Thanksgiving for a Perfect Inversion

Sunrise at Yaki Point during the perfect inversion.

I have been a resident of the United States for almost 8 years now and even had the chance to visit the country when I was just a child with my parents. The most amazing aspect of this country, for me at least, was its spectacular National Parks. In my humble opinion they are one of the best gifts this young country has given the world. They thought the world about conservation of  beautiful, majestic natural wonders for the future generations to enjoy.

Desert view Watchtower getting swarmed by clouds.

My fascination with the National Parks started with an old brochure my dad bought from one of his trips when I believe I was around 11 or 12. The park feature in that document was the Grand Canyon, it had details about the geology and comparisons about its depth to various metro skylines. I think the amazing bright colors of the soil stayed with me all these years. It’s pretty safe to say that the brochure made one hell of an impression on me.

Finally after waiting for almost 20 years, I visited the Grand Canyon during the Thanksgiving holidays of Nov 2013. We reached the canyon on Thursday early morning and visited most of the popular sights on the Thanksgiving Day. On Friday was when the real fun started, we headed over by the park shuttle to Yaki point in hope of getting a nice sunrise shot. What we witnessed there was nothing short of mind-blowing, we could see the canyon and really fast moving clouds filling the canyon while on the rim it was a perfectly sunny beautiful day.

Everyone at the location thought this was pretty normal for late Autumn at the canyon but the rangers told us that we were witnessing a once in a life term phenomenon called a Perfect Inversion. It was actually quiet fun shooting in such rare magical conditions and here are the results I got from shooting the event. I am so thankful that I got to witness such an Epic event and that the Grand Canyon didn’t disappoint that star crossed boy of 12.

Thanks for visiting. Do let me know of your thoughts in the comments..

Nikon AF-S 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED review

My new landscape rig, D800 + Nikkor 18-35mm G lens with Lee 77mm adapter ring.

My new landscape rig, D800 + Nikkor 18-35mm G lens with Lee 77mm adapter ring.

Calling this lens an ultra wide-angle lens is a bit of a stretch in today’s digital age at Nikon themselves offer at least three lenses wider than this one, the venerable 14-24mm 2.8, the 16-35mm 4 VR and 17-35mm 2.8. I recently acquired this lens to go with my Nikon D800 and did a trip to the Joshua tree National Park over the weekend to test it out a bit.

As you know I have been using the 12-24mm f4 on my DX D7000 for almost two years before I jumped ship and finally went FX. Since acquiring the D800 I have been looking for a suitable UWA to pair it with as I shoot mostly landscapes and that’s a must have combination. The 12-24mm Nikon was absolutely a stunning lens and joy to use I liked it better than the 10-24 Nikon for its sharpness and ability to retain contrast even on brightly lit scenes. I really would be very happy with a lens which will give me similar performance for the least amount of money and I will be a happy camper.

My choices for purchase were the 18-35mm, 14-24mm, 16-35mm and 17-35mm lenses, all pretty good and capable of creating excellent images. I had to discard 14-24mm almost immediately even though it’s was the sharpest lens in this group due to the act that it can’t take standard filters and the 24mm long end was pretty short for me. I also decided to discard the 17-35 mm form consideration because it’s an older lens and hence will be devoid of modern technology. So the decision was between the 16-35 and the new 18-35 lenses. I rented the 16-35 a couple of times and used it but failed to see the justification of paying almost double the price of the 18-35.

Keys point view at Joshua Tree National Park.just before sunset even against LA smog and harsh sunlight this lens holds up pretty well.

Keys point view at Joshua Tree National Park.just before sunset even against LA smog and harsh sunlight this lens holds up pretty well.

