Photographing Your Kids

Just remember when your 5-year-old waited for the bus that would whisk her away to kindergarten and beyond. From now until high-school graduation, it will be homework, sports, finals, talent shows, homecomings, science projects, proms, BFFs, and more. The bus pulls up, and, camera in hand, you’re capturing the bittersweet moment when you suddenly realize: You’ll be following her like this, snapping away, for the next 13 years. Make those pictures count.

First, get the right gear. Kids can rocket through a viewfinder, so use a camera that can keep up. By the time a typical point-and-shoot with its long shutter lag records an image, your kid will be two classrooms away. For fast response, as well as a choice of lenses and accessories, a DSLR is a must.

When shooting in gyms and auditoriums, you’ll never regret spending more for a high-speed lens and tripod. All the photographers featured here—many of them amateurs—attribute their success to f/2.8 and faster lenses that let them capture fleeting moments sharply while lesser optics blur them.

Next? Learn the basics of photographing kids. “Children make great subjects, because their expressions are less guarded and more honest than adults,” says Todd Klassy, a pro from Madison, WI, who caught the soccer moment on the top of the page. “But kids are hard to corral and coax into posing.”

Most pros who specialize in them don’t even try. “Children are naturals,” explains Pittsburgh-based Kathy Wolfe, who shot . “I rarely pose them, but just let them be themselves.” Watch carefully, and when the moment is right, shoot multiple frames at your camera’s highest burst rate.

The harsh, artificial quality of electronic flash contradicts the innocence and naturalness we associate with children. And flash units rarely recharge fast enough to catch their ephemeral expressions.

To record her son preparing for an outing,  “I looked for natural light and found it flooding through my large patio doors. I used a 50mm f/1.8 lens at full aperture so I could shoot without flash or tripod, which almost certainly would have ratcheted up my son’s innate antsy-ness.”

Belgian pro Bert Stephani photographed his daughter on her first day of school using natural light, a telling prop, and emotion. “I wanted the picture to say something about the transition from kindergarten to grade school. The backpack is typical for kids going to school, and I caught her looking to the side and over her shoulder—to me it suggests that she’s looking back at her preschool years.”

To keep attention on his daughter, Stephani looked for bright light, as well as patterns and structures that would appear pleasing out of focus.

Competitive sports are among the most photogenic events of the school year. Prepare to shoot plenty. Todd Klassy introduces himself to the coaches before a game begins. “It helps me get access and better camera positions,” he says.

He suggests investing in a camera with a high burst rate, a monopod or tripod, and a lens with a focal length no shorter than 200mm. “If you don’t feel your lens is long enough,” he says, “show up early and ask for permission to photograph the children a bit closer during warm-ups or practice.”

During the game, try panning, which Klassy suggests practicing at track meets, where the kids run a predictable route. “It implies motion, and it’s also a handy technique for keeping children framed until you’re ready to shoot.” When that moment comes, make it machine-gun style, at your camera’s fastest burst speed.

Your athlete plays indoors? Expect terrible lighting. Jeff Allen, a draftsman from Taylorsville, UT, overcame dim conditions with a fast lens throughout his daughter’s career as a high school volleyball phenom.

To keep shutter speeds above 1/250 sec, he cranks up the ISO to 1250 or higher. Also, he sets white balance and exposure manually. “When I started, I shot everything on aperture-priority—when I had a bright spot in the background, the camera would underexpose. But when I switched to manual exposure, my images visibly improved.”

“Meters have a hard time with dark stages and spotlighting, so I meter manually,” he says. “I usually shoot wide open, checking exposure using histograms. If I’m under, I crank up the ISO.” When his subjects are in motion, he often shoots at ISO 1600 at f/1.8 and 1/250 sec—at the slowest, 1/100 sec.

“Don’t be shy about positioning yourself, as long as you’re not disruptive,” he advises. “At first, I shot only from the audience. I would not have been able to capture this shot if I had been shy.”

And it’s rarely just your child in the frame—share with other parents.

2009 Camera Of The Year Top Two

Canon has finally provided a truly rugged, pro-oriented APS-C format DSLR in the Canon 7D. Canon redefines the way people should think about sensor size. Pros now can choose what size sensor best fits their assignment, and enthusiasts have a full range of options based on their shooting style. This solid piece of engineering wowed us with its 18MP CMOS sensor resolution, its fast 8-fps burst rate, and its tough weathersealed body. It also marks a refinement of Canon’s metering and autofocus systems, which now work together to track subjects by shape and color.

When we speak of refinement, we think of this 24.6MP full-framer Nikon D3x. It delivers more resolution than any other DSLR with a 35mm or smaller sensor. It captures usable images all the way to ISO 6400, has a 5-fps burst rate for action shots, and is built to withstand both Death Valley and Denali. Ample customization and other high-end features expand the capabilities of pro shooters. With Nikon’s WT-4a wireless transmitter and Camera Control 2 software, for instance, you can trigger up to 10 D3X bodies from your computer.

How to Photograph Silhouettes Shots

How to Photograph Silhouettes Shots During Florida Beach Portraits.

Getting The Correct Exposure

When you take a picture with your camera set on Auto mode, you are delegating responsibility for determining the correct exposure to the camera. Depending on the ‘brain’ (or programmed chip) inside your camera, the result may be pleasing or not to your satisfaction. But before you blame the camera for your lousy pictures, it pays to understand a bit what goes on behind the scenes when you press the shutter release button. In this article, we are going to look at what ‘correct exposure’ means.

Aperture and Shutter Speed

A correctly exposed image means that the right amount of light has exposed the image sensor. There are basically two ways your camera can ensure that: 1) open or close the aperture (by making the hole of the iris larger or smaller; or, as is becoming more and more common in point-and-shoot digicams, by using a neutral density filter to restrict the amount of light reaching the image sensor); 2) by deciding how long to leave the shutter open. A third way that we will also briefly look at is 3) by adjusting the ISO (basically boosting the light signal).

F2.8 F4 F5.6 F8

When you (or your camera) uses a larger aperture (e.g. F2.8), the hole of the iris is larger and more light reaches the image sensor. Conversely, using a smaller aperture (e.g. F8) means that the hole of the iris is smaller and less light reaches the image sensor.

When a fast shutter speed is used (e.g. 1/1,000 sec.), the image sensor is exposed for only that small amount of time (i.e. 1/1,000 sec.). Conversely, when a slow shutter speed is used (e.g. 1/30 sec.; some cameras allow slow shutter speeds up to 30 sec. or more), the image sensor is exposed for that longer amount of time.

F8
1/30

Obtaining correct exposure is a setting combination of aperture and shutter speed. For example, your camera’s light meter may have measured a need for an aperture of F8 at a shutter speed of 1/30 sec. If you press the shutter release button now, your camera will close up the iris to an aperture of F8 and open the shutter for only 1/30 sec. to obtain a correctly exposed picture. The amount of light that squeezes through that opening for that amount of time goes to expose the image sensor.

