Your Camera As A Conversation Starter

My Nex 5N in one of its many guises, in this case as 24mm fixed high speed street shooter

One often hears of photographers using a particular camera because of its stealth fighter like characteristics with the mystical ability to somehow cover the photographer with the Harry Potter cloak of invisibility.  Many Leicaphiles of course make such claims,  as do those using Sony RX1s and similar tools , though as I have often said "you want stealth?.  Use an iPhone". No one will give you a second glance!

On the flip side of the coin, other "aspiring to be pro" photographers ask " what can I get so people know I am the "pro of the show" my response, forget it, how you handle yourself and the your gear will mark you as a "Pro" unless of course you really want to go mad with big tripods, medium format and studio lights. Short of going to extremes the only people who will think "there goes the Pro of the show” will be the true "gear heads" who actually know their D3s from D100s.  

In truth I reckon despite protestations to the contrary a great many folk, if totally honest  ( Leica owners included) buy their expensive gear because they want to be noticed and recognized for their impeccable taste and conspicuous affluence.  Basically having owned a huge array of gear over the years I can tell you in absolute brutal honesty, you’re kidding yourselves and wasting a lot of money in the process if this is your motivation, almost no-one cares what you are shooting with.

But a camera can be a great conversation starter and when on holidays in a foreign land might be just the ticket to find out a little more about the locals and open up some useful dialogue. 

And here in lies today's little lesson, if your camera is going to fire up some verbal banter it will need to be something different, and no that does not mean the latest Canon DSLR, I mean something that looks clearly different to a ubiquitous black bodied DSLR.  When I think about the people with cameras I saw on our recent overseas holidays there are only a very few that made me take a second glance.  In fact I can say exactly who they were, and lets not forget I actually do know the difference between a D3 and a D800 etc .

Who were these people then? A Japanese girl having a fine time lying on her stomach with a Fuji X100, a middle aged fellow shooting a 5x4 Toyo Monorail View Camera, another with a pristine Canon F1 (film camera) and a young guy with an RB67 Mamiya.  That's it, sorry but all those Nikon D800, Canon 5Ds etc, I didn't notice you.

Before going to the US and Canada on both previous trips I spent quite some time sorting out my NEX 5n kit, I made all sorts of accessories including handgrips, optical viewfinders, stabilizing straps etc.  All the bits were chosen and made to improve the flexibility of the tool and to make shooting easier, additionally I made several ergonomic modifications to the NEX 5n body.

The last thing on my mind was "hey this custom rig is going to get me noticed", frankly I am not a gregarious sort, I enjoy quite introspection and anonymity when away from teaching.  I just want to take photos, I'm the guy that on a tour gets left behind because he's so focused on getting the shots he don't notice everyone had moved on. My wife, the lovely Miss Wendy on the other hand generally loves a chat with anyone.

So here we were roaming the US of A and getting pulled up at every turn by people asking about my camera, I hear guys saying things like "there’s a serious photographer".  At Yosemite I struck up a conversation with a wonderful fellow who it turned out actually knew some friends of mine in my home town Goulburn, 18,000 km away!

I had several young girls ask "what camera is that, it looks cool?" guys asking about my camera grips and optical viewfinder and photographers ask " where did you get that grip?

An issue that caught me of guard was I kept getting pulled up by couples who asked me to take their photos in front of monuments, or well known landscape scenes etc.  Usually this interlude led to a little conversation and it was actually quite a nice distraction, it seemed the general consensus on their part was I looked like I knew what I was doing because my gear was so odd and I seemed to automatically know my way around it, therefore I was a good bet for getting a nice family pic.

Ultimately the great aspect of all this attention was it allowed my wife and I to find out more about the "real US of A " than we otherwise would have and we had the same experience in Viet Nam more recently.

Meanwhile all those snapping hordes at Yosemite, Venice Beach, Grand Canyon, Seattles' Space Needle and a myriad of other places we visited never raised a glance with their ubiquitous Canikon DSLRs.

Honestly this is the first time in my life as a Photographer when the gear has truly drawn attention to itself and honestly being on an OS holiday it wasn’t a bad thing and it was not the wrong sort of attention either.  I imagine you know what I mean by that last statement, the attention one gets when using some enormous telephoto on a DSLR and you're immediately assumed to be some sort of paparazzi or terrorist or worse still a peeping Tom.

The custom NEX 5n rig is not intimidating, it just looks neat (I reckon) yet I have had people say " that must cost heaps", as we all know it is a very reasonably if not bargain priced option, so that shows just how little the average punter knows about the cost of photo stuff.  Best of all the rig allowed me to capture around 12000 images over the past 3 holidays  with absolute confidence and without weighing me down too much. And just in case your wondering, yes I pretty much carried it with me all day every day.

Overall I reckon I sold about 12 NEX 5n' during the first 2 trips, I will of course be forwarding my bank account details to Sony soon in keen hope of their gratitude and appreciation or perhaps they might see fit to send me one of the new A 6000s.



Contrarian Blog Plans

Directions and Pathways

It is said,  "if you want to commit to a plan the first thing to do is write it down".

I  see some sense in that, the words kinda sit there as a reminder to prick you into action when slackness and other humdrum factors of daily life take over.  Sometimes we need a good prod, most times we need a plan and we always need some goals.

In order to get it all into words I decided to share with you my plans for this blog and even give a little insight into the long term picture of where I want to go with the blog, then maybe you dear reader can all hold me to account if I slip along the way.

Maybe in doing this I am being overly ambitious, stupid, naive or just ill advised but what the heck, I'll stick my neck out.

So why the new blog, why the name, what am I going to do next, why am I doing this, why did I do that....enough already, stop with the questions!

OK, so here goes, stick with me now, it will all make sense, I promise.

The blog is actually part of a much bigger plan for world domination and undiminished personal power......no not really but the part about of a bigger plan is true.

