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Yongnuo 460II Flash & RF603 radio trigger review

The Yongnuo 460II flash unit is an outstandingly inexpensive flash unit, simple to operate, but only works in fully manual mode.

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Build Quality – the build quality is better than one might expect for such a cheap unit. It’s not as well made as flashes costing ten times what it costs, but the quality is adequate and certainly good for the budget price.

Function – the flash unit is dead simple. There is an on/off button, a rocker switch to adjust the power level, and a ‘mode’ switch that lets you change between the hot shoe triggering the flash or using the flash as an optical slave unit. There’s not much to read in the piece of paper that constitutes a manual, but the use of the flash is quite obvious. There is no TTL metering function at all.

The guide number of 38 is a little optimistic, but there is adequate light for most applications.

The head fully tilts and swivels, and you can pull out a wide-angle adaptor and bounce card from to top of the head

The obvious partner for this unit is the Yongnuo RF602 or 603 radio trigger. The 603 is the later model and can also be used as a remote shutter release. The 603 unit is a transceiver – it does not matter which you mount on the camera or flash, whereas the 602 unit has send and receive units. In terms of operation, just put one unit on your camera, and another under each flash, and turn them on. In my experience with them the only time they have not worked was when I had forgotten to turn one on, or had incorrect settings on the camera. The on/off switch is poorly located – it’s hard to turn on when mounted under the flash unit, but not impossible.

Overall there is a lot to like about this flash and the trigger unit. It’s very simple. It just works. It doesn’t connect to your camera’s metering system, but that also contributes to its simplicity and certainly is a factor in the low cost.

And that is ultimately the reason for recommending it – for significantly less than the cost of a flash unit from the major manufactures, (even less than the cost of a used Canon or Nikon flash!) you could buy two of these units as well as three 603 triggers.  And that’s what makes this flash so special: its easy to use, and you can afford more of them.

However I do have one word of warning – I purchased two of these units and one was defective. Fortunately I purchased from a reputable dealer (john Thompson) and he replaced the defective one immediately. Possibly the quality control on these units is not what it should be, so make sure that you purchase form someone who will replace a defective unit if you have that problem.

If you are looking for a flash to use mounted on your camera this is probably not the one (but why would you want to use a flash mounted on your camera?), and if you have infinite amounts of money there are also better choices, but for a budget-oriented multiple off-camera flash set up this unit hits the spot.

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Tamron SP 24~70 Di VC USD Review

Tamron-2204

This is going to be a quick review of this lens. There’s not a lot to say since the lens pretty much works as advertised. I’ve used this lens for a couple of months and have tested it and compared it to my other lenses.

The lens is intended as a ‘walk-around’ workhorse for full frame cameras and is in direct competition with Canon and Nikon offerings. The first point to make about the lens is the cost. Canon’s 24~70 f2.8 has a list price in NZ of $3,390, Nikon’s 24~70 f/2.8 is $2,400. The Tamron is only $1,398. Of course all of these lenses would be available cheaper if you shopped around, so this is for comparison only.

The focal length range is very useful. At the wide end 24mm gives you a decent wide angle. I find 28mm a little conservative, and I much prefer 24mm. At the long end it is just long enough for looser portrait shots. With a wide maximum aperture you have plenty of scope for shallow depth of field shots. But if you have an APSC camera (Canon 700D, Nikon D5200 and similar) the focal length range is not so useful, taking you only from standard to moderate telephoto range, with no wide-angle)

At first glance the lens looks like it would be the ideal companion to a Canon 6D or Nikon D610.

In terms of sharpness the lens performs very well. The lens is as sharp as my prime lenses. In the centre the lens retains its sharpness very nicely except for the most extreme apertures. In the corners there is some loss of sharpness and vignetting at wide apertures, but compared to other lenses this is nothing more than what one could expect. Stopping down from f2.8 to f/3.2 produces a noticeable improvement with very little loss of light. The lens performs brilliantly at f5.6 and f/8, with only a slight fall off in quality as you move away form the ideal apertures.

The lens does exhibit some rather obvious barrel distortion at the wide end and pincushion distortion at the 70mm end. Seeing the rather obvious results on my shots of a test chart I went into the dojo and photographed a rack of naginata – this subject being full of horizontal and vertical lines which should be about the worst case scenario to show this up. Fortunately the results are not nearly as bad as I expected. You can see the distortion if you look for it, but it’s not too much in the way, especially considering the subject.

Tamron-1980 Tamron-1981

Can you tell which is which? I’m sure you can if you know what you are looking for, but if you can’t, then the distortion will never worry you. The distortion can also be corrected by applying the Lens Profile correction in Lightroom.

