Monday, December 29, 2008

To take incredible images, a DSLR is all you need... or is it?

If I had a dollar for every time I was asked... What camera should I buy? I could at least support a non-fat latte habit.

My response is usually the same, "You should get a Canon Powershot G10 they go for about 500 bucks. If that's too much, you can go on craigslist or ebay and get a used G9 for about $320." I always get the strangest look after that. Maybe it's the disillusionment regarding small cameras or the dream of owning an instamatic (DSLR) that produces amazing photos.

Digital is a different animal. $800-1500 will get them in the door nicely for a DSLR body, but if they plan on purchasing a DSLR, they should consider the cost of investing in a system. If you are unwilling to invest $5000, get the G10, or G9 they are amazing cameras. Many professionals use the G9 for personal use. I also heard of one that uses a G9 for stock photography. That is right, paid commercial work!

A cool DSLR system (body, 2 lenses, flash) will run approximately $5000. If you are planning to go professional in the near future, double the system for starters and expect it to depreciate considerably as model numbers change annually. This and some education will help you take better photographs. Just don't expect the new camera to magically make you a better photographer, If you are a self taught kind of person I recommend the following advice from Ryan Libre, 9 tips for the self taught travel photographer.

For the person investing in the G10, pick up a 580exII flash and maybe adobe lightroom and/or Premiere Elements this is still around $1500 and you can get amazing results with little work. BTW G10 also does video and adobe premiere is awesome.

Now, it's time to burst bubbles here. A professional camera does take amazing images but not by themselves. I set up this technically great photo of Mark Reiffs Gas Station to prove a point. A DSLR or any digital camera will not create the vision of the photographer. The photographer must manipulate light and their worktool to create the image that is in their minds eye.

Let's begin by changing the automated setting on the camera to manual. Why, because the automated settings are made for typical lighting scenarios that give close enough results. If you want an exceptional photograph, you should assist the work tool in acheiving your goal. I chose to set the camera at ISO 200, because that is where the sensor naitively offers less digital noise. F9 provides enough depth of field and 30 seconds was the appropriate duration that the shutter would remained open.

If you travel there at night, this photo represents what you will see (with some limitations by the camera sensor) and many people would be incredibly happy to see that they were able to capture this image at night.

From a creative perspective the minds eye expects more. Creative photographers will not be satisfied and use light to manipulate the image. Examples of manipulation would include:
  • Removing the heavy glow from the tungsten street light.
  • Recapture highlights and shadows to digitally manipulate the image later on.
  • Reduce digital noise due to sensor limitations.
  • Crop the image.
  • Strobe, light modifiers and gels for effects.
  • Know that this list can never end with possibilites.

So how do we turn Mark Reiffs amazing home into a night time fine art photograph that we see in our minds eye?

I used the same settings that were used to take the image above.
Manual, ISO 200, f9, 30 seconds but changed focal length.
White Balance, Photomerge and Crop
Get highlights and shadows in raw.
Layer highlights and shadows for in a mask and reduce opacity.
(sloppy HDR with known limitations)
Flatten, Apply multiple lighting actions in layers and reduce opacity.
Not quite Bert Monroys work but this took hours of tweaking.

P.S. I have heard that the G9 (review) is probably a better camera than the G10 due to the time lapse feature but you should investigate yourself. If you are still looking for a quality DSLR and have a budget... get the Canon 20D. Introduced in early 2004, the 20D is still kicking butt, in the print magazine scene, problem is that it isn't shiny new.

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