Best way to try a new camera? Rent one! LensProToGo has a great deal going

Recently I got the hankering to try out a camera. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to buy it or not, and there aren’t any camera stores near me to just pop in and take a look. Even if there was, I don’t feel like I can really put a camera through its paces, take test shots, evaluate them, and spend time poking through every possible menu and option (yes, I geekily do that), while sitting in front of an impatient camera salesman. What to do, what to do...

So, at a recent trade show, I met the nice people over at LensProToGo and it dawned on me to borrow a camera before buying it…or a lens…or lens cap. Whatever! So I decided to give them a try and ordered up a FujiFilm X-Pro 1, an 18mm f/2.0 lens, and a 35mm f/1.4 lens for it. Since I was in the trying mood, I also requested the latest Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR II lens for my Nikon DSLRs. I have the older model and wanted to see how much better the new one was before deciding to spring for it, or not.

On a recent podcast interview I did, the hosts really raved about their MILCs (Mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera), and by golly I hadn’t even tried one yet - being fully content with my lightweight DSLRs. Alas, I decided to see what all the fuss was about and LensProToGo recommended the Sony X-Pro 1 as a popular model. Fortunately, all the folks that work there are actual photographers and know the cameras well - which made their suggestions all the more valuable to this mirrorless newbie.

The rental experience was a complete joy. They have great customer service, fast delivery, and shipping is included in the rental prices so you know exactly what you are paying. I think their prices are competitive with most other reputable rental houses, but their knowledge and helpfulness really give them the edge. Renting equipment really makes sense, especially if you are starting out and need good gear for a wedding or two a month but don’t have the capital to invest in your own stuff just yet. You want to work with a company you can build a relationship with and wallow in the goodness of personal service. That’s what I’m talking about.

Well, aren’t you dying to know how I liked the camera and lenses? I loved the image quality from the X-Pro 1, but wasn’t really impressed by the usability (or lack thereof) of the optical viewfinder. I was completely surprised to find that it is all but useless for getting critical focus right at anything closer than 15 ft. or so. The digitally enhanced optical viewfinder doesn’t accurately correct for parallax at closer distances, and the focus point indicator is miles off from where it actually focuses. Using the LCD back, like a typical point-n-shoot, provided accurate results –although defeating the purpose of having an eye point viewfinder. The image quality was beautiful though, and the lenses were fast and fun to use. If I’m going to spend $2000+ on a camera system, however, I want to love almost everything about it, so this was a good way for me to save my money until something more suitable for me comes along.

I did love the Nikon 70-200mm lens and am seriously considering upgrading now that I’ve verified that it is significantly better than my previous model 70-200mm.

Before I forget, LensProToGo has a deal running right now where you can get 7 days of FREE rental when you rent for 7 days – a great way to really spend time with a camera before taking the plunge - or take it with you on a safari and only pay for half the trip! Which, by the way, is the subject of an upcoming post I’ll make on preparing for a photo adventure abroad!

iPhone's new built-in HDR, gimmick or groovy?

What are the best uses for the newly added camera HDR feature for iPhones? Apple just released a free update to their OS4 software that adds in-camera HDR to the latest devices. HDR, or High Dynamic Range, is a process of combining multiple exposures to achieve a single, highly detailed image. There has been third-party software available via the app store to do HDR, but never has it been quite this easy. There is simply an additional button on your camera screen to turn HDR on or off. By default, when you take an HDR image, the phone saves both an original, non-HDR version and the composite HDR version automatically. You can quickly review both images after taking them to see which you prefer. 

Here's my take on it. It's great. If you know what HDR is actually for...capturing details in extreme highlight and shadow areas of high contrast scenes - details that would normally be lost in a normal, single exposure, then you'll immediately see the benefit and quality difference the new HDR tool provides. HDR is not for every image. A well lit scene, with relatively low contrast, will not pose any challenge for a single exposure. Using HDR may make it appear flatter in contrast (when in reality, under histogram inspection, you'll see a very full white-to-black contrast range). 

Where HDR is great (and where it's intended to be used) is in extreme contrast scenes where your important detail is going to be either blown out in the highlights or obscured and noisy in the shadows. As you'll see in my quick examples and experiment, even if you used desktop software to try to rescue your normal exposure - essentially opening up the shadows and bringing down highlights, in an attempt to match the HDR image, the results will not even be close. The adjusted image cannot touch an HDR image for highlight detail and overall color accuracy and saturation in challenged areas.

I took a walk at lunch today. It is a beautiful, bright sunny day, perfect for HDR play. Let's take a look!

Notice the shadow side of the barn and the brightly lit grass. Click the image to see it larger.Wow! Look at the detail and color in the beams of light. Click the image to see it larger.Look at the sunlit grass in the back. Much more detail is preserved.Lots of preserved detail in the HDR version here. Click the image to see it larger.One of the limits of HDR is when you have moving subjects. Since the camera takes 3 shots sequentially, the subject has to be relatively still or ghosting will appear, as shown.More shadow information and detailsOnce detail is gone, it's gone. No amount of adjustment in software later can recover the lost information, detail, and color.This last pair of images illustrates how even if you took the time to download your images, work them in iPhoto, Lightroom, or Photoshop, you would not be able to "fix" the original image to achieve the level of detail and color accuracy that an HDR image provides. On the other hand, by doing some minor adjustments to global contrast on your HDR image, you'll be rewarded with snappy images that preserve tons of detail from bright highlights to deep shadow.

For creating highly detailed images in camera, with minimal fuss, the new HDR feature is a welcome new tool. Oh, and it's free :-)


What's in the bag mister?

I get asked a lot at workshops what I bring and shoot with on a typical wedding or portrait session, so I thought I'd share that info here. I consider this traveling light - compared to some others I know who bring an arsenal of bodies and lighting equipment. Other than Nikon lenses, I bring my Lensbabies everywhere. I can generally carry everything I need on my belt and keep less used items in the Tamrac bag. While I bring a tripod with me, I typically don't actually use it. However, a photographer once said, "they tell you to come prepared to shoot a mouse, but when you get there it's a HOUSE!"

click to see larger image