My fiancée has seen a lot of my photographs, and she has noticed that many of them involve birds that wade in shallow water and catch the fish that swim by.
More scientifically, she has noticed a lot of photos of birds in the genus Ardea, which includes two species that I see a lot of here in Central Indiana.
One time she asked me, “Is that your favorite animal?”
I don’t know that I have a favorite animal per se (with the possible exception of my pet cat Bandit). But here’s what I do know:
They’re beautiful, graceful birds. In a pond full of ducks and geese, a heron is the belle of the ball. If you see one in flight, it is a special treat. Because they are skittish about humans, you might inadvertently cause it to take flight if you get too close.
They are nearby. Both of the photos above were taken at a park less than five miles from where we live. I usually find myself at this park at least once a week. So I expect to see either a great blue heron or a great egret when I go there…and I often bring my camera gear with me. My desk at work also overlooks a retention pond, and herons frequent that pond. So, I get lots of opportunities to photograph them.
They’re challenging to photograph well with my equipment. My “good” camera gear is more advanced than a typical point-and-shoot camera (and certainly more advanced than the camera on my smartphone), but it’s not the kind of camera or lens you would expect a professional wildlife photographer to use. I simply don’t have the budget for that since no one is paying me for these photos. So there are inevitably some compromises. Most significantly, I have a telephoto lens but not a supertelephoto lens, so my reach is limited. That makes it harder to extract fine feather details when the bird is out in the water, even after a lot of cropping. The other challenge is tracking them while in flight, as my camera and lens do not excel with autofocus tracking for fast-moving subjects. So, I can always see room for improvement in my photos…and since I’m photographing basically the same subject matter, I can easily see the impact of each setting I change or any other photographic decisions I make.
Disclaimer: Photos are copyrighted. Do not use without permission from the author.
A few months ago, my mother dropped her trusty old Fujifilm Finepix S3100 camera (circa 2004) and broke it for good. She really loved that thing…all 4 megapixels, 1.5-inch LCD screen, 6X zoom, and ISO 250 of it. It had an electronic viewfinder, it was dead-simple to operate, and it felt comfortable in her hand thanks to the deep ergonomic grip. She didn’t care if it took terrible, blurry photos of her retirement party with all her friends present (it was a dark room). That camera just fit her.
Since I take a lot of photos, she enlisted me to help her find a replacement. I have to admit, I really enjoy researching these things, so I was happy to help. Unfortunately, the camera industry let her down.
Smartphone cameras are getting smarter all the time, but…
The first question was whether she needed a dedicated camera at all or whether she could just go out and get a smartphone and use that camera all the time. After all, smartphone cameras keep getting better all the time. But my mother likes to take a lot of photos of birds that visit her feeder, and she got really used to the viewfinder on her old camera. I reminded her that the vast majority of smartphone cameras don’t have optical zoom lenses (yet) or eye-level viewfinders (probably ever), and that convinced her that she really did want a dedicated camera.
Fixed-lens cameras are getting smarter still
Because of the rapid improvements to smartphone camera technology, manufacturers of point-and-shoot cameras have had to raise their photography game to compete, and that’s a wonderful thing. The lines are blurring between fixed-lens (a.k.a. “point-and-shoot”) cameras, mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, and digital SLRs. The public has started to catch on about the diminishing returns on ever-increasing megapixel counts and absurd zoom ranges, so the trend now is toward larger image sensors and wider-aperture (“faster”) lenses — for better results in low light.
As the LCD screens on compact cameras have gotten larger and brighter, the public’s demand for cameras with eye-level viewfinders has waned. And that means cameras with viewfinders are becoming harder to find. Even long-zoom compact cameras like the Canon PowerShot SX510 HS (with a 30X optical zoom) are ditching the viewfinder to cut down on costs and bulk. (I don’t think this is a good trend; framing your shot through an eye-level viewfinder enables you to hold the camera steadier, and even the biggest, brightest LCD screen is hard to see in bright sunlight. This is especially important in low light and when using a long lens. Even though my Olympus Pen E-PL5 mirrorless camera did not come with a built-in electronic viewfinder, I bought an accessory EVF.)
For the most part, electronic viewfinders have been relegated to cameras with extremely long zoom lenses. One camera that my mother considered was the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70K…particularly for its viewfinder. But when she saw the way it looked with its 60X zoom lens extended, she bristled at how bulky and awkward it was. Besides, these ridiculous megazoom focal lengths are a bad idea anyway.