Complications

However, here is where the complications show up. If you are taking a picture of a serene and calm landscape, a setting of F8 at 1/30 sec. may be perfect! The small aperture gives you good depth of field ensuring that objects near and far are in focus. The slow shutter speed may be a problem if you are not using a tripod. A slow shutter speed means that any camera shake (even ever so slightly) will result in some blurring of the final image. A perfectly exposed blurred image!

Two things you’ve learned right here: 1) a small aperture increases depth of field; 2) a slow shutter speed requires a tripod, or other ways to hold the camera steady (e.g. by bracing yourself against something).

But, what if you are trying to take a picture of your son flying a kite in the park? A slow shutter speed will not only result in a blurred image because of camera shake, but your son is moving fast across the camera and the resulting image is a perfectly exposed blurred image of your son. To ‘freeze’ fast action, you need to use a fast shutter speed. So, move the scene mode dial to ‘Sports/Action’ mode or, if your camera allows Shutter Priority mode, select that mode and set a shutter speed of 1/250 sec. To still obtain correct exposure, you also need to open up the aperture now.

Remember, you selected a faster shutter speed which means that the image sensor will now be exposed for a shorter time. If you don’t open up the aperture but keep F8, then the image sensor receives less light (you maintained the same hole opening, but closed the shutter sooner), and the resulting image will be underexposed. In this case, you would have ‘frozen’ the action, but unexposed the image.

Shifting Aperture and Shutter Speed

F2.8 F4 F5.6 F8
1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30

‘Program Shift’ is the term used to shift the aperture/shutter speed combination in tandem and still obtain correct exposure. As is illustrated above, if 1/30 sec. at F8 gives a correct exposure, then the three other aperture/shutter speed combinations shown also give the same correct exposure.

It is easy to understand when you consider that each aperture shift from F2.8 to F8 halves the amount of light reaching the image sensor (or, conversely, each aperture shift from F8 to F2.8 doubles the amount of light reaching the image sensor). Each shutter speed shift from 1/250s to 1/30s doubles the amount of light reaching the image sensor (or, conversely, each shutter speed shift from 1/30s to 1/250s halves the amount of light reaching the image sensor).

So, to maintain correct exposure, if you halve the one, you need to double the other. For example, if you halve the shutter speed from 1/30s to 1/60s, then you need to double the aperture from F8 to F5.6. Another way to look at this (depending on whether your main purpose is to shift aperture or shutter speed): double the aperture from F8 to F5.6, and you need to halve the shutter speed from 1/30s to 1/60s.

So the converse is also true, i.e. if you double the one you need to halve the other. In fact, say it anyway you like and the fact remains that if you halve the one (aperture or shutter speed), you’ll need to double the other (shutter speed or aperture), And, if you double the one (aperture or shutter speed), you’ll need to halve the other (shutter speed or aperture).

The Garden Hose Metaphor

Let’s take an aside here to explain a bit more about aperture/shutter speed combination. Think of your garden water hose that you are using to fill a bucket with water. The diameter of the hose can be thought of as the aperture: the larger the diameter, the more water flows through. The length of time you leave the tap open can be thought of as the shutter speed: the longer you leave the tap open, the more water flows through. The speed of water flow can be thought of as the ISO: the faster the water flows through the hose, the more water flows through. The amount of water that collects into the bucket is the exposure.

Let’s also pretend that you have two water hoses, one with a small diameter (our F8 aperture) and the other one with a larger diameter (aperture of F2.8).

To fill our bucket, we experiment with the smaller of the two hoses and find that we need to leave the tap open for 10 min (our shutter speed of 1/30 sec.).

So, here we have the following ‘exposure setting’:

  • small hose & long time of 10 min.
  • small aperture (F8) & slow shutter speed of 1/30 sec.

OK, so what happens if you use the same small hose but close the tap after, let’s say, 3 min? Of course, it’s clear that the bucket won’t be full.

That is exactly what you did when you kept the same aperture and used a faster shutter speed. Not enough light came in to properly expose the image sensor (‘the bucket is not full’).

What do you have to do to fill up the bucket? Use the bigger hose! Aha, now with more water gushing out of your bigger hose, you can now close the tap earlier and still obtain a full bucket.

Similarly, to use a faster shutter speed, you need to use a larger aperture. Dial in F2.8 at 1/250 sec. and presto! you’ve just taken a perfectly exposed picture of your son frozen in motion.

Here is your new ‘exposure setting’:

  • big hose & short time of 3 min
  • large aperture (F2.8) & fast shutter speed of 1/250 sec.
Two more things you’ve learned right here: 1) a fast shutter speed will ‘freeze’ action; 2) the combination of shutter speed/aperture walks in opposite direction to each other: for a particular shutter speed/aperture combination required for correct exposure, if you now increase the shutter speed, you also need to open up the aperture; and if you use an even slower shutter speed, you will need to use an even smaller aperture.OK, the lingo we use can sometimes get confusing. Let’s sort out ‘increase’, ‘double’, halve’, ‘open’, ‘close’, etc.:

– A shutter speed of 1/60s is faster than one of 1/30s.
– So we speak of ‘increasing’ the shutter speed going from 1/30s to 1/60s. Technically we are ‘decreasing’ the time the shutter is left open, but the shutter speed has increased.
– In so doing, we have ‘halved’ the shutter speed: 1/60s is half of 1/30s. A smaller shutter speed value is a faster shutter speed.
– An easy way to think of shutter speed is that when the number below the ‘1’ (i.e. the denominator) increases (say, from ‘1/2’ to ‘1/1000’), we are using a faster shutter speed and letting less light in; conversely, when the denominator decreases (say, from ‘1/1000’ to ‘1/2’), we are using a slower shutter speed and letting more light in.

– An aperture of F8 is smaller than one of F5.6.
– So we ‘open’ up the aperture when we go from F8 to F5.6.
– In so doing, we have ‘doubled’ the aperture [opening].
– An easy way to think of aperture is that as the number gets bigger (say, from ‘2.8’ to ‘8’), the aperture [opening] gets smaller and we are letting less light in; and when the number gets smaller (say, from ‘8’ to ‘2.8’), the aperture [opening] gets bigger and we are letting more light in.

Of course, depending on the specifications of your digital camera, you may have only a restricted set of aperture/shutter speed combinations to work with. For example, a common shutter speed range is 1 sec – 1/1,000 sec. and a common aperture range is F2.8 – F8.

That is the range of aperture/shutter speed you can play with to obtain correct exposure. If you can’t select a combination for correct exposure using these ranges, then your image will be either over or underexposed.

Over and Underexposure

F1.8 F2.8 F4 F5.6 F8
1/500 1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30

Let’s say, in our example above, you decide you want to use an even faster shutter speed of 1/500 sec. You now need to open your aperture up one more setting, to F1.8. But wait! Your camera may have a maximum aperture of F2.8, so you can’t open it up more. If you go ahead and take the picture anyway, the result if an underexposed picture of your son frozen in motion.

