Thursday, September 28, 2006

Canon 17-40mm f4 L USM

The Canon 17-40mm f4 L USM provides the wide end to Canon's f4 L series lineup. Being an L it has full time manual focus, a superior build quality, comes with a hood, and of course a big price tag. Although the 17-40mm is "cheap" for an L. The 17-40mm also sports a rubber gasket that makes a seal between the mount and the camera body.

This was the first lens I bought to go with my Canon 20D and was followed by a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L USM shortly after. Since the 70-200mm left me dazed and in awe over it's ablility to take tac sharp photos it took me some time to fully appreciate what the 17-40mm can do. So what is the 17-40mm good for?


The most obivous use of any wide angle lens is perhaps landscapes or architecture. Since both these types of photography, when done seriously, involve using a tripod the relatively slow f4 aperture of the 17-40mm is a non-issue. This is also the case for night photography where the 17-40mm is my primary working lens.

Setting sunJust up
Left to right: Setting sun, Just up
Getting up close:

The 17-40mm has a small minimal focal distance of 0.28 m (0.92 ft) and a magnifaction factor of 0.24 at 40mm. This means you can get up close and personal with your subject. For example on the left (photo by lovebottom) you can see my lens close to the minimal focal distance from a snake and on the right the resulting photo.

Ready for your close-up Mr. SnakeSmelling the air
Left to right: Ready for your close-up Mr. Snake, Smelling the air

In fact, I used the 17-40mm for most of my closeups of bugs and flowers until I got a dedicated macro lens, the Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM macro.

Ant washWhite Admiral
Left to right: Ant wash, White admiral

Getting up close at 17 mm can also provide some interesting distortion and effects. Roughly speaking the objects closest to the lens will appear over sized and the objects on edges will exhibit some curvature.

Down the drain
Down the drain

The above effects are not desirable for classical portraits mostly because people do not like there noses to look huge or their head to have some strange curvature. Which do you think is the wide angle portrait?

Photo 400Cynthia

Indoor Photography:

Indoor lighting is generally poor for photographic purposes. With the 17-40mm wide open at f4 you will be required to use ISO 1600 or 3200 to maintain a shutter speed high enough to prevent motion blur due to camera shake. This is not an available light lens, f4 is too slow.

Stuff to note:
  1. Although the 17-40's overall length does not change while zooming, the end element does move back and forth inside the lens barrel. I would suggest getting a hoya super 77mm UV filter or some other multi-coated 77mm UV filter to completely seal the 17-40mm from dust and water.
  2. The hood is big, wait, I mean massively wide compared to the lens barrel. The reason for this is to prevent the hood from causing vignetting at 17mm on a full frame camera. As a side effect the pop up flash on a 300D, 350D, 400D, 20D, or 30D is blocked by the hood.

The Canon 17-40mm f4 L USM has a slow aperture at f4 and is no where near a sharp as a Canon 50mm f1.4 USM or the Canon 50mm f1.8 for that matter but you should not expect it to be. It is also true that the 17-40mm as a macro lens is no match for the Canon 100mm f2.8 USM macro's 1x magnification but then the 100mm can not get that cool wide angle effect. Where am I going with one lens has it all but what you get in the 17-40mm is pretty darn good.

Check out more 17-40mm shots here and the 17-40 flickr group here.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Canon 50 mm f1.8 Mk II (Pros and Cons)

Disclaimer: I don't personal own a canon 50mm f1.8 MkII but do own a canon 50mm f1.4 USM. So please comment after reading this post and give me your take on the f1.8 Mk II.

I was asked by a friend to list the pros and cons of buying canon 50mm f1.8 MkII for a digital rebel xt (canon 350D). This is what I came up with.

