digital photography

Going Small – by Jack Kurtz

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A picture made with my E-P5 and the Olympus 12mm f2 lens at a clinic for Burmese refugees in Mae Sot, Thailand. I held the camera over my head and used the tilting LCD screen to compose the photo and relied on the in body image stabilization to help me with the relatively slow shutter speed of 1/20th of a second.
A picture made with my E-P5 and the Olympus 12mm f2 lens at a clinic for Burmese refugees in Mae Sot, Thailand. I held the camera over my head and used the tilting LCD screen to compose the photo and relied on the in body image stabilization to help me with the relatively slow shutter speed of 1/20th of a second.

I’ve used Canon cameras for as long as I’ve been a photographer. The first camera I used was a Canon FT-QL, a tank of a camera. The QL stood for “quick load,” a Canon innovation that made it easier to load a new roll of film into the camera. We got that FT-QL at the PX in Bangkok in 1967 or so.

Even then, Canon and Nikon were the big two of the camera companies. The others, Minolta, Olympus, Ricoh, Yashica, etc were playing catch up to the CanNik juggernaut. Leica was always in a league of its own.

Through the years I’ve flirted with other systems.

My "new" camera system. Two Olympus E-P5 bodies and Olympus lenses: 12mm f2, 25mm f1.8, 45mm f1.8 and 75mm f1.8. Also a small Olympus flash.
My “new” camera system. Two Olympus E-P5 bodies (with the VF-4 viewfinder) and Olympus lenses: 12mm f2, 25mm f1.8, 45mm f1.8 and 75mm f1.8. Also a small Olympus flash.

In the 1980s, one paper I worked at issued me Olympus OM bodies and lenses. The lenses were excellent and the bodies nice and small, but I stayed with Canon for my personal gear. In the late 1980s, another paper I worked for issued me Nikon gear, FM2 bodies and a selection of Nikon lenses. They were okay but (and this might be heresy to Nikon fans) they didn’t offer me anything the Canons didn’t, so I stayed with Canon. (Although I have to admit the Nikon FM2/FE2 are arguably the best looking 35mm SLRs ever made. Nikon nailed the aesthetics of those.) While the Olympus gear was substantially lighter than my Canon gear, the Nikon gear weighed about the same.

At the Wat Saket temple fair in Bangkok, I would have had to use a tripod if I made this picture with my Canons. The shutter speed was 1.6 seconds at f8, ISO400. I was sitting on the ground, camera braced on my knees hoping the image stabilization would help. It did.
At the Wat Saket temple fair in Bangkok, I would have had to use a tripod if I made this picture with my Canons. The shutter speed was 1.6 seconds at f8, ISO400. I was sitting on the ground, camera braced on my knees hoping the image stabilization would help. It did.

When the digital tsunami swamped the photo world I made the decision to stay with Canon. Digital cameras and lenses are so expensive and complex that the switching systems is not done on a whim (unless you’re exceptionally well heeled or enjoy the support of a camera company).

When I make the decision to switch cameras it’s a big deal. Maybe not in terms of global politics or curing Ebola but certainly in terms of my personal work.

The E-P5 is a great camera for covering politics. It's small and fast. Covering a Red Shirt political rally in Thailand, a Red Shirt leader walked through the crowd, made with my 12mm f2 lens (roughly a 24mm in full frame).
The E-P5 is a great camera for covering politics. It’s small and fast. Covering a Red Shirt political rally in Thailand, a Red Shirt leader walked through the crowd, made with my 12mm f2 lens (roughly a 24mm in full frame).

I’ve been plagued by back problems the last few months and it’s just not practical for me to carry the ridiculously heavy 5D Mark III bodies, four lenses, flashes and various doodads. I’ve been very happy with the image quality and reliability of the Canon gear, this is a decision based purely on health and weight (my health, the cameras’ weight).

I’ve been using Micro 4:3 cameras since 2010 and I’ve written about small cameras several times. But my back problems forced me to take a hard look at what I was doing and the gear I was carrying.

