Tom Ang digital photography Enrich your photography with me! Mon, 15 Jan 2018 08:24:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Choosing a nifty fifty Thu, 13 Jul 2017 07:30:55 +0000 As a Sony digital imaging ambassador, I’ve had the privilege of using both the Sony 55mm f/1.8 and 50mm f/1.4 lenses side by side for the last few weeks. This blog shares my quandary: which is best for me?

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As a Sony digital imaging ambassador, I’ve had the privilege of using both the Sony 55mm f/1.8 and 50mm f/1.4 lenses side by side for the last few weeks. This feature shares my quandary: which is best for me?

One of the more delightful First World problems that photographers have to tackle, especially Sony E-mount photographers, is which standard focal length lens they should have. The choice of auto-focus lenses in native mounts is itself pretty confusing: currently seven models. If you really want to make life difficult, you could bewilder yourself further by admitting all 50mm lenses that can be fitted by adapter. Then the list runs (probably) to over 40 lenses from the extravagant 50mm f/0.95 models to very cheap 50mm f/2.8 models. A search in eBay will turn up over 2000 items for sale, almost all of them will fit Sony E-mount given the right adaptor.

For Sony faithful, the choice could be said to boil down to choosing between the Sony 55mm f/1.8 and the Sony 50mm f/1.4. Well, at least that’s the choice that I faced once I whittled all other contenders down.

I wanted stellar optical performance to match the capabilities of the A7R2 sensor. That removed the Sony 50mm f/1.8 and 50mm f/1.8 OSS lenses as these aren’t entirely up to the job, and were never designed to be. I removed the Zeiss Loxia as I wanted auto-focus. The Zeiss Touit looks like a 50mm lens but it’s for APS-C sized sensor, so really it’s a 75mm optic. That leaves the Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Sonnar and the Sony FE 50mm f/1.4 ZA Planar. And choosing between them proved more difficult than choosing between chalk and cheese.

What’s going for the 55mm f/1.8

This is a delightful package: fairly compact, and even cute. Although it’s clad in metal, it feels sturdy yet quite light. Its minimal, Bauhaus-lean, design makes it appear even more lean.  In fact, it’s so compact it takes a wee 49mm filter. This takes me back to the time 49mm was the standard size for a very wide range of lenses, with 52mm being for ‘big’ lenses. Nowadays, all my filters are 72mm in size, or even larger.

Its optical performance is almost the stuff of legends. It’s extremely sharp from the get-go at full aperture, improves steadily in the centre with the edges catching up quickly with smaller apertures. It focuses quickly and silently on A7/A9 series cameras and is generally very well behaved.

Although it’s not a cheap lens at around US$900, there’s no question that it can satisfy highly choosy users and is suitable for professional tasks. With a relatively compact lens that weighs less than 300g, the package is perfect for street and travel photography. I want!!

Oh, wait.

What’s going for the 50mm f/1.4

The antithesis of the 55mm, the 50mm f/1.4 lens is big, fat, heavy and far from cute. It’s imposing. It’s clad in what feels like armour-plate and is extremely sturdy weighing nearly 800 g and sticks out over 100mm. In fact, I believe it’s the largest standard lens for 35mm photography there is apart from the monster Zeiss Otus and larger than even 50mm f/0.95 lenses. Although it’s perfectly possible for a 50mm f/1.4 lens to front with a 49mm diameter filter thread, this lens demands a whopping 72mm filter. It also costs hundreds of dollars more than the cute yet very capable 55mm optic. In short, ‘nifty fifty’ it ain’t. More like ‘fatty fifty’.

Large and little: optically but 5mm in focal length and a third of a stop difference. But quality has always been subject to law of rapidly diminishing returns.

Nah; forget it.

Not so fast! You know, there are some optics that do a lot of the work for you. I don’t know how, but they are the lenses that become the classics because they tickle the light somehow to add a touch of lip gloss, a bit of sparkle to an image. Somehow you don’t have to work so hard to get something that works.

The Leica 50mm Summicron of the late 70’s is one those, and so is the Zeiss 80mm Planar for medium format. Others I might mention are the Nikkor 105mm f/2.5, the Canon 85mm f.1.2. These optics just leave some kind of signature on the image, whisk up some star shine of magic. For me, the Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 also adds a dose  of magic into its images (if only  homeopathic in strength.)

And so it is with this 50mm lens. Within moments of first using it, I knew it was doing something quite special to the image, particularly at full aperture. Photographers talk a lot about bokeh and the quality of blur. Actually, that’s not too interesting to me. What’s important is whether what’s meant to be sharp is really sharp. If so, we then easily take everything else as pretty blurred.

We can argue about how clean the blur is, whether it’s a bit onion-ringed or not. Whatever. I want sharp to be sharp. That’s really what you’re paying for. And this baby is sharp at full aperture. It is more than usefully or in practical terms sharp, it is truly sharp. Visually edges are high acutance: there’s a steep shoulder on each in-focus border between different areas. None of that chintz-curtain glow of older lenses. Also its ability to resolve even low-contrast details is very impressive.

Stopped down, the lens produces simply stellar images with a beautifully rich colour palette as chromatic aberrations of various sorts appear to be held in very tightly. By the standards of a few years ago, this may even count as an apochromat – three colours are brought to common focus. (But don’t tell the engineers at Zeiss I said that; they’d rap my knuckles for even thinking it). The upshot is that even rather prosaic images can look stunning: you just wallow in the life-like presentation of details and transitions.

So the up-shot is?

To the extent that some photographers are so demanding of quality that they will haul large-format cameras up a mountain, it’s worth putting up with a monster lens if it gives you what you want.

I muse that in a perfect world, I might wish to own both the 55mm and the 50mm lenses. I’d take the 55mm when I need to go light weight. But you can guess what will happen. If I have the 55mm I’ll wish I had the 50mm for that portrait I come across, or for that still-life that needs razor-thin depth of field.

Besides, there are some extra nice things about the 50mm. I like the petal lens hood. I like having the aperture ring on the lens. And best of all, I love having an aperture ring without clicks, so it’s easy to whip it from full aperture to a smaller one with almost no effort. Clicks were invented because photographers needed accurately repeatable settings when manually transferring hand-held exposure readings to the camera. These days, it hardly matters which aperture exactly you set – the camera systems are constantly fine-tuning anyway.

Shot at f/8, hand held. Look at the spikey flower to the right of the white in the centre. We’re going to zoom in 400% in the next shot.

At 400%, we see details not only for the main spike, then the secondary hairs and even the tertiary hairs! And notice that this is happening at relatively low contrast and bright – usually where lens resolution is weakest.

The matter of stopping down brings me to something I don’t care for: Sony’s habit of auto focusing with the aperture stopped down to the working setting. This causes a slight flicker in the image if you have set a small aperture. And when you focus on an object, lift your finger off and press again, the camera re-calculates the focus, even though it’s already in focus.  There are good technical reasons I can think of for this behaviour, but in practice it belongs to the ‘Meh’ group of responses to any camera handling.

