Thursday, December 27, 2012

Falling Off The "Fiscal Cliff"

I'm really tired of hearing all of this "fiscal cliff" nonsense here in the United States. I try to avoid posting politics on this Blog, but this is really bugging me.
Man At Shoshone Point - Grand Canyon, Arizona
This is a real cliff.
The so-called "fiscal cliff" is made up to scare people into allowing politicians to rake them over the coals. The economy won't collapse on January 1, 2013. Yes, paying higher taxes won't help the economy to grow or help anyone's personal finances, but it won't cause a depression or even a significant recession (even though we are still in a recession).

But even if there is a fiscal cliff, what would cause it? 

Spending cuts? No! Spending cuts within our government or any other country's government has never caused an economic collapse. Ever. Just like spending less within a personal budget will never cause anyone to go bankrupt.

Actually, since the U.S. federal government is spending more than it is collecting (a lot more), cutting spending is the wise and responsible thing to do. If you, I, or any company were to spend more than what is earned, financial ruin would be inevitable. Eventually one runs out of credit and the bills come due. The federal government has little tricks to get away with this (like printing more money), but these tricks are always a short term gain and a long term loss.

As the saying goes: play now and pay later or pay now and play later. The federal government of the United States has been playing with our money for a long time now, and soon it will be time for this nation to pay. Sad. But it is because of our own choices.

Not to chase this rabbit trail too far, but as another saying goes: you reap what you sow. If we as a country sow poor fiscal choices, what do you think we will reap? Every choice we make has consequences. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes both, these consequences are assured and will determine our future.

Let's get this post back on track. What would cause a fiscal cliff? 

Tax hikes? Yes! Tax hikes have led this country and many other countries over ledges and cliffs many times in the past. But these taxes must be oppressive in order to do that. We are close to the point of oppressive taxes, but we are not there yet. These tax hikes that are coming in January will not bring us to that point (although it will bring us closer). The tax increases will take tax rates to just slightly higher than they were in the 1990's.

The current economy is weaker than it was in the 1990's, so it is less capable of absorbing these higher taxes. But it will still absorb them. These tax increases will certainly slow the economy down, but not a lot. It will be less like a fiscal cliff and more like a fiscal small-step-down. We will all survive and continue on.

What I find the most absurd about all of this is that the "solution" that many politicians and the news media have put forward to prevent us from going "over the cliff" is tax hikes! If tax increases are the problem, how can tax increases ever be the solution? It can't be the solution and it won't be the solution. This should make it clear to everyone that there is no such cliff and it is all made up to scare you.

But what about taxing just the rich? If you are not "rich" this may seem like a good answer, because it is someone else's money and they're probably cheats and live in the lap of luxury and have huge reserves and they probably wouldn't notice anyway. Two quick points: 1) the alternative minimum tax was meant for just the wealthiest, but now it effects the middle class and maybe even you, so you don't know if a "rich tax" will eventually hit you; and 2) when you tax the wealthy, they will (like anyone else) spend less, which will mean the businesses that they frequent will sell less, which means fewer raises for employees at those businesses or even fewer jobs, or, if the wealthy person is a business owner, they'll simply pass those taxes onto the customers by way of increases to the price of their goods or services. Taxing the rich will indirectly effect everyone's wallet.

I'm not saying that the rich shouldn't be taxed or taxed more, just that it is foolish to think that doing so is a fix-all or that it means everyone else gets a pass.

A real solution would be to leave taxes alone and get spending under control. The real problem--the long term problem--is spending. The federal government cannot continue to spend more than it takes in with taxes and expect everything to be ok. But the same people who believe that tax increases are the solution also do not want spending reductions. Wow.

The purpose for this rant is so that you won't be fearful of this so-called cliff. Not because we should go over, but because these politicians want you to be scared so they can have their way with you. Be smart, not scared. Let your representatives know what you think of all this.

