Thursday, 25 November 2010

Black Friday deals

Just thought I'd pass on that Jacobs are having some special deals. If you're in the lookout for any of the kit that happens to be on the specials, it might be a good time to buy. Of course, shop around - just because they say it's a special deal doesn't mean it is the best around!
Jacobs Digital

And for the US folk, there are some deals going too. Koo has done all the hard work, so I don't have to!

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Canon EOS 60D Review

Well I sat around looking back and forth between the Canon 60D and Canon 7D for the last couple of months. With my Canon 40D well on its way towards its advised shutter use of 150,000, I'd felt it was well due an upgrade, making it my backup body.

I'd held out for quite a period for the Canon 60D because I felt the price jump to the Canon 7D wasn't really worth the money if the 60D was going to be an upgrade to the excellent Canon 40D/50D series. But as the launch came closer, it quickly became clear that the 60D wasn't going to be the same breed of camera as its bloodline.

The first difference was the lack of a magnesium alloy body which at first glance sounded like the dreaded "plastic" body. I was quite disheartened at that thought, and was almost ready to purchase a 7D. However, I opted to wait a little while and see what the 60D was like both in online reviews and in my grubby paws.

So having got my paws on one, my instant thought was that it still felt very solid with the aluminium body. It may not have the strength of magnesium alloy, but it still feels a solid camera. I don't plan on flinging it at the ground anyway, so good care and attention is always part of making your equipment last.

Another difference is the flip out screen. I was concerned this was a bit of a gimmick, although my work with video production has me well used to the idea of flip out LCDs. In actual fact, I find that it makes little difference most of the time, and there are occasions where being able to flip the LCD out is very handy. Most importantly, it feels solid and the hinge mechanism doesn't feel flimsy.

Taking a photo, is when I noted a significant difference. The shutter has a more clunky and less controlled sound than the 40D had. This might be reflected in the fact it is only rated to 100,000 shots. It is also significantly louder so if you like a quieter DSLR, this isn't going to hit the spot!

As for image quality, at 18 megapixels I was a little concerned about noise, although I'd heard good things about the 7D, so assumed this wasn't too much of a worry. I haven't really been able to compare like for like with the 40D, because I use Capture One and they haven't yet issued an update for the 60D, but from raw files I've processed with the supplied Canon software, I can say that the detail is absolutely excellent. It has the slight softness that I like, which comes away nicely with a very small touch of sharpening. Anyone used to Canon images will know what I mean.

Low light performance was of significant interest to me, as I often shoot in situations where flash isn't an option. I would say that ISO 3200 is now a valid option for regular use, unlike the 40D where I wouldn't have gone above ISO 800. Roughly speaking, ISO 3200 is the new ISO800 in noise terms from the 40D to the 60D. But given the larger images, I'd say it is actually even a further improvement, because the noise will show even less on a 12x8 print for example, because the pixel count is so much higher now.

But one of the major factors for the 60D is its performance in terms of video work. I can see that the 60D will be one of the new darlings of the video guys. Aside from the obvious - the flip out screen - the quality of video is absolutely excellent with a nice high bit rate. I haven't tested a 7D, but I suspect the quality will be almost as good, even though there are slight file quality differences. Another important factor for some people will be the manual sound level controls which are now featured in the menus. This isn't really an issue for me as I record audio using a Zoom H4n or another video camera, but it is a nice feature to have. Full control over manual settings is excellent to have, and the video mode has a live contrast based autofocus. It works not badly, although you have to be careful in low light. It isn't something you can use while recording though because it changes exposure and has a tendency to seek. That said, if you're recording and want a quick change of focus which will be cut afterwards in editing, that shouldn't be an issue.

For interest, I took it with me to a live dance and singing event which I was recording with the excellent Panasonic AG-HMC151 as a live test and a little bit of a comparison. Focussing is quite hard, but can be done via a monitor plugged into the live feed. This is excellent in standby, but annoyingly it goes to low-res when recording. Trying to do live manual focussing is not something that is made remotely easy. That said, the contrast AF did a reasonable job provided I was careful with it, and the images were pretty sharp even in what was fairly low light (ISO 1600/3200 range).