My major gripe with the 16-35 was the size and weight of the lens its absolutely bigger than the 17-35mm lens and that one goes to 2.8, the VR system is what making the lens bigger and heavy and its totally useless for my typical usage which is almost always need a tripod. I am guessing that system is a lot useful for photogs shooting concerts and other handheld events where tripods are not an option but then again IMHO a 14-24 is a better choice for those situations as it goes to f2.8 and has much better distortion performance than the 16-35mm. Another factor was that the 16-35mm didn’t even came close to the sharpness of the 14-24, its sharpness was more comparable to the 18-35mm with the 18-35 having much better control over distortion performance.

I got my sample from B&H last week and decided to take a trip to Joshua Tree Park to do a bit of testing and below are my key observations

  • This lens is sharp, I mean it’s better than the 12-24 especially coupled with a D800 and I am duly impressed. The center is sharp throughout the zoom range and once stopped down gives stunningly sharp results.
  • Contrast, This lens blows away the 12-24 in this category and gave me great contrast even on 12pm shots at the cloudless Mojave Desert which again is pretty impressing. I suspect that ED element really helps in the matter.
  • Flare, awesome flare control. The only way O could get flare was if put the sun directly in the frame, for sunset shots even with a ND grad in front it didn’t create any flares.
  • Light falloff, it’s there as with most lenses I have used on D800 but is not field relevant IMHO and can be easily corrected in post.
  • Chromatic Aberrations, great control of CA’s and I couldn’t find anything distracting while I was shooting or on my laptop.
  • And boy is it light, I think it’s the lightest zoom lens Nikon makes and it is a goy to carry around. My neck is especially thankful to the lens and the new CarrySpeed strap.
  • Build Quality, the lens held up very well it doesn’t have the quality and feel of the gold ring lenses but the lens feels nice and tight in hand, No loose stuff so far. Also the zoom ring is pretty nicely weighted and a joy to use but the focus ring movement could have been better.
  • Handling, the lens has pretty standard design common to most new Nikon G lenses and there is a proper diameter difference in the barrel between focus ring and zoom ring. It is a bit awkward at first but provides a suitable distinction between both the rings.
  • Filters, I had no problem using filters on the lens and the only got slight vignetting when I used my LEE holder with 2 slots and a  105mm SinghRay slim warming polarizer. As you zoom in to 19-20mm this is gone or you can take one slot out and there won’t be any vignetting which is pretty impressive for a UWA lens.
And here is the money shot, I am using a two filters here in front of the lens and even with the sun directly in frame no flares.

And here is the money shot, I am using a two filters here in front of the lens and even with the sun directly in frame no flares.

In short I was impressed by this lens and I think for the price rage it gives stunning performance and in the end is a lot more value for money than the 16-35mm.

Cameras, some thoughts..

I recently had a chance to use my wife’s new Nokia 822 and the camera on that mobile phone really took me by surprise with its image quality and lowlight performance. It also got me to think about why I carry around a large DSLR with me for photography and a bit about the often misconstrued statement that “the best camera in the world is the one in your hand”. This post is some of my thoughts on the subject matter.

Statue of Liberty from my Kodak ZD710.

First of all the above mentioned quote in my humble opinion is about opportunity and not a statement on technical abilities of any instrument. Photography is a creative art where timing plays a critical role, as Einstein once called photographers are light monkeys and the light we chase after only lasts for a brief time on any given day and if you are a photo journalist you opportunity lasts even less. So timing plays an important role and utilizing the time you have with whatever camera or lens in your procession is very important, this doesn’t mean that not to strive for better equipment but don’t wait for them to start taking pictures.

Boston South-end Sunset from my Kodak ZD710.

first love..

