The first time I took a picture was @ the 'Kalippoika', in Kozhikode, my home town, using a friend's camera, during the PDC (or PUC) days (1995 to be precise). The pic came out shaken and stirred and I pretty much became camera-phobic
Right from my first film camera in 2000, a Canon BF-800, I'd been using Canon. My first digital camera was a Canon Powershot S1IS and when that was stolen (yes, stolen), I got myself a Canon Powershot S2IS. Now, this was not because there were the only good cameras available, but the Powershot S1IS/S2IS, suited my requirements pretty well. I was also considering the Olympus uZ series (C-740, C-750 and C-770) but finally decided to go for Canon since it had IS
I've been suggesting the Canon Powershot series to most people. They do have options suiting various type of users. Right from the Powershot A series to Powershot G series. But, the one which I liked most is the Canon Powershot S series. I first used a Canon Powershot S1IS and fell in love with the model, later picking up a Powesrshot S2IS. Equipped with a 5 Mega Pixel 1/2.5" (5.75 x 4.31 mm, 0.24 cm2) digital sensor and a beautiful Image Stabilizer (IS) fitted lens which can go from a Super Macro mode @ 36mm all the way to a super tele photo end @ 432 mm, S2IS is a beautiful camera. With some simple, yet very well thought, features like a tiltable LCD view, S2IS, according to me, was the best available for a hobbyist back then. I've used Powershot S3IS and S5IS and found them equally interesting. The latest from Canon in this series is the Powershot Sx30IS, with a 14.1 Mega Pixel 1/2.3" (6.16 x 4.62 mm, 0.28 cm2) digital sensor, 35X zoom (24mm to 840mm) and 720p HD video at 30fps, I am sure, this is nothing short of a revelation.
Single Lens Reflex
The first SLR I used is my friend's Nikon F65, as early as 2004. But, in an unfortunate accident while on the way to Kanyakumari, I ended up breaking its penta prism. It took me a long time to try and use another SLR. By then, digital had taken over film SLRs and I ended up buying a Canon EOS 400D (aka Rebel XTi) in October 2007. This pretty much changed my approach to photography itself. Rather than an aid in story telling I started taking interest in photography as it is. 400D is equipped with a 10.1 Mega Pixel CMOS APS-C size (22.2 x 14.8 mm - 1.6x conversion factor) digital sensor, 9 AF points and can shoot @ 3 frames / second. It also had some new features (at that time), like a sensor self cleaning system. Since then, Canon released many upgrades to 400D (450D / XSi, 500D / T1i, 550D / T2i and so on) and introduced a few other semi-proffessional camera bodies. Some of these newer cameras were dishing out very clean images at much higher ISOs and had features like Live view and HD video. Soon, the 400D sounded obsolete and it was time to do an upgrade. For a long time, I was dreaming of buying a full frame camera. I had my eyes set on a Canon EOS 5D mark II, announced in Sept 2008
Whys and Whats?
One of the questions which haunted me for a long time has been Why SLR? and What is it really? I believe that a lot of people will still be asking the same question. I am still looking for more concrete answers, but in a broader sense, it boils down to the following:
Any one, who has tried to capture a photo with a bright light right behind the subject will know that it usually results in a darkened subject. Now, this is because, the camera cannot see the subject and a bright light simultaneously, like human eye. Ofcourse, one can re-adjust the exposure and get the subject exposed correctly, but will mostly end up with a uniformly (or close to) white background. Similarly, people trying to capture a landscape involving a bright sky will usually miss out the details, either in the sky (too bright and clouds are not clearly visible) or in the landscape (too dark and lacks clarity). This is again because of the reasons mentioned above. Dynamic Range is a measurement of the ability to see bright and dark object simultaneously. It cannot improve by mearly improving the pixel count, but by improving the quality per pixel. In other words, with larger size pixels capable of holding more information, Dynamic Range gets better. DSLRs are usually equipped with more information per pixel, 14 bits / color in case of most Canon EOS cameras, though they are lost after converting to standard JPEG format, which has only 8 bit per color. But, one can always use RAW format image editing to retain the higher Dynamic Range in the final image. Film, especially black and white film, is capable of a higher Dynamic Range compared to current digital sensors. An interesting discussion usually seen in photography forums is the Film vs Digital debate. While, there are still a lot of people using film (especially medium format and large format films) for better Dynamic Range and image quality, it still is a difficult and costly affair. For someone who is still learning, digital should be the way to go, because of the ease of doing experiments and smaller recurring costs.
