Friday, September 30, 2011

Pentax K-x, And My Other Cameras

I've been asked many times what cameras I use.

And I've been hesitant to say, because it's irrelevant.

Ansel Adams said, "The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it."

But since I've been asked so many times I will give a detailed list of the cameras I own and why.

Choosing A New Camera

When I decided to move from film to digital capture, I did so with much thought and research. It's important to understand value, which, with cameras, means getting the best quality photographs for the least amount of money.

For example, I could have spent $500 or $5,000, but would a $5,000 camera produce 10-times the image quality of a $500 camera? Even if the $5,000 camera had 10-times the quality over the $500 camera, that would mean their value is the same. In order for the $5,000 camera to be a better value, it would need at least 11-times the quality. In reality, at best, a $5,000 DSLR camera is 4-times better than a $500 DSLR camera (and that depends on exactly which models are being compared).

It made no sense to me to spend a higher amount if the value was less. And it especially makes little sense when you understand that your camera doesn't matter: either you can craft great photographs with any camera, or you can't craft great photographs at all. Yes, some cameras are prefered for quality, durability, or perhaps some "unique feature", but the fact is any camera could be used.

One's camera choice is a matter of preference and not a matter of capability. The photographer's capability is far more important than the camera's.

Knowing that, I went with a Pentax DSLR.

Pentax K-x

The vast majority of my photographs (probably 90%) are taken with a Pentax K-x. This is my first and only digital camera, aside from the one on my cell-phone. I purchased it about 18 months ago.

Starting back in late 2009, Pentax began offering some new digital SLR cameras with the intent of being considered a more serious camera-maker again. The first was the K-7, then the K-x, then the 645D, then the K-5 and the K-r. Aside from the 645D, which has an MSRP of $10,000, there is not a huge difference between the cameras. They all use the same Sony APS-C CMOS sensor, but with different megapixel counts. The K-5 is a slightly improved K-7, and the K-r is a slightly improved K-x. Pentax has discontinued manufacturing of the K-7 and K-x, although you can still find them brand new.

The K-7 (with a lens) costs about $1,300 and the K-5 (with a lens) about $1,400. The K-x (with a lens) and the K-r (with a lens) both have an MSRP of $700. Since the K-7 and K-5 cost twice as much as the K-x and K-r, they should be twice as good, right? They are not. The K-5 is perhaps as much as 25% better than the K-x, but not any more than that. They use the same sensor, just different megapixel counts and a few different features.

Paying 100% more money to get a 25% better camera just doesn't add up.

The same comparison could be made between the Pentax K-x and Leica M9, which costs $7,000. Is the M9 a better camera? Sure, no doubt. Is it 10-times better? Not even close. When you compare resolution, lens quality, performance and features, the M9 is somewhere around 3-times better. That's paying 1,000% more money to get a 300% better camera.

There is nothing wrong with purchasing an Leica M9, but buying that camera won't make anyone a better photographer, nor would buying a Pentax K-x make anyone a worse photographer. Camera choice is preference, not capability. It's the capability of the photographer that is of upmost important in whether a photograph will be successful or not.

Remember, a great painter can create a masterpiece with cheap brushes, and a great pianist can perform a great composition on any piano. A great photographer can create works of art with any camera.

The opposite is also true. Someone who is not a painter cannot create a masterpiece even with the best brushes. Even with a top-of-the-line grand piano, someone who is not a pianist cannot perform a great composition. And someone who doesn't know how to create great photographs will never do so even with the most expensive camera.

A great painter might prefer high-end brushes, a great pianist might prefer a grand piano, and a great photographer might prefer the M9. But none of those things are essential or required to craft a masterpiece, perform a great composition, or create a great photograph. They are simply prefered tools, and nothing more. If need be, there are many other tools that could "get the job done".

Another note while I'm discussing digital technology is that it doesn't have lasting value. Technology has been advancing at breakneck speed for some time now. The digital item that made us say "wow" 10 years ago is now nearly forgotten. The digital item that impressed us five years ago is now considered obsolete. Really, nobody is using a 10-year-old digital camera, because it's not any better than one's cell-phone camera (in fact, it might be worse). Technology advances and changes so quickly it's nearly impossible to keep up. And even if you can keep up it's expensive and exhausting.

Heck, my 18-month-old camera isn't even in production anymore.