In terms of construction the lens is well put together, and feels more solid than most Tamron lenses I’ve used in the past. The switches for manual/auto focus and the on/off switch for the VC (image stabilisation) are a little small and fiddly. For the VC this is not a problem since it is not something that I would want to accidentally knock out of  place, but I would prefer a more accessible autofocus switch since this is one control that I will access during shooting.

The focus ring can be adjusted during autofocus, but the manual warns against doing so, saying that this could cause damage to the autofocus system. This does seem a little confusing – if indeed the lens can be damaged this way it would be a very easy mistake to make, especially if you did not bother to read the manual. The auto focus is fast and silent.

The closest focusing distance is not a true macro lens, but better than I expected for a general purpose lens. The shot below will give you a practical idea of how close you can get. The battery is an AA size.

Tamron-2860

The lens appears to be weather sealed, but to what extent it is I do not know. I don’t plan to leave it out in the rain, but it’s nice to know there is some attempt to prevent weather damage in the design, should an emergency arise.

The lens is not small. when you put it on a full size DSLR you have quite a big camera – here the lens is mounted on a 6D, beside a more compact Canon 350D.

Tamron-2191

But overall how do I think it stacks up?

I think this is an excellent lens. The image quality is excellent. The fiddly auto focus switch is the only real niggle I have with it, but I can live with that especially at the price.

And the price really is an issue. What we have here is a well built 24~70 with great optical performance and good build quality that is half the price of the Canon or Nikon lenses, and it is stabilised. Neither the Nikon or Canon equivalents are stabilised and that really sets the seal on the lens for me. Stabilisation is a really important factor in low light photography. I always seem to be shooting in situations where there is not enough light, and I know form the student work I see that this is true for most people.

So we have to ask… I’m sure the Canon and Nikon lenses are very nice – but why would you pay twice the price for a lens that is probably no better optically than the Tamron, yet is not stabilised?

In short this lens would seem to be the obvious lens to own if you have a Nikon 610 or Canon 6D. And the more I think about it I can’t see why you’d want to spend more money even if you had a 5DIII or D800E

The shot below is taken at 70mm, f/5, 1/30th of a second at 1600 ISO. I could have probably dropped down to f/8 or maybe even f/11 if I had needed more depth of field, but if the lens had not been stabilised I’d probably be thinking about opening the aperture until I had a higher shutter speed.

Tamron-1968

Ten Photography Bargains (in time for Christmas)

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Above… left to right… Hoodloupe, Lens Pen, 50mm lens, LED light

1 – Hoodloupe
This is surprisingly useful. If you want to use your camera for video recording you’ll have something like this, but for still photography these can be are great too. Basically it’s a lens-viewer attachment that goes over your LCD screen. The Hoodloupe is made of a soft-ish rubber-ish stuff that won’t scratch the LCD screen. Imagine you are out shooting in bright sunlight – you take a shot, but was it any good. You can hardly see the LCD screen because it’s so bright, but you have the Hoodloupe dangling around your neck, so you use that to see the LCD screen really clearly. Or you are like me and need glasses to see the screen in detail – you have the dioptre adjustment set on the viewfinder (so you don’t need glasses for most of your photography), and you can adjust the Hoodloupe’s dioptre as well – and with the magnification it offers you can se every pixel on the LCD.

2 – Monopod
A monopod is a great tool for stabilizing your camera in fast moving situations. For example you are shooting a wedding in low light – you want so stability, but you need to keep moving to get the good shots. A monopod is not as stable s a tripod, but it’s a lot easier to move around and quickly reframe with one. They also make a great instant stabiliser for shooting video hand held – shoot holding the camera out from your body, with the monopod dangling down as a weight –  the weight of the monopod helps to prevent roll (leaving you to control pitch and yaw). Some come with little mini-tripod legs at the bottom, but these are no substitute for a real tripod – mine is a plain one with no mini-tripod, and I don’t miss the legs.

3 – Reflector.
You can get cheap 5 in 1 reflectors at very little cost these days – not as rugged as the more expensive models, but so cheap you don’t need to think too hard either. The inner core is a sheet of translucent white diffuser stretched across a circular frame. Over this you can put a cover that is silver on one side and gold on the other. Turn the cover inside out and it becomes white or black. For that matter – I brought a $4 sunshade to go on the dashboard of my car (why they sell them in Dunedin I’ll never know) – it has a silver surface on one side and white on the other – and is a fine reflector.