300+ words on the design

(Skip to the conclusion if technicalities make your eyes water, or simply bore you.) The cross section of this lens shows that, despite carrying the illustrious ‘Planar’ moniker, it’s a long way from the classic Planar design (the right-hand one in sectional illustration below). The classic design is kind-of symmetrical, which gave it excellent corrections all round (symmetrical designs do that). This Planar doesn’t look at all symmetrical in layout, even if you squint. My guess is that the engineers wanted to move the entrance pupil as far from the focal plane as possible.

The easiest way to tell where the entrance pupil lies is to find the lens’ point of perspective. This is the axis of rotation about which there is no parallax: it’s what panorama photographers work with all the time. With a little imprecise fiddling about on a tripod, I think the entrance pupil lies less than 5mm behind the front vertex (surface of the first element). But don’t quote these figures! I was checking by eye and not by instrument.

If I’m right, we have a quaintly named quasi-image-space telecentric optic in our hands. This mouthful means that the entrance pupil is a long way forward compared to the usual – somewhere in the middle of the optic. This position distant from the focal plane makes light rays reach the sensor surface more nearly at right-angles than usual. We’re rewarded with more even illumination of the sensor (the path length of light at the periphery is not too much longer than through the centre). The design also reduces colour errors caused by rays hitting the sensor at an oblique angle.  But all this calls for a very complicated design that comes with a high price in several departments.

Making this optic is extremely demanding. Lots of elements with fancy glass and aspherical profiles not only push up production costs. There are many air-to-glass surfaces – I count seventeen – that could cause loss of contrast from internal reflections. This means the engineers had to work very, very hard to keep image contrast high. Quite amazing, really, how well they’ve done.

Conclusion: a deluxe saloon

This optic is obviously not the Volkswagen of lenses. It’s too bulky, heavy and expensive for that. Yes; it’s more like some fancy class of Mercedes. High barrier to entry, but fast, smooth and it gives you immaculate, top-notch performance. If you want the best, it’s not only the best, it’s hard to see how it could be much better.

The best way is to end with a snap shot at f/1.4. Enjoy!

Handheld at f/1.4, auto-focus, and straight out of camera. No messing.















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Best 2016 photo book! Wed, 07 Dec 2016 06:14:42 +0000 Photography: The Definitive Visual History is #1 of 2016’s best photography books.

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Last week, I received an email from This, in part, is what they said:

Photography Visual History cover small

“Photography: The Definitive Visual History has achieved a rank of #1 in our wiki of 2016’s best photography books.

Compiled with thirty hours of research, this video wiki guide, newly published in the books category, is a broad-ranging, impartial assessment of photography book options available to consumers in the United States.

You can view the video wiki here:

Some background: Founded in 2011, Ezvid Wiki was the world’s first video wiki, and is now among the top 4,000 websites in the United States. Our YouTube channel has over 100,000 subscribers, and we have informed over $85 million in purchasing decisions to date.”

To which I say, YAY!, and thank you very much Ezvid.

Also thank you to the team at Dorling Kindersley! Our beloved editor, the late Nicky Munro would have been well chuffed!


Photography Visual History cover

Some of the marvelous spreads:



page sample1


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Degrees of image manipulation: how much is too much? Tue, 06 Dec 2016 00:59:35 +0000 Here’s a way to pick through the confusing discussions about image manipulation and what’s allowable. All relative.

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When image manipulation applications were first invented, there was little discussion about the rights and wrongs and the limits of what can or could not be manipulated. The reason for this was, in large measure, a simple economic one.  Only top agencies or highest-paid advertising photographers could afford to use the dedicated hardware that was required.  As we know, this changed in the late 1980s when Adobe Photoshop was introduced to the Macintosh  platform.  In all this time, we have struggled to achieve some kind of clarity.  I am not sure that perfect clarity is possible.  But I believe that clarity in establishing the parameters that are agreed to suit a given genre of photography will help to enhance debate.  I offer here a way to frame critical assessment of image manipulation within agreed contexts.

Yours truly at the current Auckland exhibition.

Yours truly at the current Auckland exhibition. Straight, or a manipulation?


Discussions of what level of image manipulation is or is not acceptable usually make sweeping generalisations and imprecise references to dark-room techniques. The lack of precision in the debate is egregious, particularly when experienced in the context of news or documentary photography or photojournalism. Yet that’s where clarity matters most. Appeals to maintaining ‘high standards’ have little value in the absence of a shared understanding of norms that distinguish right from wrong, unacceptable from acceptable.

When deciding what level of image manipulation is acceptable, discussions often make appeal to analogue dark-room techniques to set the normative markers. Apart from its imprecise boundaries, this analogy limits the scope of discussions to the knowledge base of the participants. Increasingly, today’s photographers have no idea what went on in the dark-room. Nor do many realise that inside the dark-room, a great deal of manipulation went on whenever the available budget, skill and demand came together. Retouching prints, negatives and even colour transparencies, multiple printing, masking, re-photography, shadow and highlight recovery, using toners for subtle through to strong split-toning effects are all dark-room techniques which were able to and did lead to substantial changes. These changes were not limited to the general appearance of the image but also could substantially alter content through the addition or removal of parts of the image – often both. And because some of this work required demanded skills and therefore cost a lot meant it did not happen in the mainstream, but for some it was ‘standard’ dark-room manipulation.

Notwithstanding the effect of a possible knowledge gap, undefined references to analogies lead to confusion and error because the lack of precision allows different parties to appear to agree when, in detail, they hold positions which are substantially different. Worse, the protagonists may appear to occupy distant positions when, in fact, basic notions are actually shared but have been calibrated in different ways.

Perhaps worse still, differences in the assessment of the image may become apparent only when a specific image or narrow range of issues is under the microscope. This can lead to embarrassing discoveries about how e.g. competition rules lacked sufficient precision or were open to being mis=applied.

Our debates need a more elaborate, precisely-defined, notion of image manipulation (and its nemetic partner, the set-up up shot as well as related captioning or text support, to be discussed in another paper).

I propose that we use a scoring system based on scales of visible differences to give a measure to our notions of what is allowable in terms of manipulation.

Value of a metric

I  hope this can help to locate points of difference as well as common ground when different judges are evaluating photographs. Applying the measure does still call for subjective assessments, but by placing assessments such as ‘just visible’, ‘clearly visible’ on a ordinal perceptual scale in which there can be broad agreement  will undoubtedly help debates to agree on a starting position. In particular, this can be achieved relatively easily where the original capture and the submitted image can both be examined  at the same time.

For example, in photojournalism, tonal changes which normalise a non-normal scene are generally accepted. For example, an early morning scene in low ambient light with soft, diffused lighting will capture as very low in mid-tone contrast.