Conversely, if you use a slower shutter speed, say 1/125 sec., but maintain the aperture of F2.8, now you have too much light and your picture is overexposed. For a correct exposure at 1/125 sec., you’ll need to use an aperture of F4.

ISO

Where does ISO factor in all this? Remember, we used the garden hose metaphor to understand aperture/shutter speed combination required for correct exposure: small hose, longer time required to fill the bucket; to use a shorter time to fill the bucket, we needed to switch to a larger hose.

But what if we do not have a larger hose? We then increase the speed water flows thru the hose. We use the speed of water flow as a metaphor for ISO. Using the smaller hose, if we could increase the speed of water flow, we would then be able to close the tap earlier and still end up with a full bucket! Similarly, increase the ISO, and you’ve increased the sensitivity of the image sensor — i.e. it now needs less light to register an image.

This is not a technically accurate metaphor since when we increase the ISO, we do not increase the speed of light!!! Instead, using a speaker metaphor, we ‘crank up the sound volume’. In practical effect though, it looks like we increased the amount of light falling on the sensor, hence our ‘speed water flows thru the hose’ metaphor.

Suppose we meter a correct exposure at 1/30 sec., F8, at ISO 100. By increasing the ISO to 200, we can now use either a faster shutter speed at F8, or use a smaller aperture at 1/30 sec. and still obtain correct exposure. In our example above where we reached the limit of our camera’s aperture range, we could have used a higher ISO to allow us to use 1/250 sec at F2.8.

Sounds great, isn’t it? So, why don’t we just use the highest ISO all the time? The answer is the dreaded ‘noise’. The image sensor does not suddenly becomes more sensitive just because you tell it so by dialing in a higher ISO; it gains that increase in sensitivity at the cost of image quality [due to noise].

Think of an image sensor as comprised of a matrix of photosites, with a photo sensor at each photosite capturing light for one pixel of information. Say, each photosite captures one pixel of info. When you dial in a higher ISO, you are increasing the sensitivity of the image sensor. Unfortunately the image sensor now captures not only more light signal but also more noise (any signal not generated by the light from your subject). It is the ratio of light Signal to Noise (S/N ratio) that determines the noise in your image. The more light signal (as opposed to noise) your image sensor is able to capture, the less noise in your image. Generally, the smaller the image sensor the worse the noise is. Most consumer digital cameras suffer from noise problems at high ISOs. Some Digital SLR cameras have practically no noise at the higher ISOs; they, of course, use a rather large image sensor.

Cameras are often advertised with high ISO capability with the promise that this will allow you to capture low light images without using flash. But in cameras with tiny sensors, the use of high ISOs generates lots of noise in the pictures. To reduce the high amount of noise generated at high ISOs, cameras have noise reduction technology built-in. This is no panacea since the way noise reduction works is to smooth out the pixels, leading to loss of fine image detail.

The take away from this discussion is that you would want to always use a small ISO for the best image quality. In low light situations, you may have no choice but to use a higher ISO to allow you to capture a correctly exposed picture, but be aware that this comes at the price of increased noise (and hence decreased image quality). If you are not happy with the amount of noise in your pictures, consider moving up to a DSLR that has a low noise high ISO capability.

Common Complaints

Some of the most common complaints we hear from beginners are:

  • Underexposure
  • Overexposure
  • Blurred Images

We already covered these above, but let’s recap.

If your pictures are consistently coming out dark, then you are underexposing them. Remember, that setting your camera on Auto mode does not guarantee a correctly exposed picture if you ignore the warning the camera gives you when there’s just not enough light. You need to increase the light source by using the on-camera flash, or an alternate light source, or move your subject to someplace brighter. Otherwise, an underexposed shot will result.

When there’s too much light, and you cannot close the aperture enough and/or use a faster shutter speed, you end up with an overexposed image.

A blurred image results when you are either using a shutter speed that is too slow to avoid camera shake or too slow to ‘freeze’ motion. Use a faster shutter speed and adjust the aperture accordingly. The rule of thumb to avoiding camera shake while hand holding your camera is to use the reciprocal of the 35mm equivalent focal length in use. Say you zoom to 125mm (35mm equiv.), then use a shutter speed of 1/125 sec. or faster to avoid camera shake. To ‘freeze’ motion, a shutter speed faster than 1/60 sec. is usually necessary depending on the type and speed of the motion.

Exposure Bracketing

Sometimes, on one picture, you might have some areas of underexposure (usually in the shadows) and some areas of overexposure (we call them ‘highlights’). If you meter for the shadows, the highlights will be ‘blown’ — i.e. way overexposed. Conversely, if you meter for the highlights, the shadows will be way underexposed and you’ll lose all details there.

One solution is to use exposure bracketing. Take one picture metering for the shadows; without moving the camera (hance the use of a tripod is mandatory here), take a second picture metering for the highlights; then, take a third picture with an average metering. Load all three images into your favorite image editing software and overlay one on top of another. By carefully removing the portions of the image that are not properly exposed (or, if you prefer, by carefully combining the portions that are correctly exposed), you end up with one image with correct exposure throughout.

Understanding Camera Aperture

When you look at the technical specifications of a digital camera, one of the very first specification mentioned is its maximum aperture and/or its aperture range.

What is ‘aperture,’ what is a good aperture range, and how is aperture relevant when it comes to choosing a digital camera?

What Is Aperture?

The main function of a camera lens is to collect light. The aperture of a lens is the diameter of the lens opening and is usually controlled by an iris. The larger the diameter of the aperture, the more light reaches the film / image sensor.

Aperture is expressed as F-stop, e.g. F2.8 or f/2.8. The smaller the F-stop number (or f/value), the larger the lens opening (aperture).

[Note: Many camera user manuals today will refer to the aperture in terms of “aperture value” instead of f/value. I’m not sure when this trend started but don’t get confused between “aperture” and “aperture value.” Aperture value” is simply another way of saying f/value.]

In practice, unless you are dealing with a fixed-aperture lens (many simple point-and-shoot cameras have only one fixed aperture), the aperture of a lens is usually expressed as a range of fstops.

When you read the specifications of a camera, the aperture may be expressed in a number of different ways, the following three being the most common:

  • Maximum Aperture:
  Max. Aperture F2.8  

This simply states that the maximum aperture for the lens is F2.8.

  • Aperture Range:
  Aperture Range F2.8-F8.0  

This states the max. and min. aperture, the assumption being that there are standard increments between them.

  • Maximum Wide-Angle and Telephoto Apertures:
  Aperture F2.8-3.5 or F2.8(W)-F3.5(T)  

This gives the max. aperture for the wide-angle (F2.8) and telephoto (F3.5) focal lengths of a zoom lens.

It is usually not too difficult to figure out that a stated range deals with maximum apertures and not max and min apertures: the mimimum aperture should be quite small at F8, F11, F16 or F22.