4 – LED light
My prediction – in ten years time, maybe sooner, flash units will be obsolete. What will make them obsolete will be small LED lights, like this one, but more powerful. This light takes six AA batteries and runs for ages on them. It’s realy useful for adding a little fill and in a pinch could be my primary illumination – but really I’d like it to be stronger for that. As it stands it’s so convenient and easy to use that I use it all the time as a fill. As LED technology improves, and units the size of this one get cheaper and more powerful, I can see little lights like this taking over from flash units because they are so easy to use.

5 – Microphone Boom Stand.
Obviously this is useful, essential even, if you need something to hold a microphone, but I find I use mine for all sorts of other jobs. The LED light and my flash unit can fit on this, and with a little gaffer tape it can hold just about anything, and the boom arrangement allows you great freedom of positioning. One of those things that when you start using it you wonder how you coped without it.

6 – Lightroom or Aperture
If you are not using one of these software packages, well, I think you should be. I used to scoff at them, priding myself on just keeping my images organized or using Bridge to find files – but once I started using Lightroom… Well, it just made everything easier. Both Lightroom and Aperture are easy to use, great when it comes to basic adjustments on your images, and both are inexpensive (although Aperture is cheaper). Personally I use Lightroom, but Aperture has its strengths as well. See here for a detailed comparison…
http://onlinephotoinstitute-blog.com/2012/11/03/bridge-and-acr-vs-lightroom/

7 – Lightroom or Aperture course
Both packages are easy to learn, but it really helps if you get a leg up by doing an online course like the OPI 002 courses. I say this because most of the student work I see has not been worked up as much as it should have been in Lightroom or Aperture – it’s the small adjustments that you can make that have a huge impact on the final result (and I think that might make some good material for my next post).
http://www.onlinephotoinstitute.com/courses.php

8 – Lens Pen
a really great little accessory that should be in every photographers bag. If you get dust on the lens your fist port of call should be a blower, but if that can’t move it, reach for this. One end has a soft brush, and the other has a soft pad for the really stubborn dirt. Ideally you’d never use one of these, because you’ll never get dust on your lens, but, lets face it, there are some great locations that are also dusty or dirty, and your photography will suffer if you always avoid them.

9 – 50mm lens
The big bargain in lenses is the 50mm. All the main makers have a bargain 50mm, usually their f/1.8 lens. The build quality is not amazing – lots of plastic – but the optics are great since it’s easy to make a fast, sharp lens at this focal length. On a full frame body I don’t really like the focal length – it’s neither tele nor wide, so a bit blah, but when you put a 50mm on an APSC body it becomes a great portrait lens. Also there are some great older lenses with excellent build quality if you can put up with manual focus. I have an ancient Pentax lens that gives great results on my Canon body.

10 – Smart Phone apps
I guess this could be a whole category in itself, but there are several that I use for photography all the time…
– Hipstamatic – the most fun camera app out there. It takes photos with simulated vintage film and lenses, and has a great randomize function. I don’t really use this for serious photography, but I do have a lot of fun with it.
– EOS remote – works with canon cameras via wi-fi and allows you to see what the camera sees on your phone or iPad, and works as a remote control.
– the clock/stopwatch is useful for timing long bulb exposures (and if you are doing really, really long exposures you can listen to music on iTunes or Spotify while you wait).

11 – SD or CF card
Yes one more thing by way of a bonus. A bigger, faster card for the camera. Cards are getting cheaper and cheaper these days, and the capacities keeps on rising. Keep a couple of spare 16GB cards in your camera bag and you’ll never run out of room! But beware cards that do not come from reputable sources –there are lots of low quality counterfeit cards out there – they look identical to the real thing – and sometimes they are just as good as the real thing – but you don’t know what the quality really is. If you get one of those one-in-a-million shots, and you used a dodgy card, you run the risk of the data corrupting and you image being lost forever.

Rock&Roll, the Samyang 14mm and the hyperfocal distance

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Here’s a shot of the band Left or Right playing at Chick’s Hotel in Port Chalmers, Dunedin. To get the shot I used a 14mm Samyang lens. I was really close to the band – I managed to get myself a good spot just near the foldback speakers where I could get a good  view of the band. Since the lighting was constantly changing and I was often shooting blind – holding the camera above my head – it was almost impossible to focus accurately. I needed to use and old technique – the hyperfocal distance combined with white gaffer tape. White gaffer tape??? read on…

It’s sad that most modern lenses don’t have “depth of field scale” markings any more. If you look at older lenses most of them have a series of cryptic markings that show the hyperfocal distance.

