Monday, October 13, 2008

Is that a Vivitar in your pocket? Probably not.

Vivitar used to make some exceptional lenses, and the 285 strobe flash that was every news photographer's workhorse. My favorite 35mm compact rangefinder camera was, and still is, the Vivitar 35ES camera -- built by Cosina, which made and makes low-end cameras for many big brands of the day.

(Trivia: Vivitar's original name was "Ponder and Best.")

More recently, they slapped their brand on inexpensive digital cameras. One was a decent 6-MP underwater camera that sold for around $100 USD. But most insiders knew that Vivitar -- like Polaroid -- was a brand for hire. You could, for a price, slap it on a digital picture frame, a TV screen, or a toaster. But it didn't have that legendary Vivitar lens quality us film dinosaurs so enjoyed in the 1980s.

Fast-forward to today: Vivitar's name has been sold yet again, to Sakar. (Read it here.) Sakar markets a wide array of plastic photographic accessories that you won't find advertised in Popular Photography.

So, get set for Vivitar lens cleaner fluids and LCD protectors.

Friday, October 10, 2008

When image stabilization matters

If you're shopping for a camera, here's some advice on image stabilization:
  • In general, it's nice to have. Mainly on cameras with a long optical zoom. Because a longer lens tends to magnify mistakes, including camera shake.
  • Contrary opinion: if you're looking at cameras with short zoom lenses (say, 3X optical zoom), you don't really need image stabilization. That short-range zoom won't magnify your mistakes as much as a longer lens.
  • If you religiously shoot without a flash, then image stabilization can be your friend. (Think: football, basketball, wildlife photos.)
  • If you religiously use a tripod, you must turn off image stabilization. The resulting images will be flawed. (Think: natural light portraits, still life scenes.)
I tend to use sensor- or lens-based image stabilization, in which the camera's mechanical parts perform the steadying work. Cameras that boast of "digital image stabilization" automatically increase the ISO (or light sensitivity) of the image, so your camera can select a faster shutter speed. This isn't bad in some situations, but higher shutter speeds almost always result in digital noise -- multicolored speckles in your image -- that reduce the accuracy of the shot.

Historically, Panasonic Lumix cameras delivered the best optical image stabilization -- but the company used that technology to compensate for tiny image sensors that resulted in noisy photographs. Now, the playing field is slightly more level; almost all superzoom cameras have image stabilization.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Consumer Reports and digital cameras

Consumer Reports had nice things to say about the Kodak Z1012 IS digital camera. You can read a little bit about it here.

This 12x optical zoom camera is handy for those occasions when you're far away from your subject and there's plenty of daylight. Like when you're up in the bleachers at a football game, or trying to photograph a wild animal from a distance. Superzoom cameras like the Z1012 IS and Panasonic's FZ series are reasonable substitutes for a digital SLR, which can cost a few hundred dollars more.

One really good feature on this camera: it's got a very good digital HD video function. I've used a Kodak superzoom to record a concert in a college recital hall, and got very satisfying results. (The lights were on throughout the performance; I don't know how well it would work in a dark auditorium.)

All this said: Consumer Reports is like the Kmart of product reviews. They review toasters, dishwashers, Hyundais, and DVD players. If you find this particular camera intriguing, I'd suggest hunting up a few reviews on other websites, like Steve's Digicams or DPReview; they spend most of their time reviewing digital cameras and lenses, not toasters. So I tend to take their recommendations a bit more seriously.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sunday Tip: Taming the Ghostly Orbs

In the days of film cameras, you hardly ever saw these little translucent circles in your photos. But for some reason, digital cameras seem to capture them with alarming frequency.

In the photo at right, the mystery orb is in the lower left corner. It's called "dust." My guess: most compact digital cameras have a flash very close to the lens, which may serve to amplify the appearance of these imperfections in the photo.

Of course, they're more evident when you're making pictures against a dark background. Had the photographer moved in a little closer, you'd see less of the dark wall mural of Jim Croce -- and probably not see the ghostly orb.

So, there are two tips here:
  1. Clean your lens once in a while. Use a microfiber cloth or a lens pen. Try not to use facial or bathroom tissue. Breath lightly on the lens, then wipe gently in a circular motion.
  2. Get closer to your subject to decrease the likelihood of distractions in your photos. Zoom with your feet, not the camera's lens.