A “fast” lens is one that has a large maximum aperture (F2.4, F2.0 for current digital cameras; F1.4, F1.2 for 35mm film cameras).

Quick Quiz: which lens has a larger opening (aperture): one with an aperture of F1.8 or one with an aperture of F2.8?

Answer: F1.8 (remember, the smaller the F-stop, the larger the aperture)

A Good Aperture Range

My personal preference for a ‘good’ aperture range is:

F1.8 – F16

F1.8 F2.8 F4 F5.6 F8 F11 F16

This tells us that the camera has an aperture range of F1.8 to F16; the maximum aperture is F1.8, and the minimum aperture is F16.

There are 5 f-stops between the max and min aperture. If your camera’s lens is currently set at an aperture of F5.6, closing it by 1 f-stop would mean selecting F8; opening it up by 1 f-stop would mean selecting F4.

F1.8 F2.8 F4 F5.6 F8 F11 F16

How Is A Large Maximum Aperture Relevant?

A large maximum aperture is preferable to a smaller one since it gives the photographer more latitude in the kind of pictures that can be taken.

For example, it is pretty obvious that the larger the aperture, the better your digital camera will perform in low-light situations, since a larger lens opening is able to admit more light than a smaller lens opening.

A larger max. aperture also allows you to use a faster shutter speed to freeze action.

So, let’s say the light meter in your digital camera calculates that for proper exposure in that indoor arena, you need an aperture of F4 and a shutter speed of 1/60 sec.

F4
1/60

To use a faster shutter speed (say, 1/250 sec.) to freeze action, you have to open up the aperture to allow more light in for that shorter amount of time.

For every shutter speed increment we go up, we need to open up a f-stop of aperture. From 1/60 sec. to 1/250 sec. there are 2 increments, so we open up the aperture by 2 f-stops, going from F4 to F1.8. Note that the camera would give proper exposure at 1/60 sec. at F4, 1/125 sec. at F2.8, and 1/250 sec. at F1.8, since all three aperture/shutter speed combinations allow the same amount of light into the camera. [Some digital cameras provide a ‘Program Shift’ function to allow that very shifting of aperture/shutter speed combinations in tandem.]

F1.8 F2.8 F4 F5.6 F8 F11 F16
1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30 1/15 1/8 1/4

Of course, in a digital camera set on Auto mode, you can select Sports scene mode, and the camera will automotically select a fast shutter speed and the appropriate aperture. Likewise, in Shutter-Priority mode, you can choose which shutter speed you want (fast or slow), and the camera will select the appropriate aperture for proper exposure.

In our example above, let’s say the lens on your digital camera only opens up to a max. aperture of F2.8. If you now select 1/250 sec. (in Shutter-Priority mode), the camera will not be able to select an aperture larger than F2.8 (in our example, it really needs F1.8). It would then give you an “underexposure” warning. If you go ahead and take the picture anyway, your picture would be 1 f-stop underexposed (i.e. you really needed to open up the aperture by 1 more f-stop for correct exposure).

Similarly, if you select a shutter speed of 1/4 sec. and the lens only closes down to a min. aperture of F8 (in our example, it really needs F16), the camera would give you an “overexposure” warning. If you go ahead and take a picture anyway, your picture would be 2 f-stops overexposed (i.e. you really needed to close down the aperture by 2 more f-stops for correct exposure).

[Editor’s note: There is a third variable in the above example which we have purposefully not introduced. This is the sensitivity of the image sensor — the ISO. We’ll cover this in a later tutorial.]

How Is A Small Minimum Aperture Relevant?

A small minimum aperture is preferable to a larger one since it also gives the photographer more latitude in the kind of pictures that can be taken.

Suppose we want to take a picture of flowing water. As mentioned above, to depict flowing water, we usually want to use a slow shutter speed so that the water blurs. It is this blurring that makes the picture so effective in depicting water motion.

So, let’s say the light meter in your digital camera calculates that for proper exposure on a bright sunny day, you need an aperture of F8 and a shutter speed of 1/125 sec.

F8
1/125

Well, if you decide to use a slower shutter speed (say, 1/30 sec.), this means that you have to compensate by closing down the aperture to allow less light in.

It makes sense really. Since you have increased the time the shutter remains open to allow light in, you must compensate by allowing less light in to expose the image sensor in that longer amount of time, if you still want a properly exposed picture.

But, what if the lens on your digital camera closes to a minimum of F8? You’re stuck at the shutter speed of 1/125 sec. If you use 1/30 sec. at F8, your picture will be overexposed, i.e. burnt out. At 1/125 sec. and F8, your picture will be properly exposed but the fast shutter speed will freeze the water motion and you won’t obtain the blurring effect you desire.

If the lens in your digital camera closed down to F16, presto, your problem is solved! 1/125 sec. at F8 is equivalent to 1/30 sec. at F16, which means that you would have a perfectly exposed purposefully-blurred-for-effect flowing water shot. [If your lens does not close down to F16, you could use a Neutral Density (ND) filter to reduce the amount of light coming into the lens, and thus allowing you to use a slower shutter speed.]

F1.8 F2.8 F4 F5.6 F8 F11 F16
1/2,000 1/1,000 1/500 1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30

[Editor’s note: There is a third variable in the above example which we have purposefully not introduced. This is the sensitivity of the image sensor — the ISO. We’ll cover this in a later tutorial.]

Aperture and Depth of Field (DOF)

We mentioned this above but feel it is important enough to repeat in its own paragraph.

The Depth of Field is the distance wherein objects are in focus.

There are times when you desire a great depth of field, i.e. where objects both close to you and far from you are in focus. This is especially true when you are taking a landscape picture and want as much as possible to be in crisp focus.

Then there are times when you want to isolate your subject, as when you are taking a portrait and want your subject to be in sharp focus but the background to be out of focus. In this case, you desire a shallow depth of field.

One way to influence DOF is by selecting the appropriate aperture.

The rule of thumb is this:

  • Select a large aperture (or small f/value or small aperture value), e.g. f/2.8, to obtain a shallow DOF
  • Select a small aperture (or large f/value or large aperture value), e.g. f/8.0, to achieve great DOF

 

Here are some real images that demonstrate the use of aperture to influence DOF:

Aperture and Depth of Field (DOF)
AF area is on yellow pistils of flower in front
Shallow DOF Great DOF
   
Note how the use of a large aperture (small aperture value) throws the flowers in the background out of focus. Focus has to be precise. Using a small aperture (large aperture value) extends the DOF from the foreground all the way to the background.
49.8 mm, Av, Spot, 1/30 sec., f/3.5, +0.7EV, Macro, Tripod used 49.6mm, Av, Spot, 1/5 sec., f/11, +0.7EV, Macro, Tripod used

Note: Since we are on the subject of DOF, DOF also changes with focal length. Use a small focal length to increase DOF, a longer focal length obtain a shallower DOF. I.E. if you zoom, the DOF decreases. [OK, to be technically correct, focal length does not really affect DOF, but gives the effect that it does. And, that’s good enough for us since that’s what we’re after. We’ll cover DOF in a later tutorial.]