My days with film were few to create any significant impression here and I really started taking photography only after I was in USA and had a chance to get a Kodak ZD710. It was a 10X super zoom point and shoot (P&S) which I loved because it only cost me $120 and it had manual controls. Under great conditions it produced amazing results but as soon as you pushed past the camera’s comfort zone it struggled to create decent quality images and needed a lot of post production which was a drag considering that it had no RAW ouput. Shooting at night was a big challenge too as its iso performance was horrible but I still took some great pictures with it. As soon as I was able to afford a better camera I bought my first DSLR which was brand new D5000 the biggest reasons for the change were a larger sensor, RAW output and the optical viewfinder. Let me just take some time and explain why these are important, first of all the larger image sensor, sensors in a P&S is about the size of your fingernail and the sensor on a DSLR (APS-C) about 6 times larger which gives them much better dynamic range and low light performance (indoor low light pictures eg. During a birthday party won’t be orange in color). Another indispensable feature if you take photography even a little bit seriously is the optical viewfinder as opposed to an electronic viewfinder (evf) or the back screen of the camera.

Luray Caverns, VA using a D5000 & kit lens. I could probably reproduce this shot on the kodak but definitely not with this much detail and clarity.

There were some unintended advantages too like the focusing system, a much better metering system, ability to use filters and stunning ISO performances. As an entry level DSLR in the Nikon range the 3D Color Matrix Metering II with Scene Recognition System and 3D Tracking Multi-CAM 1000 autofocus sensor module with 11 AF points are just basic but they are miles ahead of my old PoS Kodak. ISO performance from the 12 MP Nikon sensors were nothing short of legendary by that time and the ability to use filters truly helped me in capturing landscape shot the way I had always imagined. Cokin’s P system of filters with their horrible colorcast and all still provided me with the ability to shoot nature like I have never been able to before.

flume gorge, NH. One of my best work, taken with D5000 & kit lens. I had a hard time using the tripod because the walkway was so narrow so had to pretty much use it as a monopod.

I will follow up this with another post regarding my shift to a Nikon D7000 and my reasons for the upgrade..

Location tip - Annisquam light.

For those who are on the east coast this is the Annisquam Light which is located at Gloucester, MA. As you will probably guess from my Flickr photo stream I have a fascination for lighthouses and being in New England which has so many picturesque and historic it was just inevitable that I will end up hunting for them.

Annisquam Light

This is one of my favorite locations but getting here is a pain as there are no parking available and the house attached to the lighthouse is private property. But if you hang in there you will be rewarded with a beautiful location with viewpoints from both east and west.

The last time I was here I didn’t feel like I did justice to this beautiful location and I was a bit more prepared for this shot. As expected the sunset was beautiful and there were a lot more clouds in the sky than last time also a lot more mosquitoes and ticks.

I set this shot very fast as the sunset had already began and used 2 Cokin ND grad filters as a makeshift reverse ND grad and also bracketed exposures. Bracketing was done to be on the safer side but combination of both the methods worked like a dream and I would say this was closest to what my eyes were seeing. I am really glad I could retain the colors of the grass and get the foreground rocks correctly exposed. Seems Like I am getting the hang of this.

Basic Components

rangefinder canon

rangefinder canon

In the good old days when I started taking pictures, basic photography had three important components which in turn controlled the three major aspects of controlling light. Firstly Camera itself, the instrument was very important and gave the user key control over many aspects of photography but the most important of them were Shutter Speed which basically let the user decide how much time the shutter remained open exposing the film in the camera to light the speed ranged from 1/8000 of a second to hours depending on your camera. The faster shutter speeds were used to freeze motion (as in sports) and slower shutter speeds were used to blur motion (as in waterfalls).

Secondly the lens, which also gave you a bevy of options but the most important was control of aperture which is an iris inside the lens whose diameter can be changed by the aperture ring to control the amount of light and depth of field. If the aperture value (denoted by a f number) was f/ 1.8 or f/1.4 then the aperture was open wide allowing a lot of light to enter the camera which also provided a very shallow depth of field in focus effectively throwing everything other than the subject out of focus (as in portraits). A large aperture number like f/16 or f/22 essentially meant that the iris was constricted down and allowed only a tiny amount of light was allowed in to the camera and also that the depth of field was huge making everything sharply in focus (as in scenic landscapes).