I have been conducting digital photography and related digital workshops for over 12 years now, in fact I think I ran the first one on scanning in 1998.  I don't live in a large urban city, my town is around 28 000 souls and certainly not enough to support an endeavour like mine so I have to ply my trade further afield which involves extensive daily travel, sometimes over 600km in a day plus the time to run the workshops of course. And you don't just turn up to teach despite what critics of teachers like to think, we do actually have to prepare!

So guess what, whilst I don't mind the daily grind I would like to do less of it, I would love to have more people come to me, to run workshops on-line, to run larger workshops less often.  I am sure that most folk would see that as a reasonable idea.

Beyond that basic requirement, my wife and I love to travel and already do so regularly but with travel comes the loss of income, ultimately we would like to develop ways to create income whilst we travel.  I would still be happy to work each day whilst we galavant around our country or another country of course and mobile technologies now make this quite easy.

You want more, well there is.  Wendy and I have had a long term dream of running overseas photo travel workshops, but we have had other intermediate plans that needed to be addressed first but now finally we are rapidly approaching the time when we can put this phase of our life plan into action. She is an organiser par excellence (thank goodness) and I of course provide the skills, together we are actually a pretty good team.

So right there you can see we have three goals we want to achieve, but of course goals are useless without a plan and a means to achieve them.  Have we thought about that? Sure have in fact we have had years to think about that and this new blog is the first step in realising those goals

Now forgive me, or indulge me or whatever, but I need to be just a little forthright here, and trust me I am not one to blow my own trumpet under normal circumstances and no, I have not been to some self actualisation guru for a dose verbal "go go juice", thats not my style at all.

There are two things in life I know a lot about and consider myself pretty competent at, photography and teaching.

When it comes to photography I am totally confident that given a brief I can produce any type or style of work needed, I know for sure that if a student asks me how to find pretty much anything on any camera I can do so quickly.  There are very few areas in photography that hold any mystery too me, regardless of how arcane they may be, 35 years of active living making experience does this.

In teaching, I have a reputation, I am the guy who can teach just about anything. It's not a crazy claim, I am often called and asked could I run a workshop on "x" or "y" and we can give you a week or two to wise up on it.  Teaching, despite what many  "would be teachers" think, is not about being an expert in any one area, it is about having a very specific skill set  in the communications area.

I will let you in on a secret, in 35 years I have probably taught more subject areas than any other teacher in my region, I am known for this.  Long before I taught photography, I taught, woodwork, literacy, maths, science, life skills, routing, communications, and far more.  I managed a community college, taught disabilities groups (still do), taught inmates, the unemployed, other teachers and trainers and so on.

The point I am trying to get across, and I don't want to labor this,  I have a very solid skill set in teaching and photography, it's not a hobby, I don't just dabble....it is what I live every working day. At last count,  (just a couple of days back as I needed to organise a listing for a potential client group) I worked out offer 50 different workshops!

I figure that I have done my 30 yr plus apprenticeship and the necessary hard yards and its time to capitalise on this, reap the reward. I have I believe a fair expectation I can achieve more.  But of course that "more" can only come if I do what's needed, in other words make the extra effort

There are several steps to this longer term plan, which is already well progressed, like 10 years in.

The long term goals are to:

Establish a passive income stream via web based services

Leverage off the massive amount research and written material I have produced on a wide array of specific digital areas to convert these into several eBooks that can be sold via iTunes.

Conduct far more workshops in my own town, drawing clients in from across the country.

Conduct overseas photo travel tours, starting with the West Coast US

Most of all continue to enjoy life.

So the question then becomes, how does one achieve these goals.  Obviously the eBooks need to be put together, the tours planned etc, that just nuts and bolts stuff.  The issue is even if I do all that stuff, without my potential market being aware that I can offer these services it will all be to nought.

Clearly a plan for promotional action is needed, I need to build a wider ranging brand, a public awareness, a reputation that goes beyond my own region, I need to capitalise on my strengths.

Hence the blog is the first part of the extended plan "in action".

Yeah I know lots of people claim "oh, I just blog because I want to share", well sure I like to share, but honestly I am doing this because it's part of the bigger plan.  I do lots of stuff as a community service, but honestly this isn't one of them, it is deliberate and targeted, I am not going to BS anyone on that facts.  But of course I do sincerely hope that it value adds to the photographic lives of reader, hence you won't find re-postings of drivel and dross just to drive traffic.

Yep I am going to do it the hard way folks, by actually providing real individually created content, If I wanted the easy way out I could drive traffic by reviewing whatever new trinket comes along, I won't, lets leave that to the others who have been doing it for years and enjoy that stuff.

Here are some core things I am doing to get to the other side of the rainbow.

I have built a studio to shoot instructional videos and am currently working on developing video editing skills, deciding on the shooting gear to invest in and developing some concepts for the first productions.  The studio will also be used to photograph gear and other items for websites and for providing training for students in photographic lighting.

An in house training room is half finished and will be complete by mid year.

We are currently landscaping our yard, this includes building areas which can be used for conducting outdoor portraiture photography training, this is due for completion by Easter this year, and I think we will make that time frame.

This blog is now well under way, I have probably 60 articles already done and scheduled for posting, so along with the more reactionary stuff that I create along the way, I have enough to keep things rolling for a few months.  If the blog builds as I hope, it will be linked to affiliate advertising to help defray costs and perhaps pull a few dollars.

I am working on establishing a new community college in our town with a like minded group of professional people, we are well under way, have a locations organised, paperwork signed etc.  This will obviously help me but it it will also help perhaps thousands of others in years to come.

There are 10 books in various stages of development, 4 of which only need some minor updating and reformatting for the iTunes bookstore format, a further two that are close to complete in content and then 4 that are partially done.  The plan is to roll the first 4 out by the end of the year.

My wife and I have already put quite a bit of planning into the Photo Tours and have completed some preliminary trips to scope out the possibilities.  We are still 18 months shy of starting these.

We area about to properly ignite the fuse on the social media channel options, to cross pollinate with other  websites and other pathways.