Let’s do the math (the weight of the gear is taken from the manufacturers’ specifications pages):

5D Mark III body: 860 grams (x2) = 1,720 grams
24mm f1.4 lens: 650 grams
50mm f1.2 lens: 545 grams
100mm f2 lens: 460 grams
200mm f2.8 lens: 765 grams
580EX2 flash (with batteries): 475 grams
430EX2 flash (with batteries): 430 grams
ST-E2 flash controller: 100 grams

Total of Canon gear: 5,145 grams (5.1 kilos = 11.3 pounds)

Olympus E-P5 body (with VF4): 420 grams (x2) = 840 grams (less than the weight of one 5D Mark III body)
12mm f2 lens (roughly a 24mm lens): 130 grams
25mm f1.8 lens (roughly a 50mm lens): 135 grams
45mm f1.8 lens (roughly a 90mm lens): 116 grams
75mm f1.8 lens (roughly a 150mm lens): 305 grams
FL300R flash: 100grams

Total of Olympus gear: 1,626 grams (1.6 kilos = 3.6 pounds)

(I don’t have to carry a separate flash controller for the E-P5 because it’s built into the body. I also have only one flash for the E-P5.)

The Olympus gear I carry weighs about 1/3 what the Canon gear weighs. That’s a lot. The Olympus lenses are excellent and almost unbelievably tiny. The 75mm f1.8, in particular, is outstanding. I think it’s as good as Canon’s 135mm f2 or 200mm f2.8.

(In the interest of full disclosure, the weight of the camera gear is only a portion of what I carry. There are also notebooks, ponchos, light meter, and misc bits of stuff. The weight on that extra stuff hasn’t changed, so I am probably still carrying more than I should.)

E-P5 with VF-4 and 25mm f1.8 next to the 5D Mark III and 50mm f1.2 L.
E-P5 with VF-4 and 25mm f1.8 next to the 5D Mark III and 50mm f1.2 L.

I’m not going to sugar coat this and say both systems are equal. That is not the case. My Canon lenses are the very fast, very expensive and very heavy L series lenses. They are some of the best lenses made. The short Olympus lenses are about 1 stop slower (my Canon 24 is f1.4, my Olympus 12 is f2, my Canon 50 is f1.2, the Olympus 25 is f1.8) but the longer lenses are the same speed or faster (the Canon 100 is f2, the Olympus 45 is f1.8 and the Canon 200 is f2.8 while the Olympus 75 is f1.8).

The Olympus gear is Micro 4:3, or a 2X crop compared to full frame. This is great from the weight and portability perspective, less good from the ISO, depth of field perspective.

Larger sensors have better high ISO characteristics because the photosites on the sensor are bigger. This gets into engineering, physics, math and a lot of stuff I don’t understand. But across camera lines, larger sensors have better high ISO characteristics. Canon full frame is better than Canon APS sized sensors and Nikon full frame is better than either Nikon APS or Nikon 1 Series cameras (which have a postage stamp sized sensor).

But, and this is important to remember, I think that for many people high ISO is over rated. That’s not to say it’s not important, it is. However, I use ISO100 a lot more often than I use ISO1600. I seldom go over ISO3200 and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve worked at ISOs higher than 6400.

I’m old. When I started photographing in color back in the early 1980s, ISO160 was considered a high ISO. Seriously. High Speed Ektachrome was the fastest available color transparency film. It was an E6 film and could be pushed one or two stops. It was bad at its base ISO of 160. It was dreadful pushed. “Normal” speed film then was Kodachrome 64 (ISO64) or Kodachrome 25 (ISO25) or Ektachrome 64 (ISO 64). Now, most digital cameras don’t even go down to ISO 64 and I don’t know of any that go down to ISO 25.

Our high ISO black and white film was either Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP-5, base ISO of 400, pushed to 1600 and developed in a witches’ brew of homemade chemicals. Photographers then didn’t sit around talking about which sensor was better. We traded secrets for push processing film. (This is predating Kodak’s T-Max 3200.)

Buddhist monks at a mass merit making ceremony in central Bangkok. Made with the 45mm lens (roughly a 90mm in full frame terms).
Buddhist monks at a mass merit making ceremony in central Bangkok. Made with the 45mm lens (roughly a 90mm in full frame terms).

(This was early in my color photography days. Color films got a lot better at high ISO pretty quickly, but even at the end of my color film photography days “high” ISO meant 800 pushed to 1600, so we’re much better off now than we were then.)

Clean high ISO is important to me but the high ISO of modern digital cameras is amazing. I have no problem going to 1600 with the E-P5 and 3200 is usable with noise reduction in Lightroom. The 5D Mark III has about a 1 to 1.5 stop advantage at high ISO, I just don’t routinely need those super high ISOs. High ISO of modern cameras, including the E-P5 and Olympus bodies, just blows away anything we could coax out of film back in the day.

It’s important to know what kind of photography you do. If I did a lot of sports or worked at high ISO a lot this would be a bigger deal to me.

Finally, Olympus’ in body image stabilization is excellent and makes up for some of the high ISO deficit. I can handhold the Olympus cameras at shutter speeds that would either force me into using a tripod or higher ISO on the Canons.