The third component was film and they came in various speeds (or light sensitivity), these numbers were marked on the lens cover (ISO 100, 800, 1200 etc). ISO 100 provided the sharpest and cleanest prints but needed comparatively slower shutter speeds as their light sensitivity was low and hence were mostly used by landscape photographers whose subject didn’t move and hence had the luxury of using a tripod and long exposures. A faster film say with an ISO 800 allowed the photographer to use comparatively faster shutter speeds as these films were typically more light-sensitive but their drawbacks were that the pictures were more grainier and less clean. They were mostly used for indoor sports and Astro-Photography were the constant moving of subjects often made the use of long exposures impossible.

The advent of modern digital cameras basically rendered film obsolete and replaced them with digital sensors that mimic the characteristics of film and store that information to digital media. They can be programmed in camera to change light sensitivity from ISO 100-12800 and even higher making digital cameras more complex and intimidating. Modern lenses also started providing more features like Silent Autofocus and Vibration Reduction and streamlined builds eliminating aperture control from lens and providing it through a button on the camera. There were also some disadvantages as film went out of fashion DSLR’s like any electronic products suddenly had a solid expiration date. For films when technology advanced all you need to take advantage of the new technology was to buy a new film but for digital cameras you had no such option and had to replace the camera. Also lenses while they became streamlined lost build quality and focus distance and hyper-focal markings making it extremely difficult to manually focus and thus relying on autofocus. Also consumer preferences gave rise to bulkier but slower zooms replacing light & fast fixed focal length lenses.

I personally believe while a lot of these changes are good, making products geared more towards autofocus was a bad idea as this will eventually give birth to a new breed of photographers who don’t understand the basics of manual focussing. Also cheap zoom lenses stops budding photographers from learning the basics of framing and composing a shot (they tend more to zoom than move closer, thus changing perspective). I suggest that even though you have all these luxuries available you take time to understand the basics which will help you immensely with your photography and help you appreciate what modern lenses are truly capable of doing.

Digital photography 101

Some of the stuff I learned the hard way..

Of all the art forms out there, I sometimes feel photography is the most misunderstood one as its used by both artist and tech geeks alike and it’s often easy to forget that a camera is just a tool like a painter’s brush that's used to create the desired art by a photographer. I started on photography on an old Pentax SLR my dad handed me, it was a battered and bruised hand me down from his days of owning his own photo studio. I was around six or seven when I got it and he gave it to me hoping that I would latch on to it for the entire summer vacation and won’t bother my mom and eventually him. Well it worked, the small little Pentax along with a 50mm lens captivated me and I wasted a lot of my Dad’s film and money in learning a lot about the camera settings and how to take a half decent picture. For a boy who grew up in India photography was an expensive hobby and I lost touch with it in my college days.

a typical landscape rig I use with a ultra-wide angle lens and the LEE filter kit...

a typical landscape rig I use with a ultra-wide angle lens and the LEE filter kit...

I again got interested in photography around 2004 when I had a chance to visit Japan for couple of months and had a fujifilm digital point and shoot at my disposal. It didn't have any manual controls but some of the pictures came out really good and I slowly started to get the hang of it. What amazed me was that digital was almost matching film quality and took a lot of the negative aspects of film cameras away and bought in challenges for the photographer.

What is a digital camera?

Cameras can be very confusing especially to a regular person who only picks one up for a family get together or an event. During the film days a camera was a lot simpler with mechanical controls and lot less complexity than their digital counterparts. Photographic film was a wonder in itself, it had a property of reacting to light and the camera used that to create negatives of an image by carefully exposing the film to light, simple. Digital is altogether a different animal, a sensor is used to mimic what a film does and create an image which the camera’s processor then copies to a memory card which you can download to your computer. Soon lots of stuff related to Photography like processing labs, films became obsolete. As I was getting to the stage where I could afford photography again digital cameras had taken hold and I had to relearn everything I knew about cameras (but not photography). It was fun and confusing and I am going to try to tell some of the stuff I have learned in the coming paragraphs.