So there you have a little insight into the direction we are taking.

To finalise for today I would like to make a few mentions regarding this blog.  As a reader you have probably noticed there have been blogs on an array of topics, well rest assured it is not random, it's part of a plan, so hows about I share with you the categories of content you can expect to see on the blog and also the frequency with which they will appear.

How To's and Technique   One or two each month, sometimes serialised, like the Kit Lens one

DIY Corner:  One item per month, they are all items I have actually made, not re-posts from other websites

Photo Philosophy:  Twice per month

Off topic: Once per month, probably not photography related but rather to give insight into who I am and what interests me.

From the Camera Cupboard:  A look at a particular collectible camera from my collection, including lots of pics and some historical facts, this will be once a month.

Thursday Pic:  A current image of my own that I particularly like, weekly of course

iPhoneography:  A monthly article on iPhoneography, I actually own the website address iPhoneography.com.au and will hopefully have time to get that running later this year and thus add more comprehensive content to that website

Commentary;  As I see fit, could be weekly, just depends on how the photographic world is turning

Occasional Review:  Only if it is an item I have bought and intend to use, likely to be cameras only very very rarely, more likely to be lenses or other accessories.  Most likely in the video area this year as this is what I am needing to set up.

Monthly Artwork:  A rundown on one of my major artworks, this will include details of the concept, editing, framing, hanging etc

Pic from the Vault:  Images from my vault, these could go back 35 years and will include some taken by my other family members from the dim distant past which have been scanned and re-edited.  Monthly for this one.

Decoder:  Simple and clear explanation of otherwise complex digital imaging issues and aspects, mid month, once a month

Meet a photographer:  Interviews with other photographers, monthly

I of course reserve the right to add or subtract from this list, but this is the plan and as they say, "those who fail to plan, plan to fail"!


Re-Cooked No 1

    A Man and His Dog

This is the first post for what will be an ongoing monthly theme, I hope you find it interesting.

Each month I will choose re-engineered images from times past to post and chat about, these will include old images that have been scanned from prints or film, they may not all be mine, in fact many won't be. 

Most will come from my extensive vault of old family photos and some like todays image will originate from commercial scanning jobs where I have obtained permission and re-jigged the files.

Today's image was obtained from a good friend, Peter Mowle, it is one of a set of family photos he asked me to scan and repair.  The identity of the subjects in the photo are not yet confirmed but Peter is reasonably sure the gentleman with the dog is his Grandfather.  This being the case the image is probably around 80-90 years old.

The original is heavily creased, cracked and faded just like many old snaps, all of that has been removed for the final image.

When scanning the image I decided to crop the frame roughly to the current proportions to remove a large amount of dead space on the right hand side and when doing so I was struck  by the simple beauty of the composition.  I decide to play around with the file a little more and hone the framing to heighten the effect.

Once cropped I was taken by the sheer impressionistic style of the photo, both in content and quality.

With so little real detail the image tells a lovely story of a relaxed afternoon with the family dog, aimlessly wandering around a park, enjoying warm winters day.  All activities we still enjoy, good times when life takes a turn to the simple and un-rushed.

The actual rendering is very much like a monochrome "pictorialist" work, but I doubt the photographer set out to achieve that result, rather the image reflects a happy accident where composition, timing and limited equipment have joyously conspired to produce something flawed yet beautiful.

For my own part the image has been extensively dodged and burnt, some parts sharpened, other softened, some details drawn in so noise added and even a slight tint and vignette applied, but I have tried to stay sympathetic to the nature of the image.

I vacillated over whether I should clone out the shadow of the photographer, but in the end decided it added a sense of reality to the image and also balanced off against the dark area diagonally opposite the shadow.

Enjoy and thanks to Peter for kindly allowing me to use the image.


Decoder April 2014 - Field Curvature

It seems almost impossible, but this image was taken with a 28mm lens on a "full frame" camera at f3.5 yet has virtually everything in perfect focus, it is the unusual field curvature characteristics of the lens used that makes this possible!

Field Curvature,  A Tricky Bastard

Up front let me say "field caurvature has nothing to do with images where straight lines in the frame are bowed in or out as you move towards of the corners", that would be distortion. The name field curvature unfortunately leads many folk to think that field curvature and distortion are the same thing!

Instead of photos as I would usually use to explain ideas and techniques I have drawn up some diagrams to explain the concepts, actual photos at web resolution are simply not viable for demonstrating what we are looking at.

With a perfect lens the plane of focus would be a perfectly flat plane parallel to the cameras sensor. Specifically you would be able to focus on a flat object which is parallel with the sensor plane and it would appear sharp from edge to edge, corner to corner. Some lenses can indeed get close to this, generally macro lenses which have to work in such a way if they are to succeed in their intended purpose, which generally includes photographing flat artwork and similar subjects. In most cases the plane of focus for most general purpose lenses is anything but "planar".
(You may now be able to understand what Zeiss mean when they add the "Planar" moniker to some of their lenses.)

Flat field rendering, in other words no field curvature.

Simply put, field curvature is where a lens does not focus planar objects with equal clarity across the width of the subjects area, in other words the centre may be sharply focused at say 5 metres but at the edges of the frame objects at 5 metres are "out of focus" but objects at say 10 meters may actually be in focus. Field curvature can work in both directions, you could have the centre in focus at 5 metres and the edges in focus as say 2 metres.

The quick and easy to see give-away of field curvature is that should you focus on a flat field object, for example a brick wall at the wide open aperture only the middle point where you focused will ever appear sharply defined.

Digital capture is far less accommodating of field curvature than film was, principally because the resolution levels are so much higher thus any variation in the actual plain of focus now stands out in sharp contrast.

MTF charts, which are often used to judge a lenses performance quite readily show the effects of field curvature, but I must caution you that using an MTF chart alone as a means of judging lens performance is no where near as instructive of real world performance as you might think, unless of course you intend to use your new lens solely for the purposes of photographing flat field objects, like brick walls.

