were woven into future episodes and extended beyond the show and onto the Internet. In this episode, Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders) tells the group (quite angrily), “I don’t go to malls!” But she refuses to explain why. Barney hypothesizes that the reason is somehow related to pornography, and Marshall thinks it’s because Robin got married in a mall during her younger days in Canada. They make a bet about who is right — more specifically, they make a slap bet. The winner of the bet gets to slap the loser. Marshall’s bride-to-be Lily (Alyson Hannigan) is named Slap Bet Commissioner and gets to referee the bet.

It turned out they were both wrong — the real reason Robin never goes to malls is that she used to be a teen pop star during her younger days in Canada under the stage name Robin Sparkles, and her big hit song was called “Let’s Go to the Mall.” The music video for the song was shot, naturally, in a mall.

Even though they were both wrong, Barney was more wrong for slapping Marshall without having been proven right (“premature slapulation”). So, as Slap Bet Commissioner, Lily ruled that Marshall could slap Barney five times at any point from that day forward, not necessarily all at once.

The show milked the slap bet and Robin’s Canadian pop star career for years to come. Viewers learned that Robin Sparkles had made two other music videos as well as an educational children’s show. Her life was clearly written as a parody of Tiffany’s and Alanis Morrissette’s.

Unlike How I Met Your Mother, Friends usually retained some semblance of believability, but its most inspired bit of comedy was Phoebe’s bizarre folk song “Smelly Cat” — which took on an absurdist  life of its own throughout the series.

Sometimes How I Met Your Mother would extend the jokes onto the Internet or into DVD extras that never aired. Who thinks of making a music video of a song that was supposedly written by a fictional character…and then in a later season invites Boyz II Men to perform it? Who thinks of making a “Behind the Scenes” reel for a different music video that was fake to begin with? The writers of How I Met Your Mother, that’s who.

Oh, and I now own a copy of The Bro Code, and I might just buy a copy of The Playbook. Can you think of any other books you can actually buy that were “authored” by sitcom characters?

Real emotional depth and character development. Despite the similarities to those absurdist shows of the past, How I Met Your Mother was not afraid to make you pull out your box of facial tissues. (Kleenex® is a brand!)

In Season 6, Marshall’s father Marvin (Bill Fagerbakke from Coach) passed away unexpectedly, and Marshall was left to deal with the fact that, while his last words to everyone else in the family were expressions of love, the last call he got from his father was a pocket dial voice mail. Jason Segel’s gutwrenching delivery as a grieving son searching for answers from God blurred the line between comedy and drama. It also showed that the show wasn’t afraid to deal with death.

The characters also showed real growth throughout the series, especially Barney. His sociopathic behavior toward women with “daddy issues,” which was the comedic gift that just kept on giving, was later revealed to be a symptom of his own painful separation from his father (John Lithgow from 3rd Rock from the Sun). Neil Patrick Harris showed himself to be one of the most versatile actors on the planet just with his wide-ranging portrayal of this one complicated character.

Oh, and he’s one hell of a singer.

Beginning with the end in mind. One of the inherent challenges of writing a television series that is based on a father telling stories to his children is that the actors playing those children will grow up. This was not lost on the creators of the show (Carter Bays and Craig Thomas). Even though the show’s finale aired in 2014, the ending scenes involving the children Luke and Leia (David Henrie and Lynsey Fonseca, who are not children anymore) were shot back in 2006. (Unlike the insincere Stella, Tracy sincerely liked Star Wars enough to let Ted name their children Luke and Leia.)

And yet, despite knowing that Tracy was going to pass away and Ted would end up running back to Robin just as he did in the pilot episode, the show’s creators did their damnedest to throw viewers off the scent. Consider just how far the show veered away from Ted and Robin getting together:

  • In the pilot episode, Old Ted referred to Robin as “Aunt Robin” and kept on referring to her that way throughout the series.
  • Ted proposed to two other women: Stella and Victoria (Ashley Williams)
  • Robin discovered that she was infertile. She told her fiancee-for-a-moment Kevin (Kal Penn of Harold and Kumar fame) that not only could she not have biological children, she didn’t want to adopt either. Barring some medical breakthrough or a huge change of heart about adoption, this made it impossible for her to be the mother.
  • Ted asked Robin if she loved him, and she said, “No.”
  • Robin married Barney, with Ted going out of his way to make sure that she went through with it instead of running away from it with him.
  • Ted met Tracy on the day of their wedding.
  • Tracy was revealed at the end of Season 8 to be the mother. She proved herself to be an ideal match for Ted…from her tendency to tell long stories right down to the Gore-Lieberman shirt to go with his hanging chad Halloween costume. Ted and Tracy got married.