We generally accept, for pictorial use, when a photographer boosts mid-tone contrast to bring out details, as this emphasises shadows and brighten brighter areas without overall increase in dynamic range. The strength or effect of the adjustment can vary from the nearly invisible to the clearly visible. We can agree that adjustments with a certain effect are acceptable for a given purpose e.g. photojournalism, but can we can go on to state that any greater effect takes the image into camera club pictorialism which we may decide is not allowable in photojournalism.

For the purpose of evaluating images, institutions may calibrate their metrics by reference to test images; that would be the next step of development for this scheme. It is not intended to set any standards beyond dispute, but to provide a much firmer basis for discussion than different judges arguing in vague abstractions about the differences between ‘moderate’ and ‘strong’, ‘dark-room’ or ‘beyond dark-room’.


•    The modifier ‘allowable’ refers to what is permissible, tolerable, admissible, compliant with certain rules or acceptable within a given framework of norms. It does not refer to any aesthetic measure or judgement.
•    It would be lovely to be able to aggregate the score for each image and compare it to the allowable sum. This works well for low sums i.e. those intolerant of any manipulation, but could lead to unwanted results where an image use is more tolerant of manipulation. But it is easy to set maximum allowable scores in each parameter.

To what extent is image manipulation allowable?

Score the following on a 10-point scale of 0 (zero) to 9 (nine) as follows: This is the scale that we will apply to each of the separate parameters or characteristics that we wish to adjudicate.

0    = no change at all between the captured image and the image under review
1 = minor global changes reflecting differences between RAW conversion engines
2 = almost invisible change for the purpose of correcting to normal values or machine calibration
3 = just visible change for the purpose of correcting to normal values
4 = visible or light change for the purpose of visual enhancement
5 = clearly visible or moderate change for the purpose of visual improvement just beyond normal values, and without visible artefacts
6 = clearly visible change for the purpose of making image more appealing with values beyond normal but not unnatural or hyper-real, with small visible artefacts allowed
7 = obvious or strong change emphasising a feature or quality for purpose of producing a striking image, with values clearly beyond normal i.e. unnatural or hyper-real
8 = radical change to exaggerate an effect in a feature or quality, with strong differences from parent image
9 = very radical, exaggerated change for the purpose of graphic effect resulting in image markedly different from parent image, even unrecognisable

How this might work

Let’s take three scenarios or work situations in which the extent or degree of image manipulation makes some difference to whether the image is regarded as acceptable i.e. fit for a particular purpose. Let’s keep it simple by aiming for a straight binary ‘Yes’  or ‘No’  decision. And for the present, I assume we don’t need an explanation of what is meant by various photographic qualities such as ‘Curve’ or ‘Highlight/Shadow’. I’ll explain these in more detail later.

Forensic, scientific or evidence-based recording

Where purity or integrity of the actual capture is crucial – as when gathering forensic scene-of-crime records, or scientific experiments subject to third-party scrutiny – we won’t allow any manipulation at all. We cannot accept anything that would disrupt or threaten the integrity of the record (which also forbids changes to file name, and camera metadata). We want to ensure, as it were, as straight and uninterrupted a causal line between the subject and the image as possible.

So we’d want the image to score zero in all qualities. For example, we look at Exposure/Brightness to see if that has been altered. If not at all, that scores zero, and we check the next one. If Exposure/Brightness has not been altered at all, Tone Curve will probably score zero too, as will Highlight/Shadow. But White Balance is independent of these, so could be varied. But we don’t allow any changes here either, so this should also score zero. In the case of raw files, the conversion should, of course, be at the setting used at point of capture.

In some circumstances, we may wish to allow a small adjustment in White Balance, in which case, we may stipulate that the score for this parameter is allowed to score 1.
And so on, through all eleven parameters. You may stipulate, for most strictness, that the total score cannot exceed 1. Or you may relax conditions and allow a total score up to 10 with no category allowed to score more than 1.

Fine art, experimental, graphic design

Let’s go to the other end of the scale. We may characterise allowable changes being those that almost sever the link between the original capture and the manipulated image. In short, anything is allowed. In fact we may not even need to know – or have any interest in – how the final image is created or in how it compares with the original capture or captures. These images may score as much as 99, but in practice can score somewhat less as some parameters are likely to be only lightly adjusted.

So far, this metric – the Angometer – is producing the results we expect and it reflects current norms and practices. The tougher test now is to see how it performs in the middle range.

Photojournalism, news reporting

The stress test for any image manipulation scoring is how it deals with photojournalism and news reporting. Here, we are prepared to accept global changes in tone, exposure, mid-tone contrast, white balance and colour balance, monochrome conversion which broadly enhance the visual qualities of the image without a substantial deviation from the scene as originally captured.

This context therefore covers the middle ground in which some manipulation is allowed – usually constrained to those which shelter under the banner of ‘dark-room effects’ – but no more: that is, not too much. This begs the question of how mush is ‘too much’. Any metric should be able to offer a crisp answer. It should be able to unpick the bundle of ‘dark-room’ effects so that, for instance, we can allow some removal of minor capture defects without stepping onto the slippery slope of allowing cloning in the image.

For example, if in photojournalism and news reporting we wish to keep scores in all parameters to around 5, we are broadly allowing corrections to enhance visual impact without shifting, distorting or abridging content, then a clearly visible application of dodge and burn would clearly score more than 4 or 5. So the controversial Hansen image of World Press Photo might have scored 7 or even 8 to reflect the appearance that the tone changes on the faces of the anguished men suggested auxiliary light sources or reflecting surfaces. Therefore, if World Press Photo forbids scores greater than 4 – 5, a score of 7 or 8 would then press the red buzzer for a closer appraisal.

Still in news and photojournalism, if we look at cumulative scores over the eleven parameters, we could allow an image to score a maximum of, say, 50 so long as no single parameter scores more than, say, 7 or 8. This would describe an image which has received adjustments in exposure, tonality, colour and removal of minor defects, and so forth. But it has not transgressed by making a large change in any feature. For our use we would judge this image OK in terms of post processing.

The Angometer is admittedly rather cumbersome, plus details will vary with the user and the context (e.g. whether it’s applied to a competition for amateurs, or to a journalism award on the world stage).
It does offer an advantage in being able capture some nuances that are easily conflated. For example, while burn and dodge effects are widely acceptable to some degree, the Angometer helps you define just how much dodge and burn is acceptable. It helps to define the difference between a ‘minor’ dodge effect from a ‘major’ dodge effect – one suggesting new light sources or reflective surfaces.

Parameter scoring:

This details how the scale of scoring may be applied to each parameter or image characteristic that we’re interested in. Clearly this list and descriptions is the core of the scheme, and can be rewritten, added to or simplified by the competition or award administrators. It enables administrators to brief judges clearly and explicitly.