The 50mm f1.8 MkII pros:
  1. Price: the lens retails for around $120 CDN which is dirt cheap as far as camera lenses go. For comparison, the canon 50mm f1.4 USM is around $500 CDN.
  2. Large aperture: this will give you the ability to experiment with bokeh, small DOF shots and is great for available light photography. At wide open the small DOF will help you learn to choose focal points in the photo you are framing.
  3. Optics: this lens is sharp. It will blow your kit lens away but of course this is a general property of primes over zooms.
  4. No zoom: it forces you to use your feet to zoom and frame the photo. I will admit I found this hard at first but in the long run I believe it will help your photography skills.
  5. AF is not that great in low light: this can be a pro as it will force you to use manual focus. (Note I have nothing against autofocus, in fact I use autofocus 99% of the time)
  6. Minimum focus distance: not bad at 42 cm.
The 50mm f1.8 MkII cons:
  1. Build quality: plastic lens mount, focus ring is small and may feel sloppy relative to your other lenses.
  2. Not USM: this lens is louder and the AF is slower.
  3. No distance scale: only really a con if you are using tripod and want to focus at infinity.
  4. Effectively 80mm on a 1.6x crop factor camera (300D, 350D, 400D, 20D, 30D): this is not a wide lens and will be difficult to use indoors. Try setting your zoom to 50mm and walk around your house to see what I mean.
  5. Focus is not full time manual: you can not override AF without moving the switch to MF. This may not seem like a big deal but the ability to bring the lens to near focus in low light manually before applying autofocus can significantly reduce focus "hunting".
Most of the cons are build quality issues and I think they can be over looked because of the lens' good optics and price. The only factor that prevents me from yelling BUY IT is the question: is 50mm (effectively 80mm) is too long for the type of photography you like to do? Some wider primes lenses with good optics to consider (according to reviews at are the 24mm f2.8, which is four times the cost or the 35mm f2 which is 3 times the cost.

One more suggestion, camera stores like Henry's usually have this lens in stock and will let you try it out in the store. So when/if you go take your camera and shoot some frames.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM macro

In August 2006 I went on ebay looking for a Canon 400mm f/5.6 L USM and ended up with a Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro USM. After using the 100mm macro for a month it is clear that this lens is a performer. The build quality is excellent and it is capable of , even wide open, producing sharp photos. The AF does seems slow in low light conditions, it is on par or a bit better then the Canon 50mm f1.4 USM, but then again I have been spoiled by my 70-200 f2.8 L.

Nature's detail
Nature's Detail

Looking on flickr many macro photos show the details of plants, flowers, bugs, watch gears and the list goes on. In other words, macro photography is about taking the time to look at the small things in life. If you are willing to be patient when setting up, focusing, and framing a particular photo the results can be surprising.

Macro Exposures:

The canon 100mm f/2.8 USM is able to produce closeups up to 1x magnification. This means an object which is, say 18mm long will appear 18mm long on your sensor. To put this in perspective the senosr of a 20D is only 15.0 X 22.5 mm, meaning you can fill the frame with a beer cap.

A watch assembly (18mm across)

When taking closeup photos it is important to note that f/2.8 at 1x (resp. 1:1.5, 1:2, 1:3, 1:5) magnification is effectively f/5.9 (resp. f/5, f/4.6, f/4.1, f/3.6). This means lighting can be an issue for upclose indoor shots. Instead of cranking up the ISO try using a tripod and shutter release which will also help with the very very small DOF at 1x magnification.

Normal Photography:

This lens is just not for macros as it can be used as a fast medium telephoto prime.

Show me some colourUnknown sorrow

Check more photos from this lens here

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Digital Blending

My views on HDR and digital blending follow that of Michael Reichmann:

"In many ways, Photoshop CS2's HDR function is the holy grail of dynamic range. With properly shot and processed files it allows photographers to easily create images that were previously impossible, or at least very difficult to accomplish. But, good as it is, like a gun or nuclear power, it can be a force for evil as well as good."

In other words I'm not fond of the over done HDR photos that have clogged flickr explorer for the past few months. Just because you can over do HDR does not mean you should but if you must, I guess I can look the other way. Ok my rant is done and on to the point of this post.

This is a digital blend of two photos bracketted by 2-stops

I'm sure, like me, you have all taken pictures of a beautiful sunset or sunrise only to be disappointed with the results. Either the foreground shows detail and the sky is way over exposed, because of the setting sun, or the sky looks "right" but the foreground detail is lost in the darkness. With film or a "point and shoot" camera you are left to compromise between exposure settings (unless you are using a ND filter). However, with a digital camera that has some manual settings you have the ability to get photos, after some post processing, which are more like what your eyes see.

This was my first attempt
at digital blending, from a year ago, and is on the edge of being unnatural looking.

1/200 sec 1/2500 sec
Digital blending
Digital blend
The third picture is a digital blend of previous two different photos. With the camera on full manual I first set the following parameters: ISO 100, f/2.8, 70mm, and a shutter speed of 1/200 sec. With the low shutter speed the camera picks up the rocks in detail and the houses in the background but the sky, because of the sun setting, is way over exposed. The second settings were: ISO 100, f/2.8, 70mm, and shutter speed1/2500 sec. This results in a nice sky but a very dark foreground. Now, using the tutorial at on blending in photoshop I obtained the blended image on the bottom.