It works like this. Let’s say you are shooting at f/16. You set the infinity symbol so that it is set to the little mark for f/16 – as in the example below, which is an old Tamron 28mm…

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The focus here is set to 1.5 metres – but that’s no longer important. It’s the little numbers on either side of the focus mark that count. They show how much will be in focus at any give aperture. So setting the infinity mark to f/16 means that I’ll have everything from infinity to just over 0.7 metres in focus. In other words, if I use this setting – the hyperfocal distance, I don’t need to worry about focus unless something is very close. So long as everything is more than, a little under a metre away, I know the focus is good.

Here’s the same indication on a more modern lens – a Canon 20mm

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The markings are still there, but they are quite small.

The hyperfocal distance is mainly useful with wide-angle lenses – it’s often too narrow to be of use with telephoto lenses.

Now, lets move on to the Samyang 14mm f/2.8.

This is a great offering from the Korean manufacturer who brought us a great 85mm and the best ever APS-C fisheye. Samyang’s philosophy is to make lenses that have fantastic optics and a solid build quality at a low price. To get the price down, something has to go – and that’s autofocus. All the Samyang lenses are manual focus only – they are back to basics lenses. They are not for everyone, but if you can focus manually, they represent a great bargain.

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There is a drawback with the ultra-wide lenses such as the 14mm and 8mm fisheye though. It’s very easy to get the focus a bit wrong. It looks OK in the viewfinder (as you would expect with these lenses almost everything is in focus all the time) but sometimes you’ll get home and notice that all your shots are just slightly soft – the focus was set to a really close distance, and you just didn’t see the very slight softness in the viewfinder. I’ve learned to focus these lenses using the focus scale on the lens rather than the viewfinder – the focus doesn’t need to be precise due to the massive depth of field, but it does need to be not horribly wrong.

And that’s where the gaffer tape comes in.

The 14mm does not have a depth of field scale, and it’s a lens where it would be really, really useful. I think I know why it doesn’t have one – the positions for the scale would  run right around the lens since the depth of field is so great at narrow apertures on this lens, that the scale might have been a bit confusing. So I visited http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html, and looked up the relevant distances for a 14mm lens on a full frame camera…

At f/4 you put the focus point to 1.65 metres, and you will have everywhere from 0.8 meters to infinity in focus.

At f/8 you put the focus point to 0.8 metres, and you will have everywhere from 0.4 meters to infinity in focus.

At f/16 you put the focus point to 0.4 metres, and you will have everywhere from 0.2 meters to infinity in focus.

Since this was an experiment,  I didn’t want to do anything irreversible to the lens, so I stuck the band of white gaffer tape that you can see in the photo above, and the indications for the different apertures on that.

Then when working taking the photos of Left or Right I could quickly set the aperture  – thankfully this lens has a very wide maximum aperture – and then set the focus ring to the matching point on my gaffer tape depth of field scale. In an environment like that – changing light, moving people, focus is difficult, and it would be easy to make a horrible error. With this simple system I was able to shoot without looking through the viewfinder and to get the camera into some unusual places – holding it out, low to the ground, or up above my head. Since the 14mm takes in so much it’s easy to estimate whats going to be in shot without looking in the viewfinder.

Below are two more shots taken at the same gig – now remember this was a live gig with the punters dancing right up next to the stage – there was no way I could get these shots without getting in between the audience and the band, or lying on the floor under Callum Hampton’s feet.

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The Nik Collection review

STOP PRESS: March 2016: Google has now made the Nik Collection completely free. There’s an upside and a downside here – obviously free is good, and makes getting the suite a no-brainer (especially if you are into black and white), but there will be no upgrades, so sooner or later the software will no longer work on a modern operating system.

Recently Google acquired Nik Software. Nik had been known for a suite of still image editing tools, although probably Google want the company for its mobile applications. The upshot of this is that the price of the Nik Collection has been made a lot more affordable.

The suite consists of several tools –

  • HDR Efex Pro 2 – for HDR effects
  • Color Efex Pro 4 – a preset based set of colour image editing tools
  • Silver Efex Pro 2 – For converting to Black and White
  • Viveza 2 – for making selective adjustments
  • Sharpener Pro 3 – for sharpening
  • Dfine 2 – for Noise reduction

The important question is, if you already have Lightroom, Photoshop, or Aperture do you want these as well? If you don’t have one of the Adobe or Apple packages I’d recommend you spend your money on one of those rather than the Nik Collection, but assuming you already have that software, is it worth spending the money for these additional plug ins?