First of all the digital revolution copied a lot from film photography, they just designed the sensor to replicate a film and used electronic controls instead of mechanical or manual controls. The new digital camera has an image sensor as its heart, this sensor copies light that’s falls on it and passes that information (a RAW file) to the Camera’s brain or an image processor which will either provide you the RAW file (in higher end cameras) or convert it into a compressed JPEG format (in lower end cameras). This image can be transferred to a computer and modified using suitable image processing software like Adobe Photoshop (the dark room of digital era). Now since the concept of camera a hasn't been tinkered with the lenses haven’t changed much other than losing some manual controls and most old ones will work fine with modern cameras albeit losing some functionality (like manual aperture control). So let’s try to explain some of the technology and aspects you need to know about the modern digital camera.

Image Sensor

The biggest trick in the business. When I started getting interested in digital cameras and tried to get some info about them most camera salesmen used to tell me about how a camera with higher resolution will give you a better picture. Unfortunately it’s a myth that’s even now going very strong as most people like to believe that the performance of a camera can be gauged by this single number and conveniently forget that it’s a tool and like most tools a they have their specific uses. So can a camera’s ability be gauged by the sensor resolution alone? Well the answer is a big fat NO. As any tool there are multiple factors which determine the cameras ability and what a sensor does is only part of it.

Basically a sensor is an electronic contraption which mimics the physical property of photographic film and in recent years it’s managed to almost exceed the performance of film. The pixel count of a sensor is the number of pixels contained in the sensor so 6 mega-pixels means 6 million little pixels in the sensor. The sensors job is to accurately transfer the light which fell on it to the cameras image processor as bits and bytes. Every pixel unfortunately will also have some noise (a random fluctuation in an electrical signal) so the more the picture the more the noise. So the result is that pictures taken with a camera with lower mega pixel count will most often give you a picture with less noise (assuming the sensor size is the same).

Another factor is the actual “physical size” of the sensor. Since a large sensor is extremely difficult to manufacture they come in different physical sizes now from micro four-thirds to medium format. Most of the film cameras used a 135 size film whose digital equivalent is a full frame sensor (36.00 x 23.90), and most consumer DSLR’s now a days use a APS-C sensor (23.60 x 15.60) which is the size of APS film introduced by Kodak in 1996, these sensors are smaller than full frame sensors (a full frame sensor has roughly 2.33 times the area of a APS-C sensor). And the new digital only micro four-thirds sensors (18.00 x 13.5) are even smaller with full frame sensor having 3.54 the area. So essentially a 10 Mega-Pixel camera across these sensor sizes will be vastly different as the size of the individual pixels will vary. The full frame will have huge pixels and the micro four thirds will have tiny pixels, now this gets interesting when we see the advantages of a huge pixel. The light gathering ability of a pixel will greatly increase with its size and the disadvantage of lower resolution will not be able to be perceived by the human eye unless the picture is blown out to a few feet in size. Also a larger sensor will have better dynamic range and better ability to render out of focus parts of your picture more pleasingly.

Last thing we will have to discuss about the sensors are their crop factor. When you read about the focal length of a lens it’s calculated for a 135mm film or sensor. That means on a full frame camera a 50 mm lens is 50mm, easy. As you use smaller sensors they are will give you a narrower field of view as only the small sensor is only able to take the center part of the image projected by the lens. So an APS-C sensor will have a 1.5 crop factor and a micro four-thirds sensor will have 2.0 crop factor. So in essence a 50mm lens will become a 75mm lens on an APS-C sensor and a 100mm lens on a micro four-thirds sensor. This is an advantage for a telephoto shooter (as it will magically convert your 200 mm lens into a 300mm lens on your APS-C camera) but is a disadvantage for the landscape or wide-angle shooter as your 18mm wide angle is not as wide at 27mm.

More to follow soon!!