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6 months of DSLR action

by Rob Friesel

Six months ago, the F_D crew took the plunge and entered the realm of DSLR photography.  We have certainly had no regrets.  The Canon XTi is a great camera that produces some great pictures; certainly it has raised the bar over our older SD6301.  This is not (of course) to suggest that the camera alone makes for better pictures; we are just as prone to making mistakes with framing, light sources, etc. as we ever were.  It’s just that when we “get it right”, the image is more likely to live up to the expectations we held in our minds when we depressed the shutter.

That said, there were a few things for which we weren’t really prepared — things that we only saw after working with the camera for a few days, weeks, months…  These are things that you won’t get from your in-store demo, things (both good and bad) that you’ll only see with time and experience.

And I’m going to share a few of these things with you.

In some ways, moving from a point-and-shoot to a DSLR is a big step:  now you have fine-grained control over your aperture and shutter speeds, now you can swap lenses, now you can automatically bracket your shots2 — the list goes on.  In other ways, the move might not be such a big deal:  using program and/or subject modes turns the DSLR into a kind of “super point-and-shoot” and, once you figure out that you need to look through the viewfinder, you can hand it over to anyone in one of those modes and get some stellar shots.  But in the latter scenarios, we’re lucky because we can give up our pretensions in a pinch3 and just accept some nice pictures.  But we came into DSLR territory for a reason:  to get anal-retentive about that depth-of-field (DOF) with a ƒ/2.2 exposure.

For the most part, our expectations are met in all of the above respects.  But there were a few things that have raised some eyebrows, a few things that have been unexpected considerations.

Auto-focus vs. manual focus.  The way that a camera focuses is something that we’re bound to take for granted, especially when coming from point-and-shoot-land4 with little-to-no experience with focusing and DOF management.  Having put all of that forethought into aperture and shutter speed control, you would think that I would also have thought about what it takes to focus the lens on any given subject.  Maybe I had nasty flashbacks to that 9th grade photo class — back when I couldn’t get anything into focus because I didn’t even know that I needed to wear glasses.  Before this turns into a rambling reiteration of old laments, I’ll simply admit that it was not something that occurred to me until after I started shooting with the XTi.

First, a point about manual focus:  I get this weird nagging feeling whenever flipping the switch on the lens from “AF” to “MF” that I’m moving over into wild, unknown territory.  Putting it mildly, manual focus is fucking hard.  I blame my corrective lenses for this, for taking what should be a challenging task and turning it into a daunting one.  There are two big factors here (in my case); the first is that it feels somehow wrong to look through the lens of my eyeglasses into the viewfinder — I feel too far away and like there is some kind of corruption of the image going on considering how much glass it’s passing through to hit my retina.  Plus, it’s uncomfortable to work with the camera that way.  Second, though the XTi has a nice little knob to adjust the image in the viewfinder to compensate for my eye’s own problems, I find it difficult to trust the image passing through to my eye — is it really in focus? or is it still just as out-of-focus as it was before the focusing and the further viewfinder adjusting, etc.  These two factors combined are very frustrating because it seems critically important to be able to focus manually and I’ve come to doubt the whole process.  So, arguments and/or discussions about poor and/or missing focusing rings aside, manual focus has emerged as this important piece of the puzzle that is…  Well, that is not given adequate attention.

The reason that manual focusing doesn’t get all of that much attention is because auto-focus (AF) is the default setting5 and there is the sort of “feeling” (what with the way the camera controls are laid out, etc.) that you’re supposed to use the AF features.  This is fine with me (vide supra) but once I’d been using the camera for a couple months and more/less relying on the AF features, its deficiencies6 start to become clear7.

The AF features of the camera/lens rely heavily on edge detection — and when you break it down to the math that means they are looking high-contrast elements in the frame and will focus on those.  Under most circumstances, this is probably fine but try focusing on the nose of a squirming baby under low-light conditions and suddenly your lens is grabbing onto fists, hair, the dresser behind the baby…  If you’re anything like me, AF now uses the creatively shallow DOF of ƒ/1.8 against you.  What’s an amateur photographer to do?