How it works:
Lightroom and Aperture: Right click on the thumbnail and choose ‘Edit in…’ or ‘Edit with Plug in…’ and then choose the relevant Nik pluggin. Nik will generate a separate TIFF image, which will appear next to the original file, and all your edits will be applied to this TIFF. The edits are not non-destructive. Although you can always return to the untouched original, you can’t just tweak a setting later. If you want to change an adjustment you need to start again from scratch.

Photoshop: You can apply the Nik Collection effects from the filters menu. When you have applied the effects they appear as a new layer. Nik gives you the option of brushing the effects in or out, but it would be easier to do this using a Layer Mask and Photoshop’s more sophisticated selection tools.

Of course, if you are using Lightroom or Aperture, but also have Photoshop, you could also choose to edit the effect in Photoshop, and then apply the filter there. This will often work out best since you can more easily apply the effects to selected regions using a Layer Mask.

Lets look at the individual components…

Sharpener Pro 3 – for sharpening
I don’t really see any use for this at all. The tools in Lightroom or ACR are better, and just as easy to use, and more importantly they come at the right stage in the workflow – on the RAW file rather than on a TIFF after the conversion.

Dfine 2
This noise reduction plug in works very well on images that have a very low amount of noise, but is helpless when confronted with an image that has a lot of noise. Given that, if your image is very noisy in the first place, Photoshop or Lightroom’s noise reduction is going to be a smeared look anyway, so you could argue that Dfine works only on those image where it is going to be most useful, and is not useable on images that are so bad that the noise reduction would have visible artifacts anyway. However, the built in Noise Reduction in Lightroom or ACR is just as good, and again, as with Sharpener Pro 3, it is applied at a better stage in the workflow. So I don’t see much need for this one either.

Colour Efex Pro 4
This is a large collection of preset effects (left column). Each effect is quite customizable (in the right column), and you can apply multiple effects at once – until you ‘save’ you can tweak the controls to adjust the interaction of the different effects. [Click to see the screenshot larger]

Color Efex Pro 4ScreenSnapz001

There’s nothing here that you can’t do in Photoshop, but there are a few effects that you can’t really do in Lightroom or Aperture. However, it really is a different way of working. In Photoshop (or Lightroom or Aperture) you tend to have an idea of what you want to achieve, even if you use a fair amount of experimentation as you work. Colour Efex Pro seems to work best when you have no idea of the outcome you want to achieve. You can very easily browse through the dozens of effects until something sparks your imagination, and then refine the image further with the right column controls. If you did a lot of work with it I think you would get to know the various presets well enough to use them more deliberately, but I don’t see myself doing that. I think this will be the place I come for inspiration with images that I am stuck on. I can imagine occasional use, but not extensive use of this one.

Here’s an example of an image worked up in Color Efex Pro 4… (although a single image is not very revealing – the point is you can produce an almost unlimited number of effects with this pluggin.

S-FX--4

Silver Efex Pro 2
I’ve been using thins one quite a lot in the last few days, and I think it works extremely well. While I think I could do almost everything that this plug in achieves in the other packages, the fact is that in this case the way the interface works encourages me to get better results. While I could probably copy the outcome of using the Silver Efex using the controls in Lightroom, I don’t think I would come up with as good an image if I started with Lightroom and used only those tools.

If you are interested in Black and White imagery, I think this plug in alone easily justifies the expense of the set.

Here’s the workflow I’ve been using, in conjunction with Lightroom, which should indicate why I like this pluggin so much.

First, take advantage of the basic raw processing in Lightroom to get the exposure just the way you feel it should be. Then right click and ‘Edit in’ either Photoshop or Silver Efex Pro 2. I’ll use Photoshop for the more advanced edits, where I think I might want to put different effects on different parts of the image, or, more usually, I’ll just go straight to Silver Efex if I’m intending to process the entire image the same way.

Silver Efex Pro 2ScreenSnapz001

On the left side there are a series of presets that you can apply, but I don’t find these very useful.

On the right side, starting at the top, there are brightness and contrast controls – but you should have already dealt to this in Lightroom. Next are the ‘Structure’ controls, which work in a similar way to the Clarity controls in Lightroom or ACR, except better. Firstly the controls allow you to adjust the clarity (or ‘structure’, to use Nik-speak) independently in highlights, mid tones and shadows, as well as having an overall control with ‘Fine Structure’, which seems to be a similar effect with a very small radius. Secondly, the controls very rarely introduce haloing or artefacting.

Next you can apply the equivalent of a colour filter – for example using a red filter to darken the sky. Again, the effects seem to produce fewer artefacts than using the equivalent effects in Lightroom or ACR. I the Adobe products you can often get halo around the edge of the horizon when you lower the blues to get a darker sky, but I’ve yet to see this happen when using the approximation of the red filter in Silver Efex Pro 2.

