Monday, March 22, 2010

Slo mo dogs

Digital video technology has come a long way.

Top of the line high speed video at around 1500 frames per second in full 1080 HD resolution is quite an achievement in the Phantom camera.

I found this short video of dogs shot at 1000 fps using this camera.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Finding a tripod

I remember the discussion that I had with my auto mechanic about whether to buy a cheap replacement exhaust system for my car back when I was newly married and cash strapped.  I had just started to work, had student loans to pay and was trying (without good success) to keep ahead of my debt.

A regular exhaust was affordable (only just) and the stainless steel one was about 3 times the cost.  For me it was a "no-brainer".  Why would I pay 3 times the amount for stainless steel - particularly since my car was an old clunker anyway?

Roughly a year later I'd have the same conversation and after three years I'd have paid what the stainless steel exhaust would have cost me on cheap exhausts that were rusting out on me.  I never learned the lesson...

It is true that almost every photographer makes the same mistake - at least once - with their tripod.

Look at it this way.  You can get a regular tripod at a consumer store for around $160 or so.  It has all the moving parts and adjustments and is relatively light-weight.  It also does the job.  A good tripod costs around $500 and is accessorized so that you have to buy the "head" that attaches to the top for around $200.  Of course you can spend a lot more than this.  The problem is that this is very close to what it costs to buy a really good entry level digital SLR or a nice new lens!

My shopping list for my camera is:
  1. Body with stock lens (2004)
  2. Short zoom (portrait) (2005)
  3. Long zoom (wildlife) (2008)
  4. 50mm f1.8 (portrait and other cool images) (2009)
  5. new body with great low light  capabilities (2009)
  6. really wide angle lens (zoom or fisheye) (TBD)
  7. A faster (more expensive) zoom for wildlife (TBD)
I have worked my way to item #5 and you'll notice that the tripod doesn't even feature on this list.

I had a tripod to start with, an old video camera tripod made of aluminum with clip releases for the legs.  We bought it years ago and the connection that the camera screws into at the top was loose and wobbly and the leg clips were starting to slip.

I got a great tripod from my family for my birthday in 2008 and it went with me to Africa but after two years the entire center column assembly is wobbly even when properly tightened and it will not stay exended even when tightened down.  Plus (and this is a big deal) it vibrates badly in ways that I can't stabilize in wind.

I do own a Manfrotto monopod.  It was given to me as a gift by a good friend of ours who is also a passionate photographer.  It is fantastic for sports photography but as you can imagine doesn't hold up to low light even if it is standing on the built-in fold out legs (it vibrates very easily).  Its main purpose is to keep the weight of the big 100-400mm lens off me and stable enough for the high shutter speeds that you aim for in sport photography.

I guess I have to add in at number 5.5, a new tripod.

So - I am looking for suggestions!  I have a friend and colleague who is the most thorough researcher I know when it comes to what the next camera is to buy.  I am hoping that he is inspired to do some tripod research!

Here is what I have heard you need in a tripod at an NECCC conference presentation:
  • sturdy and light
  • buy a good one - it is one of the few things that you could keep for your photographic lifetime
  • forget about center columns, buy a tripod that can extend to at least your head height without a center column.
  • get a tripod head that allows you to rotate the camera through all planes (I have a video tripod head at the moment which only allows tilt forward and back - the only lens that works well on this is the one that has a rotating bezel that you can screw onto the tripod that allows a portrait to landscape rotation once it is mounted)
Today on my way to work I listened to the excellent podcast TWIP (this week in photography) and I think it was Ron Brinkmann who mentioned a make of tripod that is carbon fiber and not crazy expensive.  A quick look at their web site (the are called Feisol) is promising.

I think that I am going to have some trouble with height though.  Their longest extension for a Fisol tripod without a center column is around 4.5ft for the tournament class tripod but the prices look low compared to what I have come to expect.

What thoughts?

      Monday, March 1, 2010


      Great Blue Heron
      I was given a zoom lens by my family for a birthday present in 2006. The lens was not really a very long lens (by the standards of wildlife photographers) with 28-135mm range.  With digital cameras' sensors being a little smaller than the 35mm film that SLR cameras use, the lens was effectively the same as a 40-200mm zoom.