When I took these photos I used a tripod and a constant f stop so the depth of field would not change. Also, I used CR2 (canon raw 2) format instead of jpeg during the blending. The raw format is the uncompressed data captured by the camera and can make for some large files. If you digitally blend these photos using layers and masks as in the tutorial the file size grows again. I finished with about a 100 MB file if I saved it as a photoshop image (retains layer info), about 50 MB for uncompressed TIF, and 7 MB for JPEG.

The 20D has Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) which will change the shutter speed or aperture automatically as you shot three successive photos. In this fashion, the camera "brackets" the exposure up to +/- 2 stops in 1/3 increments. This can be handy but for large contrasts in lighting it may not give you a large enough dynamic range. You will notice that the shutter speeds of the two original photos are about 3.5 stops apart.

Here is a more recent digital blend:

Night worship

Sports Photography

Sports photography is not something I get too excite about although it is fun to do once in awhile.


The weather for the first football (soccer) match I photographed was cloudy and cold but I manage to get a couple "acceptable" shots. The lack of keepers was not the fault of my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM but the fact that I was still learning how to use my camera at this time. Consider this photo,


with the follow properties:

Exposure: 1/800 sec,
Aperture: f/3.2,
Focal Length: 93 mm,
ISO Speed: 200, and
Exposure Program: Shutter priority.

If you view the larger version of the photo you will see it is a littled blurred. Looking back to freeze the action I should have up the ISO to 400 to gain a stop of shutter speed. Don't be afraid to up the ISO, a noisy sharp photo is better than a blurred photo.

Since my first attempt I have photographed several more games including a Canada vs. US men's under 20 game (on the left).

Friendly shirt grab


For my first hockey game shoot I attended the Golden Gaels (Queen's University) vs The Stingers (Concordia) at Jock Harty Arena in December 2005.

Big save

To photograph a hockey game you have to deal with fact action and
poor overhead lighting on a white surface. The white ice surface can confuse the cameras metering even on partial meter. This is why you should use manual and not Tv or Av. According to the camera the above shot was 1.5 stops over exposed, I think not. When the metering is not reliable take a couple shots and use your histogram to pick the right settings. For most shots I set the camera to manual, ISO 1600, shutter speed 1000 and wide open f2.8.

Friendly conversation

Perhaps, the hardest part was getting the timing of the play right. This is an impossible task if you are zoomed in and looking through the viewfinder. So while the play is not around the net or area of
interest, focus your camera there. Then holding the camera in place, stop looking through the viewfinder and watch the play normally. If you are watching the overall play you have a better chance at knowing when to hit the shutter. A tripod or monopod might help here if there is room to use it. Anyway it was a bit like shooting with a digi-cam again.

For more photos look at hockey.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Big steps and current gear

In April 2005 I made the leap from a Sony DSC-P10 5-mega pixel camera to a Canon 20D. My kit also included the following lenses,
  • Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM and
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM.
Yes, these are more professional lenses then one usually begins with. However, after paying out large sums of money to upgrade my P10 with extra lenses and adaptors to achieve only minimal gains in quality and utility I decide to buy what I wanted and what would make me happy with in the first place. Using this philosophy I have since added:
  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM
  • Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM macro
  • Manfrotto tripod (055proB) and ballhead (486RC2)
  • Canon 2x extender Mark I
  • Shutter release (rs80n3)
  • Numerous CF cards
  • Lowepro and various camera bags
  • Battery Grip and extra battery
  • A large credit card bill

Canon 50 mm f/1.4 USM

In August 2005 I added a Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM to my glass collection. I bought this lens for indoor low light photography like one might encounter at a wedding. The fixed focal length lens was something new for me and framing a subject involves moving postions constantly. This may or may not be troublesome depending on the situation.

My first impression of the Canon 50mm USM f/1.4:

Out of the box the build quality seems less than desirable next to my "L" series lenses. The lense barrel is pastic and the zoom ring has some play in it but since the cost is $600 or $700 less than an "L" series lense this is to be expected. On the 20D the 50 mm is effectively a 80 mm lense because of the sensor size. A focal length of 80 mm is pushing the limits for a indoor lense unless you are in a big room like a church or hall. In small rooms it is portraits only. Also, I have notice that the 20D is very conservative at estimating the available light with this lense in low light conditions. So shooting with manual can be advantageous.