Still, no matter how tightly the door was closed, the show propped the door open for Ted and Robin just a little bit…especially with Marshall’s continued refusal to pay up on his long-term bet with Lily about them ending up together (or not).

The show also foreshadowed Tracy’s death on multiple occasions. We should have seen it coming.

Despite being a situation comedy, How I Met Your Mother broke a lot of sitcom conventions, and that’s what made it great. The show’s creators took a lot of creative risks — some of them worked, and some of them didn’t. Despite what many casual fans and even critics think, I believe the show’s biggest risk (the mother’s untimely death) was exactly the right creative choice and one that the show foreshadowed in earlier episodes. The long, sobering scene when Marshall mourned the death of his father and yelled at God should have prepared fans for the possibility that nothing was off-limits, not even death.

Dealing with death is a part of life, and doesn’t it make sense that a father telling his children such a long story like that (without the mother ever interrupting or correcting the facts) might be trying to help his children to connect with a woman they were not old enough to know well? Ted didn’t do such a great job at this — his daughter noticed that the mother was barely in the story and that he was obviously still hung up on Robin. But we do know that he loved Tracy, and I was pleased that we learned as much about her as we did in that final season. If you think about it, it’s the best explanation of all for a romantic comedy whose central character is a man, not a woman.

There were a few occasions when I wondered exactly where this show was going and if it had lost its way. There were some throwaway episodes here and there, but the finale was a giant payoff for the show’s more ‘invested’ fans who had watched Ted meander through this tale for nine years. It included a lot of running gags — the mother’s name (Ted once met a stripper who said her name was Tracy, and Old Ted sarcastically told the kids that she was the mother), the cockamouse, the perfect week/month, Ted’s hanging chad Halloween costume, and especially the blue French horn at the end.

Note: After the finale episode aired, Alyson Hannigan talked about some important scenes that were filmed but ultimately ended up on the cutting-room floor. One of those scenes involved Tracy’s funeral and Ted mourning her death. Another involved Lily paying Marshall for losing the long-term bet. I’m looking forward to seeing the deleted scenes when the final season of DVDs is released, and I hope that those scenes will make the ending a little less jarring without fundamentally changing it. 

Get creative with your business travel

Back in 2007, I had a job that required me to travel extensively. I was at a conference one time, and I spoke to another attendee who was more accustomed to business travel than I was. I told him I enjoyed the opportunity to go to new places all the time. He said something to the effect of, “So you’re still at the point where you see the travel as a perk? That won’t last.” He was apparently a salty old veteran of the jet set lifestyle and had become disillusioned with it.

It’s understandable. If you have a family, you don’t like to be away from them for long. Plus, air travel can be uncomfortable and inconvenient — especially with today’s security restrictions. It can be disorienting to try to find your way around a new place when you’re on a tight schedule. But I still relish it as an opportunity, and I try to make the most of it.

After a long hiatus, I’m back in the saddle of business travel with my current job. I don’t travel all the time, but I do it just enough to satisfy my need to go to new places. Unfortunately, I don’t find myself in the best financial position personally, so the only opportunities I get to travel significant distances is if someone else is footing the bill.

I recently spent a week in the Los Angeles area for work. It was a great trip. Sure I did a lot of work while I was there, but I also made time to play. I never once ordered room service in the hotel. I went out to eat at different places almost every time (a legitimate business expense because you have to eat somewhere). And, on my own dime, I also attended a Clippers game at Staples Center with my boss and spent an extra day traveling around with my camera to go to places I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to go.

Here are just a few of my favorites:

So, even after all these years, I still see business travel as an opportunity. I try very hard to take it all in and come back with some good pictures.

Even a great artist needs a good paintbrush

Despite the headline, I’m certainly not implying that I’m a great or even very good photographer, but I can usually hold my own and deliver a few good images when I go out shooting. I certainly know my way around a camera.

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An Indiana State Police trooper looks down onto a public floor at the Indiana Statehouse.

But then I went to a few basketball games, and let’s just say going through the images on my card afterward was a humbling experience. Some of my initial mistakes were definitely errors on my part and led to some completely blown shots. But once I figured out where I went wrong, I could only get so far within the constraints of my equipment. And that’s nothing to feel bad about.