When Shutter Opens
The act of taking a picture involves opening the shutter for a specified amount of time, so that the light falls on the digital sensor (or film), which captures the light coming in and forms an image. The act of opening the shutter may be for as short as sub milliseconds (minimum being 1/4000s in EOS 400D) all the way to hours (most SLRs, including 400D, have a BULB mode were the shutter may be kept open for as long as one wants). Two other important parameters here are how wide the shutter is opened and how sensitive the digital sensor / film is. The ratio of the lens' focal length and the actual width of the shutter during exposure is called the aperture or 'f' value. The square of this ratio is inversely proportional to the aperture area and to the amount of light allowed inside during exposure. So, if the aperture is f/2.8, it allows double the light inside compared to f/4. The sensitivity of the sensor (or film) is measured in ISO sensitivity which is usually expressed as ISO 50, ISO 100 ... etc till about ISO 102400. Now, if at f/2.8 we used a 1/100s exposure time (or shutter speed), to obtain the same exposure at f/4 with the same available light and ISO setting, we need to change the exposure time to 1/50s. Similarly, if ISO is changed from 100 to 200, we can manage with half the exposure time and get the same amount of exposure.
Now, each of these parameters being changed will have its own effect in the image. Its quite obvious that higher the exposure time, the higher the chances of the picture getting blurred (because of the subject as well as camera movement). Hence, people uses tripod, monopod or other supports to get steadier images at low light. It may look like, increasing the ISO sensitivity may be a good way to remove the blur. But, the sensitivity being higher also introduces more noise (mostly seen as grains in the picture, especially in darker regions) and is usually discouraged. The noise introduced is usually lesser when the camera has a wider sensor with pixels being packed less densly. An Image Stabilizer (IS for Canon, Vibration Reduction or VR for Nikon) may also help to reduce the blur caused by hand movements. In Canon and Nikon, the IS or VR is usually fitted with the lens and depending on how sophisticated the IS system is in the lens, is as effective as multiplying the ISO 4 to 16 times. Also note that not all lenses have IS or VR and the presence of IS / VR increases the cost and weight of the lens considerably. There are manufacturers (notably Sony) who has added the IS system into the camera as well, so that it works with all lenses. The image blur is also a function of the focal length used. A rule of thumb is that the exposure time should only be as big as 1 / focal length seconds. For example, with a 400mm lens, one shouldn't shoot at slower than 1/400s, while with a 180mm lens one can go upto a shutter speed of 1/180s. With a 2-stop IS, this can come down to about 1/100s and a 4-stop IS can take it down to as low as 1/25s!
Depth of Focus
From the above section, it may appear that it makes sense to always shoot at the widest aperture and its always good to buy a lens which allow the widest aperture possible. While, this is partly true, there are factors affecting this as well. To make a wider aperture possible, the lens will also have to be broader and proprtionally heavier. For example, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4.0 L IS USM Lens is 760g and is 76 x 172mm, while the f/2.8 version, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM Lens weighs 1470g, almost double and is 86 x 197mm. Now, when the lens aperture is less, the angle at which the light falls into the sensor is more perpendicular compared to a wider aperture. So, an object slightly out of focus will look more so when the aperture is wider. Since, the human eye or the recording media is made of finite sized pixels, "slightly out of focus" is sometimes negligible and looks "in focus". So, for all practical purposes, there is a finite depth around the actual focal plane, which is considered "in focus". This finite depth is called the "Depth of Focus" (or DOF) of the picture. Now, as the aperture widens, DOF goes down. While, this may be an advantage in some case, it may not be the same all the time. Hence, depending on the picture you want to take, the aperture should be chosen and it may not always be a good option to use the widest aperture. Also, most of the lenses doesnt work best when fully opened and gives the best results with a little less than the widest aperture. On the other hand, as the aperture becomes too small, there is a chance that diffraction pattarens (caused when light is pushed through a narrow aperture) become compareable to the pixel dimensions and affect the image quality. So, most lenses have a best working range of about f/5.6 to f/8.0, if the available light is not the limitation. This is again depending on the quality and make of the lens and should be determined only after proper trials.