1    Exposure/Brightness

(Overall lightness plus mid-tone value: 0 would not allow corrections even if parent image is badly exposed; 5 allows capture errors to be corrected to normalise image i.e. spread Levels histogram to fill the range; 6-8 allows increasingly exaggerated effects with 7-8 being pseudo-high key or pseudo-low key; 9 allows heavy adjustments to e.g. Levels to make image extremely dark or very light).
0    1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9

2    Tone curve

(Shape and position of Curves and white and black point globally applied, with no local adaptation: 1 allows application of  default conversion to RAW image; 5 allows normalised curve to increase mid-tone contrast; 6 allows boost in contrast to enhance contrast compared to original capture; 7-8 allows boost in contrast in shadow, mid-tone and highlights to obvious change from original capture; 9 allows extreme flattening, posterised effects or bi-level curve, even reversal)
0    1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9

3    Highlight and shadow

(Adaptive highlight and shadow control or tone-mapping applied over whole image (not burn/dodge or tone curve: 0 forbids any compensation or recovery even if done in-camera; 1 allows just-visible recovery of highlight and shadow as applied by default RAW conversion or low levels of e.g. DRO (Dynamic Range Optimisation) or Highlight Tone Priority; 3 allows visible recovery but without appearing to alter lighting effect; 5 allows visible recovery that maps shadows and bright areas to mid-tone; 6-7  allows increasingly strong recovery of shadows and highlights mapping dark and bright zones to mid-tone; 9 allows exaggerated recovery including edge artefacts and increase saturation in recovered areas.)
0    1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9

4    White and colour balance

(Colour temperature and magenta-green correction: 3 allows incorrect WB setting to be corrected in main lighting, even if it distorts another light source. 5 allows correction of secondary sources to normal i.e. two or more points of correction. 9 allows dramatic change to image WB e.g. to turn daylight balance to tungsten. )
0    1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9

5    Colour saturation

(Either increase or decrease in saturation in all or specific wave bands. 2 allows slight increase or decrease to render image closer to scene as captured. 5 allows visible increase or decrease to improve photographic effect. 6-7 allows obvious increase or decrease for deliberate emphasis or exaggerated effect. 9 allows extreme change – to posterised colours or black-and-white. )
0    1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9

6    Noise

(Noise reduction applied post-capture to JPEG or TIFF images (some cameras reduce noise as part of RAW capture): 3 allows noise reduction just visible at 100%; 5 allows moderate noise reduction visible at 100% with just-visible detail smoothing; 6-7  allows strong, easily visible noise reduction or introduction of grain e.g. pseudo-film effect with detail smoothing; 9 allows aggressive noise removal or addition of noise or film-like grain which leads to easily seen smoothing in case of the former, or the easily seen obscuring of detail in case of the latter.)
0    1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9

7    Sharpening

(Matrix convolutions e.g. USM or similar which operate over entire image: 1 allows very light overall, but non-adaptive, sharpening,  4 allows light adaptive sharpening visible only under zoom; 5 allows just-visible sharpening e.g. for online use; 6-7  allows visible, adaptive sharpening with just-visible artefacts; 9 allows exaggerated sharpening with easily visible halo artefacts.)
0    1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9

8    Local tone

(Burn, dodge, local curve and similar localised or brush-limited tonal controls; 1-2 allows just-visible changes in tone distribution; 5 allows visible changes in tone distribution to enhance the image without suggesting changes in lighting compared to original e.g. enhancing catchlight in eye; 6 allows clearly visible, 7 allows very visible adjustments which also imply or suggest changes in light source or reflecting surfaces e.g. burn in shadows to remove detail; 8: allows obvious visible adjustments including easily visible vignetting or reverse vignettes; 9 allows extensive tonal changes implying changes in light sources, new light sources or reflecting surfaces or obvious vignette/reverse vignette .)
0    1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9

9    Monochrome and toning

(Conversion of the RGB capture to black-and-white or monochrome, with or without toning and film-like effects. 0 allows conversion to black-and-white by desaturation, 1 allows conversion to black-and-white using trichromatic response of eye, 2-4 allow increased emphasis on limited tone bands, 5  allows pictorially acceptable results similar to those obtained with black-and-white film photography, 6 allows introduction of light toning tints similar to those of light dark-room toning e.g. selenium, 7 – 8 allow increasing stronger colours and tonal variation from original e.g. to simulate sulphide, sepia toning, 9 allows metal substitution or dye toning e.g. gold, ferricyanide, Colovir resulting in srong colour and tonal changes.
0    1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9

10    Small defects

(Clone or repair effects applied to specific defects: 0 forbids any change, including removal of e.g. dust specks or hair; 3 allows removal of dust and hair specks but no more; 5 allows removal of just-visible defects e.g. stray hair, but not e.g. freckles or other unwanted element; 6-7  allows cosmetic removal e.g. freckles, wrinkles without strongly altering character of face and skin; 8 allows removal of non-essential but distracting element e.g. telephone wires in sky, telegraph pole behind head; 9 allows extensive removal causing an obvious alteration in character of face and skin or unwanted element e.g. figure in background.)
0    1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9

11    Cloning

(Copying of part of image, whether from the same image or another, to replace parts of the original image: 3 allows just-noticeable cloning to incidental or peripheral detail which does not substantially alter content of image e.g. tree or cloud at edge of image, tear in background paper; 5 allows noticeable cloning to repair error e.g. JPEG or sensor read-out error; 6-7 allows substantial change e.g. adjustment of model’s pose, tidying up drape of clothes; 9 allows any level of cloning from multiple images.)
0    1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9


Please! Comments and suggestions on this, so we can work together to develop and improve our discussions. Thanks for getting this far (assuming you didn’t cheat! 😉  ). It’s been a long post.

For an up-dated version of this, please download my book Photography Judging

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McCurry’s embarrassment Sat, 04 Jun 2016 23:53:11 +0000 Like many, I was asked to comment on the Steve McCurry’s … fiasco, embarrassment? Here’s my what I said to the President of the Union of Arab Photographers.

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Like many, I was asked to comment on the Steve McCurry … what do we call it … fiasco, embarrassment, betrayal? Here’s my what I said to the President of the Union of Arab Photographers, with some additions and tidying up:

“Of course I have been following some of the discussion around Steve McCurry. It is good that the discussion is taking place as it shows that there is a genuine and strong concern over the morality and ethics of image manipulation. In McCurry’s case, there seem to be so many, we begin to doubt them all.

I think McCurry is going down a slippery slope when he says he’s no longer a photojournalist but a visual story teller. We have instances of other photographers, particularly Luc Delahaye, who have been very clear about when and where he crossed the line from photojournalism to fine art or a more personal photography. So the problem with McCurry is that he has not been transparent, not honest, and somewhat lacking in clarity.

The point is that I haven’t seen anyone looking at his advertising or fashion work and criticising image manipulation there. They are looking at all his travel work and that travels on the same set of rails as documentary photojournalism. And we are finding sometimes very extensive changes – e.g. the rickshaw in the rain – in exactly the kind of photography we can reasonably expect minimal image manipulation.