Due to the small image sensors used, digital cameras use such small focal lengths that it is very difficult to obtain shallow depth of field even when using a large aperture. In the example above, we used a large aperture AND a long focal length (telephoto macro) to achieve a shallow DOF.

Recap

A large maximum aperture is a good thing. It allows more light to reach the image sensor, and so allows you to use a faster shutter speed. A faster shutter speed freezes action and negates the effect of camera shake, resulting in pictures that are not blurred.

Another advantage of a large maximum aperture is to provide a shallow depth of field. This allows the background to blur nicely thus isolating your subject (especially effective when taking portraits).

A small minimum aperture is also a good thing. It allows you to use a slow shutter speed on a bright sunny day. A slow shutter speed allows you to depict motion.

Another advantage of a small minimum aperture is to increase the depth-of-field. An increased depth-of-field allows you to take landscape pictures where as much of the picture in the foreground and reaching all the way to the background (usually, ‘infinity’) is in sharp focus.

Why You Should Use RAW File Format

When you take a picture in JPEG file format with your digital camera, a couple of things happen before the image is even saved to memory card:

  • The image sensor gathers the information from its photosites, converts it from analog to digital, and holds it for further processing. At this stage, the image data captured can be thought of as being “unprocessed” — or, RAW data.
  • If you have specified white balance, sharpening, contrast, saturation, image effect, digital zoom, etc., these are applied to the RAW data.
  • If you have specified image quality and size, these are also applied to the RAW data.
  • The resulting image is a JPEG image, processed (“in-camera process”), and compressed, which is then written to your memory card.

After you have transferred the image from your memory card to your PC, you may decide to further process it (“post-processing”) in an image editing software, such as Photoshop. Most photographers will usually adjust levels and sharpen the image a bit.

RAW Defined

RAW file format is the uncompressed, unprocessed data file captured by the camera’s image sensor, before any in-camera processing has been applied (though, in practice, depending on the camera manufacturer, some minimal in-camera processing may have been applied to the RAW data). In this sense, an image saved in the RAW file format is the digital equivalent to the (exposed but as yet unprocessed) film negative.

In fact, the camera will ignore your white balance, sharpening, contrast and saturation settings. Instead of applying them to the RAW data, it will save those settings in a separate header associated with the RAW data.

Correcting Mistakes

The fascination with RAW is that it seems to magically give you the ability to “correct your mistakes.” How is that achieved?

Remember that when you save an image in RAW, your image settings are ignored as far as applying them to the image, and are instead saved in a header.

When you open the RAW data in your image editing software (with the appropriate RAW plug-in installed, since every manufacturer encodes RAW a little differently), that header is read and used to display an image of the RAW data.

Notice that we say, display — the actual RAW data is never affected.

You may now manually adjust the settings and see the effect on the RAW data — giving the effect of being able to magically “correct your mistakes.” When you are happy with the adjustments, you would then typically save a copy as JPEG.

RAW is therefore a powerful option that most advanced digital cameras make available to photographers who do not want the camera to apply any in-camera processing to the captured RAW data — preferring to do that themselves in post-processing.

Exposure Compensation

Some photographers have mistakenly thought that RAW allowed them to correct exposure errors. Well, to a limited extent, that is true.

However, a picture has to be correctly exposed, whether you are using RAW or not. You cannot take a grossly underexposed or overexposed picture in RAW, and expect to be able to “correct your mistakes.”

To explain how this is possible, we need to get a bit technical: While JPEG captures 8 bits of colour per pixel or 256 shades of colour per pixel (16.7 million colours), RAW captures 12 bits of colour per pixel, translating to 4096 shades of colour per pixel (68.7 billion colours). This great amount of information (extra pixel depth going from RAW to JPEG) is what allows the exposure to be corrected up or down by one stop, and sometimes by as much as 2 stops (but you might be pushing your luck). Applying this exposure compensation and adjusting the other settings to your RAW data in post-processing may be enough to salvage an otherwise ruined image.

When To Use RAW

RAW data takes longer to write to memory card and there is a need to post-process every single picture.

These two requirements can be a major nuisance or not depending on the type of photography you do. If you need to take pictures in rapid succession, and your digital camera does not provide a large enough RAW buffer, you will be hampered by the extra amount of time it takes to write a large RAW image data to memory card. Post-processing every single image is also a chore that not many amateur photographers (and some professional photographers) enjoy doing.

This means that, for most practical purposes, amateur photographers will find that saving in RAW is not an interesting option, and that shooting in JPEG is more than sufficient. [There, I’ve said it, and you can now stop being intimidated by all that “RAW talk.”]

Unless…

  • You are unsure of the white balance to use or need accurate colour reproduction of a subject (e.g. a wedding dress must be reproduced faithfully as pure white, off-white, silk white, etc.);
  • You want optimum control over sharpness, contrast, saturation;
  • When you want to print extra extra large, RAW file format gives you more room to maneuver since there are no JPEG artifacts due to in-camera compression.

Many photographers are finding that they do want the control that RAW gives them and but still find the post-processing tedious. Especially when only one picture out of a dozen or so might be a keeper.

RAW + JPEG

To address this issue, some advanced digital cameras now offer a RAW+JPEG option. It takes even longer (slightly) to write to memory card, but now post-processing of the RAW image can be reserved for only the keepers, or the images that need adjustments. If the JPEG versions are fine, they would be used instead.

Summary

Should you use JPEG or RAW?

For most of us, saving in JPEG is more than adequate. JPEG files are compressed and, compared to RAW, they are smaller, save faster, and more images can fit on a memory card. Many professional photographers shoot at the highest JPEG image quality.

For ultimate control over white balance, saturation, contrast and sharpening, and/or if you know ahead of time that you intend to print a certain picture super extra large, RAW file format (or, RAW + JPEG) is the ultimate answer. For many professional photographers, there is no substitute to shooting RAW.

Canon EOS 1D Mark IV

The Canon EOS 1D Mark IV is the update to the EOS 1D Mark III and features 16.1MP resolution on a new APS-H (27.9 x 18.6 mm) high-sensitivity CMOS image sensor with an ISO range of 100-12,800, expandable to ISO 102,400.

Canon has revamped its 45-point high-precision Area AF sensor by including 39 cross-type, high-precision AF points and new focusing algorithms. Keeping the same 10fps Continuous shooting (for 121 JPEG, 28 RAW or 20 RAW+JPEG using a UDMA CF card), Canon is positioning the EOS 1D Mark IV as the pro’s digital SLR camera of choice for sports photography.

The EOS 1D Mark IV now features full HD (1080p) movies with manual control. Stereo sound recording is possible by attaching an optional external microphone.

