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Night Photography, Better Body or Faster Glass?

IMG_8214I’m starting to rethink the idea of fast glass over body for night photography as the ‘priority’, let me explain.

In general terms we say get the best fast glass you can and don’t worry too much about the body, update that later. I think for night photography its possibly the opposite or neutral. Maybe get a good body first, then faster glass later.

Why? Well I’ve been testing a lot of sensors recently for noise, particularly for long exposure noise and it’s fairly easy to see that the cheaper crop bodies do not stack up against the full frame cameras very well at all, at least if you exposing for minutes at a time.

Based on my testing I can’t see a one stop advantage from F4 to F2.8 in glass out weighing the performance gain going from a crop to a full frame body. I have no doubt that a D610 with an F4 lens is going to perform better than a D7100 and a f2.8 or even f1.4 lens.

Of course in the long run faster glass means lower ISO and shorter exposures which for Aurora shooting is important to capture those beams. Just don’t rule out a body upgrade before a glass upgrade. If you have an older crop body camera I don’t think you can expect faster glass to solve all your problems. Consider your upgrade carefully. 🙂

In the long run the ideal is a good body and fast lens, which does not always need to be expensive, considering you really only need a manual lens for night work.

70D and D7100 Sensor tests.

How well do crop sensor cameras work for long exposure work? I’ve just finished testing the 70D and D7100, you can review the results on the sensor test page. In regards to the Canon 7D mark 2, once Adobe supports the 7D mark 2 with the Camera RAW software I will be able to follow the same workflow and upload a comparison. So stay tuned, I expect it will perform better than the 70D.

 

Should I use a UV Filter?

Yes, I’m going to go there…

In my opinion UV filters are a camera stores best revenue earner, for every lens or camera package they sell there is a better than even chance they can sell the purchaser a UV filter, or 2.

But are they worth it?

Here are a few of the Pros and Cons:

Pros:

  • It may protect the lens from damage if dropped.
  • It may protect the lens for dirt, dust and other marks.
  • It filters out UV light.

Cons:

  • If it breaks the glass shards may damage my front element, or coating, or the ring could get jammed on my lens.
  • It’s another layer of glass, and it may introduce flares and other artifacts into the image.

Well if you use a digital camera you can rule out the UV filtering being a benefit because digital sensors already have a UV filter. The filter has just as much chance of causing damage to a lens than protecting it. Saying “I dropped my lens and the UV filter smashed, thus saving my lens”, is a far call from reality, it most likely would have been fine anyhow. The amount of horror stories I have read about the UV filter causing problems once broken seems to be more of a problem than dropped broken lenses (Glass shards scratching lenses, filters getting stuck and needing to be removed by professionals etc). The UV filter itself offers next to no structural strength to the lens, and then you have the problem of image quality. It’s a known fact that UV filters introduce flares and ghosting (well documented).

For me the introduced artifacts and the probability of the UV filter doing more damage than good makes it not worth it. Sure it may stop the occasional finger print of smudge, but these are easily removed.

So why do it?

Well most people do it because they get sold the idea that it’s an investment to protect their lenses. Some UV filters can retail for as much as a kit lens, the easier solution would be to replace the lens if it did get damaged, which the UV filter would most likely have not protected in the first place.

 

FOTGA Fader (Variable) ND

Recently I read a few reviews that indicated that the FOTGA ND 8 Stop was a good fader or variable ND filter, and should be considered for landscape work. Most information I read gave it favorable reviews with the only draw back being the typical black “cross” you get when using it to the extreme.

So here are the results from my testing:

Camera: Canon 6D with Canon 16-35mm f2.8 II + FOTGA Slim Wide Band Fader ND (W) 82mm.

Settings: Manual Focus, Av Mode, f5.6, 100 ISO.

The filter was tested at 16mm, 24mm and 35mm, with the filter set at Min, 1/4, 1/2 and 3/4.
It should be noted that the marks on the fader mean nothing, so I have also indicated the strength based on the camera shutter speed equating them to the closest f-stop(s) of light reduction when compared to no filter.