Field curvature may cause the focus plain curve away from the camera at the edges or it may come closer to the camera at the edges and the degree of curvature can in some cases be very strong or quite weak.  Some lenses produce a complicated form of curvature where  it may curve outwards as you move away from the centre and then move inwards again at the corners of the image, this is known as wave type field curvature and is a true devil of an issue to deal with or use creatively.

Uneven field curvature, this is very difficult if not impossible to use creatively.

The effect of field curvature cannot be underestimated, it makes for some very unpredictable results and may lead you to make totally wrong assumptions about your lenses performance. Probably even more frustrating, field curvature makes a complete mockery of depth of field scales and calculations which of course are created on the assumption that the lens is planar in its depth of field rendering.

But wait, there's more problems in store, field curvature for zooms varies with focal length   which makes it quite impossible to use the classic "focus long the reframe wide" techniques accurately with many lenses, this is especially the case with many wide angle zoom lenses. I have one lens where the field curvature radically changes from rear biased to flat and then forward biased with just a shift in focal length of 3 mm!

And yet more....field curvature is not normally consistent at all focused distances, it could well be quite flat at close up distances but become more curved as you move towards infinity, some macro lenses perform exactly in this way, or course it could work in the opposite way as well.  Field curvature may also mess with infinity performance, I have found that sometimes a lens may have to be focused beyond or well in front of infinity at wider apertures to give correct overall infinity focus due to field curvature anomalies.

Many lenses that are regarded as having truly bad edge definition are in reality very strongly effected by field curvature. In some cases the lens may have to be focused at just a couple meters or so to bring the extreme edges into focus, but because everyone focuses for the centre or there abouts the assumption is the dreadful corner resolution is simply an issue bad lens design. Strangely enough if you actually take a lot of these so called bad lenses, focus at a point just in from the corner and have a good look you will find surprising amounts of actual resolution. 

Rearward tending field curvature

It is normally possible to actually get a shot with sharp corners from lenses with even strong field curvature, you just have to completely rethink your focusing methods and work outside the optical box.

These days mirrorless cameras with good quality EVFs can help enormously as if you have the time when shooting say landscapes, you can zoom in on several parts of the image to find out if everything is sharp and readjust the focusing point accordingly to compensate.

Yes indeed field curvature is a strange beast indeed and it is probably responsible for a good number of otherwise decent lenses being canned as useless simply because the photographer had no real idea of what was going on and how they might work around it.

Of all the lens types, macro lenses are the least likely to give you grief, but generally long telephotos are quite good also in the FC department largely because their field of view is much narrower.  The wider the maximum aperture of the lens the more likely it is to have significant field curvature unless the maker has gone to enormous trouble and expense to correct it with additional lens elements.  As you might expect, when you combine significant field curvature and very shallow depth of field such as when shooting fast primes at wide apertures the rendered results are often pretty dismal, in fact nailing good focus is often something of a lottery in these instances.

So far the news sounds all bad, and it is if you are shooting flat targets like test charts or art works (in which case you really do need a proper macro lens), but field curvature can actually be used to your advantage if you know something about the curvature characteristics of the lenses you are using. And trust me on this, pretty much every lens you own will have some FC, so you need to test for it!

Forward tending field curvature 

Consider the Possibilities

Lets say you want to take a photo of a street scene, you have a subject in the middle and buildings and other interesting details running along each side of the image into the distance. Now imagine you want the person in focus and separated from the distant background by having a shallow depth of field, but you actually want the detail moving away from the camera along the edges to be in sharp focus. 

If the focus area was planar the above is an impossible situation, the requirements are mutually exclusive, but if the lens has strong field curvature where as the plane of focus moves rearwards away from the centre of the image you could achieve just such an effect, even a wide aperture.

If the edges focus closer towards the camera of course the effect would be the opposite of what you would need and it would work against you making the edges far blurrier than you’d expect, but then again that might be a creative option as well providing far shallower depth of field for any given aperture than you might expect.

Lets take another scenario, imagine you want to photograph a relatively close object but you want to extend the depth of field at the bottom of the image back towards the camera, now with a view camera we could uses tilts to do such a thing, but think about this. If the lens has strong inwards field curvature it will allow you to gain an extra degree of depth of field for any given aperture for the bottom part of the frame, kind of like getting a tilt effect without the tilt!
Many of the difficulties of field curvature can be counteracted by not focusing in the middle of the frame but rather choosing a point somewhat out from dead centre, this will of course put the critical focus at a different point but importantly it may make your overall focus better.

Naturally like most things optical, stopping down mitigates the effects of field curvature, with some lenses the wider apertures may well be rendered practically useless by FC as for all but a few types of shots and you will be forced to stop way down to get acceptable overall focus despite the DOF scales telling you it should not be needed.

Infinity focus for rearward tending field curvature often works better if actual focus point is moved back towards the camera somewhat and allowing DOF to do its work.

So how can you test for field curvature?
The methodology of testing for field curvature is quite simple , it's the finding of suitable target subjects that will mess with your head. 

The ideal test target would be a flat area of ground covered in large coarse which gets larger as it becomes more distant but is evenly spaced and the area needs to be wide enough to fill the view of your widest focal length lens, got one of those out back? I thought not!

So what can we practically use?

You are going to need different targets for different focused distances, here is what I suggest and use. 

Break it down into three separate target scenes, close up, intermediate and infinity.

For the close up test you will need a large flat surface with strong textural content, a course textured rug would be a good choice. Place the carpet on a flat surface outdoors and then place your camera on a tripod which is lowered down to around 45 cm off the ground and angle your camera so it is looking along the depth of the rug. Make sure the carpet if filling your entire frame right out to the edges and corners, if it doesn’t, rearrange your set up till it does, wide angles lenses will cause the most consternation as always. 

Now, place an object on the carpet to use as the central target, something with lots of fine detail (I use an old circuit boards out of a computer). This object needs to be parallel with the cameras sensor, thus I tilt the circuit board a little.