Well, the savvy amateur is going to attempt a little control by forcing the camera’s “stare” with the AF point controls.  Looking through the viewfinder, they look a little something like this:

XTi auto-focus points

XTi auto-focus points

Referring back to our wiggling baby and the efforts to focus on the nose, that’s where this might come in handy.  Frame your shot, determine that the baby’s nose is under that northwest AF point, set it, and take your shot.  You’re still going to need to hit that shutter with crossed-fingers and hope for the best but your odds are at least a little bit better.  The trouble is that the camera is still going for high-contrast and depending on your AF settings, it might still fail to lock onto your subject.  Re-enter the discussion of manual focus, right?  Especially when the in-camera preview looks just fine and then you dump the photos into Aperture8, call up the loupe tool, and see that half of your “great” pictures have indistinct edges when viewed at 100% magnification.  Maybe it’s the ƒ/1.8 at 1/10th of a second?

Stabilization.  This is definitely a topic that didn’t mean terribly much prior to digging our heels into this camera.  During our deliberation and research prior to purchase, stabilization didn’t seem like it was going to be much of a factor.  We had identified a few models that had stabilization built into the camera (i.e., as opposed to the lens) but ultimately ruled those out.  We do a lot of our shooting indoors and for that we opted to add a Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.8 II, thinking that the big aperture would help to get enough light onto the sensor.  This turned out to be one of those somewhat naïve beliefs; though the big aperture can ensure enough light without resorting to the flash, I’d neglected to factor in the shallow DOF and the fact that the shutter speed difference might be 1/15th of a second instead of 1/5th or slower9.

What we’re learning is that a lens with stabilization might help to compensate for some of these blurred edges.  This is where I admit that I am (six months into this adventure) already thinking about the next lens for the collection.  The XTi’s kit lens is an 18-55mm and I’ve already mentioned the 50mm prime — well:  neither of these is equipped with Canon’s image stabilization (IS) feature10.  So now we (viz., “I”) are asking questions:  do “just” go the 18-55mm IS route? or go for the 18-200mm IS?  Adding the IS features seems like an essential next step — but how is one to do that and open up a great range of focal lengths and not break the bank?

Lenses.  Speaking of working with different lenses:  as CK commented:

…the Canon EF 50mm prime is attached to the camera 99% of the time…

And that’s the case here, as well.  The EF 50mm is a great piece of glass — especially for the price, and especially for an amateur.  The range of apertures is useful and aside from the occasional AF challenges under low-light conditions, the pictures are sharp.  But the 50mm certainly doesn’t do the job all the time.  Shooting Independence Day fireworks this past summer, the 18mm focal length on the kit lens was definitely handy — and/but I also found the 55mm zoom to be not quite enough.

While the desire to take advantage of these additional focal lengths is most certainly there, I think back to CK’s comment.  It can be a bit of a pain in the ass to swap the lenses sometimes.  For example, I don’t haul the camera bag around with me to every event nor on every walk around town; the ease of swapping the lenses is tempered by tedium of bringing them with you.  The easy answer seems to circle back on picking the right IS lens with a sufficient breadth of focal lengths in its zoom range11.

ISO & noise.  As I mentioned earlier, I’m loathe to shoot at anything above ISO 100.  This is crazy and I admit it.  First, with all the low-light and/or indoors shooting that we do, ISOs of 200, 400, and up are going to be more or less essential — with or without the ƒ/1.8.  The levels of noise are certainly acceptable right off the camera up to about 400 and everything else can get cleaned up in Aperture without too much fuss.  Considering that most of these pictures go to Flickr for sharing and are never printed12, any protest I might have against ISO (n > 100) seems to go right out the window.  The fact that aperture alone13 can’t compensate for low-light conditions has led me to a better understanding of how ISO fits into the equation.  Hopefully I’ll get over this ridiculous fear I have of it; but in retrospect, it seems I should have paid more attention to the ISO aspect of each camera/sensor during my research.  (Ah! Lessons learned…)

Working the flash.  Where larger apertures, slower shutter speeds, and higher ISOs all still fail to produce the desired image, there’s also the flash.  I’ve been “anti-flash” for a couple years now, finding that it tends to over-expose images and produce a kind of harshness on subjects14 that we don’t want turning up in the final product.  Of course, the only way to get that (yes: that) picture sometimes is to suck it up, swallow your pride and turn the flash on.  That said, there seems to be some good news with the XTi.