The other big difference is depth of field control. I really like working with my Canon lenses at f1.4 or 1.2 or 2, “wide open” or close to it. The shallow depth of field and large sensor create a great look that I can’t equal with the Olympus, which has a smaller sensor.

Because of the math, f1.8 on the Olympus 25mm has about the same depth of field as the Canon 50mm has at f3.5. F3.5 might be a wide f stop for some photographers, especially zoom users, but for me it’s the middle of the pack. I still work at f1.8 or f2, I’ve just had to get used to not having the same super thin depth of field I had with the Canons.

The glass is half full take on this is that I have more photos in focus. As good as the autofocus is on the 5D Mark III (and it is very good), working at 1.2 or f1.4 means missed focus by only a few inches can throw your picture unusably out of focus. There’s a greater fudge factor with M4:3 because it has more depth of field at the same f stop.

Those are some of the tangible issues with using Micro 4:3. There’s also the intangibles. When I use the Canons people the people I photograph react differently to me. They are stiffer, more formal. When I use the Olympus, probably because it’s so much smaller and less intimidating, people don’t take me as seriously, which I prefer.

I am keeping the Canon gear for the time being, just in case I have to cover an event that’s a bad match for the Olympus kit (sports for example) but now when you see me on the street I’ll be working with the Olympus gear rather than the Canon gear.

Using the 12mm f2 at the Ganesh festival in Bangkok.
Using the 12mm f2 at the Ganesh festival in Bangkok.

Flash Way, Way Off Camera – by Jack Kurtz

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People gather around the body of Apiwan Wiriyachai to pay their respects at the Red Shirt's funeral.
People gather around the body of Apiwan Wiriyachai to pay their respects at the Red Shirt’s funeral. This photo was made with available light.

I recently photographed the first day of funeral rites for Apiwan Wiriyachai, a former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Thai parliament. It’s always a good idea when you’re using a small flash to get the flash off the camera. Properly done off camera flash makes the light more interesting and more natural. That’s pretty much impossible with the small popup flashes that are on top of most cameras these days or when you’re working in a media pack.

Apiwan’s funeral was a big media event. There were probably 30 photographers gathered around the body photographing as people paid their respects. Most of them were using flash, almost all of them either the small popup flashes built into their cameras or large accessory flashes but all of them, every single one of them, had the flash on the camera.* Most had the flash pointed straight ahead but a few were “bouncing” their flashes off the ceiling. I was working exclusively with available light.

The room was lit by fluorescent tubes and combining fluorescent and flash creates all sorts of color balance issues. I’ve found it’s much easier to edit and do color correction if there’s only one light source in  the photo. The base exposure at ISO800 was around f1.8 at between 1/60th and 1/250th (depending on whether people were looking up or down) and Apiwan was covered in a shiny white shawl so I was comfortable working with available light.

A photo from the same sequence as the top photo but a couple of minutes later. My exposure caught the blast of flash from another photographer's camera. The highlights in this frame are completely blown out, rendering it unusable.
A photo from the same sequence as the top photo but a couple of minutes later. My exposure caught the blast of flash from another photographer’s camera. The highlights in this frame are completely blown out, rendering it unusable.

As I was working I could see that I was going to have a lot of unusable frames. Other photographers’ flashes were going off with machine gun like rapidity.

A couple of times the flash was just discrete enough that I could piggy back off of it.

The other photographer's flash in this case helped me. It provided a nice directional light that doesn't completely overpower the photo.
The other photographer’s flash in this case helped me. It provided a nice directional light that doesn’t completely overpower the photo. I burned down Apiwan’s white uniform a little in Lightroom.
Seconds earlier, I made this frame, available light.
Seconds earlier, I made this frame, available light.

It’s impossible to predict at the moment that you’re making pictures what effect other people’s flashes will have on your photos. There are a lot of variables.

With the exception of a couple of motion blur photos I made, I was working at f1.8 to f2.2, wide open, or close to it, all day. It doesn’t take as much flash to expose at f1.8 as it does f8. If the photographer whose flash I was piggy backing off was shooting at wider apertures (and putting out less flash) I ended up with an interesting picture. If he (they were all male) was working at f11 or blasting away with the flash, I ended up with a blown out frame.

Available light, I didn't capture any other flashes in this frame.
Available light, I didn’t capture any other flashes in this frame.
Seconds later this frame was ruined by the blast of another photographer's flash.
Seconds later this frame was ruined by the blast of another photographer’s flash. There is no detail in the white and any attempts to burn it down just turns it an ugly gray.