A primer on photography

If you’re uninitiated when it comes to photography, I’ll try to provide a quick primer. When you take a picture with a camera — film or digital — you are capturing an exposure. If you don’t get enough light in, the image will be underexposed. Of course, if too much light gets in, the image will be overexposed. There are a lot of variables in an exposure, but I’ll discuss three here. Even if you always leave your camera in auto mode, all that means is that you’re letting the camera decide how to manage these variables.

Bandit

This is my cat Bandit.

Aperture

The aperture is how wide you open the lens. The wider you open the lens, the more light you let in. Aperture is measured in f-stops: the lower the number, the wider the aperture, and the more light gets in at once. Opening the aperture also has an effect on the depth of field of an image. If you open the aperture wide (a lower f-stop number), your camera will only focus on objects within a narrow range of distance from you. If you’ve ever looked at a portrait where the person is crystal clear and the background is blurred, that was the result of a shallow depth of field. If you “stop down” to a narrower aperture (a higher f-stop number), your camera will focus on a wider range of distance. So in the portrait example, both the person and the background will be equally in focus…but the image will look flatter. Neither is necessarily good or bad, it just depends on what you want your image to look like. In the picture of my cat, I used a wide aperture for a shallow depth of field. The background behind her is blurry.

Indianapolis skyline at night

The Indianapolis skyline at night. Notice the blurred headlights from the cars driving by.

Shutter speed

The shutter speed is just what it sounds like. When you press the shutter button on your camera to snap an image, the camera opens and closes the shutter. The longer the shutter is open, the more light gets in…and vice versa. Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of a second. You might have noticed pictures of cityscapes at night where the headlights on all of the cars are blurred. That’s because, in order to capture enough light at night for a properly exposed image, you have to set the shutter speed to a slower setting than you would during the daytime. Because of the slow shutter speed required to capture this image, I also had to anchor my camera onto a tripod and set a timer after pressing the shutter button in order to prevent camera shake from blurring the image. A faster shutter speed freezes action, a slower shutter speed blurs it. Again, neither is right or wrong; it just depends on what you want your image to look like. If I were to set the shutter speed faster, I couldn’t get enough light in, and the image would be underexposed.

Sensitivity/ISO

Back when you had to buy film for your camera, you could choose film with a wide range of sensitivities or “film speeds.” A group known as the International Standards Organization, or ISO, assigned consistent values so that ISO 400 film from one manufacturer was essentially the same level of sensitivity as ISO 400 film from another manufacturer. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the film (or in today’s terms, the digital image sensor) became to light. The tradeoff for increasing the sensitivity — then and now — is an increase in graininess on the image. So, unless you really want your image to be grainy, you want to keep your ISO as low as you can so long as you can still get enough light in through the aperture and shutter speed settings.

Budget constraints and camera technology

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to understand these principles. You need to have camera equipment that gives you enough flexibility to handle the conditions you find yourself in when shooting. One of the biggest problems with my old point-and-shoot camera was that I could only open the aperture as wide as f3.5 — and when I extended the zoom lens fully, I could only open as wide as f5.6. That’s fine for a lot of situations, but getting a good portrait with a shallow depth of field simply wasn’t going to happen with that camera no matter what I did. Point-and-shoot cameras also have relatively small image sensors, and that limits their ability to capture clean images at higher ISO settings. The bigger the sensor, the more ISO and aperture flexibility.

But even a camera with a bigger sensor can’t take advantage of that aperture flexibility without a capable lens. Typically prime lenses (those with a fixed focal length, so you can’t zoom) are the most cost-effective ways to get images with wide apertures. Zoom lenses with wider apertures — especially those that do not degrade when you zoom in — can cost thousands of dollars. And even those professional zoom lenses (typically f2.8 throughout the focal range) can’t match the maximum aperture of a good prime lens (often f1.4 or f1.8).

My weapon of choice

In January, I upgraded my digital camera to a gently used Olympus PEN E-PL1, which is a mirrorless compact system camera based on the Micro Four Thirds standard. Both Olympus and Panasonic use the same standard, so I can attach Panasonic lenses on my Olympus camera body, and vice versa. The idea was that I wanted something with better image quality than my point-and-shoot camera but still portable enough that I would actually carry it with me enough to make use of it. A Micro Four Thirds image sensor is bigger than that of a point-and-shoot camera but smaller than that of most digital SLR cameras.  Plus the camera body and lenses are cheaper. Along with the camera body, I purchased three lenses:

Note that Micro Four Thirds cameras and lenses have a 2X “crop factor,” meaning that if you’re comparing the focal length to, say, a 35mm film camera, you have to multiply the focal lengths by a factor of two in order to make an apples-to-apples comparison. So my 14-42mm lens would be equivalent to a 28-84mm lens on a 35mm film camera, and so forth. Most digital SLRs today have crop factors of 1.5x (Nikon) or 1.6x (Canon), but the high-end “full frame” digital SLRs have a 1X crop factor, meaning the focal lengths are already equivalent to those on a 35mm film camera with no arithmetic required.