This is what we knew:


Until this was dug up:


(Extracted from

I cannot understand anyone wishing to take out the grinning man (there’s another, behind him, who has also been eliminated). It’s easy to see that the manipulated version is too highly saturated in colour for a rainy day, and too magenta but we could probably have passed that a matter of taste. But at least thirteen (some have counted 20) substantial points of cloning? That does seem rather over enthusiastic.

What would I have done? I’d certainly have burnt in the bright patch behind the rearmost man in the rickshaw, as well as darkened (a little) the light patch that stretches from behind the rickshaw ma to beyond his chin. I’d also darken the bright table cloth at the far right. That would do fine and would not have raised any comment at all.

I think an analogy is helpful. Many journalists also write short stories or novels. We would expect these writers to sign-post very clearly when they are reporting from a real event, or telling a story they made up – and by and large, they do.

Now, McCurry has made it difficult for us to believe what McCurry says. That is sad. He is still a great photographer, but he is no longer as trusted. We thought his brilliance was in his camera work, his skill in catching the perfect composition. Now we’re not so sure.

That’s sad for McCurry. Sad for photojournalism.



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Auckland Workshop: The Art and Science of Picture Editing Sun, 31 Jan 2016 22:48:11 +0000 Workshop on how to find great images in your files.

The post Auckland Workshop: The Art and Science of Picture Editing appeared first on Tom Ang digital photography.

I want to offer you a well-rounded, foundational course that will help you on your way. To help you learn and improve and develop by yourself. You have heaps of resources within yourself to improve your photography. There is no need to attend one workshop after another. It’s about attending the right workshop. I hope to offer this to you.

Tom Ang Academy – 2015/2016 is a series of skill-building photography workshops on a rolling programme.

Book your place here for the third workshop on picture editing

What you’ll learn: This workshop concentrates on a much neglected area: what you do after you’ve shot

Book here to join this exciting journey!

Confused about how to tell a good picture from a poor one?

If you don’t know how to make a superb picture, how can you tell when you have a superb picture … or not?

In this amazing workshop, I will show you lots of pictures to learn how great images work.

  •     Composition? Yes.
  •     Timing? Yes.
  •     Use of colours? Yes.
  •     Technique? Sometimes.
  •     Equipment? Mostly not.

But is there some secret ingredient? Something they don’t tell you about in the books?

Yes, a big YES!

It’s a golden thread that runs through all great images. And it’s one you can pick up and run. It takes commitment. It takes hard work (rather a lot). And it takes faith. But it doesn’t fail. Join me to learn the secret to great photography!

In addition to really central ideas, I will take you through the practicals of picture sorting and management. Not a full-blown workshop on Lightroom or Capture One, but I’ll show you the basics and the differences, so you can decide for yourself.

One of the most popular parts of the workshop is the review of work: bring one previously shot picture for review, to add to one shot on the day.

This workshop aims to give you confidence to judge, evaluate and edit your images as well as those of others.

Where and when

27 February 2016  9am, Saturday,  at Sony, 100 Ponsonby Road (Williamson Road entrance), Auckland

How to register

Book here to join this exciting journey!

Bring your camera (DSLR or mirrorless, any brand) a spare USB stick and preferably your own laptop. We’ll also have some of the latest Sony cameras and lenses on hand for you to try out. We’ll provide lunch.

NOTE: you don’t have to be a Sony user. You don’t have to use a SLR camera. These classes can be useful whatever camera or lens you use. All photographers welcome!

The day

9.00  Welcome to Sony (book online first)

9.30 Illustrated talk: ‘Foundations: what makes an image a great one?’

11.00    Q&A

12.00 Shoot about Ponsonby

1.30 Lunch break (for those who want; others carry on shooting)

2.30 Re-convene for picture edit

3.30 Review pictures and feed-back

4.30 Q&A

5.00 Round up


Feed-back from the last workshop:

“Made me think in a whole new way!”

“I look forward to trying out all the techniques you showed us.”

“Learnt A LOT!!”

“I understand now!”

Any questions? Just write to me.

Book here to join us!

Looking forward to working with you all!

HIPA pic in desert small



The post Auckland Workshop: The Art and Science of Picture Editing appeared first on Tom Ang digital photography.

Connections 2015 Fri, 09 Oct 2015 00:34:10 +0000 Last year, I was offered a wonderful opportunity: to show my work in the outdoor space of Queens Wharf, Auckland.

The post Connections 2015 appeared first on Tom Ang digital photography.

Last year, I was offered a wonderful opportunity by Waterfront Auckland, the authority leading the development of Auckland’s waterfront. To show my work in the outdoor space of Queens Wharf, Auckland. This is on the waterfront, right at the heart of this gorgeous city. It’s right next to major transport hubs of rail, bus and ferry. Cruise ships hawser themselves next door for their visits to Auckland. The space I had was along a long fence that separates cruise ship visitors from the city, herding them through Shed 10 for all their visitor formalities. What’s more, I could show poster-sized prints – over 1 metre wide!

In return for this chance, I came up with a rather brilliant idea (even if I say so myself):  we’d make two shows: mine would be followed by a collaborative group exhibition produced by a  a group of photographers that I would mentor. To add spice to the exercise, this show would have to be shot, edited and produced in just four weeks. I would offer my services in return for the exhibition opportunity.

We learnt a lot from the first year. For one thing, we discovered the hard way that mounting methods that worked for posters – which tolerated crinkles – did not work at all for photographic prints. The results were interesting – giving me ideas for some experimental work – but, as you can see, not exactly the best way to show my work.

Textured landscape?

Textured landscape?


After some delay, the work was reprinted on a waterproof vinyl which gave much better results.

The group show was huge fun, and produced some excellent work. All the photographers felt stretched and challenged by the time frame, by having to work to a specific concept – that of ‘connections’ – which introduced all participants to a different way to drive their photography. The result was extremely pleasing, with its mix of full-size and multiple image prints, it brought the city into itself.

Jolly summery launch of the group show, 2014 with cruise ship unloading thousands of passgeners.

Jolly summery launch of the group show, 2014.


This year

Last year’s diptych of exhibitions went down so well, I was asked to repeat the exercise. Last year, I showed my ‘Caterpillar Views’ of New Zealand: ultra wide-angle views from low positions of the ngahere, or native New Zealand bush.

This year, I had to find another subject for my exhibition.

One day, on a whim, I took a walk on Maungawhau, or Mount Eden, an extinct volcanic cone whose summit just under 200m is the highest point in Auckland. As is frequent in Auckland, the day started lovely and sunny, but by the time I’d exposed myself on the climb up the slopes, it was pouring down. I ran for shelter under some trees. That’s when I saw a big sign and map labelled ‘Te Araroa’.

This is the map I saw in the rain.

This is the map I saw in the rain.