You have to keep in mind that the digital camera you purchased will be considered obsolete much quicker than you'll be ready for it to be. Everyone else will have the latest-and-greatest, but you'll have your five-year-old camera that (in contrast) seems old and uncapable.

Perhaps this is one reason film has started to make a comeback.

Anyway, I shopped around quite a bit, and was very fortunate to find the K-x on sale at Amazon for $490 (30% off). There was no sales tax and free shipping, too! That made the camera an exceptional value. For less than $500, I was able to find a camera nearly as good as a $1,400 camera.

For those in the market for a new digital camera, you should find out which ones have the best value (getting the best quality for the least money). Once you've narrowed your search based on value, see which stores have those cameras discounted. Get the absolute most bang for the absolute least buck.

Think value, and don't get caught up in all the technical data (don't completely ignore the techincal data, either, because it will help you to determine value--there is a balance). Remember, the capability of the photographer is far more important than the capability of the camera.

I later purchased a used SMC Pentax-FA 28-90mm lens from e-Bay for about $25 to accompany the kit 18-55mm lens. Both lenses are good-but-not-great, but for the price an exceptional value.

My Other Cameras

The camera that I use second most (maybe 5% of my photography) is a FED 5c 35mm rangefinder that I found on eBay for $40, including shipping from the Ukraine. FED cameras are Russian copies of Leica cameras, and are nearly as good.

For $40, plus the cost of film, development and scanning, you can get some quality images for very little money. I think this is an excellent way for budget-minded individuals to get started in photography. Yes, you don't have to spend thousands or even hundreds to become a photographer. One could certainly create some great photographs with a FED camera and suppliment that with their cell-phone camera. For less than $50, he or she would have all they need to get started.

Next is a Canon T70 (maybe 3% of my photography). This was a gift. The T70 was an advanced 35mm camera for 1984 when it was introduced (although, by 1987, Canon had introduced two different cameras that were even more "advanced"). 27 years later it still works as advertised. No doubt, one could create some great photographs with this camera.

You can buy a T70 from eBay for less than $50, and maybe even for less than $25.

I also have a Holga 120N (perhaps 2% of my photography). This medium-format film "toy camera" has been used to create award-winning photographs (not by me). Check out this group on Flickr. I paid less than $25, which included shipping from China. I found 120 film on Craigslist for $2 per roll.

A cell-phone camera and Promaster 2500PK 35mm SLR round out the collection (maybe 1% of my photography). The digital camera on the phone was free (it was a "free" phone with a two-year contract). The Promaster is based on the Pentax k-mount system, and is about as cheap (quality-wise, not price) of a SLR that one can buy. Yet it can still be used to craft great photographs.

Conclusion

All of this is to say that, while having the latest Canon, Nikon, Leica, etc, camera is a nice luxury, none of those cameras are essential equipment. If you are budget-minded (and who is not budget-minded these days?), look for value. Find out which cameras give you the highest quality for the lowest price. It may be that you already own that camera.

One last point, which probably doesn't need to be said (but I'll say it anyway): buying a new camera will not improve your photography. Buying and reading Bruce Barnbaum's book The Art of Photography will.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Your Camera Doesn't Matter

I've said this before here and here: your camera doesn't matter. If you are a good photographer you can use any camera and make good photographs. If you are not a good photographer you can use even the most expensive camera and still not make good photographs.

The camera is just a tool. A camera is to the photographer what a paintbrush is to a painter. If you gave a great painter a generic set of paintbrushes from Walmart, he or she would still be able to create great works of art. Yes, the artist might prefer higher quality brushes, but the brushes do not make the painting great, the painter does.

The camera does not make a photograph great, the photographer does.

Most people own a cell-phone, and most cell phones have a built-in digital camera. Most people have the tool required to be a photographer with them right in their own pocket or in their purse: a camera. That's all you need! Learn to be a good photographer, and you could use that tool to make good photographs.

Pool Chairs and Lake - Goodyear, Arizona
Taken with a built-in camera on an obsolete 2G cell-phone
Here are three examples: photographers Gregg Bleakney, Damon Winter and Chase Jarvis. Using iPhones, these photographers have made some great images. If they successfully created works of art with their cell-phone cameras, why can't you?

Learn how to make great photographs first, then use whatever camera or cameras you have at your disposal. Don't worry about having the latest-and-greatest $7,000, $5,000 or even $1,500 camera, because, while those cameras surely are nice tools, they are a luxury and not a necessity.