The challenges of indoor sports action photography

Shooting sports action is a challenge anyway, but shooting sports action indoors — like at a basketball game — can be particularly difficult. It’s a perfect storm of problems that will test the limits of your camera equipment as it tested mine and make you understand why the pros have those big, fancy cameras with those bigger, fancier lenses.

I was sitting under one basket, and this action took place at the other end.

I was sitting under one basket, and this action took place at the other end of the court. Note that the image looks a little blurry and that this is one of the better images I got.

If you’ve ever taken a family snapshot, you might have had to ask people to “hold still” so that the image doesn’t blur. But you can’t very well ask an athlete running down a basketball court to “hold still.” They’re moving, usually as fast as they can because speed is a competitive advantage. If you take a photo and your shutter speed is too slow, then you won’t be able to “freeze” their motion. The image will blur. A fast shutter speed (at least 1/300 of a second if not faster) is critical to getting clear images when the action is moving.

Another challenge is the inability to get physically close to athletes when they are competing. As a photographer, you have to keep distance between yourself and the playing surface or else you could interfere with the game and possibly get tossed out. So using a short focal length — especially if you’re not physically very close to the action — is probably not a good option.

Dialing up the ISO can certainly help the camera be more forgiving of the low light and fast motion, but if you dial it up too much then your images will come out looking grainy and speckled. I might have been able to get better results outdoors on a sunny day, but the low lighting indoors at the basketball game created a real problem.

Here’s where my hobbyist equipment let me down.

When fully extended to 150mm (like toward the opposite end of a basketball court), the widest aperture setting that my telephoto lens could give me was f5.6. At that setting, even with my ISO setting dialed up to 1600, I could only set the shutter speed as fast as 1/80 of a second without underexposing the image. As I mentioned before, 1/300 of a second is the minimum for a clear sports action image. When the lens was set wider at 40mm, that bought me a slightly wider aperture (f4.0), which in turn bought me a slightly faster shutter speed (1/100 or even 1/160 of a second). But that’s still not fast enough, even after I maxed out the camera’s ISO at 3200. A pro camera would have bought me a bigger sensor with more ISO flexibility, and a pro zoom lens would have given me a wider aperture.

Autofocusing error

With the aperture open all the way to f1.4, I still couldn’t get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. AND the shallow depth of field created autofocusing errors. (Shutter speed 1/100; ISO 200, cropped image.)

After some disappointment with my first round of photos, I made an adjustment for the next game I attended: trading out my 40-150mm f4.0-f5.6 lens for my 25mm f1.4 prime lens. The idea was that I could achieve faster shutter speeds in low light if I opened the aperture wider. I knew with such a wide focal length that I would have to crop out a lot of the resolution of the images, but what I didn’t account for was the risk of autofocusing errors created by opening the aperture too wide (due to the shallow depth of field) while still not getting the shutter speeds I needed to freeze the action. A pro zoom lens would have enabled me to zoom in closer for more detail while still maintaining a reasonably wide aperture.

(If I had bumped up the ISO I could have gotten some faster shutter times even if I stopped down to, say, f2.8 to reduce the risk of autofocus errors…but I don’t know for certain if that would have worked or not.)

The image to the left shows two players colliding in mid-air…but it’s still blurry. For comparison, check out what the pro photographer sitting right next to me at the game captured from exactly the same moment with his pro equipment.

Here’s the point

If you have enough ingenuity, experience and talent, you might be able to overcome your resource constraints to do great things. Perhaps with enough practice using this equipment I’ll be able to get better images…even at basketball games. But sometimes all the ingenuity, experience and talent in the world can’t make up for not having the right tool for the job. You can’t bring a knife to a gunfight.

How many talented painters, photographers, scientists, etc. out there can’t realize their full potential because of their resource constraints? Is the training too expensive? Is the right equipment unavailable to them? Constraints are an inevitable fact of all our lives, and I’m OK with mine since photography is just a hobby for me…but it does make me wonder how much human potential we’ve lost over our history as a result.