The extra large 3.0-in. LCD has 920,000 dots resolution. The body features magnesium-alloy construction and is fully weather-sealed. The EOS 1D Mark IV is compatible with all Canon lenses in the EF lineup (excluding EF-S lenses).

An optional Wireless File Transmitter WFT-E2 IIA supports USB host capability (to attach an additional external hard drive or to add GPS support) and remote Live View using any browser-enabled device such as a smartphone or notebook computer. Up to 10 WFT-E2 IIA enabled cameras can be linked together for simultaneously shooting from various angles.

Other features include: EOS Integrated Cleaning System and full EF and EX Speedlite compatibility.

The Canon EOS 1D Mark IV DSLR should easily become a favorite of sports photographers by providing fast performance, advanced pro features, and exceptional low noise capability.

The Canon EOS 1D Mark IV offers advanced photographic and video imaging possibilities for demanding professionals. Boasting a 16.1 megapixel APS-H sized sensor, Dual DIGIC 4 Image Processors, and a completely redesigned 45-point AF system, the 1D Mark IV builds upon the success of the legendary 1D series with expanded ISO performance (up to ISO 102,400), HD video recording, and 10 frames per second continuous shooting.

The 1D Mark IV’s all new autofocus system employs 45 AF points, 39 of which are cross-type. All focus points can be selected automatically or manually and programmed for priority based on the portrait or landscape orientation of the camera. New AI Servo II AF uses advanced algorithms to track moving subjects with precision and accuracy, even under the most difficult shooting conditions. An improved 63-zone metering system analyzes the frame for optimal exposure.

True 1080p HD video can be recorded at 24 (23.976), 25, or 30 (29.97) frames per second for better compatibility with non-linear editing systems. 720p HD and 640 x 480 SD video are captured at 50 or 60 (59.94) frames per second, offering the smoothest method of recording action subjects. An integrated mono microphone records spontaneous audio with video, while a 3.5mm stereo input offers higher quality options for professional applications.

Additional features include environmentally sealed magnesium-alloy construction, integrated sensor cleaning, and a 300,000 exposure shutter rating. With all this and more, the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV represents a complete photo and video solution for professional photographers and filmmakers.

• Precision High-Speed Autofocus
The EOS-1D Mark IV has a newly developed, high-precision Area AF sensor with 45 manually selectable points including 39 cross-type, high-precision AF points for exacting and fast focusing no matter the subject. New AI Servo II AF focus tracking features improved algorithms that help improve stability, reliability and focus no matter the situation. Whether shooting a fast-paced soccer game or shooting a close-up of a bee on a wind-blown flower during macro photography, AI Servo II AF helps ensure sharp focus every time. AF point selection has been improved as well. Photographers can select their own point through either the camera’s Multi-controller or Main Dial/Quick Control Dial. Automatic selection is as simple as the press of a button. With Custom functions, photographers can select their own default focus point to automatically switch between horizontal and vertical shooting and can even choose to have primary focus supported by adjacent focus points for more accuracy with moving subjects.
• Powerful ISO Sensitivity
The EOS-1D Mark IV features a standard ISO range from 100 – 12800 with an expanded range of 50 to 102400. The combined noise reduction capabilities of the Dual DIGIC 4 Image Processors and Canon CMOS sensor help ensure that even at an ISO setting of 102400, noise is kept to a minimum. This greatly expanded capability provides an increased range of real-world shooting options, especially in available-light or dim situations. A low ISO speed can be useful, for example, when shooting high contrast scenes at large apertures. Blown highlights, such as the shading of a bride’s dress, can be avoided and photographers can use wider apertures to control depth-of-field in ways not possible at higher ISO settings. Additionally, the EOS-1D Mark IV features the Auto Lighting Optimizer (ALO), which automatically adjusts the brightness and contrast during image processing to minimize the need for expensive and time-consuming post-production processing. Auto Lighting Optimizer is available in most shooting modes, including Manual mode and can be applied to RAW images using the included Canon Digital Photo Professional software.
• HD Video Recording
The EOS-1D Mark IV captures video with all the benefits of shooting with an EOS digital SLR. The HD recording area on the EOS-1D Mark IV is approx. 27.9 x 15.7mm, similar when compared to the 24.89 x 18.65mm recording area of Super 35 motion picture film. By shooting video with a large sensor camera, photographers as well as videographers can take advantage of the creative features native to SLR photography. Along with its manual controls, the EOS-1D Mark IV allows for full use of Canon EF lenses, including wide angle, macro, super-telephoto, tilt-shift lenses and fisheye, providing a wealth of depth-of-field and other creative shooting options once reserved only for still photography. The resulting HD video is a standout in its stunning depth-of-field characteristics, remarkable capture capability under poor lighting conditions with its vast ISO range, and deep clean blacks with nearly undetectable noise.When shooting HD video in AE modes, the EOS-1D Mark IV employs Center Weighted average metering to help ensure stable motion-picture exposure with the camera automatically selecting the ISO speed, shutter and aperture. Full manual exposure control is also available while shooting video when the camera is set to Manual mode.

Video can be captured at 1920 x 1080 resolution at frame rates of 24 (23.976), 25 or 30 (29.97) frames per second, for up to 4GB per clip. Movies are saved as MOV files and can be viewed in Full HD with HDMI output. Other recording sizes include HD at 1280 x 720 (50/60 (59.94) fps) or SD/VGA at 640 x 480 (50/60 (59.94) fps). The EOS-1D Mark IV has a built-in microphone for simple mono recording and stereo sound can be recorded through a self-powered external microphone.