Further down you can apply an approximation of a film look. These are actually presets of tone curves, grain and colour responses. Usually I don’t like using preset effects, but these seem to work very well. I’ll experiment with several of these and usually one will stand out as working especially well on a given image. Perhaps I’m just being fooled by the film labels, but they do seem to look more organic than conventional adjustments.

Below this are finishing adjustments that allow you to apply a subtle colour tint (or non-subtle, if you wish). The mildest of the Selenium tones seems to work quite well.

You can add a vignette or ‘burn’ the edges here, but I find that the Lightroom controls work better at this, and have the advantage of being non-destructive.

At this point I’ll hit save and return to Lightroom. There I’ll open the image that I’ve been working on in the Develop module and add a vignette or a gradient to  ‘burn’ the edges as needed.

Certainly with high contrast images, Silver Efex Pro 2 seems to work really well, giving interesting, detailed and organic looking images. Below you can see a caparison between working an image up in Lightroom 4 and Silver Efex Pro 2. Although I think I could get a similar result in Lightroom or Photoshop if I copied the Silver Efex version, that’s not the point here. What these demonstrate is the difference that the two progams led to in terms of creative choices. I worked up each image independently of the other to see where the diffent interfaces would lead me.

Pengelly Hotel

Pengelly Hotel

The top one is form Silver Efex Pro 2, bottom form Lightroom. It might not be so apparent at this small size, but the sky and rock textures are much better in the Silver Efex version when viewed large.

Below is a tougher test. In this case I’ve worked up a low contrast, high ISO image in Lightroom and then had a go at it with Silver Efex Pro 2. The image was shot at 128000 with a Canon 6D.

S-FX-6924

S-FX-

Here it is the top one from Lightroom and th bottom one from Silver Efex Pro 2. In this case I certainly prefer the Silver Efex version – it has a more subtle range of mid tones, and there is too much contrast in the Lightroom version.

In conclusion: While I don’t think that most of the pluggins are especially useful, I do think that Silver Efex Pro 2 is a wonderful pluggin for anyone working in black and white. With the cost of the complete collection now at a very reasonable $US 149, I’d recommend the collection for the use of this pluggin alone. Perhaps with some work you might find that you come to appreciate the other pluggins, but for me they work no better than the equivalent controls in Lightroom or ACR.

Canon 6D Review – a subjective look

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This is going to be a quick review. There are other reviews out there that cover the new 6D in great detail, so I’m not going to repeat that material. Instead I’m going to give my subjective views on the camera.

If this is going to be a subjective review, you should know something about me. Many, many years ago I was using a Nikon F3, which was then the greatest, newest camera ever. But when hard financial times struck I sold the F3 and brought an ancient Nikkormat EL (a camera that was already ancient when I got it). The Nikkormat had none of the fancy technological features of the F3, but it did everything I asked of it – aperture priority automatic with the option of manual control. The Nikkormat was built like a tank, and had a nice viewfinder, and was easy to use. I never missed the F3.

Fast forward to today. The 6D is Canon’s budget option for a full frame DSLR. A camera intended for those who are unwilling to part with the cash for a 5DIII, and in direct competition to the Nikon D600.

Making a budget version of an expensive camera requires compromises, not only for manufacture costs, but also so that the cheaper model does not cannibalise the sales of the more expensive one. The issue is where the camera designers choose to make those compromises.

In the case of the 6D, the image quality is excellent. The main points of difference between the 6D and the other cameras is that the 6D has fewer autofocus points, writes to a single SD card, and has no headphone socket. Quite frankly, for my use, this feels a lot like comparing the Nikkormat to the F3. There are a bunch of features that the cheaper option is lacking, but none of them impact on me as a photographer.

In terms of useability there are no great surprises. This is a Canon DSLR, and you hardly need to consult the manual. A few things are in different places, but nothing that you won’t get used to. The camera is also smaller and lighter than the competition.

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The autofocus system is not as good at tracking fast moving subjects as the systems in the D600 or 5DIII, but in poor light the 6D’s autofocus outperforms the Nikon’s, and to me that is more useful. The fact of the matter is that most of the time I leave the centre point selected, and use that to lock the focus, so I’m not worried about the meagre number of autofocus points.

It seems that I’m often shooting at the point where there is barely enough light. Actually it’s been like this as long as I can remember – probably because as technology has advanced it has enabled me to get closer to the shooting that I’ve always been aiming at. From looking at a lot of student work, I don’t think I’m alone here. I’m often looking at student images that represent great opportunities that have not produced great images because the shots have been ruined by excessive noise or camera shake. Pretty much any camera will work well in good light at f:8 and an ISO of 200, but how many can get a decent image in adverse conditions?