Now all you need to do is focus (manually) on the central subject and take a series of shots at differing apertures and focal lengths (if it's a zoom). The shots taken at the widest aperture will be the most telling, but the others will also be useful, for example you may find at certain apertures the field curvature changes or even reverses.

You should be able to see if the focus curves back beyond or in front of the central focused point, at some point depth of field will likely be enough to counteract the effect, which by the way is a handy thing to know.

For the middle distance shots I use a graveled garden area to the side of my home, the gravel is multi toned and about 12mm in size, in other words perfect for the job! In my case the area is wide enough and deep enough to accommodate all my lenses, if you look around I am sure you find a location that gives a similar target, an area of rough tarmac could be pressed into service (try an avoid being run over of course). I set the camera up so its about 60 cm off the ground and place a target 1/3 of the way in from the start of the gravel, basically this represents shot you would commonly take like group portraits, photos of largish objects ( cars/motorbikes) etc   As before take a sequence of shots at all apertures and focal lengths.

Again it should be easy to see how the field curvature works, and in the scheme of things this is probably the most important of the three tests as it represents where field curvature is most likely to cause you grief in real world shooting.

Finally the infinity test. You will need a distant landscape which has some distinct near elements as well, a good example would be a field which is bordered to the rear by a row of hills. Here the testing is a little different. 

Set the camera up so the line of the tops of the hills runs through the centre of the frame. We are trying to determine if when the centre of the image is focused at infinity the edges of the frame are also focused at infinity, beyond infinity (yes beyond infinity is possible) or much closer towards the camera.

Should you want to be even more demanding you could hold the camera (perferably on a tripod) so it is angled thus having the hills or mountains run diagonally across the frame.

To carry this out take the shots at the wider apertures only, say maximum aperture and up to f7.1, there is little point in shooting distant landscapes at small apertures despite the fact that many folk do.  

First focus at infinity and take a sequence using the available apertures , then focus beyond infinity if possible (some lenses do actually go beyond infinity) and repeat, then come back from infinity a bit and repeat again. You will need to have a good close look at the results zoomed in to 100 or 200% on screen to see how it worked out, the differences in this case will be subtle.

In the infinity case, a lens that focuses too close on the edges with infinity in focus at the centre will have to be either focused just beyond infinity (if this is possible) or always used stopped down enough to cover the discrepancy with DOF. 

If the lens focuses too far out at the edges then you need to slightly bring the central point of focus back towards the camera a little, you probably won't need to stop down an extra in this case as DOF will likely cover your needs.. 

Infinity focus issues can be a real pain for landscape photographers and especially those who make really big prints, as always, the problems are more likely accentuated for wide aperture lenses and wide angles optics.

If when testing your lens you find the field curvature is quite lopsided , meaning perhaps one side focuses too close and the other too far, then you likely have a de-centered lens, in this case replacement or repair is needed. De-centered lenses are very common, even amongst the more expensive brands, some brands though seem to have a dreadful reputation with de-centering, low end Sigma lenses are a case in point,  where some lenses are gems and others dogs, and by that I mean nasty pit bull terrier type dogs, and no I can’t tell you why.

If you're really clever you may actually be able to even use a de-centrered lens creatively, so long as you know which way the curvature is actually running in the frame, but generally de-centered lenses are in no mans land.

Dropping a lens can cause de-centering as it can misalign the elements, I have one such lens I keep for demos, a little minolta 35-70 f4. When I bought it, it was a gem, sharp everywhere with just the smallest amount of stopping down, but clumsily I dropped it on a concrete floor and now it is hopelessly de-centered, is it fixable, probably, but I have two others.

The point is, if buying a second hand lens, don’t ever buy one that has a dented filter thread, chips on the body or any other bent bits, there is a good chance it has an internal problem.

Its easy to see that having intimate knowledge of your lenses field curvature can allow you to use it far more creatively, and next time you look at the edge performance of a lenses you may wonder, is it just poor edge definition or is the problem really field curvature?

A word to the wise:
Many techie photographers love to use DOF scales to help calculate out precise DOF, especially for studio work and other demanding applications, like images to be enlarged to big prints.  The sad truth however is that for many lenses these DOF scales are utterly useless and at the best misleading. Why?

Field curvature means that most lenses do not behave in a textbook manner anywhere in the frame except in the very centre making your DOF calculations null and void. Additionally not many lenses these days have sufficiently refined distance markings to set the lens to anyway, and even if they do there is no guarantee they are accurately placed on the lens.

An additional issue with DOF scales is that "your definition of acceptable sharpness" and the calculation tools definition may not gel, in fact cameras such as the Nikon D800 and the Sony A7r really give us cause to re-evaluate the whole idea of sharp.

And a Second Word to the Wise
So you might think that examining your image for detail in review on the camera will tell you what you need to know about focus, clarity and field curvature, Oh if only that were the case. If you shoot in RAW only, be aware most cameras will create a low resolution version of the file internally so you can review it , the problem is that as you zoom in it will lose clarity even though the file could be a sharp as a tack. So leave your decisions till you get to the computer and a 100% zoomed in view of the RAW files.


Coming to Grips With Your Camera

When faced with difficult subjects or lighting,
the last thing you need is to be fiddling around in the menu system
trying to find the right settings!

Without digging into your camera bag to retrieve your camera see if you can answer the following questions.

Lets start with an easy one.

When in manual focus mode do you turn your focus ring to the right or left to focus on a more distant object?

Now moving on, but still easy.  When mounting a lens which way do your turn the lens to mount it?

A little harder now.... on the four way controller on the back of your camera what does pressing the right hand side do?

What about pressing the left hand side, what will that do?

Getting a bit harder now, where in your menu system do you find the setting for formatting the memory card?

I could of course ask you many more questions, but I’ll ask just one more.  If you held your camera to your eye, could you find your way around all the cameras controls without taking your eye from the camera? Could you do it simply by touch?