• High Resolution Image Capture
The EOS-1D Mark IV features a high-resolution APS-H sized 16.1 Megapixel CMOS sensor (with a focal length multiplier effect of 1.3x) and Dual DIGIC 4 Image Processors that can process images at full resolution continuously up to 10 frames-per-second. The combination of the CMOS sensor and Dual DIGIC 4 Image Processors help to ensure smooth, detailed and refined images that are recorded quickly, accurately and reliably. This impressive combination of speed, quality and performance will make the EOS-1D Mark IV a staple among many professional photographers, including sports photographers, and a familiar sight on the sidelines of professional sporting events.
• 10 Frames Per Second Shooting
The EOS-1D Mark IV’s rugged, high-speed shutter can shoot up to 10.0 frames per second (fps) for up to 28 consecutive RAW files or 121 full-resolution JPEGs when used in conjunction with UDMA (Ultra Direct Memory Access) Mode 6 CF cards. The EOS-1D Mark IV’s spectacular new 45-point high-speed AF sensor locks on and maintains focus, ensuring that the camera keeps up with its amazing shutter.
• 3.0″ ClearView II LCD
The EOS-1D Mark IV features a new, high-resolution, 3.0″ ClearView II VGA LCD. The screen boasts 920,000 dot resolution and provides a new level of clarity and sharpness with a 160° angle of view. Its performance is admirable, not only in confirming focus and composition, but in composing and shooting in Live View mode, or when shooting video. It features a tempered glass protective cover with an anti-reflective film and a new resin filling between the actual LCD and glass cover that helps minimize internal reflections and further improves visibility in bright viewing situations. During image playback, pressing the illumination button displays an LCD brightness screen, so brightness can be adjusted quickly and easily.
• Professional Construction
A lightweight and incredibly strong magnesium alloy construction helps the EOS-1D Mark IV to endure almost any condition, and the EOS-1D Mark IV features a shutter designed to shoot 300,000 cycles. All the EOS-1D Mark IV’s controls, buttons and external covers are dust- and water-resistant, ensuring uninterrupted operation whether shooting in the rain, in a windstorm and everything in between. Dust is managed with the advanced Canon EOS Integrated Cleaning System, which helps to suppress dust generation, removes existing dust and uses the combination of Dust Delete Data and DPP software to eliminate any remaining dust spots on your images. When the EOS-1D Mark IV is used with a dust and water-resistant EF lens or external Speedlite, the entire camera system is nearly impervious to the elements.
• Canon EF Lens Compatibility
The EOS-1D Mark IV is compatible with all Canon lenses in the EF lineup (excluding EF-S lenses), ranging from ultra-wide angle to super telephoto lenses. Canon lenses employ advanced optical expertise and micron-precision engineering to deliver outstanding performance in nearly all facets of the photographic process. Special optical technologies, such as aspherical optics and fluorite elements, are featured in the widely acclaimed L-Series lenses, and Canon Image Stabilizer technology in select lenses helps to minimize the effect of camera shake. Through Canon lenses, photographers can truly maximize the quality and liberating performance of the 1D Mark IV.

Nikon’s New AF-S DX Micro 85mm f/3.5 ED VR Lens Review

Nikon AF-S DX Micro 85mm ED VR Lens

Nikon Canada today introduced the new medium telephoto AF-S DX Micro NIKKOR 85mm f/3.5G ED VR lens. While the new lens is designed specifically for extreme close-up photography, it is also perfectly suited for portrait, nature and general imaging. Focusing as close as 27mm, this new 85mm Micro lens allows photographers to capture breathtaking close-up images with life-size reproduction ratios up to 1:1, helping to ensure that even the most subtle of subject detail is reproduced faithfully. The new 85mm Micro lens, in conjunction with Nikon DX format digital SLR camera, renders a picture angle equivalent of 127.5mm (in the 35mm or FX-format), providing a natural perspective along with a desirable and practical lens-to-subject working distance.

The NIKKOR Advantage
Specifically engineered for use with Nikon’s assortment of DX-format digital SLRs, the new 85mm Micro lens incorporates a variety of Nikon-exclusive features and technologies including Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor (SWM) technology, Extra Low Dispersion (ED) glass and an Internal Focusing (IF) design. While optimized for DX-format digital SLRs, this lens is also compatible with Nikon FX-format digital SLRs when used in their DX crop mode. In addition, dramatic close-up perspectives can be captured in beautiful HD video with digital SLR cameras such as the Nikon D5000, D90 and the new D300s.

This lens also incorporates the benefit of Vibration Reduction (VR II) Image Stabilization technology, which gives photographers the ability to shoot at shutter speeds up to four stops* slower than would otherwise be possible, while dramatically reducing the image blur caused by camera shake in handheld photography. Nikon VR image stabilization is specifically engineered for each lens into which it is incorporated, ensuring optimum image stabilization benefit. And, unlike camera body-based approaches to image stabilization, Nikon’s lens-based VR also stabilizes the camera’s viewfinder image, making composing and capturing images and movies easier.

Nikon’s SWM provides fast, quiet and accurate autofocus performance and Nikon’s IF design further enhances AF performance, while also allowing photographers to manually focus quickly and smoothly. Additional benefits to IF include the elimination of both front lens element rotation and changes in lens length during focusing. A constant lens length improves balance and overall handling, while doing away with front element rotation making the use of front-mounted accessories such as polarizer or the Nikon Wireless Close-up Speedlight System much more convenient.

Optical construction consists of 14 elements in 10 groups, while the addition of an ED glass element minimizes chromatic aberration, enhancing the lens’ ability to deliver stunning, high-contrast images with accurate and well-saturated colours. A rounded nine-blade diaphragm opening allows out-of-focus background or foreground scene information to appear more naturally blurred.
*As determined in Nikon performance tests

AF-S DX Micro NIKKOR 85mm f/3.5G ED VR Feature Highlights

  • Medium-telephoto 85mm Micro lens (picture angle is equivalent to a focal length of 127.5mm in FX/35mm format)
  • Closest focusing distance of 0.286 m/0.9 ft.
  • The optical system featuring an Extra-low Dispersion (ED) glass element is optimized for DX-format digital SLRs
  • Vibration Reduction (VR II) enables sharper pictures while shooting at shutter speeds up to four stops slower than would otherwise be possible
  • Silent Wave Motor (SWM) ensures fast, quiet AF operation
  • Internal Focusing (IF) enables focusing without changing the length of lens barrel
  • The nine-blade rounded diaphragm opening gives out-of-focus elements a more natural appearance

Price and Availability
The AF-S DX Micro NIKKOR 85mm f/3.5G ED VR lens will be available at Nikon Canada Authorized Dealers beginning in late November 2009. Pricing will be announced at a later date.

Adobe Photoshop CS4 Review

With each new version, Adobe Photoshop has always gotten more complex and slightly more difficult to use. Not anymore. Photoshop CS4 ($700, street, new; $200, upgrade) has new features and significant changes to the interface that make learning and using the software much simpler.

Until now, if you had multiple files open, you would have to flip through them using the Window menu. But with CS4’s new application frame, you can open several files and quickly tab between them (A), plus manage the display of lots of files at once.

On the top toolbar of the new frame, you’ll find the revamped Zoom tool. Finally making full use of your computer’s graphics card, CS4 renders a file smoothly at any magnification. So no more restricting your editing to preset zoom levels such as 25% or 50%. You can also click and hold the tool over the image to zoom smoothly in or out.

The most powerful interface change: New panels for Adjustments and Masks (B), which had been stumbling blocks for many photographers. Old hands will have to get used to the redesign, but it’s a huge boon to new users.

To make a new Adjustment Layer in CS4, all you have to do is choose the type you want by clicking a button or picking from a drop-down menu of presets. Photoshop automatically adds an Adjustment Layer to your Layers panel. Since you work on the adjustment in the panel, there’s no longer a floating box that hides your image and keeps you from seeing the effects of your tweaks.

To show or hide areas of the changes you made on your Adjustment Layer, click on the Masks panel. From there, click Color Range to apply your adjustments to only a range of tones. Or start by brushing on your adjustments, then use Mask Edge (C) to refine the mask and ensure you affect only the area you want.

Adobe recognized that some tools people love aren’t necessarily good for their pictures. For instance, we’ve seen rampant overuse of Saturation and the terrible yet popular Dodge and Burn tool.