My guess is that our federal government (who created this "cliff" in the first place) will lead us right over the ledge... and the fall will not be anywhere near as big as advertised. Unfortunately, I do not believe that the politicians will make the right choices, because doing the right thing doesn't seem to be of interest to many in Washington D.C.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Snow Photographs

Quite a few folks yesterday across the United States got a white Christmas. I did not here in Tehachapi (although some snow did fall on the mountain peaks just outside of town), but seeing all of the images from family and friends elsewhere enjoying the snow is what inspired this post.
White Road - Tehachapi, California
I've lived almost my entire life in places where it doesn't snow or rarely snows. But now I live someplace where it snows fairly often. It is such a great joy to be able to experience the soft, white, cold, fluffy blanket that covers the ground in the winter.
Dusting Snow #1 - Tehachapi, California
Perhaps because it is a fairly new subject for me, I find photographing in the snow to be very enjoyable. There is a contrast created by the snow that is great for images. The feeling of fresh snowfall speaks deeply. Life frozen is metaphoric.
Snow On Branch - Tehachapi, California
Those who had a white Christmas this year should feel blessed. Those who had an opportunity to photograph it should feel especially blessed.
Snow Stump - Tehachapi, California
While none of these images are from Christmas, I hope you enjoy them. If you had a white Christmas, I hope in some way these remind you of that great holiday gift.
Cold Spot - Tehachapi, California

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, everyone! Yes, the 25th is still a couple days away, but I will be away from this Blog until sometime after the holidays are over. So I'm giving my Yuletide greetings just a little early this year.
Christmas Bulbs - Tehachapi, California
I captured the above image last year using a Nikon S8100 point-and-shoot. I bring that up only to demonstrate that your camera isn't important. Use what you have and don't get caught up in what you don't have. If you have great gear, wonderful! If you don't have great gear, no problem! You can create excellent images anyway.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 21, 2012

How To Photograph Your Family With Yourself In The Pictures (Family Portraits)

You can make great photographs, so you see no reason to pay a photographer to capture your own family. Family portraits can't be too difficult, right? But you quickly encounter a problem: how do you successfully photograph your family when you can't be behind the camera?
When you have the camera in your hands, you are in control. You decide everything, and you can change anything in an instant. It is a fluid process.

When you are in front of the camera, you have given up control and the process has become rigid. Thankfully, the task is not impossible. 
First, everything you know about photography still applies. Just because you are in front of the camera and not behind it, does not mean that you don't have to consider composition, lighting, depth of field, etc. You still need vision.

A tripod is a very useful tool. If you don't own one, you can use a flat and sturdy surface instead. You'll want to adjust the composition and all of the settings to how you want them prior to photographing your family. Take a few test shots to make sure everything is right.
Once you have the camera set up, you have a few options for opening the shutter. 

You can use the camera's self-timer. The problem with this is option is that you are running back and forth, and by the time the timer finishes and the shutter opens someone is not cooperating (especially if you have young kids). Because you are quite aware of when the photograph will be taken, there is a tendency to look unnatural. Give yourself plenty of time if you use this method because you'll want to give yourself a lot of tries.
Another option that is better is to use a remote. You control when the shutter opens. You will have better luck capturing the "moments" and so the images will look more natural and less staged. The problem with this method is that you have an object in your hand and that may show up in your photographs.

One other option that I really like is to use interval shooting if your camera has this setting. I found that having the camera automatically capture one image every five seconds is ideal. Because you'll be capturing a lot of photos, it will take only a few minutes to get some good ones.
I used 11 point autofocus for these photographs, and the camera got the focus right on almost every image. Also, while I might normally use f5.6 (or larger) aperture for portraits, I used f8 for these just to make sure the depth of field wasn't too shallow (better to have too much depth of field than not enough).

Most of all have fun. Relax and laugh. Don't worry too much about everything being exactly right. Capture the joy and love that your family has. That is how to be successful.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

News: Instagram Can Use Your Photos And Not Pay You A Dime

For those who use their cell phones to capture images, the popular app Instagram just changed their terms of service, and the change isn't good for you.
Artificial - Tehachapi, California
Captured using a cell phone.
The change gives Instagram the rights to use your images however they wish and pay you nothing. This is great for Instagram and terrible for Instagram users. I'm glad that I don't use this app.
Reflections of Life - Scottsdale, Arizona
Captured with my cell phone.
Actually, the change isn't really a change. Instagram has always had the rights to use your images without you even knowing about it. They've just spelled it out more clearly in their new terms of service.
Mojave August Sunrise - Mojave, California
Another cell phone photograph.
If you post an Instagram image, Instragram can use that image in its advertisements and it can also allow third party companies to use your image in their advertisements. You may end up promoting something you don't believe in and get compensated nothing for it.
Fire Pit - Kernville, California
I used my cell phone for this image.
I prefer Pixlr-O-Matic over Instagram. Those looking for a new photo editing app should check it out. For those with an Android phone, Photo Editor is also good.
California Sunset - Stallion Springs, California
I captured and edited this photograph using my cell phone.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why I Don't Use RAW (or, Why I Save In JPEG Format)

I prefer to save my images as JPEGs. Saving in RAW format is often a waste of time. Time is important to me, so I hate to waste it away in front of a computer fiddling with photographs.
Summer Mow - Tehachapi, California
I did not use RAW for this image.
What is JPEG? What is RAW?