Wide Angle Lens
Any lens providing less than 35mm is generally called a wide angle lens. I used the Canon EF-s 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens for most wide angle shots, initially. This is a special make from Canon for camera bodies with APS-C size sensors (like 400D/450D/40D/50D) and is signified by the EF-s notation. The 18-55 mm ofcourse signifies the focal lens range and f/3.5-5.6 shows the range of maximum apertures at these focal lengths. At 18mm I can open the aperture upto f/3.5, but @ 55mm, I can only open it upto f/5.6. This lens as such is not a great lens, but I just picked it up since it comes along a lot cheaper with the camera body. It served me well for a while, but I soon went for an upgrade, because of the following reasons:
A macro lens is capable of focusing at smaller distances so that minute details of a smaller subject (like flowers, insects ... etc) may be captured. The biggest challenge in macro photography (according to me, apart from finding a good subject and getting close to it) is the low available Depth of Focus. Even with the aperture set to f/16, it is sometimes tough to get the subject fully in focus. Thus, precise focusing and maximizing the available DoF is a must in macro photography. I got an EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro Lens along with the camera and found it reasonable. This lens has a minimum focusing distance of 0.23m which translates to reproducing subjects in the sensor as half its original size (or half life size). I found the lens a lot useful for portraits and had been using it a lot in the beginning. With a wide aperture (f/2.5) its pretty useful in lower light. The drawbacks include lack of USM (and since its also a macro lens with a wider focusing distance range), which will result in longer time to focus and sometimes continuous noisy hunting for focus. Since, I dont use the manual focus much, this is indeed a big impediment. Since, Macro had been one of my favourite streams in photography, I couldn't wait longer before getting myself an L-lens for macro shots - a Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L USM Macro Lens. This is everything an ideal L-glass should be. Very strongly built to withstand all terrains and provides good sharp pictures all the way from f/3.5 till atleast about f/11, the best being at about f/7.1. I have used the lens even at narrower shutters like f/16 and f/22 to get reasonable results. With a closest focusing distance of 0.48m, it is capable of taking life size pictures from a safe distance with minimal disturbance to the subject. Since, it has a limiting switch, which restricts the focusing distance to 1.5m and speeds up Auto Focus, I also have the option to use it for portraits and even tele photo. The lens faired well as a portrait lens too, providing beautiful background blurring and the longer focal length allowed me to catch people unaware for candid shots. In late 2009, about two years after I got the 180mm, Canon launched another macro lens - Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L hybrid IS lens - which is in many ways a better lens. The hybrid IS is capable of correcting even angular motion, making it better for macro lenses. Whether the 100mm focal length is good or not is debateable. While a longer 180mm will allow us to maintain distance from the subject, 100mm makes it easier to shoot handheld. Combined with a camera with fast AF (like the Canon EOS 7D), the hybrid IS, the wider f/2.8 aperture, the smaller 100mm focal length and the hybrid IS will allow handholding while taking macro shots. On the other hand, the Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L lens, while not so ideal for handheld shooting, is still better for shooting macro in a tripod-mount setup. Canon EOS 400D lacked live view and did not have a very clear view-finder either, making manual focus quite difficult. But, after buying 7D, I found the 180mm easier to use. I could zoom-in upto 10x in the view finder to focus precisely where I want to focus. Esepecially for macro photography, with a very low available DoF, this is quite useful.