Depth of field (DOF):

One thing that caught me by surprise, at "short" to "normal" distances to the subject, was the extremely small DOF you encounter with an fstop near 1.4. Certainly the formulas to calculate the DOF predict this. However, I have never bothered to crunch the numbers until now. Try it here. If you are interested, checkout the DOF links here.

Checkout photos from this lens.

File storage and workflow

I have an external 200Gb harddisk as my primary storage. It is partitioned into three drives "RAW" 20Gb, "PSD" 160Gb, and "JPEG" 20Gb. The sizes are different because an average CR2 file (20D RAW) is about 8MB and after post processing in photoshop (PS), using layers, one can obtain a 24-100 MB file in PSD format. After merging the layers this is a 5-8 MB JPEG.

Since post processing can take anywhere from 10 sec to infinity depending on the photo and what you are trying to accomplish I backup both the RAW and the PSD to DVD. I then store my DVDs at work so should I get robbed or my house burns down I still have a copy.

My workflow is as follows:
  1. Make a dir, named with date, on the RAW drive and dump the CF to this dir.
  2. Use the canon utility viewer to make a first run through to remove non-keepers.
  3. Pull all (usually 15 at a time) RAW files into PS using camera RAW. In camera RAW I make WB, shadow and exposure changes.
  4. Batch save PSD files to new dir, named as date, on PSD drive.
  5. Edit photos, curves, saturation, etc
  6. Make final decision on which to keep.
  7. Batch convert/save PSD files to JPEG files in new dir, named as date, on the JPEG drive.

Note: I no longer use camera RAW because of improvements in Canon's DPP (Digital professional pro) software. So depending on the photo, step 5 is completed in DPP and if necessary exported as a TiFF for futher editing in PS .

Night Photography

Night photography can mean long exposure tripod shots, hand held flash photography, or available light photography. Since I do not own a flash (speedlite) I will discuss available light and tripod type situations.

Available light (No tripod):

For low light conditions where you must use ISO 800 and up I tend to
  • Shoot in RAW format- in fact I always use RAW format. It just gives you more options later as far as white balance and exposure are concerned.
  • I sometimes process noisy RAW files using DPP (canon's software) instead of Camera RAW . Sometimes there is a world of difference in the quality. The output(saving to 16bit uncompressed tiff) of DPP seemed significantly less noisy then the output of Camera RAW. (IMHO, others may disagree)
  • Shoot manual (M)- Use a fast lens like a 50mm f1.4 or f1.8. Also, I find the 20D's ( I shoot with a 20D but it is mostly still true for the 350D) light metering is too conservative with a 50mm f1.4 . I will take a couple test shots and adjust shutter/aperture until the histogram looks "acceptable".
  • Use the middle focus point only. (the lens with "hunt" less)
  • Converting to B&W can improve the look of a photo since it removes colour noise. Also converting through the red channel can help with complexions. (You have to balance this with a loss of detail)

What can you take photos of at night anyway? Well everything you photograph during the day of course expect maybe the sun. Also with the lack of light during the evening it is easy to play with slow shutter effects like panning

Street motion

Long exposures (You have a tripod):

I shoot most of my night photography around the full moon. Since we are now using a tripod a fast lens is not so important. I enjoy using a wide lenses at night like the 17-40 f/4 but sometimes fall back on the 50 f/1.4 depending on the available light. However, when the moon is in the frame I have found the 17-40 f/4 has less lens flare then the 50 f/1.4.

A solid tripod is a must for long exposures. I shoot in RAW format, auto white balance, ISO 100 and use manual for everything else. The lower the ISO the less noise you will have. The best nights are when the moon is (close to) full. With a full moon and a wide lens you can stop your lens down to f/10 ish for a more or less infinite DOF. For example at 17mm f/10 the hyperfocal distance is about 2.6 meters. So setting the focus to 2.6 m means everything from 1.3 meters to infinity is in focus. Although this can be difficult to achieve in practice with the scale on your lens. Another trick (I have heard) is to shine a laser pointer on the object and adjust your focus until the dot looks the sharpest. You could also bring a flashlight.

The exposure time depends on where you are. If there is little ambient light then I usually start with a 5-6 min exposure and then adjust accordingly. In the city you can get backlighting and ambient lighting issues. However, they can sometimes provide interesting shadows like the trees did in this photo.