JPEG is simply a universal image format that almost all computer software programs can read. The camera will interpret the data from the sensor and apply a number of predetermined adjustments and settings. The camera creates a usable and "complete" image and saves it in JPEG format.
Wheat Grass - Tehachapi, California
I saved this as a JPEG and not RAW. 
RAW is simply one of many image formats that some computer software programs can read. The camera will interpret the data from the sensor, but it won't apply anything. It will store within the file the adjustments and settings you selected so that you can apply them later if you wish, but it won't automatically apply any of them. Without the appropriate software, RAW is unreadable. Think of it as the raw data for an image that still needs to be interpreted. Most camera makers have their own unique version of RAW.

RAW format allows you to make adjustments to an image later in post-processing. JPEG format automatically applies these adjustments prior to saving.
Old Life, New Life - Victorville, California
I did not save this image in RAW format.
So what kind of adjustments and settings are we talking about? Contrast, color saturation, hue, white balance, sharpening and noise reduction are all adjustments that JPEG will apply automatically while RAW will apply only later when you tell it to. There can be others, as well.

For most cameras and most situations, if you can get all of the settings the way you want them prior to opening the shutter, there is almost nothing to be gained from saving in RAW. With RAW, the major benefit is if you cannot get the settings correct, you have another chance later. In my experience, a few seconds of care in the field will save you several minutes in front of a computer later.
Old Tracks - McKinney, Texas
I didn't use RAW for this photograph.
But isn't JPEG a "lossy" format? Yes. So is film. So what? If the photograph is as you want it, why care about all the stuff you don't want that may have been lost. With each image, there is all sorts of data from the sensor that is unnecessary to the final image. When you save in JPEG, the camera will throw that data away so that the file will be a manageable size. You don't need that data, so why save it?

There are three types of people that saving in RAW benefit: those who like sitting for hours in front of a computer fiddling with images, those who are unsure what settings they want to use (so it is "easier" to figure it out later), and those who don't have the time to be constantly making all sorts of adjusting in a quickly changing environment (think wedding photographers).
Ball Defying Gravity - Hesperia, California
I saved this image as a JPEG file and not RAW.
There is another situation that saving in RAW may also benefit: high ISO. Many camera makes and models don't handle high ISO the way that you may like with regard to JPEGs. Some may under sharpen, some may over sharpen, some may apply too much noise reduction and some may apply too little. Saving these images in RAW and applying the sharpening and noise reduction later can sometimes produce better looking images.

Sometimes there is also a small gain in dynamic range by saving in RAW and playing with the curves in software. Because JPEG applies whatever setting you have told it to, the contrast level may effect the highlights and shadows and you can lose some details in the darkest and/or lightest parts of an image. In my opinion, the very small gain in dynamic range isn't worth the time it takes to achieve it.
Wired Ears - Tehachapi, California
It took two JPEGs to create the above image.
You could capture an image and save it in both RAW and JPEG formats, then display the finished photograph for both formats side-by-side, and it would be very difficult to tell which was which. No one will know which was from the JPEG file and which was from the RAW file, and it would take a very close study of the two images to even guess.

For most people and most situations, as long as care was taken in the field to ensure everything is as you want it to be, JPEG format will produce the results you want and it will save you time over saving in RAW.
Steadfast Movement - Mojave, California
I did not use RAW for this photograph.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Thought Of The Day: Pentax K-5 IIs Is The Best

This went under the radar, but the new Pentax K-5 IIs is the best DSLR with an APS-C sized sensor. Period.

DxOMark just finished testing the K-5 IIs and graded it #1 in the APS-C sensor category. It is tied for 9th overall, with the same score as the medium-format Pentax 645D, the full-frame Nikon D3s, the full-frame Canon EOS 1Dx, and the full-frame Canon EOS 6D.