Although I’ve visited New Zealand for ten years before living here, now for four years, I did not know about Te Araroa. It’s an amazing 3000km track that runs from the very top of New Zealand’s North Island – Cape Reinga – all the way to the bottom of South Island, at Bluff. And it runs through Auckland. There, ready made, was the trajectory of my exhibition. It also fits perfectly with the theme of ‘connections’ as it connects north to south while in Auckland, it specifically connects the east coast with the west coast.

Caterpillar views

I knew, too, exactly how to shoot it. At the time of the commission, I had just become the proud owner of a Canon 11mm-24mm f/4L zoom. This is a monster of a lens, feels like it’s made of solid glass and metal but its optical performance is spectacular. I wish, wish, wish, I’d had it several years ago, when I first started experimenting with ultra wide-angle views from low viewpoints very close to the nearest objects (breaking lots of ‘rules’ on the way).

But I have it now, and was eager to give the lens its first experience of working under fire. To a certain extent, the lens dictated what I photographed and the way I approached the subject. It’s a way I enjoy: all results are recognisable, but some do not look quite familiar or from an expected viewpoint.

Ultra wide-angle views combined with large prints also enable me to work with an interesting illusion. When viewed from far away, the objects at the edge appear distorted so that round objects appear to be egg- shaped. It’s not a distortion but is caused by a mis-match between the viewing distance – usually too far away – and the correct distance for the image perspective. With an ultra wide-angle lens, you need to look at the image very close to. But if you have a large enough print, you can approach it close enough to view it from the correct distance yet still be able to focus on the image. The distortion then disappears because when you’re close to the print, you view the round objects in the image from an angle, and not more straight-on as you do. By viewing from an angle, the ‘distortion’ is corrected.

Time pressure

All clear on what to shoot, and how to shoot. But there was the little matter of having only four weeks between the commission coming through and the date I was scheduled to leave for Europe. Fortunately, Connie Clarkson, the manager of Queens Wharf, was prepared to be flexible about the exhibition dates. If I could capture enough pictures for a show before departing, we’d go with the earlier date. If not, I’d shoot more on my return to deal with what the TV and film world calls ‘pick ups’ – gaps in coverage.

You be the judge, but while it’s always true one can shoot more and more to make it better and better, what I obtained in a month of photography gave a rounded flavour of the Auckland (in Māori Tamaki Makaurau) section of the Te Araroa track. Not all the images are ‘caterpillar views’, but all exploit the exceptional wide-angle capability of the Canon lens.

The chunk of glass and metal that draws amazing images into the camera.

The chunk of glass and metal that draws amazing images into the camera.


For the technies out there: I used the Sony A7r body with Metabones adaptor for the Canon 11mm-24mm f/4L lens that was used most often at the 11mm setting, recording mostly in raw giving. 7360 x 4912 pixel images. The main technical problem was keeping the lens spotlessly clean: its depth of field at 11mm focal length is so extensive that anything like a drop of rain on the big glass front will show up as a huge blur spot. I processed the images using DXO Optics 10, with cleaning-up operations in Photoshop CS6. I selected the DXO for its quick effectiveness. If I had had more time, I would have processed the files through Capture One (then Photoshop) as its processing tends to be more conservative and less likely to introduce artefacts.

So, here are the pictures. To get the most from them, come to the exhibition! If you look at them from as close as possible, you get a sense of the space and good simulation of the original perspective. These are in geographical sequence: from Wynyard Quarter on the east shore, to Onehunga Bay on the west coast.

















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Best Way to Learn Photography webinar Fri, 24 Jul 2015 08:33:30 +0000 The replay of today’s webinar ‘The Best Way to Learn Photography’ is here !

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The replay of the latest webinar is here (use this link if the video doesn’t turn up on your web page).

Feed-back received from this includes:

“This was great. Very informative.  Thank you for sharing your knowledge.”

“Thanks Tom…this has been a fantastic informative  evening..”

“Yes! love that tip!”

Hope you enjoy. And listen to the end, for 50% discount coupon codes to my new course.

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Free webinar on best way to learn photography Tue, 21 Jul 2015 23:13:29 +0000 On 23 July 3.30pm Pacific Time/10.30pm UTC I’ll be giving a free webinar on ‘The Best Way to Learn Photography’. Click through to the blog post to register.

The post Free webinar on best way to learn photography appeared first on Tom Ang digital photography.

On 23 July 3.30pm Pacific Time/10.30pm UTC I’ll be giving a free webinar on ‘The Best Way to Learn Photography’.

There are so many ways to learn photography, so many modes of teaching, which is best for you? Or which is best for what you want to learn? Each way has its own pros and cons. I’ll be checking out all the main ones for you to share my experience, thoughts and views.

When you register, you can ask me your burning question. I’ll be picking some questions to answer at the end of the session.

I’ll be making a special offer on my ‘Four Steps to Winning Photography’ course during the webinar. Be sure to attend if you’re interested in taking the course.

Click here to register. If you can’t make the time, don’t worry. Register anyway, and I’ll tell you about repeats.


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The incredible Canon 11mm – 24mm Fri, 22 May 2015 02:54:42 +0000 Canon’s new 11mm-24mm lens weighs a lot, costs a lot and promises a lot. But does it deliver?

The post The incredible Canon 11mm – 24mm appeared first on Tom Ang digital photography.

Walker and gull enjoy the upper Waitemata Harbour, Auckland. 11mm, f/16

Walker and gull enjoy the upper Waitemata Harbour, Auckland. 11mm, f/16

The ages of a photographer may be described by the focal lengths they favour. Henri Cartier-Bresson is famous for only ever using a 50mm lens. In fact, that’s not quite true. There are pictures of him using a multi-focal length viewfinder with what looks like a 90mm lens, and some early images look like they must have been shot with a 35mm lens or shorter. Nonetheless, his maturity was certainly marked by use of a 50mm lens.

I’ve had sport photographers tell me they’re fed up of peering down the long tube of their 400mm or 500mm lenses, and now favour using a 24mm – 70mm lens as the shorter focal length forces them to be either closer to the action or take more of a relaxed, establishing type of shot.

In my case, I used to have nothing but a 135mm lens on the camera, sometimes reluctantly using a 50mm. I never saw wide-angle views, homing in only on detail. So I was very happy when good 70mm – 200mm lenses turned up, and found myself using it mostly at the 200mm end, then I spent a lot of time with the 100mm – 400mm work-horse.

But one day, over 20 years ago, I reviewed a 21mm lens – the legendary Super-Angulon for the Leica reflex. I was enchanted, and found myself wanting to go wider and wider. This wish was fulfilled by the Sigma 12mm-24mm zoom. For years, I put up with the fact that its corner performance wasn’t worth the pixels it was written on, and developed a style that did not depend on corner performance. I even worked out a series, called ‘Caterpillar Views’, which made a virtue of the miserably obvious comatic and astigmatic smearing together with marked lateral chromatic aberrations.