I could see the flashes going off around me and I knew from experience that I was going to have a difficult time editing. It’s impossible to predict when another photographer’s flash is going to help you and when it’s going to wreck your photo. I made a lot more frames than I normally would have because I was I trying to work around the photographers’ flashes.

 

* There’s a protocol when you’re working in a media scrum like this. Normally, a professional photographer would get the flash off the camera and either put it on a light stand or hold it out at arm’s length (or ask a nearby civilian to hold it for you). But you don’t have those options when you’re in a scrum. If I hold a flash in my hand and then stick my hand out to get the flash off camera I’m going to end up blocking another photographer’s view. The idea in a scrum is to make yourself as small as possible so you don’t block other photographers.

Man On Fire – by Jack Kurtz

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A man runs through the fire pit during the firewalking at Wat Yannawa.
A man runs through the fire pit during the firewalking at Wat Yannawa.

The Vegetarian Festival just ended in Thailand. The festival is celebrated in Chinese communities throughout Thailand. Bangkok generally gets dismissed as a Veg Fest destination but with hundreds of thousands of Thais of Chinese ancestry in Bangkok, it’s mostly a matter of knowing where to go to enjoy the Vegetarian Festival.

Wat Yannawa is a couple of blocks south of the Saphan Taksin BTS station (you can see the temple from the station) but most people go north on the river towards “old” Bangkok and bypass the temple.

The temple is a part of Bangkok’s history though. The Chao Phraya River used to be Thailand’s gateway to the world. The tall ships and 19th century steamers dropped anchor and unloaded their freight at piers along the river. Foreign embassies were along the riverfront. Chinese junks used to drop anchor near a pier at what is now Wat Yannawa. Tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants coming to Thailand made landfall at that pier. In some ways, it’s Thailand’s “Ellis Island.” Because of its role in the Chinese influx into Thailand it hosts one of the city’s better Vegetarian Festival ceremonies.

A man waits for the food distribution to start at Wat Yannawa.
A man waits for the food distribution to start at Wat Yannawa. Food distributions for poorer members of the community are a regular part of the observances of religious holidays in Thailand.

I’ve always consider myself pretty lucky when it comes to photographing religious and cultural events in Thailand. Whether it’s Buddhist events, like Vesak or Hindu events like the Ganesh Festival or Muslim holidays like Eid al Adha or any of the many cultural events here, I’ve always been able to cover them pretty much the way I want to.

I call it “luck” but that’s not really accurate. Even though I don’t plan it out, I try to pay attention to local customs and respect local traditions. And although I’m not a very patient person or one who’s good at “hanging out” and seeing what happens, sometimes that’s exactly what it takes.

I went to Wat Yannawa in search of Vegetarian Festival events. I had seen banners advertising the Vegetarian Festival on walls near the temple so I wandered down there not knowing what to expect. I got down there about 1.30PM and planned to just hang out. Because I wanted to photograph religious events I was dressed in white – white slacks and a white shirt (Buddhists traditionally wear white when they go to temples for religious ceremonies).

When I cover a religious or cultural event I dress appropriately.

I chose to wear white not because I wanted to camouflage myself or pass myself off as a Buddhist, which would have been dishonest and, with my cameras, pointless. People would have seen through the subterfuge in a second. Wearing white was about respect. I didn’t want to disrespect the people I was photographing.

A crowd was gathering for the food distribution and people were praying at shrines set up in the parking lots specifically for the Festival. I’ve been photographing Vegetarian Festival events all week in Bangkok, so I didn’t photograph very much at this time. I mostly watched.

I photographed a Vegetarian Festival procession on Yaowarat Rd in the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown last week.
I photographed a Vegetarian Festival procession on Yaowarat Rd in the heart of Bangkok’s Chinatown last week.

In the middle of the afternoon a truck delivered a big load of charcoal and dropped it in the middle of a parking lot. I took that as a good sign because firewalking ceremonies are held on beds of burning charcoal. The prayer services ended and I was getting ready to go outside the temple to get a bite to eat when a couple invited me to join them at their table for the vegetarian banquet that was coming.

They didn’t speak much English and I don’t speak Thai, but we enjoyed a great meal of Thai-Chinese vegetarian dishes like stewed duck (with tofu playing the role of the duck), and pork (with tofu playing the role of the pork). It’s a good thing I like tofu because I ate a lot of it at the Vegetarian Festival banquet.

A fire tender keeps the coals hot.
A fire tender keeps the coals hot.

After dinner people gathered for another prayer service and procession. The procession circled the parking lot (which had been turned into a large shrine) three times, each time around the parking lot people stepped over a small pot of burning coals. A couple of tourists showed up halfway through the procession.