There are a few bells and whistles that the 6D has that are a little surprising. It has built in GPS, but this drains the battery, and it has located several of my photos in the harbour. More useful is the built-in Wi-Fi, which allows a smart phone or a computer to control the camera. In the shot below you can see the camera ‘tethered’ to my iPhone, allowing me to control the exposure settings and click the shutter, as well as see through the lens. What would be really useful though would be to use this with an iPad, where the larger screen would be a big advantage, not only for tethering, but also for reviewing images after they have been shot. I will note however that it was a very cumbersome process to set up the tethering to the iPhone, and although I got it to work in the end, it did take quite a while, and I’m not exactly sure how I got it to work.

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I took the camera for a walk around Port Chalmers late at night to put it to the test (images are below).

At the highest ISO, a ridiculous 102400, the images are pretty noisy, especially in the mid tones. There is no noise at all in the blacks. Detail is poor. This really is a setting for emergencies only. But that is to be expected.

However, the image looks cleaner to me than the highest ISO shots I’ve taken with 60D or 7D cameras, which only reach 12800, and is definitely cleaner than the 51200 setting on my Pentax K-5.

The real surprise is the quality the camera produces at only one stop down, a still-ridiculous 51200. Viewed at 100% there is noise, but the pattern of the noise is not really awful (as it is on the Pentax). Zoom out until the image fills the screen, and the noise is only noticeable in the areas of smooth mid tones. Notice the roadway in the images of the police station below.

Back down to a moderate ISO of 6400 or 3200 and the noise resembles a fine grain pattern, and is only visible at 100%. For my use, these images are perfectly useable, and I doubt if the noise would be visible in an A4 print. Certainly for web use these images are fine.

Overall conclusion – I’m very pleased with the camera. It delivers in all the key areas, and I don’t miss the points that make it more affordable. I’d question the wisdom of spending the extra money on a 5DIII unless you had a clear need for its features. Certainly I’d prefer the 6D to Nikon’s offerings, and I suspect that the 6D would even suit me better than Nikon’s D800. I think this camera sets a new benchmark in terms of image quality for money spent. If your concern is the best image quality at the lowest price, especially if you work in low light, this is a great camera.

Below: the Port Chalmers Police station, which is not well lit at all, and provided a good test subject. The top image is at 102400, the next at 51200, and then 25600.

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Below: Outside the supermarket at ISO 6400. There’s a little noise in the distant buildings, but even at 100% it’s not very objectionable.

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I’ve worked on this one in Lightroom, but only to change the colour – there is no noise reduction applied. This is also at 6400. The noise is definitely there, but it’s not a problem. It looks a lot like film grain.

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Although there is noise in this shot, because I’ve put it into black-and-white and I’ve worked on it with the tone curve the noise looks a lot like film grain, and I don’t see it as a problem at all. 6400 again.

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In the last shot, a mannequin in a shop window (after Atget) taken at 3200 there’s a touch of noise in the lighter shadows, but you really need to look for it at 100%.

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Going full frame on a tight budget

I was going to write this up as a proper comparison review, but I think it works better as a story. The moral of this story is to know exactly what it is that youcan purchase more wisely if you know exactly what you want your camera to do.

I decided to go to a full frame camera. The use of full frame sensors offers great low light performance and really good control over depth of field. If you are someone from my generation it kind of makes you feel like the lenses are behaving the way they are supposed to. The key to making an economically sensible camera purchase is to know exactly what you want from the camera. These days all the major manufacturers make great cameras, but some are better fits for individual approaches than others. Look for the camera that seems to have been designed with you in mind.

I decided to go for the Canon 6D. This camera has the same core functionality as its more expensive sibling, the 5D mark III, but less a few bells and whistles. Perhaps if I was a sport photographer I’d miss the more sophisticated autofocus system in the more expensive camera or the competing Nikon D600, but I’m not, and I don’t. What is important to me is low light performance. It always seems to work out that I’m trying to take a hand-held photo right at the edge of the cameras low light performance (and, from looking at student work, I think a lot of other people are in the same boat!). The Canon 6D is a relatively no-frills camera (at least compared to other models at the same price point) with really good image quality and low light performance. Sounds like a camera designed for me!

The trouble is that in moving to a full frame camera you need to update all your lenses. If money was no object I’d just buy the 16~35 f:2.8 L series lens and the Tamron f:2.8 24~70 stabilised lens, but those two nice lenses would cost more than the camera. In fact, the budget that I needed to work on gave me enough for a body, but very little left over for lenses.