In terms of quality, I think the image was smoother and less noisy than the Panasonic, but lacked detail in the blacks. I'm going to have to adjust the contrast a little on it to make up for this, but I'm sure it is just a matter of settings. It certainly punches well above its price range, as all the VDSLRs have done so far. If you can accept the limitations of using a DSLR for video work, the quality is more than adequate.

One other thing that I noted was the lack of a sync socket for older flashes. It's a good emergency feature to have, but nowadays with the number of radio trigger and optical trigger options which run off the hotshoe, I think it probably isn't far off time this old system died a death. If it is terribly important, there are also all sorts of adapters available for the hotshoe at relatively low cost.

Like many males with larger hands, I find all the modern dslrs with non-pro bodies a little fiddly and awkward, and the 60D is no exception. I therefore always add an external battery pack, so I purchased a Canon BG-E9 pack which has made a world of difference to the handling of the camera.

In comparison to the pack on the 40D there are a couple of changes. The most noticable is the way you load batteries. The end of the pack at the left hand side (away from the battery connector) has a little lock mechanism which you quarter turn and a drawer slides out which holds the two batteries. This can be replaced with an alternate holder which supports AA batteries. I personally find this a little more fiddly than the back opening to access both batteries because I can't hold the camera with one hand and change batteries with the other. That said, the battery life is another factor of the 60D - I've had the camera a couple of weeks now and only just done a second charge (of two batteries in the grip). That's around 500 images and 1.5 hours of video. I expect the battery performance will improve with a few charges, so I suspect battery life isn't going to be much of a concern!

The other minor detail with the battery pack is the ON/OFF switch for the vertical shutter button. The 40D drove me nuts whenever I went to shoot vertically and it didn't work, because I'd accidentally bumped the small circular ON/OFF switch positioned on the outside of the camera. It is now repositioned to a sliding switch in much the same position as the old battery compartment release switch which means it is almost impossible to knock accidentally. So that's an excellent improvement.

So overall, a bit more clacky on the shutter, and a little strange on the battery grip layout, but in every other way I'd say a vast improvement over the 40D and I assume the 50D given it wasn't a significant change from the 40D. I'm exceptionally pleased with my purchase, so I have no concerns about recommending the Canon 60D.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Safe Lighting

If you've read my blog over the years (that's the years I bother to write updates of course!), you'll know how much an advocate of creatively lighting images I am. But sometimes there are jobs which don't allow for this. Broadly speaking there are two types. Firstly, run and gun jobs where you have no setup, and this generally is a damage limitation routine involving on-camera flash, and any off-camera flash or reflectors you can get someone to hold for you. The second type are those where you have all the time in the world to set up, but when the flood gates open, you just have to keep your head above water till the job finishes. This is where safe lighting comes to the fore. You want a setup which is reliable, capable of keeping the pace with the job, and doesn't require you to change anything (or very much) during the shoot - in other words it's a safe setup that you could hand to your granny and she could take great shots. Well, almost!

So I thought for this post, I'd take you through a job I did recently and how I planned for it. The brief was that a makeup (fashion) show was taking place whereby student makeup artists were showing off their work. As part of the assessment, they required to have photos, and they wanted something more professional than quick digital camera snaps. The images were to clearly show hair and makeup, and have the models all wearing white in some form.

So my first questions were the timings of the show, and what time I would have available. The basis of it was the show came in two parts, and I'd have up to 55 makeup looks to photograph between the makeup being finished and the models having to go up on stage. The numbers weren't really stacking up, as even at less than a minute for each model, I'd still be most of an hour photographing that number. We managed to get it sorted out that I'd get more time by spreading out the models over more time, so that I didn't get so many all at once. As it happened, there were less than 55 looks for each of the two parts, so that made it easier.