Vibrance — first introduced in Camera RAW as an alternative to Saturation that added pop without overdoing it — is now in CS4 both as its own Adjustment Layer and in the Sponge tool. And revamped Dodge and Burn are no longer clunky monsters left over from ancient times — we can now recommend them.

Moreover, it wouldn’t be a Photoshop upgrade without a couple of really awesome new tools that most people probably won’t use often. This time, there’s the new Content Based Scaling and the depth-of-field extender.

Content Based Scaling changes the aspect ratio, effectively cropping without compromising important image data. For example, the tool can tell where there’s a person in your picture and leave that part alone, while squeezing background elements such as clouds and trees.

The depth-of-field extender is part of the improved panorama stitcher, which can composite an image in threedimensional space. So if you’re using a macro or a wide aperture and can’t get enough depth of field, shoot multiple images with different points of focus, then blend them into one deeply sharp photo.

These days Photoshop isn’t just an image editor, but a set of three applications including Bridge (the powerful browser) and Camera RAW for RAW conversion — and there are lots of upgrades to those, as well. Since Camera RAW runs on the same engine as the one in Adobe’s Lightroom 2, some of the innovations in that recent upgrade are present here, too. So it’s now possible to do local and gradient adjustments to your photos while still in the RAW converter.

Making and printing contact sheets (or just pages with multiple images) used to require lots of waiting and processing in Photoshop, but now Bridge makes PDFs (and web galleries, as well) directly from the browser.

Other innovations: A navigation bar that shows you the exact location of the picture you’re looking at. Tabs that let you switch between ways of viewing and working with your images. A carousel mode that lets you flip through a full screen view of your images and see the ones ahead and behind. And the ability to make collections of photos without moving them among folders.

In CS4, all these improvements add up to a worthwhile upgrade. Most important, this version makes the real power of Photoshop — Adjustment Layers and Masks — far more accessible to people using the program for the first time.

The New Sony Alpha 380 And My Review Of The New Sony DSLR

Sony Alpha 380 front view

Facing tough competition from 12- to 15-megapixel DSLRs from Canon and Nikon, Sony’s new 14.2MP Alpha 380 $850, street, with 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 SAM lens comes up somewhat short.

It has a couple of big strengths. Live-view shooting is the best we’ve used on any DSLR to date. It offers built-in wireless flash control—all too rare in consumer-level cameras. And its controls, from the placement of buttons to the made-for-beginners display interface, are very well designed.

But, unlike its chief rivals, Canon’s 15.1MP EOS Rebel T1i ($810, street, with 18–55mm f/3.55.6 IS lens) and Nikon’s 12.3MP D5000 ($850, street, with 18–55mm f/3.55.6 VR lens), the Alpha 380 doesn’t offer video capture. And, in our tests in the Pop Photo Lab, it ran neck-and-neck with the Nikon, but behind the Canon.

Test Performance on the Sony Alpha 380

With an APS-C-sized CCD sensor, the Alpha 380 earned an Extremely High rating in our resolution test, barely ahead of the Nikon. Given the Sony’s extra pixels, we’d have expected a little more. Color accuracy earned an Excellent rating, though its score trailed those of both the others.

Noise is also a mixed bag. On the one hand, the A380 scored a Moderate rating at its highest sensitivity setting of ISO 3200, never reaching Unacceptable in our rating scale. Even at ISO 1600 noise is Low, though that comes at the expense of some resolving power. But at ISO 800, it produces more noise than its rivals. We think this is because Sony steps up the noise reduction at ISO 1600 and ISO 3200. (We run our tests at the default settings using the manufacturer’s RAW conversion software.)

At the brightest part of our autofocus speed test, the Sony proved extremely fast for this class. Once the light reached the rough equivalent of a well-lit living room, though, the A380 fell behind the Canon. And in the dimmest levels in our test, it fell behind both of the others.

Sony rates the AF system for use down to a light level of 0 EV, a little brighter than full moonlight—in our test, it focuses down to –1 EV, same as the Nikon. But the Canon’s AF worked in the truly dim conditions of –2 EV, the lowest we test. Diehard low-light shooter? You may be happier with the Canon.

Sony’s sensor-shifting image stabilization is a real boon, however. In our tests, we averaged between 2 and 3 stops of leeway when shooting handheld. So, if you’d normally shoot at 1/400 sec, you should be able to get a sharp version of the same shot at 1/100 sec or even as slow as 1/50 sec, depending on how steadily you hold the camera.

Plus, since the stabilization is in the camera body, it will work with any lens you can mount, including old Konica Minoltas.

Live View with Sony Alpha 380 

The A380, like all Sony Alphas, has the best live-view system we’ve seen. Other DSLRs expose the imaging sensor to let you frame your picture in live view, then flip down the mirror to autofocus, and flip it back out of the way to fire. This causes a significant lag between your pressing the shutter button and the picture being taken.

But, thanks to a second sensor placed near its pentamirror, the A380 doesn’t need to expose the main sensor to let you compose in live view. You can autofocus conventionally, using the TTL phase-detection AF module, and there’s no delay.

You can tilt the A380’s 2.7-inch LCD monitor up and down. Although we prefer the full range of motion offered by the LCDs on the Nikon D5000 and Olympus E-620 ($700, street, with 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6 lens), we used it quite a lot in our field testing.

Handling and Controls on the Sony Alpha 380

One reason we stuck with live view: To avoid holding the redesigned grip.

The A380 feels unbalanced, even with the light new 50mm f/1.8 DT SAM lens (tested on page 78). The shape gives you nothing substantial for your fingers to wrap around, and any righthand finger action, such as turning the command wheel to change a setting, made the camera feel as if it would slip and fall. Too bad—we loved the steady grips of earlier Alphas.

Still, Sony’s designers got many other things right. It sounds like a small detail, but we appreciated the switch on the top of the camera that lets you move easily between live view and the optical viewfinder.

We also liked the placement of the exposure compensation button—on an angled part of the camera back, where you can reach it with your thumb but won’t press it accidentally. (Alas, it also controls the playback zoom, and several times we zoomed in on the instant review of our last shot when we’d meant to set exposure comp for the next.)

Other double-duty controls were far more helpful. The menu-control pad also lets you set commonly used functions, such as flash, ISO, drive mode, and AF. Other settings, such as white balance, can be found quickly using the function button.

We’re also fans of the standard mini-HDMI output and the dual SD and Memory Stick card slots, though it would be better if you could automatically go back and forth between them instead of having to use a physical switch.

Since the A380 is intended for lessexperienced photographers, it’s no surprise that it has a handful of scene modes on the top dial. When you turn it, the LCD displays a brief description of the selected shooting mode.

And the A380 has Sony’s new graphical interface for people who are just learning photographic concepts. It shows a scale for aperture and another for shutter speed. This has a running figure at the faster end and a standing one at the slow end, implying that you need faster speeds for moving objects. It’s a nice touch for beginners—and if you don’t like it, you can easily switch to an alternate display mode.