I suspect most photographers cannot, not because they are incompetent but simply because they have never committed the locations and functions of these controls to memory.

Here’s the thing, and I feel very strongly about this, your camera is a tool and a clever one at that, but it can get in the way of your images and creativity, if you are having to continually hunt around to find the settings and functions you need it is hard to get comfortable in your picture taking.

It amazes me just how much better I can work with a camera, both practically and artistically when I am really familiar with all its controls.  My Sony Nex 5n is a good example: The Nex series is often denigrated for having difficult methods of operation and inscrutable menu logics, yet I can work with it in a completely relaxed way and with rapidity, why?  Simple, I invested time and effort in getting fully at one with the device right from the outset.  (In fact I can see a certain logic to Sony’s much maligned menu system but thats the subject of another post).  I do this with every camera, and being the anal retentive guy I am I also read the manual for every new camera from front to back at least 2 or 3 times.  (yes very sad I know, perhaps I need some psychiatric help?)

It has often struck me how difficult it is for some of my students to work even half efficiently with their gear because they lack full or even partial familiarity with their gear.  You know what I mean, hunting around the body, endlessly tapping at menu items, having to continually take the camera from their eye, readjusting settings that are wrong and on it goes.  This is not about a lack of photographic skill or knowledge, these folk know the difference between a shutter speed and aperture, rather it is a lack of being at one with the device in a physical sense.

So how might we get to a higher level digital oneness.

In the world of elite sports training a much used technique is visualization, and it really works, yet is easy to apply.  Basically an athlete visualizes the task he /she is training for, going through the full process repeatedly.

For example, lets say you are a long jumper, you imagine in your minds eye going through the process of performing the jump from start to finish over a longish period of time, say perhaps a month.

The upshot is, that without actually performing the task the athlete actually improves, which is pretty amazing when you think of it.

Now apply that to your camera.

First of all you have to know where all the controls and menu items lie, that takes time but you can do it.  You may not choose to deal with the whole device at one time, perhaps this week you just concentrate on the positions and functions of the core knobs.  Next week you may move onto other less used knobs and buttons and perhaps the week after the dreaded menu items.

The first thing I do is determine what the controls are and where they are located, (which often involves some manual digging) and then I make a conscious mental note of their positions.  For example I may note that the WB control is on the right side of the four way controller, so I tell myself that, I then close my eyes and visualize seeing it in that position and finally feel that position with my eyes closed.  yes I know it sounds odd and perhaps I am a bit of a nutter but trust me....I'm a photographer.

Once I know the positions, I close my eyes and repeatedly use them on the camera over a period of days, noting their relationship to one another, how they feel and how they respond to my touch, how far apart they are etc.

Along the way I also note the sound of the shutter at different shutter speeds and physical feel of the shutter release just before it triggers.

Following on from the physical stage, I then repeatedly imagine myself manipulating the buttons, knobs and menu items, often I do this in bed or when relaxing somewhere....mental repetition is the key.

I realize this might all sound a bit over the top, but just try it, you have nothing to lose.....well maybe one thing.  If you become really at one with your camera, you will likely feel so comfortable with it you simply won’t want to move to any new camera, which is great, it will save you heaps of the folding stuff.  But, and there is always a but, when your current camera curls up its pixels you will probably go through a significant period of CSA, (camera separation anxiety)!  Maybe you should just buy a second identical camera body now!

There is one type of photography that can be particularly benefitted by having full familiarization of your camera, shooting under very low light. Most photographers resort to hand held torches, (still a good idea to have one handy) but being able to locate and operate everything in full darkness is going to seriously reduce your frustration levels.

I would add one further idea for serious “next to no light explorers”, learn to fully operate your tripod by touch, including mounting and un-mounting your camera and getting a feel for when everything is set level.

The menu system will inevitably prove the most challenging, here are a few tips to help you.

Look at the menu items and make a note of how many categories there are and then the order in which the main categories are arranged.  This might take a day or two to fully remember, but again visualising the menu with your eyes close will help. Don't try to do it all at one time, it's just too difficult with most cameras.

Once you have the number of items and order sorted then move onto remembering where the most important items are located, for example, perhaps the option for adjusting the focus mode is on the second tab down and third item from the top.  Tell your self this, try finding it blind and then open your eyes and see if you nailed it. visualise seeing the items located above and below this item.

Make a note of items where you actually have to press a set button or some other button to implement, this often traps people up, some Canon models for example need the set button pressed to enable the WB setting you have chosen, I can't tell you how many people in my classes have set out to test their WB settings on Canons only to find on returning to the classroom the images all look the same cause they remained fixed on AWB due to not pressing set!

Eventually given enough practice and active visualization you will remember the entire menu system and all its little idiosyncrasies and be amazed at how much quicker you will have become at adjusting your camera, but it's not just about speed.  Most likely along the way you will find menu items you were not aware of previously, items that give you greater control or better options, items that might just improve your photographic results.

Even better if you really delve deep enough you will probably find items that can be set up in custom locations or assigned to other buttons on the camera, this is actually the secret to using most Sony E mount and RX cameras efficiently, but it equally applies to other brands.

Will you get better photographic results because you have taken this control and menu visualization pathway, probably because you will be more likely to access and use all the tools your camera offers and thus optimize better for those tricky situations.  But even if you don’t get visually better results you will definitely enjoy using your camera far more.

Remember this, often when reviewers are bagging out a certain camera for bad control layouts or poor menu arrangements, what they are most often experiencing is unfamiliarity compared to what they are used to using rather than an inherently bad system of operation.  Lots of reviewers for example think Canon systems are great, I beg to differ, they are familiar to most reviewers thats all,  I have to show people how to use thousands of cameras a year, of all brands and models I can name several less than ideal aspects to Canons' operation compared to other brands, but if I only used Canon camera I would just accommodate them and probably assume that is the way things are supposed to be.

Familiarity does not breed contempt, I promise, but a lack of familiarity will definitely breed frustration.  