This is where dressing appropriately pays off. They were dressed in shorts and tee shirts. One of the attendants at the service asked them to stay at the edge of the ceremony while I was allowed to wander freely and photograph. While he was talking to them, he specifically pointed at their clothes. They stayed for about 10 minutes but left before the main event started.

A man runs through the fire pit at Wat Yannawa.
A man runs through the fire pit at Wat Yannawa.

The procession ended with a clash of cymbals and people moved over to the fire pit. A few men and women lined up at the end of the fire pit while men tending the fire stirred the coals and sprayed it with alcohol (to keep things toasty).

Then men and women ran through the coals. The whole time I photographed freely.

A man comes out of the smoke holding a statue above his head.
A man comes out of the smoke holding a statue above his head.

I tried to be as respectful as I could. Showing respect at an event like this is a complicated equation. I am there to photograph it but I don’t want to interfere or lessen the experience for the participants. At the same time, I need to make pictures that accurately capture the emotion and reality of what’s going on around me.

A firewalker goes into a trance before crossing the burning coals.
A firewalker goes into a trance before crossing the burning coals.

Showing respect means sometimes using lenses longer than I normally would – at this firewalking ceremony I mostly used my 50mm and 100mm lenses when I normally would have used my 24mm and 40mm lenses. It meant moving to a vantage point that was not as clean as I would have liked because the best vantage point would have obstructed the view of participants.

Covering events like this is frequently as much about overcoming obstacles as it is pushing the shutter button. It’s about dressing appropriately, being patient and working respectfully.

Do Megapixels Matter? – by Jack Kurtz

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This picture was made with my Olympus E-P5, a 16 megapixel camera. It was turned into a mural and hangs in BMW's North American headquarters. You don't need 30+ megapixels to do high end work.
This picture was made with my Olympus E-P5, a 16 megapixel camera. It was turned into a mural 5 feet wide and hangs in BMW’s North American headquarters.

The answer is yes, but the bigger question is “how many megapixels is enough?” That’s a much more complicated question to answer.

I’ve been working with digital cameras since 1997. The first event I covered with a digital camera was the 50th anniversary of the UFO crash in Roswell, NM. The camera I had then, the EOS DCS3,  was a loaner from Canon. It came with a whopping 260 megabytes of storage on a built in internal hard drive and shot 1.3 megapixel pictures that measured 1,268 horizontal x 1,012 vertical pixels. I had to hook the camera up to my laptop with a SCSI (pronounced “scuzzy”) connector because the storage was not removable from the camera.

Once you got past the cool factor (no need to process film or scan negatives) using it was a pretty miserable experience. Your exposures had to be perfect. Overexposed highlights had a god awful and uncorrectable magenta color cast. Blocked up shadows had so much digital noise (grain) even an ISO200 photo looked like it was made at ISO3200.

And then there was the file size. 1.3 megapixels: 1,268 horizontal x 1,012 vertical pixels. Most newspapers were printing color photos at 200 dots per inch. A medium sized photo that was eight inches wide needed to be about 1,600 pixels wide (200 X 8). We had to upsize most pictures just to get them to the resolution needed to run them at the size the newspaper wanted. Cropping meant more upsizing, which led to image degradation.

It’s the reason so many photographers then worked with both film and digital bodies. Film for most of our work, digital when we knew we had to turn it around right away.

When I was issued a Canon D30 (not to be confused with the 30D. I mean really, what was Canon thinking when they named their cameras?), with its 3 megapixel sensor I thought I was in heaven. Three megapixels meant we could actually do a little cropping and didn’t have to upsize every single photo.

The first digital camera I bought for myself (as opposed to using cameras issued to me) was the Canon D60 (not to be confused with the 60D). It weighed in at a whopping six megapixels (3152 x 2068 pixels) and was the first digital camera, that for me, came close to achieving what I could with film. The negative scanner I had at the time (for my film cameras), was a Nikon LS-2000 Super CoolScan. It output files that were 2700 pixels on the long dimension which was a little smaller than the files from the D60.

Canon, and other camera companies, kept upping the megapixel ante. The EOS 20D was an eight megapixel camera (3520×2344 pixels) and offered enough file size that we could comfortably crop pictures if we needed to.

The Canon EOS 5D was a 12 megapixel (4368 x 2912 pixels) and for me this was the first camera that caused me to ask – “how many megapixels is too many megapixels?”