Since starting to use the Sony A7r as my main camera, I’d been toying with using the Voigtlander 12mm lens. It’s cheap and it’s tiny. But images from it would need a great deal of post-processing for which, to be honest, I’m too lazy. There’s always the superb Nikon 14mm-24mm zoom but for me, it was a big lens for not enough wide-angle reach.


Back to school

Recently, I started to submit again to an agency that has long held a tiny bit of my work, Getty Images. I was nervous about submitting the Sigma photos and sure enough they were hammered by the editor who, as she kindly put it, ‘passed on them’. The fact is, they were simply too rubbish to be considered professional-quality images. So I had a problem if I wanted to work at the sub-16mm end of the spectrum.

Then I learnt about the Canon 11mm – 24mm. This focal length range caused me to double-take, rather like when I first learnt about the Leica 21mm f/1.4. I thought that specification must be a mistake. Well, incredible as it seems, 11mm is, indeed, the shortest focal length and it goes to 24mm with full-frame (24mmx36mm) coverage.

By the time I’d checked out my usual sources such as and the usual ever-active lens reviewers, I was seized with the desperate need to try it out myself. All users had found the optic outstanding. All complained about its size and weight. And all whined about its $3000 price tag.

A big ’Thank you!’ to Canon NZ for the loan of the lens for a couple of weeks. As it turned out, it was clear within the first hour that it was the lens for me. The image in the A7r is bright, clear and easy to focus. This is always a good sign of excellent full-aperture performance. When I uploaded images to my Mac, the remarkable superiority of the lens was just so obvious I did not bother with a side-by-side comparison with my Sigma 12-24.

New performance level

There are several detailed ‘reviews’ of the optical performance of this lens, including a bench test at Lensrentals so there’s no need for me to offer my own observations. I’ll just agree with all their enthusiastic evaluations. One of the most impressive aspects of its performance is that both the 11mm and the 24mm extremes are fully useable, as is every step in between. One reason I never used my Sigma at the 24mm setting was that it was horrible at that focal length: essentially I had a 12-20mm zoom.

The lens’ performance profile boils down to these points.

At 11mm, with a field of view of an eye-popping 126º, it is not only unique, it is entirely and highly useable – provided you know how to use it – which can’t be taken for granted. At longer focal lengths it is the match of other, but more easily handled optics like 16mm-35mm lenses. At 24mm it is highly useable, but not quite up to the 24mm end of the Zeiss or Canon 24mm – 70mm f/2.8 zooms.

Full view at 11mm, f/13.

Full view at 11mm, f/13.

Top left hand corner of previous shot.

Top left hand corner of previous shot.

For such a wide-angle zoom, it is remarkably rectilinear in its drawing of straight lines as pretty much straight lines. The engineers designed it so that the geometry of projection varies with distance: if you place a straight line very close to the camera while focusing far away, the near edge is strongly barrel-distorted. But if you focus close up, the edge straightens up a little. This is most visible at 11mm focal length. As distortion is lower with distant lines than with nearby lines, what distortion is present is visually acceptable. But it would be nice to be able to correct. So here’s a request to DXO: please come out with a correction module soon.

Barrel distortion at the near edge at left.

Barrel distortion at the near edge at left when focused further away. Notice how the curve of the edge on the right has greater radius, i.e. is less distorted.

Performance at the very corners at all focal lengths and usual working apertures – i.e. not wide open (why test it wide open when you never use it in practice?) – is remarkable. I have to zoom into 200% of 36 megapixel images to be able easily to see the purple/cyan fringing at the 11mm setting. More importantly, the detail is held amazingly well: sharp, clear and hardly smeared at all, even at 200% or greater. On the Sigma, smearing the corners is visible at 50%.

One of the weaknesses of ultra wide-angle lenses is that they’re inherently prone to veiling glare and to internal reflections because it’s very hard to keep point-source light sources out of view. Veiling glare appears as a haze covering parts of or over the whole image which takes the welly out of colours and fills shadows with mucky light. Internal reflections are images of the lens diaphragm hole which is produced by reflections from the surface of lens elements (which is why you’ve seen a whole series of them in a line of different sizes and colours thanks to varying lens radii and differing coatings). In this lens, they are, again, remarkably absent. If you force it, you can obtain plenty of reflections. And if you allow muck to build up on the lens they’ll be seen as the very short focal length easily brings dust specks on the lens surface into the circle of confusion.

Brilliant control of veiling flare and internal reflections. f/16

Brilliant control of veiling flare and internal reflections. f/16

But you can see from examples here that even with the bare sun on or off-axis, flare and reflections are as well controlled as you could ask for. This must be down to superb lens coating technology as well as use of sophisticated internal baffles (I suspect the move on zooming) in the construction.

Another common weakness of wide-angle zoom lenses is close-up correction. Once again, this lens delivers: nicely at the closest focusing distance. Detail is surprisingly well rendered: tight, sharp, fairly good contrast and richly coloured.

Central crop, focuses to minimum operating distance.

Central crop, focuses to minimum operating distance.

The full view.

The full view.

Hamm. Isn’t there anything I can complain about?

New hold

The main issue with the lens is – as all reviewers have groaned about – its size and weight. At over two and half pounds or 1.18 kg, it’s only a little lighter than the substantial Canon 70mm-200mm f/2.8 zoom and heavier than my hefty Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 lens. In short, you’d better think first before you try to pick it up.

It’s mostly because of that huge chunk of aspherical glass on the front. The engineers designed an extreme retrofocus design in which the short focal length has to travel a long way through the lens –  about 160mm – to reach the sensor. This way, the difference in path length – the distance the light travels – between rays passing near the centre of the lens is not much different from the path length of rays defining the edge of the image. The similarity in path length helps even out illumination at the sensor: it reduces two factors – called the cosine and cosine to power four laws – that cause corners to come out darker than the centre.

In fact, the front element is much less bulbous than you’d expect because its central portion is actually nearly flat – it’s a much greater radius of curvature than towards the edge of the element. This must help even out path length too: the distance between the front of the element to the sensor is less than normal because of the flattened profile.

From its size, the lens looks like it should be well capable of capturing light at f/2.8, but I think it has been limited to f/4 to conserve image quality. I’m sure f/2.8 could have been set as the maximum aperture, but where is that f/2.8? It would deliver f/2.8 correctly only around the centre, and be more like f/7 or less at the image periphery.

I’ve seen posts complaining about the aperture being ‘only’ f/4. Silly. Who, seriously, would use this lens at f/2.8? The same people complaining about its maximum aperture would then complain about the uneven illumination at the sensor. Besides, if you really need the speed, use the right tool e.g.  a prime lens like Canon’s excellent 24mm f/1.4 lens. If you need reduced depth of field, then either don’t use a ruddy great ultra-wide, or exploit reverse Scheimpflug effects with the 24mm or 17mm tilt lenses.