Post processing: All of the images were imported into light room 4.6, and had lens correction applied to ensure that the standard lens vignetting was removed. For the purposes of the test I was not concerned with sharpness or color balance.

Results & Conclusion:

FOTGA

I think the results speak for itself, for me with a full frame camera (6D) and a good wide lens, suitable for landscapes the results were terrible, bad copy? fake cheap knockoff? maybe, but I doubt it. In my option this filter is only useful on the min setting or 2 stops, beyond that significant vignetting is introduced. It may work better at focal lengths beyond 35mm, and when I get a step up ring I will trial it on longer focal lengths.

Bottom line this filter is not suitable for landscapes.

The Hazards

Just a quick share of the Hazards Mt Range, Freycinet National Park, Tasmania. (Mt Parsons, Mt Baudin, Mt Dove, Mt Amos & Mt Mayson).

This shot was taken from Coles Bay. It was a fairly uneventful sunset, and it had been cloudy and raining all day. It did manage to clear out for just a few hours when I took this picture. I would have really liked to have used a 10 stop filter, but the 14mm lens I was using is hooded, and has no front thread 🙁

Long Exposures, Tripods and IS (VR).

South Arm Beach by Brendan Davey
South Arm Beach, a photo by Brendan Davey on Flickr.

Should you use your IS (VR) lens on a tripod with the IS turned on to improve your shots? Do I need an IS (VR) lends for tripod long exposure work? Does it help at all?

NO, NO and NO!

“The IS mechanism operates by correcting shake. When there is no shake, or when the level of shake is below the threshold of the system’s detection capability, use of the IS feature may actually *add* unwanted blur to the photograph, therefore you should shut it off in this situation. Remember that the IS lens group is normally locked into place. When the IS function is active, the IS lens group is unlocked so it can be moved by the electromagnetic coil surrounding the elements. When there’s not enough motion for the IS system to detect, the result can sometimes be a sort of electronic ‘feedback loop,’ somewhat analogous to the ringing noise of an audio feedback loop we’re all familiar with. As a result, the IS lens group might move while the lens is on a tripod, unless the IS function is switched off and the IS lens group is locked into place.” -Chuck Westfall (Canon).

It’s true that newer lens will automatically disable the IS if they detect no movement, but the bottom line is to be safe and switch it off for tripod work, and if someone recommends an IS lens for low light tripod work, don’t believe them. This may be why the wide angle lens traditionally used for landscape work still do not have IS (16-35, 17-40, 24mm, 14mm etc).

Night Focus, Easy As….

Okay so we have all sat in the picture theater and thought “Focus FOCUS”, and maybe recently you started to shoot at night only to find your camera was not up to the task.

“Yer, my camera won’t focus, so how do you focus to infinity at night?”

Most cameras are not designed to focus in extreme low light, and will require manual intervention, switch the lens from Auto to Manual focus mode.

“Ok, so my lens is now in manual mode and I set the focus to infinity but it’s still blurry?”

This is normally the case as the infinity mark is almost never perfect, think of it like the pirate code, that is more a “guide”.

“You mean I can’t focus at all at night?”

There are a number of ways to get perfect focus in the dark, here are the 2 easiest.

1. If your camera supports live view use it. Set you lens to manual focus, and focus to infinity, then using live view and zoom (normally 10x) you should be able to locate a distant light on the horizon or bright star you can adjust the focus on to get it perfect. This will require some practice and stars or faint objects may only work on better / later model cameras and lens with larger apertures like f2.8 and lower.

2. If your camera does not have live view then during the DAY have your camera focus on a distant object in auto focus mode (something on the horizon), then looking at your lens note where the focus mark is, it should be near infinity, but it probably wont be exactly on it. Take note of the location, or place some masking tape next to the mark and mark it with pen so you can manually move the focus back to this spot later. Repeat this a few times to confirm the mark. Now at night set your lens to manual focus and move the focus to your recorded mark. This method is not as good as the one above as lenses have a little bit of “play” or tolerance, but it should be more than good enough for infinity focus.

There you have it two ways to get perfect focus in the dark. – Cheers.

