Archive for March, 2009

Earth Day Done Right

I was browsing through photo galleries for the recent Earth Day event, during which people (and many cities and businesses) were urged to turn off their lights for one hour in a symbolic effort to cut back on energy usage.  Photo coverage of the event centered on many night cityscape photos which showed cities’ buildings with their lights off.

The problem was, the vast majority of photographers in the field that night approached the shots just as they would any typical nightscape – exposing for, and getting full detail out of, the primary subjects (mostly buildings in this case).  This means long exposures that end up taking in about as much light as one would take in the daytime, which is fantastic if you want to produce a pretty picture of say the Coliseum at night:

Notice, however, that this photo above gives absolutely no impression that the lights are actually off. At first glance, the building is so well-illuminated that if it weren’t for the dark night sky, you really wouldn’t be able to tell this from a daytime photo.

Photographers make similar mistakes with long-exposure night scenes all the time.  If you want to create a pretty picture, alright, make sure your exposure is correct. But if you actually want to portray a scene as dark and taken during nighttime, you need to expose below the ideal exposure to get the photo to actually look, well, dark.  In Earth Day’s case, the proper thing to do would have been to make sure your before and after photos are taken at the EXACT SAME EXPOSURE, metering be damned.

Fortunately some of the pj’s that day got it right, and the Boston Globe has compiled them nicely onto a page that includes click-transitions back and forth between the before and after pictures (though there are still a few bad examples included):

Good examples of what I’m talking about: Photo 2, Photo 8, Photo 10, Photo 11, Photos 14, 15, 16, 17

Bad examples of what you should NOT do (how quickly are you able to discern which is the “lights on” and which is the “lights off” image?): Photo 1Photo 3, Photo 6, Photo 12

Casio’s rapid-capture compacts flexing the extent of digital’s muscles

Casio's compact FS10 records 6MP at 30fps, with a maximum reduced-resolution speed of 1000fps 

Casio’s compact FS10 records 6MP at 30fps, with a maximum reduced-resolution speed of 1000fps

Press release

I’ve never paid much attention to Casio in the past, admittedly.  While Panasonic was the microwave maker that defied conventions, Casio pretty much made the kind of digital cameras (generic, 3x zoom ultracompacts) that you would expect a watch maker to make.

Casio seems to have poured some serious R&D into high capture rate sensors (and image processors), which first saw the light of day in the groundbreaking EX-F1 ultrazoom, which could capture full-resolution 6MP images at 60fps, and very reduced resolution video at a whopping 1200fps.

Casio now manages to cram that same sensor and processing technology into two itty bitty ultracompacts: the 0.9in FC100 with 37-185mm (5x) lens and the 0.6in (!) FS10 with 38-114mm 3x lens.  Both cameras can take 6MP frames at 30fps.  What’s more, the camera is in effect constantly recording still images at this framerate – at the moment you press the shutter, you not only start taking frames, but 25 frames in the preceding moments are also saved as well, allowing you to in essence go backwards in time to grab a frame that you couldn’t react to in time.  As with the EX-F1, both compacts can also record up to 1000fps in a heavily reduced resolution movie mode, with an electronic shutter providing effective shutter speeds of 1/40,000s.

As surprising as this is coming from Casio, which seemed like a company that didn’t care much for innovation in its early attempts at digital cameras, it’s refreshing and downright exciting to see a manufacturer embrace all the potential of digital electronics for photography purposes.  At the framerates that Casio’s cameras are working at, the entire concept of “timing” could be thrown out the window – simply record continuously while the camera’s on, and look back later to pick out the frame and perfect timing.  Electronic shutters also provide the potential for unimaginably quick exposure times that could never be possible with mechanical shutters, enabling stroboscopic-like freezing of action, without having to actually rely on strobes.

The big obstacle here (aside from memory buffer size and storage space, which should catch up in due time as it seems pixel count is starting to plateau) is coming up with an easy interface to facilitate the still frame selection process from a huge, continuous stream of recorded images.

For now, especially given the limited sensor size, and resolution limits, Casio’s cameras mostly remain mostly confined to technical experimentation rather than real professional use.  But it’s not hard at all to imagine such a system, built into a high-quality, interchangeable lens system, to have a huge impact on photojournalism and sports photography.

Of course, this kind of technology and SLRs are mutually exclusive, since the sensor relies on a constant light feed that an SLR’s mirror diverts to the optical viewfinder.  If Casio were smart, it’d grab its unique sensor technology to blow the professional PJ and sports fields wide-open.  Perhaps Samsung’s NX system, and the recent declaration that the system will be open for licensing to third-party body manufacturers, provides just such an opportunity.