First, something is qualitatively different about its flash than the one in the SD630.  It just doesn’t throw that same harsh, washed-out, over-exposure on everyone (at least:  not every time).  Using its flash is a lot less icky than the flash on the point-and-shoot.

Second, the XTi has exposure controls specific to the flash.  But (vide supra) luckily, we haven’t had to use those yet.

Third, when shooting RAW, it’s much (much) easier to correct any over-exposure after the fact.  Especially when used in combination with Aperture’s exposure controls.  It’s not always easy but more than a few times, those controls have saved a shot.  Then again, sometimes it’s fun just to vignette the hell out of the picture instead.

Lastly, I’m curious about the hot shoe flash options.  I haven’t used any quite yet but I imagine that they could add still more options for shooting in the indoor and low light conditions.  Just a thought; a note for later.

Miscellaneous and conclusions.  The moving up to the XTi (and DSLRs in a more general sense) has been a rewarding move for the budding amateur photographers in this house.  Having the subject modes available to us bailed us out on quite a few occasions early on, allowing us to focus more on framing the shots, etc.  It’s nice that those modes are built in — they’re like a safety net for your first month or so, to keep you from lamenting your choice or to let you hand the camera over to someone else a little more comfortably.  But once you’ve got a few basics figured out, you’ll find yourself popping over into priority modes (e.g., aperture priority or shutter priority) or fully manual mode.  Not that I’ve used fully manual mode much15 but it’s nice to know it’s an option.  Something that I keep managing to mix up are the “Picture Styles” and the “Subject Modes” — the latter always writes images down to JPG and seem to automatically change metering modes, picture styles, etc. while the former seems to be concerned only with how the camera treats the colors.  That said, I’ve had the “Picture Style” set more/less exclusively on “Portrait” since we got the camera; whether this is to the detriment of the landscape (or otherwise) photography is something I’ve yet to determine.  Recommendations?  Thoughts?

Also, using Aperture has been a real coup for these photos, as well.  It has turned some good photos into great photos.  It’s a reminder to get better with the camera itself but still…  Who doesn’t love it when the shot is suddenly perfect?  Post-processing in Aperture has become a bit part of the process for us and the DSLR doesn’t seem complete without it.  Then again, probably >99% of the pictures coming off of the camera are RAW, so…  Yeah.  Maybe a critical component in the workflow.

Tips for other amateurs looking into DSLRs for the first time?  Though I thought I had covered the major considerations the first time around (here and here), here are the things that I would advise someone else in the same position:

  1. Look at different cameras but don’t be a brand whore.  Think about the features you want, make a list of cameras, and then search for pictures taken with those cameras on Flickr.  After you’ve narrowed it down, see if you can’t get some hands-on time with a couple of them — even just 5 minutes at the store.  (E.g., if you can’t figure out how to change the ISO in fewer than 5 minutes, the camera might not be a “friendly” one for you.)  I think I had unnecessarily “married” myself to the Canon brand in my mind long before I got this far in the process — oh, I’m happy with my purchase but I carried my biases a little too strongly to give a fair shake to any other brand.
  2. Look at the ISO noise.  Seriously.  Think about the kind of shooting you’re going to do “a lot of”.  If the words “indoors” or “low light” enter into the equation, look at high ISO (talking 800+) shots taken with the cameras that you’re considering.  How grainy?  How noisy?  Don’t ask other people what they think.  Again:  go look on Flickr or some place like that; find someone that has posted “full size” versions and get down real close on the high ISO photo.  Do you think it’s an acceptable level of noise?
  3. What do people say about the auto-focus?  This is one that you can’t really find out in five minutes of in-store playtime or by looking at sample pictures.  See if you can’t get someone to tell you about the AF on the camera that you like.  Is it fast?  Does it work well under low-light?  Does it usually catch the right part of the picture?  Does the camera give you a granular enough level of AF point control?
  4. Don’t take image stabilization for granted.  Don’t make my mistake.  A big aperture will not save you.  If you can fit it into your budget, get image stabilization worked in there somehow.  You’ll thank yourself later.