In fact, for less than the tax you'd pay buying the Leica M9, you could buy a FED 5 camera, 35mm film, and have that film processed and scanned. The quality of the photographs between the two is hardly noticeable.

Use the camera you already have, or purchase a good used 35mm camera (which you can pick up for very little right now), or buy a Holga, or even use a disposable camera (check these out: here, here, here and here).

Use the money you saved to buy The Art of Photography by Bruce Barnbaum. Right now it's on sale for $24.52. That's the best $25 you will ever spend on photography, by far.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Photography Basics, Part 4: Exposure

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Exposure

The exposure of a photograph takes into account three things: how long or short the shutter is open, how large or small the aperture is, and how sensitive to light the film or digital sensor is. Those three things will cause the image to be correctly exposed, overexposed or underexposed.

Most cameras (and pretty much all cameras made since the 1970's) have a built in light meter. A light meter reads the amount of light in the scene--and takes into account what shutter speed, aperture and ISO you are planning to use--and determines what would make a correctly exposed picture.

Some light meters take into account the enteire scene, some just the center of the scene, and others somewhere in-between. In many modern cameras you can choose how the light meter reads the scene.

Most modern light meters are pretty accurate, and with digital cameras it's easy to make on-the-spot adjustments as needed.

If you've picked a shutter speed of 1/125, an aperture of f11, and an ISO of 200, the light meter might (for example) look at the scene and tell you that you will underexpose the image by two f-stops. You would then need to adjust the settings by two f-stops to correctly expose the photograph.

You can do that by adjusting the shutter speed, the aperture, or the ISO, or a combination of the three. You could change the shutter speed from 1/125 to 1/30. Or you could change the aperture from f11 to f5.6. Or you could change the ISO from 200 to 800. All three of those would accomplish the same thing: increase the amount of light by two "stops".

Let's say you want keep the ISO at 200 to avoid grain or digital noise. We'll also say that you're willing to drop the aperture to f8 but not to f5.6 because of depth-of-field. That means the shutter would need to be adjusted to 1/60.

That's how shutter speed, aperture and ISO work together: they determine the exposure. Each change to any of the three (except for intermediate changes that some cameras offer) will half or double the light.

It takes a little thought, but it's a lot better to control the photograph so that it is how you want it than let the camera decide for you and leave it to chance.

Dynamic Range

I won't go into too much detail, but film and digital sensors have a limited range of exposure. At some point details will be lost in the shadows, highlights, or both. Black and white film has the largest dynamic range, while digital sensors and slide film have the smallest dynamic range.

It's important to understand that you are working with a limitation. Many scenes will have a dynamic range that exceeds the capabilities of your film or digital sensor. You'll have to decide if you want details in those highlights or in those shadows, because you can't have both. You may not be able to expose everything correctly, so you will need to adjust the exposure to capture what you desire. For example, you may want details in the highlights, but don't care if the details in the shadows are lost, so you adjust the aperture from f11 to f16 to keep the highlights within the dynamic range of your medium.

You also could decide that you need to decrease the dynamic range of the scene by adding light with a flash or studio equipment. Sometimes a little fill-flash is all that is needed.

Or you may decide to wait for better lighting conditions to occure before you push the shutter release button. This is an option that is not exercised enough in our instant-gratification society.

Sunny 16 Rule

Not really a rule, but a pretty good starting point to determine exposure should you find yourself without a light meter. The "rule" says to use f16 on a sunny day, and have the shutter speed close to the same number as your IS0. For example, f16, ISO 100, shutter speed 1/125. You could then make adjustments as necessary to get the shutter or aperture where you want it for movement or depth-of-field (for example, if you wanted f5.6, and your ISO is 100, then set your shutter speed to 1/1000).

For futher reading, click here.

Conclusion

It takes a little thought, and note-taking may help, but before long you'll understand exposure pretty well. You'll make judgements on what aperture, shutter speed and ISO to use quickly and with confidence. However, it does take practice, so be sure to learn by doing. In other words, grab your camera and start photographing.

Announcement

It's been quiet here, but it's been anything but quiet in my life.

In about four weeks I will be relocating from Goodyear, Arizona to Tehachapi, California. I'm really excited about this move and the great photography opportunities that await.

In the meantime I do have many great photographs to share, as well as a couple other things in the works. As you can imagine, finding time to post-process pictures and blog has become more difficult lately. But, in time, I will get those things done and posted for your enjoyment.