One of the advantages of coming of photographic age in the days of color transparency film and early digital cameras was that you had to have strong technical skills, the ability to fill the frame when you shoot, properly expose the picture and working within the parameters of color balance and color temperature. The better your original exposure, the less work you had to do to the digital file and that almost always translated to a better picture in the newspaper.

With the tremendous latitude of the 5D raw files and generous size of the files you could make a lot of mistakes and then fix them on the computer.

I was covering an event in Yuma, Arizona, for a wire service and after I transmitted my photos, the editor in Washington DC complimented a specific frame but said it was a little too loose. He asked what camera I was using and when I told him I had the 5D he told me to crop the picture by about 40% and send it again. When I hesitated he said something like, “come on, that’s a 12MP file. It can take it.” I would not have been able to crop that file if I had made it with my old three megapixel D30.

Canon has held steady at about 22 megapixels (5616 x 3744 pixels) for a few years now (both the 5D Mark II and 5D Mark III are basically 22MP cameras). But Nikon and Sony have stormed the megapixel gates with 36 megapixel cameras. Both cameras use sensors made by Sony.

Even smaller cameras, like APS format cameras and Micro 4:3 are raising their megapixel counts. Nikon’s APS cameras are about 24MP and Canon’s right around 20MP. Olympus and Panasonic Micro 4:3 cameras are 16 megapixels (4608 x 3456 pixels).

You have to ask yourself, do you need 36 megapixels? For most people I think the answer is no. There are real disadvantages to these megapixel behemoths.

The first one, and one that a lot of people don’t think about, is that all that resolution really stresses your lenses. It’s no coincidence that Zeiss and Sigma are both coming out with very high grade lenses that in most cases test better than the Canon or Nikon lenses (even the high end pro grade lenses from Canon and Nikon) they compete with. Older and inexpensive kit lenses are out resolved by the bodies they’re marketed with.

These pro level lenses are very expensive. Canon’s 24-70 f2.8 L zoom is about $2,100 (US). Canon’s 85mm f1.2 L prime lens, a legendary lens, is also about $2,100, which seems cheap compared to the Zeiss 85mm f1.4 which will you set back an astonishing $4,500.

The second drawback is storage. I can get about 270 full resolution 22MP files onto an eight gigabyte card. Doing the math, the 36MP Nikon and Sony files are about 36% bigger than the 5D Mark III 22MP files (give or take). The eight gig card in my 5D Mark III, that holds 270 images, will only hold about 190 images from a 36MP camera.

Now extend this throughout your workflow. How many files can you get on your two terabyte hard drive? Divide that by ⅓. If you plan to get by using one 2TB hard drive for your images for the year (what I am on track to use this year) you need to buy at least a 3TB drive.

How long does it take to import and edit your files in Lightroom? It’s going to take longer, in the case of importing files, a lot longer, to do the same work if you’re shooting 36MP files.

For me, the the 16 -22 megapixel files from the Olympus or Panasonic Micro 4:3 or current Canon cameras have emerged as the sweet spot. I think they’re a good choice, especially for photographers who know what they’re doing, what Thom Hogan, who recently wrote about this, would call an “optimal” photographer.

By that I mean photographers who would consider themselves intermediate level or higher. They understand the principles of filling the frame, they have the right selection of lenses and they use their equipment to its full potential. (Lens selection is not universal and depends on what you photograph. A sports or wildlife photographer needs long fast lenses, a street photographer needs lenses in 24mm to 100mm range, in full frame terms, and someone who photographs bugs and flowers needs macro lenses.)

It’s interesting that both Nikon and Canon have, for the time being, held their high end professional cameras (the D4S and 1D X) to under 20 megapixels. These are the cameras they sell to their most discerning customers.

A lot of this depends on what the final use of your photos is. If you’re photos are mostly going online, whether on a personal blog or Facebook, I can guarantee you that 36 megapixels is overkill. Heck, the 16MP of the Micro 4:3 cameras is overkill for those uses.

If you’re printing your photos, it depends on the size of your prints.

Sixteen megapixels can be printed to at least 15 inches on the long dimension (at 300 dots per inch – 4608 ÷ 300 = 15.36). With careful editing and resizing you can easily print 16 X 20, assuming you don’t crop too much.

American Frame, one of the many online print vendors, recommends a minimum print resolution of 130 dpi (minimum meaning the lowest recommended resolution, not the best resolution). At that resolution, a 16MP camera will allow you to make a 24″ X 36″ print. That’s a big print. A full resolution file from a 36MP camera at the same resolution can be printed to 30″ X 45″, which isn’t really that much bigger. A photo I made with my Olympus E-P5, a 16MP camera, was turned into a mural 5 feet wide (1.5 meters) and hangs in the BMW North America headquarters. They didn’t come back and ask for a bigger file (although I did send them the original raw file so their printer could upsize to their specifications).