The K-5 IIs outperforms the Canon EOS 5D Mark III in every category except for high ISO. It even holds up surprisingly well in most categories to the Nikon D800E, the #1 ranked camera by DxOMark.

It should not surprise anyone that Pentax has the best DSLR with an APS-C sized sensor. The two-year-old K-5 was already the top rated camera in this category. The K-5 IIs is the same camera, just technologically updated and with the anti-aliasing filter removed to increase sharpness.

The Pentax K-5 IIs is $1,300 for the body only, which is an exceptional deal when you consider the cameras that K-5 IIs competes with.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Review: Samsung NX210

I've been putting off writing this review because I reviewed the almost identical NX200 back in March. I hate repeating myself, so I'm trying to approach this review a little different.
Samsung NX210
My recommendation is to read the review of the NX200, which applies 99% to the Samsung NX210, and then read this review. The only significant differences between the two cameras are wireless capabilities and faster RAW processing with the NX210. 
Samsung NX210
The Samsung NX210 is a compact interchangeable-lens digital camera with a 20 megapixel APS-C sized sensor. Here is what you need to know:
- The camera has excellent image quality at low ISO and mediocre image quality at high ISO.
- The camera is quick to focus in daylight and slow in dim-light.
- There is no viewfinder (this will be a deal-breaker for some, but I don't think it is a big deal whatsoever).
- Exceptional user interface.
- Smaller and lighter than a DSLR, yet DSLR-like image quality.
- Reasonable price tag ($900 with a kit lens, can be found for as little as $600 if you shop around).
White Road - Tehachapi, California
You can absolutely do professional, paying work with the NX210. But you must know that it is a daytime camera and its performance in low-light situations is ho-hum. If you do a lot of low-light photography, you may want to look at other cameras.
Dusting Snow #1 - Tehachapi, California
In low ISO, the NX210 is able to produce image quality that rivals some full-frame DSLRs. If you are like most photographers, the vast majority of your images are captured in normal lighting, and you will experience excellent results.
Purple Flowers - Albuquerque, New Mexico
In fact, you'll surprise many of your photography friends with this camera. Show them the beautiful files, but don't tell them what camera you used--let them guess! They'll be shocked that a sub-$1,000 camera that is so small and lightweight could produce the images that they're viewing.
Warm Fire - Albuquerque, New Mexico
Compact interchangeable-lens cameras are great for when you don't want to lug around a DSLR. The smaller size and less weight make them ideal for travel photography. Because of their smaller size, they are also great for street photography, where you'll be more incognito.
Cold Apple Slices - Stallion Springs, California
The Samsung NX210 produces exceptional images at ISO 200 and below. ISO 400 is great, but a close study will reveal some increased noise. Image quality drops noticeably at ISO 800, but it is still above-average. There is an increase in noise and decrease in sharpness at ISO 1600, and image quality is average. ISO 3200 and higher are below average and should be avoided (unless you purposefully want noisy, soft images).
Two Fingers - Albuquerque, New Mexico
Pretty much what you would expect from a 20 megapixel APS-C sized sensor is what you get. No one should think that this many pixels on such a small space will do well at high ISO. At the same time, at low ISO the camera competes well with many full-frame DSLRs that cost much, much more.
Red And Yellow Flower - Stallion Springs, California
Besides high ISO performance, another downside to the NX210 is focus speed in low light. The auto-focus will fish for a couple of seconds before locking onto something when the light is dim. You couple those two problems together and you see why I call it a "daylight" camera.
Pumpkin Painting - Stallion Springs, California
One issue that the ("old") NX200 had is slow RAW processing. If you save in RAW, that slow processing could become a problem when rapidly opening the shutter. Samsung claims that the problem has been fixed on the NX210, but RAW still seems slow. In my opinion, it is faster, but not fast enough.
Pink And White Rose - Tehachapi, California
I personally save as JPEGs as much as I can. As long as I have every setting as I want it (which only takes a few seconds to ensure), there is no real advantage to saving in RAW, especially in the lower ISOs.
Gathering Pollen - Tehachapi, California
Samsung added WiFi to the NX210, which is cool, I guess. I tried it to make sure it works, and it does. You can use the WiFi to upload images to your computer, to upload images to Facebook and some other websites, and as a camera remote if you download the app to your smart phone. However, I really haven't found a good reason to use it since initially testing it. Maybe I'm just not "tech" enough. I think if I forced myself to use the wireless features more that I would appreciate them.
Beginning of Autumn - Tehachapi, California
In conclusion, the Samsung NX210 is a great camera for a reasonable price. It is not perfect, but if you can accept its limitations, you'll be very happy with your purchase.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Understanding Aperture (F-Stops and Depth of Field)