Lastly, if you’re new to DSLRs (like I was/am), do yourself a favor and add these two books to your cart as well:  David Busch’s Digital SLR Cameras & Photography for Dummies (Goodreads review here, Amazon.com here) and Mikkel Aaland’s Shooting Digital (Goodreads review here, Amazon.com here).  Aaland’s book covers digital photography a bit more generally and is very useful regardless of what kind of camera is in your hand; Busch addresses DSLR photography more specifically but doesn’t discuss techniques in the same level of detail as Aaland — the two should be bundled together.

At any rate:  six months in and this has been a noble, worthy, and fruitful experiment.

  1. Though that camera still has a place in the arsenal, what with its high-portability. []
  2. Though maybe your point-and-shoot already did that.  How was I to know? []
  3. E.g., at the holiday party of the family reunion… []
  4. Unless you’re throwing your point-and-shoot into “macro mode”, it’s probably trying to put all objects into focus, all the time. []
  5. Viz., when you take the lens (any lens) out of the box, it’s already on “AF”. []
  6. Though perhaps “prejudices” or “biases” is a more appropriate descriptor. []
  7. Oblique pun intended? []
  8. Please note that “aperture” in lowercase means the opening in the lens body, while “Aperture” with uppercase refers to Apple’s photographic organization/retouch application.  If the word appears at the beginning of a sentence, you’re on your own. []
  9. I realize that there are ISO considerations as well, but I seem to be phobic about anything above 200 and will try everything in my power to keep it at 100.  A. is less phobic about using (e.g.) ISO 400 but then the camera setting stays there for a while because no one thought to check it and dial it back down. []
  10. I discovered later that the XTi’s replacement, the XSi, ships with an 18-55mm IS lens.  I wonder now if the few hundred extra dollars would have been wisely spent there.  C’est la vie? []
  11. Let’s not discuss chromatic aberration and/or any of the other so-called disadvantages of shooting with zooms instead of primes.  I’ve heard of these disadvantages but they’re not on the radar for this amateur. []
  12. Or viewed at resolutions greater than 500 pixels on a side, for that matter. []
  13. A slow shutter speed’s drawbacks being much more obvious. []
  14. Especially on flesh-tones.  Ick. []
  15. Ego aside for a moment, I’m still not that comfortable with the camera. []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

3 Responses to 6 months of DSLR action

Pete says:

I have this same camera and share most of the same observations.

One thing that bothers me is that sometimes, not always (?), B&W photos take *much* longer to write to memory … when comparing file sizes later the B&W photos are not much larger, if at all, than color photos.

It’s also not all B&W photos, really don’t know the pattern, but sometimes the camera will display Busy for around five seconds before allowing you to snap the next photo.

I’m a super amateur photographer, so maybe this has some widely accepted explanation, but it really bothers me when I can’t capture a perfect pose because the camera is “Busy”.

Any ideas? I could buy a faster throughput card, but most photos are saved in a blink with no delay, so I wouldn’t think the problem lies there.

found_drama says:

@Pete: I don’t think it’s the CF card. My guess is that the camera is doing some on-board post-processing (to convert from color to B&W) as it writes the image to the CF card (i.e., it’s performing some extra operation like scrubbing out color values). All the B&W that I’ve done has been post-processing in Aperture; and all the “BUSY” warnings I’ve gotten have been after I snapped off 5 or 6 images in quick succession and it gets busy trying to write them all down to the CF card out of the buffer.

There are some pretty good explanations in the Busch DSLR book. Check it out!

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