      Even with this zoom, wildlife is pretty inaccessible. I bought a camouflage mesh mosquito netting to drape over me so that I could lie near our bird feeder and get pictures of chipmunks, squirrels and birds, much to the amusement of my family.

      When we decided to go back to South Africa for a visit in 2008, I saved up and bought a 100-400mm zoom lens, one of those white Canon lenses that you see professional photographers lugging around. The lens is expensive, one of Canon's high-end lenses (although at $1400 it is about a third of the cost of the really high-end equivalent that sports photographers use).

      When I first got the zoom lens I went off with two friends from our Camera Club to a local state reserve to try to photograph birds.

      In the meadow behind our house we had seen some wild deer. This meadow is linked to some open woods and reservation land between the highway and the next town and the deer roam freely there. They are very shy and it is almost impossible to come upon them without a snort and the sight of their white tails bounding off into the distance.

      They are called White-tailed deer and are indigenous to this area. Back in the day (when the European settlers first landed here) their numbers were contained by wolves and by being hunted by the Native Americans who lived here. Over the years, encroaching settlements and hunting thinned their numbers until in the early 1900's there were fewer than 1000 counted in Massachusetts.

      Of course since then, legislative efforts and a reduction in hunting (both as a result of the laws and a lower interest in the sport around urban areas) has seen a resurgence in their population.

      The deer population today is in the vicinity of 85 000 which makes them a problem. They have a tick that feeds on them called the deer tick.  This tick can carry a parasite that causes a disease called Lymes Disease.  It can be treated if found early enough but is debilitating if left to incubate in your body. After the initial symptoms if untreated it hangs about undetected and appears with severe symptoms (heart, central nervous system, arthritis etc.)

      The deer ticks in our meadow are enough to drive us out of there during the summer. Matt had the characteristic bulls eye that can be the early symptoms of lymes disease one year and had to be treated with a very strong course of antibiotics.

      I spent some days in our meadow with my mosquito netting draped over me waiting for an opportunity to photograph one of these animals. You can imagine how exciting it is to look up and see one standing no more than about 20m (60ft) away from you - usually staring intently at you because even though you may not be immediately visible, they can sense you.

      I happened upon a buck on a walk that I took in this meadow one day in the summer. This was purely by accident and I stopped dead when I saw it. I was behind it and it had not noticed me so I was able to get my camera ready in time to get a few shots of it as it noticed me, stared intently at me to try to figure out what I was and then decided to run.  The buck are magnificent animals. They grow these antlers that have a velvet covering on them over the course of the year and are far less frequently seen than the females.

      There is a nature reserve near my work that I visit occasionally. With the new lens I discovered two things about the deer that live in this reserve: they are not as shy as those in our meadow and you can learn how to spot them in the woods as you are walking despite their well disguised coloration. So after a few trips there, I have had good success in spotting and photographing the deer in this reserve. I happen upon them almost every time that I go there and have been able to get quite close to them on several occasions.

      This past week we had a tremendous storm that brought hurricane force winds to us. I decided to take a detour to the reserve on my way from work on Friday. I seemed to be the only person wandering around the reserve which was littered with fallen trees and broken branches. I came around a corner and saw a deer a few meters off the path with its ears pricked up looking at me. I stopped dead and saw that there were at least 5 more of them grazing off to the left. It watched me for a few seconds and bounded off without the rest of them taking note.

      I got my camera ready and walked as slowly as I could to a large tree off to the right. Once there I was able to get ready for them - I suspected that they would go off in the same direction as the first one had which would bring them into a direct line for me.

      In club competition there is a category for nature photography. In order to do well in this category you need to have extremely sharp images - particularly around the face and eyes - and you are given additional credit if the images tell a good nature story. The things that really count against you are objects that distract from the subject - for example branches that are too bright, or in the way. In the woods it is really hard to shoot a deer without having some branches between you and them.

      I stood still for a few minutes before the deer started to move. They are naturally fairly curious so if you are standing really still and they hear the sound of your camera shutter they will often look up, notice you and then stand and stare at you for a long time before making their minds up to bolt or simply move on.

      I was able to photograph just about each of them as they moved across in front of me over the path.