Accepted Wisdom and False Belief of Sony Lenses

The humble Sony E series 55-200mm was used here, wide open at f6.3 and 210mm at just 1/13 sec and 800ISO,  sometimes light weight and OSS trumps big fast, expensive and heavy, especially without image stabilisation when shooting on the margins of available light as in this case. Oh and please don't tie the title of the blog entry to the pic, no link intended at all I promise.

As many of you will realise I am somewhat of an admirer of the often much derided Sony NEX series.  I have in all honesty found my Nex 5n to be the most adaptable and useful photographic instrument I have ever used or owned and I have owned more than a few cameras over the past 37 years of creating images.

I'm not one-eyed, I admire and appreciate many cameras from almost all brands, I could love a Sigma Merrill, rock with a D800, travel with a Ricoh and adore an OM. In my classes I have played with them all and as such I am pretty aware of what they offer.

But the NEX 5N with all the accessories I have DIYed just works for me and gives me great results, and for the odd time when it doesn't suit I reach for my trusty A900 and a suitable lens.

But frankly I am starting to get just a little bit peeved at what I consider to be utter falsehoods leveled at Sony and the Nex series (now Alpha E Series) in regards to lenses and menus.

It is in a way as if sometime a while back,  some interweb "self anointed gurus" have cast disparaging conclusions upon the NEX range and every one else has just gone blindly along with the whole 9 yards of it, without any re-evaluation as the years have passed or bothering to to execute an examination of the facts.

Lets deal with lenses in this installment, I will comment upon the menus another time, which whilst not paragons of usability are nowhere near as bad as generally purported.

How many times have you read, “there are no decent lenses for NEXs so don't bother going there”, blow me down almost every time Sony releases a new camera this old chestnut is driven out for a spin around the pixel patch. Great tech.....grumble grumble, no lenses!

Now sure there are a lot of good and even great lenses in the Nikon and Canon catalogues, but a lot of those are actually quite ancient and both makers have been churning out lenses in their respective mounts for decades.  How many lenses did Nikon actually have in their catalogue on the day they released their first Nikon “F” SLR in 1959?  I guess they probably launched with 4 or 5 lenses on day 1, I might be wrong, as I have not been able to find any reliable stats but if someone out there knows drop me line it would be good to know.

I must mention also that even when a maker releases a new model of lens, quite often it is a reheated version of the previous model without any major changes to the optical formula, a new coating here, faster drive motor there, different case, extra electronics etc.  In other words it is much easier for a manufacturer with an established arsenal of lenses to roll out new models than it is for another maker to start from scratch, which is obviously what Sony had to do with the NEX series of lenses. 

New A7 and A7r ?   Oh yeah very innovative the naysayers state but there are no good lenses!  Lets conveniently forget that 2 of the 3 lenses released with the cameras are bloody stunners in an optical sense.  There are another two which will soon be available and of course you can use any A series lenses via the two available Sony adapters.  

It appears the new 50mm E mount FE lens is currently second only in performance to the Zeiss Otus, yet many armchair pundits have the temerity to claim it is too expensive at around the $1000 mark.  Give me a break, the OTUS is $4Gs!  Good glass costs, the new Sigma 50mm Art will be around the $1000.00 mark also and already people are proclaiming from the rooftops "bargain", lets get some perspective here, please.

But I digress, for today lets get back to the APSC NEX series.

Now exactly how many lenses do you actually need?  Not want, need!  If you need a fast super telephoto, well yes the NEX (E) series might leave you grasping, but for most needs there are lenses for every intended purpose.  

And by the way how many people really need more than 200mm on an APSC sensor, trust me it’s a pretty small segment of the market, I don’t think birding or sports photography were high items on the Sony agenda when they conceived the NEX series and clearly if your trying to do either with your NEX camera you've probably bought the wrong camera. Both Canon and NIkon do some lovely and reasonably prised DSLRs with admittedly expensive lenses to suit such needs, but as they say "horses for courses".

No one exactly gets worked up by the fact there are no super teles for the Leica M system, nor should they.  Camera makers build cameras to suit a certain niche of the market, it is simply not possible to be everything to everyone with a single camera model.  And all you DSLR apologists, don’t even start, back now, calm down....yeah sure I know you can get almost any focal length for a DSLR, but hey some of them are pretty compromised by weight, physical length, limited aperture options, oh and price!

The “Nex”, now Alpha e Mount series is what it is, a small adaptable system that suits travellers, snap shooters, photographers who love to tinker  (my group) and probably quite a few others as well. Sony didn’t set out to replace the DSLR range with the Nex range, they set out to create an additional tool for a different market.  In fact this is one of Sonys' major attributes of late, they actually do try to come up with innovative niche stuff to suit the needs of differing markets instead of trying to stuff the same equipment down everyones throat as if it were a universal tool.  There is no such beast as a universal tool, often it is not extra lenses you need but extra cameras and in the end it can even work out cheaper.

Say for example you really want fast lenses to cover the 24-200 mm range for travel usage, you could buy say a fine Canon 600D (approx A$500.00), a Canon  24-70mm f2.8 (approx A$2200.00) and a 70-200 f2.8 (A$2300.00 for IS version).  Sum total A$5000.00!  Or you could buy a Sony RX10 for around $1200.00 to do much the same thing in vastly lighter package. In many ways the whole idea of buying a camera and a heap of lenses is a little crazy and often compromising, at least in the real world practical sense.  For travel purposes the RX10 option would probably be the better choice for most users if for no other reason than when travelling weight and bulk are significant issues, and if it doesn't trade much off image quality wise (which it doesn't) what is the benefit of the former option?

The guy who shoots the footy for the Major Metro papers is not going to even think about using an NEX or RX for example, he will run with a pro grade DSLR and Super Tele and carry the tripod he needs and a big bag to hold it all in. Realistically however, does that mean that Sony should have such lenses available for footy shooting wannabees toting a Nexcam around the neck....get real and buy a DSLR if you really need a DSLR.