So in planning my lighting setup, the first thought was to background. I opted for a medium grey, but used one honeycomb light to give it a nice pool of light in behind the model on longer shots, with a slight gradient showing in tight headshots. The grey meant that there was good contrast with the model, whatever hair colour they had, and also good contrast with the outfits. You don't want details being lost in a black background if the hair is being assessed!

Next off was the key light. I decided to go for a large softbox, but to give an even light, I opted to have it on-axis above the camera. I'd sometimes do this just on a normal light stand, and stand very slightly to the side of the light stand to photograph, but in this case I opted for a boom arm. The first advantage was not having to work round a light stand, but secondly that once balanced, the light can be moved up and down with just a light touch. This makes a huge difference to the speed of shooting when you're working with models ranging from 5'2-6'4 one after the other. You'd otherwise have to put the camera down, grip the strobe and undo the light stand, slide it up and then retighten it, before picking up the camera again, only to do it again when you realise you've moved it too much or too little.

On-axis lighting is generally very good for showing up detail, especially with a softbox, but in darker hair, it's important that you have some light to show up the detail, or else all you'll see is a falloff to black. I wanted a good soft even coverage, so a softbox (or octobox as it happened to be) was a reasonable choice. I aimed it across the line where the model would stand, so the model was effectively standing in the edge fall off from the softbox. However, flare was a potential issue, so I opted for the honeycomb style front mesh which prevented the light getting into the camera lens. It's great in this situation, although I'd never use it as a keylight, because the pattern of the mesh makes for some really ugly catch lights in the eyes.

Lastly, a reflector on the opposite side bounced some of the light back into the other side of the model's hair, giving an image with overall even lighting, but enough contrast to make it interesting, and certainly something nicer than just a digital camera shot.

To get the lighting right, I just did the old shoot and chimp routine. Firstly, I set the power on the background light, and fired off a test shot. A slight adjustment, and another test shot got that sorted.

I then did the old shoot the hand to get the light right routine, starting with the key light. I tend to leave my hands slightly darker, because I know you'll get models very pale with makeup sometimes who can end up overexposed. I then switched on the hair light softbox and did a quick test shot, adjusting so that you could hardly see the difference between the light on the front of my hand (key) and the light on the side of my hand (hair light). I then marked the floor with some gaffer tape as a note of the position where the light was right on any model. At the same time, I also taped down all the cabling. The last thing you want with dozens of folk wandering about is people tripping over cables!

I then felt that there was a little too much contrast across the background, so I opted for a wide beam spread honeycomb on the background light.

I can't show any of the photos from the shoot unfortunately, but hopefully it gives you an idea of the thought process behind creating safe lighting for this type of shoot.

One last thing - as much as I'm a fan of battery gear, this is definitely a job for mains powered strobes. You don't have to fear running short no matter how many images you take, you have the power to stop down well for very sharp images and you also have all the advantages of modelling lights, which let you visually see when the model has a nice catch light, and how the light is falling.

Here's a couple of setup shots which should make it easier to visualise everything mentioned above.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Edwardian Shoot

I did a shoot recently for the combined purpose of showing off makeup for a makeup artist and showing off an outfit for a costume hire company.

The above image was one of the outdoor shots. You'll note how the model stands out well from the background. There are three main reasons for this as far as lighting is concerned - contrast ratio, light quality/direction and colour temperature.

The first, contrast ratio, is actually held quite fine. It looks greater than it is because the background of steps is dark and grey, while the model is brightly dressed, but in reality, the exposure difference isn't that great. This gives a softness to the overall feel of the image.

The second, light quality and direction, is created simply by an average sized brolly to camera right (reasonably contrasty because it isn't too big, but softer than direct flash), held by a light stand and supported by a voice activated light stand to stop it falling down the stairs. Just slightly above the level of the model's face, such that you have fall off down the model, but it is a fairly even light to show off the outfit (important when that's a reason for the shoot!)

The third, colour temperature is created by a warm gel on the flash fired at the brolly. Only 1/4 CTO in this case, but the difference makes the model pop with a little warmth.

On their own these techniques can give a reasonable image, but bringing them together helps give that little extra bit of pop!