I did find I had to develop a different hold to operate the lens. It looks like you’re invited to hold it near the back, palm on the zoom ring and thumb and forefinger at the focusing ring. But because the lens is so front-heavy, it’s more comfortable to hold it right at the far end of the lens (careful not to have a finger tip wander beyond the lens hood, where it will be seen). Focusing is then achieved with the middle finger alone. That is easy as, it goes without saying, the focusing movement excellent: well damped, smooth and without any slack. Auto-focus is reportedly very rapid on Canon lenses. In my set-up, with a Metabones adaptor, it was slow but for static subjects, auto-focus is useable. Nonetheless, I prefer to work with manual focus, using the Sony’s excellent magnifier feature. Incidentally, it’s handy that the adaptor carries a tripod bush: this allows you to support the outfit closer to the centre of gravity than would be the case if you attached by the camera’s tripod bush.

Best recommendation

Actually, this is not the kind of lens anyone should recommend or dismiss. It is unique, expensive, and demanding to use. It also performs spectacularly well and as free of fault as any optic with extreme specifications could hope to be. It either recommends or disqualifies itself. In my case, I put in a request to my finance department within minutes after using the lens and ogling its images. So if actually buying an optic is anything to go by, I’ve just given it the best possible recommendation.



Here's a tiny section from lens at 24mm.

Here’s a tiny section from lens at 24mm. You can just about make out the time – it’s 12:20 – at even the second hand is just visible: 10 sec past the hour. Whole image is 36 megapixel, captured raw, with no sharpening.

And this is the whole image, uncropped.

And this is the whole image, uncropped. On my 27″ iMac screen, this image fills most of the screen – some 480mm long – while the cropped section (above) showing the watch is just 20mm long. You may draw your own conclusions. I smashed up the piggy bank.

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Which camera is best for me? Wed, 22 Apr 2015 22:34:01 +0000 I hear this question time and again. It seems to weigh much on photographers’ minds. What’s my answer?

The post Which camera is best for me? appeared first on Tom Ang digital photography.

Around once a week, through various avenues like this site’s inbox, my Facebook page or other ways, I receive a question of the form ‘Which is the better camera – X or Y? Often it’s more specifically ‘Which should I get Canon or Nikon?

That means, over the course of a year, forty or fifty people reach out through the ethersphere to me (and, I’m sure to many others) for an answer to a question that clearly burns for them. And over the years, that makes hundreds of versions of the same basic question.

I don’t need to point out, do I? that reason people find themselves in a genuine cleft stick is because there’s not much to choose. It’s a delicious choice to have to make, if you’re fortunate enough to have to make it: Audi or BMW or Mercedes? Not only do they all get you from A to Z, they do it comfort, speed and safety.

Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Fuji, Samsung … their cameras – all of them – get you your image not only in comfort, speed and quality, but with efficient fun too. If you want to go luxuriously, but a bit slower and a lot more money, you can go Hasselblad, Leica S, Phase One, Pentax, or Leaf with larger sensors. The basic fact, dull as it may be, is that no-one on the planet can tell, just by looking at an image, which camera it was made on.

In short the choice is hardly based on image quality, except at the most rarified levels, but simply on handling of the cameras.

Once upon a time

Compared to a mere ten years ago, there has been a huge change. At the beginning, many photographers did not have a digital camera. If they were up-grading, it was from a film-using camera.  Now, however, photographers already have a digital camera, at least one. In fact, the industry says that around 70% of enthusiast camera sales (serious compacts, ILCs, SLRs) are to photographers who are up-grading their gear.
The fact is that SLR cameras (I don’t call them digital SLRs because, to all intents and purposes, any SLR camera these days is digital) of at least the last seven years have been superb image-making tools. And so have most of the serious compacts such as Panasonic’s LX series and Canon’s G series.
In addition, some cameras share essentially the same sensor: even if not identical, there is precious little difference in sensor performances these days. Much of the basic technology is out of patent, so everyone has access to them. The industry has full command of the mathematics of colour filter array interpolation: there are few secrets around. The playing field, in short, is pretty level.
If it’s the case that image quality is pretty much even between cameras, it’s not a basis for deciding between cameras. (The choice of lenses is altogether another matter.) So it’s down to handling: how they feel in the hand. And how much you can afford.


For example, much as I admire Nikon cameras, I find them too chunky, populated with too many buttons and even the viewfinder displays are too busy for me. Repeat: for me.  And while I loved the Canon 1Ds MkII, I did not fall in love with the MkIII even after shooting over 10,000 images with it. Much of that was down to one, rather pathetic-sounding, reason: I hated the shutter/mirror-box noise so much it was inhibiting my inclination to shoot (it’s that musical ear of mine). And while I adore the Canon 1Dx, it’s too big for my use.
And size is not just about weight and heft.
Let’s consider, for fun, a scene in New York’s wonderful Botanical Gardens. We’re in the reflection pool. I was using two cameras that day: the Kodak Easyshare Z740

kodak ez740 and Canon 1Ds MkII.

canon_eos-1ds_mark_ii_front_mediumQuestion to you is: which gave the better image? And by ‘better’ I mean which image did we choose to use in the book?

This is the image from the Kodak:

New York Botanical Garden - Kodak 749

New York Botanical Garden – Kodak 749

And this is the image from the Canon:

New York Botanical Gardens, Canon 2Ds MkII

New York Botanical Gardens, Canon 2Ds MkII

The key is symmetry. The picture we chose was beautifully balanced. You might think we could have simply cropped the Canon shot down, but the result doesn’t look right.
The reason why the little Kodak wins out is simple but subtle. The optical axis – the line that goes straight through the middle of the lens to the sensor – is very near the base of the camera: within 5mm. In the Canon, the optical axis is more than 60mm away from the base. To obtain the best reflection, I needed the optical axis as close to the water as possible. The big Canon camera couldn’t do this. $5K worth of camera lost out to the cheap little Kodak point-and-shoot camera. It happens.

Of course, by a thousand times, the Canon is my camera of choice compared to the Kodak as it can do tons and tons more, better, faster, more accurately. What I hope to show with this example is that whatever little camera you have, in some situations, with some subjects, your point-and-shoot will – truly will – do an excellent job like provide the published image.

My best advice

So, to all boys and girls who write to me asking about which camera to buy, here are my key answers:

•    any camera that works is a good camera
•    the best camera to have is one that works that you already own
•    the very best camera is one that works that you own that you have with you
•    if you replace the time you spending thinking about a new camera or lens with time thinking about creating photographs, you’ll be a better photographer (it’s cheaper too)
•    if you blame your camera for your poor photography, it’s time to improve your photography, not the camera
•    the first thing you best do is to work out how to make a virtue of equipment’s defects Until you can, you won’t learn anything from a new camera

If you want to hear alot of this in a lot more detail, with lots of photo tips thrown in, sign up for my course ‘Buying Cameras with Confidence’:

As a special offer to readers of my site, use the code ‘SiteDiscount’ when paying (type the word SiteDiscount without the quotation marks) to obtain a 50% discount.
Only 30 discount coupons available, then price returns to $20.

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