Martello Tower

I have not used canon's in camera noise reduction function. My longest exposures to date are about 14 mins. To get exposures longer then 30 sec use the bulb setting on your camera and it helps to use a remote to prevent camera shake. This shot is about 14 mins and since there was no moon I had the lens wide open at f/4.

Star spiral

In the above photo the star trails are of course caused by the rotation of the earth. A rough estimate at exposure time when star trail will become noticable in the photo is 600/(focal length) seconds.

One more thing that adds to nightshots is moving clouds. Over a long exposure their streaks provide texture to the sky like in this photo:

Against the flow

Now get out there and take some photos...

Camera Bags: You can not have just one

There are more types of camera bags than hairs on your head. There are backpacks, waist packs, shoulder bags, soft cases, hard case, waterproof, all weather, big and little versions of all the previously stated, and the list goes on. Also, as you can imagine, the price range can vary from thirty to five hundred dollars or more. I can not tell you what bag is right for you because we all have different equipment needs. That is to say, a street-photographer will usually carry different, in both size and quantity, equipment from a sports or landscape-photographer. My advice is talk to people at your local and/or favorite camera store for there experiences and insights.

What about my experiences? When I was new to the DSLR crowd (still am really), I only owned two lenses
  1. Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM and
  2. Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM.
Believe it or not my first bag was a CCM lunch bag from Canadian Tire. The insulation provided some padding and it fit my camera body with either lense attached.

After a month of shooting I notice that my 70-200mm, although big, became my walk around/primary outdoor lense. I also like the shoulder bag idea vs the backpack. The shoulder bag allows you to pull out your camera quickly take the shot and then move on until the next photo opportunity. What about just keeping the camera around your neck you ask? Well, if you are shooting a sports event then yes around the neck is a must because the action is evolving fast. However, if you are out with no particular agenda the 70-200mm at 1.3 kg gets a little heavy around the neck. So whatever shoulder bag I would decide on must beable to transport this lense but more importantly transport this lense attached to the camera body. This criteria narrowed my section significantly. In the end, after a lot of internet surfing and visits to my local camera shop, I bought a Lowepro Toploader 75 AW with a size 4 lens case.

I have since added another tube lens case. I'm not going to go into the endless details of this bag but I will highlight the fact that it is compatible with the Lowepro sliplock system, has metal clips and D-rings, it fits a camera body with an attached 70-200mm f/2.8 lense (hood reversed) and I find the strap very comfortable. The size 4 lense case will accommodate the 70-200mm f/2.8 lense but most of the time carries my 17-40mm f/4.

The above setup is great for urban shooting and short hikes but it is not waterproof enought for my annual five day canoe trip in northern Ontario (see photos here) . Since this trip is not just a walk in the park I had to address the following questions:
  1. Should I just take my point and shoot (Sony DSC-P10)?
  2. What about rain?
  3. What if the canoe flips or takes on water?
  4. What will I do during portages?
In previous years I did take my Sony DSC-P10 in a yellow 1150 Pelican and got some great photos but just not the quality of the 20D with L-series lenses. This raises the question: Should I get a Pelican case for the 20D and two lenses? The yellow Pelican case stoodout no matter where I put it down, was waterproof, almost indestructible, and easy to portage because of its size. After looking into the matter it became clear very quickly that this was not the solution. The size of case required to carry my equipment was too big (needed to fit body with 70-200mm attached) and two hundred dollars to boot. Also, the cases size and shape would have made quick access to my camera, while in a fully loaded canoe, impossible. Meaning I would have missed shots. Another big problem with the Pelican case is that it lacks versatility, it great for putting in the trunk for long trips but that is about it. Next, I looked to the DryZone backpack by lowepro. There are no shape and size issues here. It is fully waterproof, so no rain or flipping issues, and I could wear it on my front with my main pack on my back during portages. This sound like a keeper but how much? Well, after tax I was looking at about four hundred canadian. There must be another option and there is. For about seventy dollars a got a dry bag, specifically a 35 liter vinyl portage pack by SealLine.

This bag is the prefect size to slide in Lowepro Toploader 75 AW with a size 4 lense case attached.

Since that bag adventure I have added two more lenses
  1. Canon 100mm f2.8 USM macro; and
  2. Canon 50mm f1.4 USM
which means I have trouble carrying all my gear again. What new bag is in the futrue? Who knows...