Tele Photo Lens
Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L USM Macro Lens was also doubled up as tele photo lens for a while, until I got my second L-glass in early 2008 - the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Tele Photo Lens. This had been an amazing lens as well, true to its 'L' lineage, with good solid build and sharp pictures. Soon, I found that the lens dishes out sharper pictures if I reduce the aperture to f/6.3 or f/8.0. At 400mm, as I mentioned earlier, the rule of thumb says that the shutter speed should be about 1/400s or smaller. To be sure, I would usually go to 1/640s. This is where I found out why tele photo lenses are quite difficult to use.
With this lens being an f/5.6 (and performing better at f/8.0), lacking IS, 1/640s or 1/400s is a tough requirement and is available only when the sun is really bright. But, bright sun accompanied with a lot of shadows, is not a good time for photography. So, I found myself using this lens with a tripod / remote control combination or, if this is not possible, with a higher ISO. With the Canon EOS 400D, I would end up being disappointed after shooting at ISO-400/800, because of the noise seen after zooming in. Especially, if the subject is far away, the amount of noise made cropping the image even more difficult.But, the Canon EOS 7D body made the 400mm a lot more attractive and I now use this lens normally in a manual mode f/6.3-f/8.0 and 1/640s setting with auto-ISO. The camera will adjust the ISO as per the available light. If the light drops really bad to levels pushing the ISO towards 3200, I can hang on for some more time by falling back to f/5.6 and 1/400s. Only, if the subject is far-off and I would need a lot of cropping, this strategy fails at higher ISO. That is when I would try mounting the lens in to a tripod and see if I can use a remote trigger! Canon has another tele photo lens for a higher price, the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM. It has a 2-stop IS and with a 4X zoom range, is easier to locate the subject and then zoom in, providing more flexibility while composing the shot. But I chose against it because of the following reasons:
Though, I'd been using the Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro Lens, Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L USM Macro Lens and Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM Ultra Wide Angle Zoom Lens for portraits, these are not really portrait lenses. An ideal portrait lens need not have a short focusing distance and must have very good / wide apertures and fast focussing. If I buy a portrait-only lens, I'd mostly choose between Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM Lens or Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L USM Lens. The 85mm has got better reviews compared to the 50mm and with whatever I've done so far, I believe, a focal length of 85mm could be optimal for portraits. I have also had the opportunity to try out the 85mm and quite liked it. But, on the flip side, a longer focal length would also mean that the working distance is larger, which may not be available all the time. Note that, with f/1.2, all it needs is 1/4th of the light needed by the f/2.5 and this wide aperture can give a very narrow DOF too, most suitable for portrait pictures. I also tend to use the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM tele photo lens for candid / street photography as it gives me the flexibility to stay away from the subject without catching attention. As I mentioned in the earlier section, one trouble was using this lens in low-light. While an 85mm f/1.2 lens would be a very good indoor portrait lens, it could not be of much use for other purposes. This is where I started thinking about a general purpose tele photo which can double up as a portrait lens indoor and outdoor. Canon has a few general purpose tele photo lenses, which could be used also for staged as well as candid portrait photography. At the top of the list was the Canon EF f/2.8L IS USM lens and a close competitor was the Canon EF f/4.0L IS USM lens. Non-IS versions where also available, but I wanted the IS version to give me the desired flexibility. The f/4.0 version had the 4-stop IS while the f/2.8 version had only a 3-stop IS, thereby evening out the handholding capability. Also, the f/4.0 version is reportedly sharper. But, the situation changed dramatically with the introduction of Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM in 2010. The newer version of the lens was reportedly much sharper and was fitted with the 4-stop IS making it a better lens by a long margin. Even with a very high price tag, I decided to buy this lens as I saw two more advantages in buying this lens compared to the f/4.0. Firstly, a Canon EF 2X II extender that I bought along with the 400mm telephoto will be more useable with the 70-200 f/2.8. This is so, because, the lens should have a maximum aperture of f/5.6 for it to autofocus in 400D or 7D and a 2X extender reduces the max aperture to half. So, I hardly used the 2X converter with the 400mm. A 800mm f/11 lens with no auto focus capability would have been impossible to use even with a tripod! But, the 70-200 f/2.8 IS would be a very manageable 140-400mm f/5.6, with the 4-stop IS and AF capability retained. This means that I would no longer need to carry the 400mm for street photography. The 70-200 f/2.8 IS II + 2X II extender combo can be handy even as a normal tele photo, but I would prefer the image quality of the 400mm f/5.6 prime wherever possible! The second and more obvious reason is the fact that the IS is not capable of compensating for the subject movement. In an indoor situation, f/2.8 will be more handy than the f/4.0, especially considering that my main subject at home is my son who likes dodging the camera