What 36 megapixels does give you is wiggle room. If you’re photographing something that requires a 400mm or 500mm lens, for example, and all you have is a 300mm lens, the extra resolution of your 36MP camera means you can comfortably crop in to a view you would get with that longer lens. If you regularly find yourself in the position of having to significantly crop your images that drastically you should either buy a longer lens or refine your technique.

There are some people whose work requires the 36MP or higher cameras. They’re high end commercial photographers who work for the most discerning clients and have the cash flow to support those cameras.

Not everybody, not even all professional photographers fall into that category.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about using Micro 4:3 cameras and how we were moving past the one size fits all era of digital cameras, into a time of different digital formats for different purposes. The 36MP cameras from Nikon and Sony represent that trend. Those cameras, although they accept lenses designed for traditional dSLRs, really compete more with medium format cameras, like the Pentax 645D.  I’m comfortable with 22 megapixels from the 5D Mark III and 16 megapixels from the Micro 4:3 cameras.

Seeing Red – by Jack Kurtz

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A Burmese woman wearing a red blouse was sweeping the street in front of her home in the jungle in western Thailand. One of the reasons I think this picture works is that red and green play off each other. This picture would not have worked if the blouse had been blue or yellow.
Subtle use of red. A Burmese woman wearing a red blouse was sweeping the street in front of her home in the jungle in western Thailand. One of the reasons I think this picture works is that red and green play off each other. This picture would not have worked if the blouse had been blue or yellow.

I’m a part of a group of photographers who meets regularly in Bangkok. We enjoy a good meal, talk about photography and make a group assignment – something we’re supposed to photograph in the coming month. This time around the assignment was “Red.”

Burmese hats for sale in a market in Sangkhla Buri, Thailand. There was just one red one in the pile.
Burmese hats for sale in a market in Sangkhla Buri, Thailand. There was just one red one on top of a stack of hats.

The challenge on an assignment like this is not to photograph something red, but to make an interesting photo of red.

Red doesn’t even have to be the dominant color – because it elicits such strong emotions, just a tiny bit of red in the frame can have a profound affect on your picture. Think of the little girl in red in Steven Spielberg’s otherwise black and white film “Schindler’s List.”

A window in a Burmese temple near Sangkhla Buri. The window shutter was a brilliant red.
A window in a Burmese temple near Sangkhla Buri. The window shutter was a brilliant red.

I didn’t go up to Sangkhla Buri to photograph red. I was working on a story about a bridge up there. I spent a morning wandering around in the Mon community and I was seeing red everywhere I turned. Not usually in a big way, but in lots of little ways, like the in the photo of the woman sweeping the bridge.

It certainly helped that red is such a powerful color. Even in the photo of the hats, where the dominant color sort of an earth tone bamboo, which has red in it, the red in the hat on the left really pops. Red is to color photography what garlic is to chicken – it always makes it better. But you have to be careful not to use too much or it completely overwhelms the photo.

Nothing subtle about this. Red chilies in a red basket on top of a pile of red chilies. Probably too much red.
Nothing subtle about this. Red chilies in a red basket on top of a pile of red chilies. Probably too much red.

Photo Tip: Split Tone Images – by Sabrina Henry

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Some of you may be familiar with split tone images but for those who are not, here is a little background information before we dive in today. Split toning has its roots in the days of film when photographers would tint the highlights and shadows of their black and white images using various chemical processes. Today these processes can be carried out digitally although some would argue that they cannot be completely replicated using Lightroom or Photoshop.

In this post I am going to share an image I made during my recent trip to the American Midwest, specifically Indiana, and to use it to demonstrate a few split tone techniques. We visited an old cemetery with markers going back to the early 1800’s. This is the colour version of the photograph.

Colour

It was a very hot day and the light was quite harsh. To me, this version did not give the feeling of deep history that surrounded us. The light lay everything bare and this was little sense of connection with the past which was of course, completely untrue.

At first, after processing the RAW file, I decided to work on the mood by converting it to black and white which seemed much more appropriate for an image highlighting something from the 1800’s. This is the black and white image.

indiana cemetery

In general I was much happier with it than the colour image because I was beginning to evoke a sense of a connection to a time gone by. Still I felt the image could be improved. So I decided to use the Split Tone panel in the Develop module of Lightroom to further enhance the image and this is the result.

indiana cemetery split tone

In this image I have processed the highlights by accentuating the yellows and toning the blues in the shadows. Using opposite colours for highlights and shadows is generally the best approach because you add depth to the image that you don’t quite get by applying the same treatment to both. The differences are quite subtle between the black and white version and the split tone but I feel the image comes much closer to conveying the feeling of being there. Of course the best way to find out what works for you is to play around in the digital darkroom and it’s far easier than in the good old days of film.