Night Photography, Nikon v’s Canon

Fort Direction Sunset

I have been a user of the 5D mark II since the day it was released, well almost. It’s a great work horse, delivering consistent images regardless of the situation. Then along comes the Nikon with the D800, and it’s smaller brother the D600. Are they any good for landscapes compared to the Canon? After some very extensive research on the web (hours of reading articles), I decided to move to Nikon, with the D800 being all the rage. So I borrowed a friends D800, and a D300s to do some basics comparisons and to get used to the Nikon bodies. What I will discuss here is how Nikon compares to Canon for low light landscape photography. The types of light levels I’m discussing are around 30sec / f2.8 / 1600ISO.

The D300s I was considering for a second body, as is of the same era as the 5D mark II. It was useful to confirm the D800’s metering as discussed below.

Live View

Canon has always had a good live view system, particularly with the frames per second delivered to the LCD on the rear of the camera. The first thing I noticed with Nikon was increased noise and significantly reduced frame rate when viewing zoomed in content on the Nikon, particularly in low light. The combination of these two factors made it very difficult to focus the camera, and I stress ‘very’, with the Canon I could focus on a star for example, while with the Nikon the frame rate was so low it was very difficult to focus, not impossible, just frustrating. I did however like the inbuilt level feature. Insuring the horizon is level at low light can be difficult.

Exposure

I’m sorry, but the Nikon is next to useless for getting the exposure anywhere near correct at extremely low light. In very low light conditions the Nikon did not meter anywhere near correct, and was metering at least 3.5 f-stops below the Canon. Having said that the Canon was also metering low as well and I was clearly in the manual settings / try and see space. It could be that Nikon allows significantly more light in through the view finder? It was nice to see that the D800 did have a shutter for the viewfinder, which was a welcome relief from the rubber boot / strap cover. To be fair on the Nikon the conditions were well outside of normal photography, and even the Canon was struggling, but closer to the mark.

Color Balance

The Canon always delivers good color balance, and very rarely do I have to set it to daylight or any other setting, even when shooting at night. The Nikon however was struggling and needed to little more help to get the balance correct, most of the pictures were turning out a very dark blue. Having said that, this is not a major issue as I always shoot RAW, and this can easily be corrected in post. Most likely the slight color balance issues were getting worse at lower light: “The D800 was noticeably sharper, while the Mark III produced more accurate colors, with a superior white balance system.” – http://www.digitalcamerainfo.com/Features/Head-to-Head-Nikon-D800-vs-Canon-5D-Mark-III.htm

Long exposure artifacts

When taking very long photos the D800 was introducing a lot of random white spots into photos, I would not consider them to be “hot” pixels, but they were quite strange. a quick Google search later and I discover it’s a nice feature: http://scottreither.com/blogwp/2012/07/01/nikon-d800-e-long-exposure-issues-problems-2/ & http://www.flickr.com/groups/[email protected]/discuss/72157632780538698/ are two such examples.

 

Conclusion:

I think this video shows most of the points above: http://vimeo.com/42381520. You can clearly see the under exposure, incorrect color balance, and some noise being introduced, even at 1/50. Extend that to a 5 min exposure and it all goes pear shaped.

There is no doubt that during the day or in moderately low light the D800 will perform as well a a 5DmX, if not better. However at extreme low light I do not believe the D800 is the best choice. It’s clear, at least to me, that this is pushing the camera to it’s limits. So for the time being I will hold onto my 5DmII, and hope that Canon will introduce some of the new options in their next 5D body, along with maybe a few more Mega Pixels.

 

Also, D300s Frames Per Second?

This is completely not related, but a surprise to be sure. We all like to get the best out of our gear, so I always set my camera to 14-bit RAW were possible. With the D300s I noticed something interesting, the factory setting is only 12-bit RAW, thus allowing up to 7.5fps dependent on other settings. However increasing the quality to 14-bit RAW reduced the fps to 2.5 max (ouch). I rarely shoot more than one frame at a time and could not care less. However  I wondered if this was just a marketing “trick” from Nikon’s to make the camera look better than it really is? How fast would a Canon body be at 12-bit RAW?