So lets make some comparisons, you know run some actual numbers, look at some facts.

The NEX line has been around for just on 4 years and currently there are 19 lenses and 2 wide angle adapters on offer.  These range from the cheapish and cheerful through to the expensive Zeiss optics and some newer full frame glass, the range also includes a couple of video centric models.

So what about the big C mirrorless stable? Well, it's not actually a stable but a small garden shed, their equivalent M series has spawned just 3 lenses in 18 months so not what we would call a wide range! In fact one could call this a token effort designed to avoid cutting into their DSLR lens sales and postpone the inevitable shift to mirrorless some time in the future, especially when you consider that Canon is one of the powerhouses of the lens building world.

The Nikon one series is cracking along at a fair pace, offering 11 lenses in around 2 and 1/2 years, but the actual camera is not in any way a true alternative to either DSLRs or the NEX series. Oh I would not discount it, the wee little beastie has some flash options when it comes to continuous shooting modes and focus options, but clearly it was not designed to set the world on fire!

The Leica lens range runs to 22 optics but there is nothing really long or super wide in the range and of course none are image stabilized.  Leica have had literally decades to get their catalogue in order and in any case Leica is really its own market, few NEXXERs would consider buying a Leica unless they are really loaded. However a lot of Leica owners seem to buy NEX bodies for their Leica Lenses, Oh the delicious irony of it all.

Fuji have 12 X series lenses, which cover most bases and all are of good to excellent quality  and the latest camera models are very appealing, certainly a top choice for enthusiasts and Fuji owners generally are very happy with their choices.

Olympus fares best with 30 lenses on offer over a 5 1/2 yr period, but many of these are derived from the earlier 4/3 lenses, which of course go back quite a few more years.   The Olympus offerings are not image stabilized as that feature is built into the camera bodies.

And finally we have Panasonic with 18 lenses some of which are stabilized, like Olympus, the Panasonic M4/3 system has been around for about 5 1/2 years.

So on numbers alone you would have to say that Sony have roughly the same rate of rollout as the other makers and have a range that is pretty similar in breadth and price points, except for Olympus in particular which is a far older and more mature system and offers Pro Grade lenses at Pro Grad prices and of course there is Leica, is an expensive outlier in the mirrorless world.  It should be noted that Sony also offers some Pro-grade stuff as.

All of these mirrorless brands/models mentioned can use lenses from their parents stable or other makers via adapters but not all are equally useful.  The Nikon in particular is quite hobbled as the crop factor of the format triples the effective focal length of any lens used, so in practice you don’t have a viable array of alternative wide angle options to play with, but of course you're spoilt for telephoto alternatives.  The Canon can of course use adapted EF and EFS lenses, but there are nowhere near as many "alternative lens brands" adapters for the Canon M as there are for the Sony and M4/3 systems.

The NEX bodies can literally via the LA-EA2 adapter be turned into an SLT camera and work with any Sony/MInolta auto focus lens from the last 30 years, they can also use any of these legacy lenses without auto focus on the cheaper  LA-EA1 adapter, additionally some A series lenses will auto-focus (slowly) mounted on the LA-EA1 adapter.

But moving beyond the more obvious options, the NEX can use an adapter to work with Autofocus Contax lenses and even the entire Canon EF series via the right adapter with full IS support.

Want more, well of course there are cheap adapters for almost any manual focus lens ever made including all of the NIkon series going back to day 1 and you can even get tilt/shift adapters to work with Nikon lenses and some other brands.

A natural choice of many enthusiasts is the older but often beautifully built Minolta MC/MD series lenses, many of which are truly stunning performers for their day and even by todays standards, again we have numerous and cheap adapters for those.

Equally the Olympus OM lenses (the original ones) are a great match for the NEX series because they are typically small, generally very nicely made and have the aperture rings at the front of the lens, which makes for a nice ergonomic NEX combo package from my perspective.  (most OM lenses look right at home on the NEX models)

But probably best of all, are the options that open up when you mount a Metabones Speedbooster adapter to the NEX.  In this guise you get an angle of view very similar to the full frame view of the attached lens and an increase in the maximum f Stop (by about 1 stop).

Finally, should the above options prove insufficient we have a whole array of third party lenses for the NEX (E) series from Sigma, Samyang and others, which cover cinema, ultra wide, extreme macro and fisheye options.

It could be argued that perhaps there are no super fast lenses in the Sony line-up.  True enough if you want to exceed f1.8, which frankly I find for any sensible photographic purpose is the useful limit anyway.  Most super fast prime lenses are manual focus beasties and in reality there are plenty of such options for the NEX, you can choose from specialized Nex mount lenses such as the Mitakons or use adapted fast glass from just about any maker. 

I imagine Sony thinking related to the lenses they  chose to develop was and still is driven by the desire to keep things compact and light,  fast glass is neither compact nor light,  there is no way around the physics.

And yet, even when the moaners can accept there are enough lenses, they still roll out the “oh yeah you can get some lenses but they are all crap”!  Again another load of unmitigated excrement.

Yes there are some cheapish and thus average performers in the stable and one that is to all accounts a dog  (the 16mm f2.8 pancake) but there are also some very good lenses.  The 24, 35, and 50mm primes for example are all excellent, basically if you want the goods stuff, the options are there and the cheap kit stuff is pretty much line ball with all the other brands in quality and performance.

This whole “no lenses for the NEX” argument is bovine excrement of the first order and frankly there is so much of it flowing through the internet forums and test sites I think some Web sites could do a good sideline in compost.

Ultimately bemoaning the lack of specialized native glass for the NEX line is like saying you can’t get truck tyres for a Hyundai Getz....it’s just not part of the design intent and concept....get over it or buy something else if you need it.....like a truck, I mean DSLR.

And saying there are no decent lenses for the NEX (E) mount when you take into account all the non OEM options is just patently ridiculous, unless you actually think that all Nikon, Canon, Leica, Zeiss etc glass is clearly rubbish!