Again the solution is to know exactly what you need. Most of my shots involve wide angles, and as I mentioned, low light performance is important. I’ve been noting the focal lengths that I’ve been using on my Pentax K-5, and I’m consistently using the wide end of by 10~20mm zoom. In fact I think I’m using the wide end because that’s as far as the ring goes, and I’d be better off using a setting of around 12mm or 13mm. At that length, the lens itself doesn’t dominate the image, and my choice of angle is what makes or breaks the image. At 10mm it tends to be the drama of the ultra-wide angle that sells the image, and I want my photography to be more about my vision than a technical gimmick.

Converting 12mm or 13mm to full frame focal lengths that means I want a 20mm lens, and because I tend to work in poor light, it should ideally be a fast lens.

The other lengths I use are a short telephoto for shots of people, and a slightly-wider-than-standard length for buildings.

My first purchase, because it was cheap, was a used Canon 20~35mm zoom. I was influenced by Ken Rockwell’s review of this lens (http://kenrockwell.com/canon/lenses/20-35mm.htm). Unfortunately, while Ken often has some wise things to say, he also says things that are quite wrong, and says them with such complete conviction that they seem very believable. In this case I think he got the lens wrong. To handle, the lens is certainly light, but feels flimsy and cheaply constructed. The lens performs adequately, but never brilliantly, and has very significant distortion and chromatic aberration in the corners. Ken mentions the in-camera correction, but fails to mention that this degrades an already less-than-stellar performance further. It’s inexpensive, and you get what you pay for.

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Then I came across a used 20mm f:2.8 Canon prime lens for around $NZ450. This lens looks very similar to the 20~35, but feels a lot more solid and better constructed. Also it’s faster, as prime lenses usually are. Comparing the two lenses, the prime is significantly sharper when both lenses are at their best (in the centre at f:8), and the prime lens is far superior in the corners. The prime does vignette when it is wide open, but I can live with that since I often add a little vignetting to images in Lightroom anyway. The prime lens completely out performs the zoom in every respect (except the ability to zoom). So the zoom will soon be for sale on Trade Me – it will be great for someone on a tight budget, but the prime suits me better..

For a short telephoto I already had the perfect lens in my cupboard – an old Tamron SP 90mm f:2.5 prime lens. This is a great focal length for people shots, and this lens is one of Tamron’s best. It’s razor sharp, fast, has great colour, and even has a reasonable macro performance. All I needed was an appropriate adaptor. The lens does not autofocus, and does not record the aperture in the EXIF data, but I can live with that. Manual focussing seems to help me concentrate, and since I’m not shooting sports it is not a problem.

To replace the standard-ish lens I picked up an old 28mm Tamron lens for $NZ25, again manual focus, but I tend to use this on buildings, and they don’t move around very much. I also had, in the cupboard, an ancient Pentax M42 50mm with an adaptor and a Pentax 135mm K mount lens* that also have wonderful optics. I think for anyone on a tight budget who doesn’t want to sacrifice picture quality, you need to be looking at vintage manual focus lenses. While there are plenty of lemons out there, there are also lenses that are the equal (or better) than the best lenses available today, manufactured to higher standards and with beautifully damped focus rings. They are less convenient, and really not useful for action shots, but I think that’s a reasonable compromise.

The result is that my main lens has all the convenience of a modern lens: autofocus and aperture set by the camera, and recorded in the EXIF data. The lenses I use less frequently have superb optical quality at the cost of manual focus. The thing I’ve noticed about using prime lenses is that you tend to see differently, especially if you go out shooting with only one lens. With everything else stripped away your choices are what to point the camera at, and what angle to use – core photographic choices. With fewer choices, I seem to see more.

The main point is that, if you know exactly what you want a camera to do, you can tailor your purchases to exactly that, and minimise the outlay.

*Pentax K mount lenses can mount, with an adaptor on Canon EF-S bodies (650D, 60D, 7D, etc) but don’t work on full frame bodies. The EF-S mount has the mirror further back, but when you put a K-mount lens on a full frame body the aperture lever will strike the camera’s mirror. The solution sounds rather harsh – take the back off the lens and cut the aperture lever off. This ruins the lens in terms of using it as a K mount lens, but the fact is that an M Series lens is actually a pain to use on a Pentax body anyway – you need to use manual exposure and meter by using the depth-of-field preview button. With the aperture lever snapped off you could use Aperture priority automatic. As you stop the lens down the viewfinder would get darker, but that’s probably better than the other way.