PMA 2009 Goodies, Part 2 (Non-DSLRs)

In part 2 we’ll take a look at the huge realm of cameras outside DSLRs.  A boatload of compacts and ultrazooms and budget cams get announced every half-year, so I won’t highlight every single one, but we’ll take a look at some of the interesting products and general trends.

Bajillion-x Megazoom

Olympus' 26x zoom SP-590UZ

Olympus' 26x zoom SP-590UZ

An interesting thing about the “Megapixel Wars” is that the public’s fascination with megapixels as a selling point have somewhat waned.  I don’t have particular evidence of this – perhaps it’s just media emphasizing it less, or perhaps even that I’ve become so jaded with the numbers that I’ve mentally blocked it out. And in any case, I’m certain that any such effect that’s been noticed has purely been with the semi-educated consumer – there are still millions of consumers who have no idea how to evaluate cameras aside from megapixel count.

But as the emphasis on megapixels seems to recede, another emphasis over ever-skyrocketing optical zoom ranges mounts.  Back in the old days, ultrazooms hit 10x (something like 38-380mm or 36-360mm equivalent), and inched up to 12x and pretty much stopped there.  About two years ago, Olympus changed the dynamic of this race completely with its groundbreaking SP-550 UZ which packed a whopping 18x (28-504mm) zoom.  Olympus had about a 6-month monopoly on this range, but ever since then, manufacturers have been pushing their lenses to ever stratospheric heights.

A lot of people have decried this extreme push in lens design, which certainly has its drawbacks.  The SP-550’s 18x lens was universally panned for delivering terrible image quality, and no camera since then has really been able to deliver that kind of zoom range in a lens that is up to par with the previous generations’ more conservative 10x or 12x lenses.  Unlike pixel count, however, which past a certain point doesn’t given any usable advantages for most users and applications, a larger zoom range will always add more versatility.

So PMA saw the introduction of no less than 5 such ultrazooms (4 new releases and one North American re-release) having 20x+ zoom ranges.  A quick summary of them:


PMA 2009 Goodies, Part 1 (DSLRs)

The Photo Marketing Association’s Annual show – PMA 2009 – recently came and passed.  For those of you who don’t know, PMA is like the E3 of photography, where companies making everything from cameras to printers bust out the goods and new releases.  It, along with the bi-yearly Photokina in the Fall, are when the majority of product announcements come out.

Depending on the market segment you were interested in, this year’s PMA could have offered a healthy bounty, or simply have been a dud.


If you were in the DSLR market, there was barely anything new emerging on the landscape.  Neither of the big two – Canon and Nikon – released any new DSLRs, with just two specialty tilt-shift lenses from Canon and a “normal” APS-C prime in the new 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX from Nikon making headlines.  Pentax, in what seems to be an ongoing niche market they’re targeting, came out with a 15mm f/4 pancake.  And Sony, surprisingly, produced nothing of note.

Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX

Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S

Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S

For the Nikonians out there, the new prime is an encouraging sign that Nikon is finally getting with the program and pumping out AF-S lenses for its entire range.  For one, this gives a modern and fast-focusing midrange prime for APS-C crop users, which will finally provide an alternative and offer some competition to Sigma’s 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM which was previously the only lens in this market segment.  Canon still lacks a real solution for this range, forcing users into the bigger and much more expensive 35 f/1.4 L.


Making the Shot: Election Night in Berkeley, Part 3

So the last and final installment here is all about my third and last trip out to cover the election story, which finally resulted in the little image that ended up gracing the cover of the next day’s special Elections issue:

Cover - Daily Cal Elections special issue

Cover - Daily Cal Elections special issue

As the clock struck midnight and November 5th dawned, I was just headed out of the office after dropping off the rest of my photos from the massive crowd that had gathered down on the streets outside at Bancroft & Telegraph.  The photo editors Anna and Victoria were still in the office (and would be through to the morning) sorting through photos and compiling the photospread (.pdf, 7.2mb, pg 7-8)  that would appear in the next day’s paper, for which the Daily Cal photo staff had already collectively compiled a few hundred photos.

At this point I would say I was pretty content but not particularly happy with the photos I had come back with.  The shots from the viewing party were good – slideshow or photospread worthy – but I wasn’t particularly fond of any of the crowd photos from the celebration on the streets.  Sure they covered the event, but photos like this or this aren’t really going to rock anyone’s socks. (more…)