So now we had three requirements:
An eye-level electronic viewfinder.
A maximum price of $300, or thereabout.
Getting two out of three would be easy, but getting all three would present a significant challenge. There are lots of fine and pocketable cameras under $300, but they don’t have eye-level viewfinders. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70K discussed above had a viewfinder and a low price of $249.99, but it was huge. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC0RX100 Mark III was compact, and it had an innovative pop-up viewfinder, but it also came with a sticker price of $799.99.
And then, miraculously it seemed, I discovered the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1: a pocketable (or purse-able) camera with an electronic viewfinder and a low sticker price of $249.99. It even had an extra large 1/1.7″ image sensor, which gave it an extra stop of ISO flexibility compared with regular fixed-lens cameras. I thought this would be the camera that would make her forget all about her old Fuji.
I read the glowing expert reviews and recommended it to my mom. She bought one, but she’s still missing her old Fuji friend. But why?
Smaller is not always better
There’s an old saying among photographers that “the best camera is the one you have with you.” It’s obviously true: that expensive full-frame dSLR with the massive lenses may be able to take beautiful photos when you have it, but if you find yourself leaving it behind all the time due to the bulk and weight, then it’s not doing you much good. Even the best camera is useless when it sits on a shelf.
But I’m learning that there’s a flipside to this: a camera that trades good ergonomic design for compactness might also get left on the shelf. And that goes double for my mother, who has impaired vision even with her eyeglasses and has endured carpal tunnel surgery on both of her wrists. That might have been why she dropped the old camera in the first place.
The 0.2-inch viewfinder on her new Panasonic is so small that she can’t see out of it, so it did not truly meet requirement #1. If Panasonic had made this camera just a little taller to accommodate a larger viewfinder, it would have made a vast difference without adding much bulk. A small handgrip on the front would have also been helpful while still keeping it in pocket camera territory.
For some reason, Panasonic opted to place the On/Off button on the outside edge of the camera so that she has to reach over it in order to get to the shutter button…which has caused her to inadvertently shut off the camera when she’s trying to snap a photo. I have read a lot of user reviews on this camera, and apparently she was far from the only one who has struggled with this problem.
By contrast, the S3100 had a deep grip for her to really wrap her hand around, and she had to turn a dial to turn it on and off. That seems wrong to me too because it did not allow for zooming in and out with the same finger that controlled the shutter button (the zoom control was on the back), but at least she didn’t find herself inadvertently turning the camera off. And, if she dropped a camera with a grip like that, her new gripless camera is even more vulnerable.
A smarter camera does not always lead to better photos
Check out the mode dials on the top of each camera as well. The Fuji had four modes: auto, movie (240p, which is not even standard definition), manual and a scene mode with four scene options. But with such severe ISO limitations and a lens that ranged in maximum aperture from f2.8 to f8.7 across the zoom range, even the manual controls were quite limited.
By contrast, the Panasonic has a maximum ISO of 12,800 — and it can produce relatively noise-free images up to ISO 1600. The zoom lens ranges in maximum aperture from f2.0 to f5.9 across the zoom range, so that’s a significant improvement. It offers 10 modes: intelligent auto, program, creative control, shutter priority, aperture priority, full manual, movie (1080p full HD), a scene mode with 16 scene options, and two fully customizable modes.
My mom got overwhelmed by it all — she just wanted a camera that she could simply point and shoot. Yes, the intelligent auto mode allows that, but my hope was that she would venture out of this mode and get a little more ambitious. But the camera doesn’t do a good job of making this easy. Shutter priority mode should, by default, show the aperture, ISO and exposure values so that you can see the consequences of your shutter speed decisions. And the scene modes don’t help much either: the blurry cat photo was taken in “Pets” mode.
Quite frankly, even I as a photography enthusiast struggled to find all of the settings on this camera. Trying to set up the WiFi Smart Transfer feature was an exercise in frustration, primarily because the camera’s text entry does not allow for spaces. Not very smart.
The LF1 had a lot of promise, and it does take excellent photos once you figure it out how to set it. But you shouldn’t have to set it quite so much to begin with. It should just work out of the box. Maybe the successor to the LF1 will correct these problems and be a much better camera for it.
So I have a message for the camera industry: you can come up with all of the whiz-bang features you want, but unless they work intuitively and you get the ergonomics right, you won’t sell many more dedicated cameras. If you’re not sure about how to best design something, ask yourself if it would make sense to your mom.
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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