While the split tone technique is most commonly applied to black and white images, you can also apply it to colour images as well. To find out more, check out Gavin Gough’s Photographer’s Post-Production videos available here.

Make Your Time Count – by Jack Kurtz

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Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha walks over to shrine to pray before meeting with his cabinet for the first time.
Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha walks over to a shrine to pray before meeting with his cabinet for the first time. This is the first frame I made when the event started. Made with a 280mm lens – the 200mm lens and 1.4X teleconverter.

One of the things I’ve noticed while I’m leading workshops is that when people find something they want to photograph, they tend to make one or two photos and then move onto something else.

Back in the days of film, every frame we exposed cost money, the film, something we had a limited supply of, cost money and processing cost money. It was easy to spend $15 (US) on a roll of 36 exposure film and processing.

The economics with digital are completely different. Yes, memory cards cost money and they hold a finite number of exposures. But memory cards are reusable, and the number of frames they hold is an order of magnitude higher than the number of exposures on a roll of film. I carry eight 8 gigabyte cards with me when I go out with my 16 megapixel Micro 4:3 camera. Each cards holds approximately 300 frames, or more than 8 rolls of 36 exposure 35mm film. We are not bound by the same limits we were when we worked with film.

Now, the biggest expense we incur when we travel for photography is the getting there. With digital, the actual photography part is nearly free (I know, we’ve spent money on cameras, lenses, cards etc, but those are one time expenses, not ongoing ones like film was). We owe it to ourselves as photographers to fully explore a scene and make the most of the situation.

This doesn’t mean setting motor drive to 10 frames per second, leaning on the shutter button and blasting through gigabytes of card storage. It does mean exploring the scene, working it different lenses and lighting. Looking for the perfect moment, when your subject’s eyes are open (or closed if that’s what you’re going for), the right expression and the best composition.

Prime Minister Prayuth prays in front of the shrine.
Prime Minister Prayuth prays in front of the shrine. Made with a 50mm lens. Not my flash. The exposure was timed perfectly with another photographer’s flash. It was luck. 

I recently photographed the Thai Prime Minister before his first cabinet meeting. The event I was photographing lasted roughly 4.5 minutes. The PM came out to a shrine, said some prayers and walked back to his office. That was it.

In that time, using three cameras, I made just over 100 frames. I used three cameras because I don’t use zooms. I needed multiple focal length lenses but there wasn’t time to change lenses so I photographed with three lenses on three cameras. I used a 280mm lens (a 200mm lens with a 1.4X teleconverter) for the long photos of the PM walking to the shrine and very tight portraits. I used a 100mm lens for photos of the PM praying and I used a 50mm lens for wider pictures of the PM walking around the shrine. If I used zooms, I would have used just two cameras but it would not have been possible to cover this event they way I wanted to cover it with just one camera.

PM Prayuth lights candles at the shrine. Made with a 100mm f2 lens.
PM Prayuth lights candles at the shrine. Made with a 100mm f2 lens.

I didn’t mindlessly motor through the event. In fact, I set my cameras to the slower settings (four frames per second) specifically because I didn’t want to mindlessly motor. But I was “working” the entire time the PM was at the shrine. Jockeying for a position among the other photographers, working different lenses to get different perspectives. Some pictures made with flash on (for fill flash) but most with flash off. Worried about making sure the PM had his eyes open etc.

I did not check my cameras’ LCDs while I was working. That would have been too much of a distraction. I did, before the PM came out for his moment, make test exposures with each camera and lens so I knew everything was working but once the event started I focused on making pictures.

And it's over. The next to last photo I made of PM Prayuth (in the last photo his back was turned). 280mm lens, 4.5 minutes after I made the first frame.
And it’s over. The next to last photo I made of PM Prayuth (in the last photo his back was turned). 280mm lens, 4.5 minutes after I made the first frame.

You may not be photographing the Prime Minister or some other celebrity but you owe it to yourself to work the scene or whatever you’re photographing every bit as hard as you would if you were photographing the PM (or whatever subject you’re passionate about). And don’t worry about getting every frame perfect. We learn from our mistakes, so if you’re satisfied with every frame, you’re either a) an amazing photographer or b) not pushing yourself hard enough.