Tripod and Wireless Remote Controller
Tripod is a must for many shooting conditions and 'good-to-have' for most. I got myself a Manfrotto 728B Digi Tripod and found it very handy for most conditions. The tripod is rated for digital cameras and is not expected to be sturdy enough for long / heavy SLR lenses. But, I uses my Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L and Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L (both weigh more than a KG), consistently with this tripod and found it reasonably sturdy as long as I use timer or remote control triggering. Its also light enough to be carried aroud, even for some moderate treks. Using the trigger button normally, when the camera is tripod mounted partially takes away the advantage of a tripod. Unless, ofcourse, the tripod is used only to support the weight. Most cameras have an option for timer trigger, but it is not ideal when there is a possibility of the subject moving away. For example, while shooting a bird or a fly 10s is too long to wait! This is where a wireless remote triger helps. I had a Canon RC-1 Wireless Remote Control to start with, but ended up putting it in the washing machine as part of the laundry! RC-1 was obsolete by then and I had to buy a Canon RC-6 Wireless Remote Control. It works with upto 5m range and in two modes - instant shutter and a 2s delay mode. The instant shutter is preferred if in a hurry, while the 2s delay mode comes handy for group pictures. Another real utility of RC-6 is for the BULB mode exposure, where we can set the camera to use any arbitrary exposure time. In BULB mode, an RC-6 can be used to open as well as close the shutter.
An external flash is quite useful in low light conditions, especially indoors. The easiest way to use the flash is to bounce it off a white celing to provide uniform lighting. When used outdoors, this could be a little tricky as we may need an extra bouncer or diffuser. I use a low-cost Vivitar 285HV Flash and restricts its usage to indoors. It gives good results when coupled with the Manfrotto 728B Digi tripod and Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L for semi-candid portrait shots. I also used the flash with Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM Ultra Wide Angle Zoom Lens, but then the subject is mostly well aware that he/she is being photographed! With its powerful light, the Vivitar 285HV is also capable of leaving the background black (dark out-of-focus cloth / curtain kept away from the flash) or white (flash directly onto an out-of-focus wall / white sheet) to create some interesting effects. With the 180mm f/3.5L, I would use a f/6.3, 1/200s exposure and still needed ISO-800 or ISO-400 depending on the distance from the subject. Also, 180mm is a bit too long and I used to find it difficult to get full body shots. But, with Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, indoor photography is now so much easier. While I have the versatility of zooming in and out, the 4-stop IS allows me to use a 1/20s or so even at 200mm. Since, I can now use the lens zoom instead of moving away or closer to the subject, the flash output will not change. The only trouble now is that to bounce the flash off the ceiling, I will need to keep the camera in landscape orientation, while portrait orientation is ideal for most portraits. This may be solved by using the flash off-camera either using a seperate wireless hot shoe reciever or by even using a wired receiver. I still wanted to experiment with studio lighting and bought a pair of ProStar Photopro 300D Compact Studio Flash System. The pair comes with a stand, modelling lamp and an umbrella. It is rated for a 125W output for a duration of 1/3000s, with a recycling time of 2s. I also got a wireless trigger to remotely trigger the flash, which gives me the flexibility to shoot with any orientation. The easiest way to use the flash is with the soft-box, placed on either side of the camera. The pictures this way is uniformly illuminated and a 1/200s, f/4, ISO-100 exposure is enough even without any other light source. This may be fine for most pictures, but the result may look a little lifeless and flat, especially with a dull background. So, I try to use one of the lights as a rim light or hair light. Alternatively, I could remove the umbrella and just point the light to the ceiling. This is useful when I have to chase my favourite super model around the room