After talking with a few different people recently, I realize that there are many amateur photographers out there that don't understand aperture. They don't really know what it is, how it works or what it does. If that's you, read below and I will explain it.
Dandelion Sunset - Stallion Springs, California
I used a large aperture to ensure a small depth of field and a sharp image. 
The aperture is a hole in the lens which allows light into the camera. This aperture (except on a few primitive cameras) is adjustable, measured in f-stops (or focal-ratio stops). With each f-stop, the hole either doubles or halves in size, allowing double or half the light to enter the camera. There are also intermediate f-stops, which fall in-between the full f-stops, on most modern lenses.
Man At Shoshone Point - Grand Canyon, Arizona
A small aperture was used so that both near and far in the image would be in focus.
Common f-stops are f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16 and f22. Intermediate f-stops can be half-stops, third-stops or quarter-stops, depending on the make and model. Many lenses do not have the full range of stops.
Pumpkin Painting - Stallion Springs, California
I wanted just a small portion of the image to be in focus, so I used a large aperture.
The larger the f-stop number, the smaller the opening and the less light reaches the camera. The smaller the f-stop number, the larger the opening and more light reaches the camera. For example, f5.6 lets in twice as much light as f8 and f8 lets in twice as much light as f11.
Destroyed By Fire - Victorville, California
A small aperture was used so that both the window frame (near) and the door (far) would be in focus.
The larger the aperture, the smaller the depth of field (amount of the scene in focus) will be in an image. The smaller the aperture, the larger the depth of field will be. For example, f2.8 will have a much smaller depth of field than f16. If you want one area of an image to be in focus and everything else blurry, use a large aperture like f4. If you want the entire image to be in focus, use a small aperture like f22.
Wheat Grass - Tehachapi, California
I wanted the background to be blurry, so I used a large aperture.
Diffraction is something that must be discussed here. With each lens and sensor or film, there is a point where an image will lose overall sharpness when the aperture is small. This typically begins around f8 and becomes easily noticeable around f16, although the exact f-stops will vary with each lens and camera.
Sunrise At Cadillac Ranch - Amarillo, Texas
I used a small aperture for a larger depth of field.
While you gain depth of field by making the aperture smaller, when diffraction sets in you will lose overall sharpness. A photograph where f5.6 was used will be sharper than a photograph where f22 was used, even though the second photograph has a larger depth of field. In other words, sharpness and depth of field are two totally different things. Lenses are at their sharpest when the aperture is large.
Old Life, New Life - Victorville, California
Notice that the leaves are in focus and the old house is out of focus. I used a large aperture for this image.
A good exercise is to place your camera on a tripod or flat surface and take a series of photographs of the same object, but with a different aperture for each image. What does the scene look like when f5.6 was used? What does it look like when f11 was used? When f22 was used? Pay attention to both depth of field (amount of the scene in focus) and sharpness.
Summer Mow - Tehachapi, California
I used a small aperture for a larger depth of field.
Knowing which f-stop to use can be difficult because there is no set answer. It will depend entirely on the scene, equipment and exactly what you want the image to look like. A good starting point is deciding what you want the depth of field to be and using the largest aperture that achieves that depth of field. This is where knowing your camera and lenses are important. The more you use your equipment, the more you'll understand exactly what you need to do to make the image look as you want it.
Shadow On Brick - Goodyear, Arizona
A large aperture was used for a small depth of field. Only the bricks at the very bottom of the image are in focus.
Some people believe that you can use a small depth of field to remove distractions from the background of images. While a shallow depth of field is a good tool to draw the viewer's eyes to a certain part of an image, that distracting background is still there--it's just a little less obvious. A distraction is a distraction whether it is in focus or not.
Fireworks Over Mission Bay - San Diego, California
For this photograph I used a small aperture so the entire scene would be in focus.
I hope this helps explain what aperture is and what it means for your images. It will take practice to fully understand it in a practical sense. Don't be afraid to take several photographs of the same object using different f-stops to see what works best for you and for the situation.